Judging the Value of Anderson Varejao

A few days ago Henry Abbott (of TrueHoop) wrote “Bad Use of Statistics is Killing Anderson Varejao.”  In this post he noted the following:

“…there are a lot of bright people out there working on the best way to describe basketball in numbers.

There is a lot they do not agree on.

But I’ll stick my neck out a little and boldly claim that one thing they all agree on is that just looking at points and rebounds per game is a pretty terrible way to judge a player’s value.

Yet that’s totally standard operating procedure in basketball.

Talk about Anderson Varejao holding out for big money, and people will tell you he’s crazy because he averaged six points and six rebounds per game.

They say that like it’s case closed.

I have heard this from coaches, from journalists, from all kinds of people. Is it part of the actual debate between the team and the relevant agents? I have to suspect it is.

Even players are on board. Case in point, here’s Kendrick Perkins (in the third part of this three-part interview series on PerkisaBeast):”I mean, Varejao, where’s he getting $60 million at? Al getting 71 you could say he’s worth it. He’s gonna consistently give you a double-double every night – A high double-double. So he’s gonna be a 20 and 10 guy every night. So every night you could depend on Al to give you 20 points and 10 rebounds, you can’t do that with Varejao. You can’t depend on him to do that.”

Meanwhile, as Perkins points out, Minnesota’s signing of Al Jefferson (for more than Varejao is reportedly asking for, but less than the maximum) is widely lauded as a great move. And when it’s lauded, people cite the fact that he’s young and getting better — true enough — but they also cite his scoring and rebounding numbers from last season: 16 and 11.

16 and 11, the conventional wisdom goes, is valuable. Six and six, they say, is not. And it seems like a no-brainer.” (bold face added to statements)

Basically Henry has summarized nicely the story with respect to player evaluation in the NBA.  Statistics are looked at, but not all statistics. The statistic that dominates the conversation is scoring.  Scoring is the one factor consistently found to explain decision-making in the NBA and it has the largest economic impact on player pay.  Rebounding, assists, and blocked shots also matter, although that finding depends on the sample considered.  And the economic impact of these latter three factors is less than scoring.  Other statistics – like shooting efficiency, steals, and turnovers – do not have a statistically significant impact on wages (at least, that is what we found in our study).  Finally – and perhaps most importantly — statistics are looked at in terms of production per game, not production per minute.

Evaluating the Productivity of Varejao

And as Henry notes, this focus on only a selection of a per-game statistics hurts the evaluation of a player like Anderson Varejao.  To see this, let’s look at Varejao’s per game production in his career, relative to what we see from an average center per 32 minutes played (or what an average starting center might do).

Table One: Anderson Varejao Per-Game Performance

When we look at this comparison we see that Varajao is below average – on a per-game basis — with respect to everything but shooting efficiency, steals, turnovers, and personal fouls.  And as luck would have it (as noted above), those just happen to be the very statistics that are not statistically significant when we examine free agent salaries in the NBA. 

Of course, I am looking at an average center per 32 minutes.  In 2006-07, Varejao posted his highest minutes-per-game, and this was only 23.9 minutes per contest.  When we compare per game values for players playing different minutes, our comparison is going to be biased.  How does our evaluation change when we fix this bias?  Specifically, what happens when we compare Varajao’s per 48 minute performance to what an average center does per 48 minutes?

Table Two: Anderson Varejao Per 48 Minute Performance

Now we see that Varejao is above average with respect to shooting efficiency, steals, turnovers, and rebounds.  His Win Score also indicates that he is indeed an above average player.  Unfortunately, he still is a below average scorer.  And it’s scoring – not production of wins – that dictates player pay in the NBA.

Is Varejao worth $60 million?
What if we changed the focus from scoring to Wins Produced?  Would Varejao then be worth $60 million or $10 million per season (I am assuming this is a six year contract we are talking about)?

In 2006-07 the NBA paid its players $1.9 billion. Now players are only paid for the regular season, and it’s the production of wins that dominates a player’s impact on gate revenue. So if players are only paid to produce regular season wins, then each win was worth about $1.5 million last year.  This analysis is quite crude, and I think $1.5 million may overstate a player’s value (or maybe not).  But I think it’s reasonable to think that a win is worth at least $1 million.

So far Varajao has produced 14.4 wins in his career, and last year his Wins Produced was 7.3.  Hence, if a win is worth at least $1 million, Varejao was worth at least $7.3 million last year. This works out to about $44 million over 6 years.

Had he played 32 minutes per contest – and his WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] remained at 0.181 – he would have produce 9.8 wins last year.  Such production might be worth close to $60 million across 6 years. So it looks like Varejao’s demands, if these are truly his demands (which they may not be), may not be too ridiculous.  At least, they are not ridiculous if the plan is to give Varajao more minutes. If that’s not ever going to happen in Cleveland, then $60 million might be a bit of a stretch (if you take the $1.5 million value for a win, though, $60 million is a pretty good estimate).

There are two more ways to look at this.  First, what if we compare Varejao to Eddy Curry, a player who is in the midst of a $60 million/6 year deal? Varejao produced more wins last year than Curry has produced in his entire career (Curry has only produced 2.0 wins in his career).  If Varejao’s agent is comparing his client to Curry, then Varejao is definitely worth the money he’s demanding.

The second viewpoint the Cavs should consider is how their team would look without LeBron James.  What does LeBron have to do with this? LeBron could have signed a maximum contract with Cleveland, but opted for a shorter deal that would allow him to test the free agent market in 2010.  King James is a great player, but like Kevin Garnett learned in Minnesota, one great player cannot contend by himself.  If the Cavs do not surround him with players who are productive – like Varejao – LeBron will probably leave in 2010.  From this perspective, investing in Varejao today helps this team keep King James.

Lesson to be Learned

Whether Varajao is worth $60 million is not the main story here. I think there are three important lessons to be learned from this tale.

1. Player evaluation in the NBA is dominated by scoring.  What Varejao does on the court tends not to be valued as highly as his impact on wins would suggest.

2. As I argued with respect to Shane Battier, we can see Varejao’s value in the box score.  We just have to look past his scoring totals.

3. Whether you like Wins Produced (and of course you should love it), the adjusted plus-minus measure created by Wayne Winston and Jeff Sagarin, or the Four Factors approach (shooting efficiency, rebounds, turnovers, free throws) advocated by Dean Oliver, the story is still the same.  There is more to player evaluation than scoring and rebounds.  Or as Henry Abbott put it, “just looking at points and rebounds per game is a pretty terrible way to judge a player’s value.”

And this last lesson is the most important.  I think all the people looking at stats in the NBA must have the same basic perspective: The methods the NBA employs to evaluate talent are not exactly perfect.  And the Varejao story is just the latest evidence in that particular argument.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

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