Replacing a Dream

Editors Note: Today’s guest column is authored by Jason Eshleman.  For regular readers of the WoW Journal, this is the “Jason” who offers so many wonderful comments.  In addition to posting frequently at the WoW Journal, Jason is a research associate in Anthropology at UC Davis.  Jason co-founded Trace Genetics, which is described on their website as “specialists in genetic identity DNA analysis with expertise in DNA ancestry, forensics, ancient DNA analysis, molecular diagnostics, and population genetics.” When Jason is not doing stuff that is far more complicated that measuring the value of an NBA player, he’s living life as a long suffering fan of the Golden State Warriors.

On January 3, 1991 one of Bill Cartwright’s famously sharp elbows connected with Akeem Olajuwon’s face.  [Olajuwon would add the H to his name shortly after returning from the injury.] The Dream’s right orbit was fractured.  While the Rockets would hang on to defeat the Bulls that night, Olajuwon would miss most of the next two months.  This was not considered good news in Houston. 

For good reason, Olajuwon was considered one of the game’s best centers.  Olajuwon led Houston in scoring, rebounds, blocks and steals.  He was more than an effective player.  He was their star, their go-to guy, their do-it-all dominating force.  And as he went down, so too did their hopes for a successful season.

When Olajuwon found himself on the injured reserve, the Rockets had won 17 games against 13 losses.  They were on pace to finish with 46 win.  While better than the 41 the team had won the year before, it was a far cry from the NBA elite.  And among the elite is where Olajuwon expected to finish.  Yet despite this ambition, Houston had, for most of Olajuwon’s career, been mired as a low to mid-40s win team.  Clearly the do-it-all All-Star center was not the problem.  The finger pointing was usually directed at his supporting cast.  Despite the stellar performance from inside the post, Houston was only moderately better than middle of the NBA pack.  Without him, their chances for success seemed slim-to-none.

Or so it appeared.  After Akeem went down, the Rockets proceeded to win 15 of their next 25 games, a record that, extended over an entire season, equates to a 49 win season.  Their best player stopped playing.  The team got better.  The rest of the team stepped up. 

Or did they? 

The short answer is both yes and no and depends greatly on the definition of “step up.”

As a whole, the Rockets team statistics did not vary much once Olajuwon went down.  For the 25 games missed, the team shot 46.8% from the field, viritually indistinguishable from the 46.7% that would pace them over the entire 82.  Total field goal attempts per game remained almost entirely unchanged, though with Akeem’s 17 shots per game erased, the shooting load had to be redistributed.  More than a few have argued that when a player has to shoot more, his field goal percentage will suffer, that the additional shots will likely be of a low quality marginal variety that require the charms of fate to fall.  Yet while all four remaining starters did see their FGA go up once Olajuwon went down, only forward Buck Johnson saw his FG% decline, ever so marginally from 47.7% on the season to 46.7% over the 25 game stretch. Vernon Maxwell actually appeared to gain accuracy with increased attempts, shooting 4% better while taking 8% more shots, a disproportional amount of these from beyond the arc.  The remaining players shot more, played more and, for the most part, played like they had when Olajuwon was in the lineup, playing somewhat more minutes and shooting somewhat more often, but with more or less the same rate of return.  Maxwell stepped up, the rest of the team continued to do their jobs and thus finding someone else to take (and make) Akeem’s shots seemed to be easy.

It may not be intuitive that a 20+ ppg scorer who shot more than 50% from the field could be so easily replaced, but on closer inspection, it is not nearly as surprising.  While Olajuwon hit 50.8% of his shots from the floor (he did not make a 3-point attempt, thus his FG% and effective FG% were equal), the rest of the team was not too far off this pace.  The rest of the team had an effective FG% of just under 49%.  In other words, the rate of return on his teammates’ shots, while lower than Olajuwon’s, was not that much lower.  As such, divvying up the shots, plus an increased efficiency from only one player -Maxwell’s eFG% was 45.4% in games with the Dream, 51.4% without- could offset Olajuwon’s scoring load and the benefit the Rockets received from this scoring.  [Maxwell would seem an unlikely candidate to step up, as one might expect that an inside presence like Olajuwon would help Mad Max get free on the perimeter when the defense collapsed on the Dream. But instead, without the inside presence, Maxwell shot more, shot from outside and shot better.  Go figure.]

But of course the game is more than just scoring points. What of the other end of the court?  What of the rest of the game?  How does one lose 14 rebounds a game and not suffer something? While it has been argued that shooting more could cause some players to shoot less efficiently, so too some have argued that a significant portion of many a player’s rebounds are ‘taken’ from teammates.  This suggests that if you remove the superior rebounder from the game, his teammates will start to grab some of those freed rebounds, negating some not-insubstantial part of the loss. 

Perhaps such returns have been witnessed elsewhere, but no such fortune befell Olajuwon’s regular front-court mates. The 14 rebounds Olajuwon regularly pulled down did not magically fall into the waiting hands of his teammates once the Dream was no longer there. Regular frontcourt mate Otis Thorpe saw only a very modest increase in his rebound rate; SF Johnson and both guards all saw a modest decline, though in all cases variation could well be explained by normal variation within a smaller sample.  Here too it looked like Olajuwon had little effect on the statistical efficiency of his teammates.  The rebounds did not fall their way once Olajuwon went down.  It was not possible for the remaining four starters to redistribute the load.  His presence had not helped his teammates totals, nor did it appear that it had hurt them when it came to their rebound rates. 

So it seemed that the story of the Rockets success was not most of the shooters finding their target, nor the starters reaching beyond themselves and playing above their heads.  It was not by and large the rest of the team “stepping up.”  We should then be surprised that the Rockets, minus an extremely effective player-and make no mistake, Olajuwon was one of the best in the game by just about any measure-with little evidence of the remaining starters playing substantially better, should suffer defeat after defeat.  But they did not.  The Rockets got better.

And indeed this result would have been a surprising result were it not for Olajuwon’s replacement. The Rockets did have other centers on their roster.  Nominally, Dave Feitl, a 7-foot tall journeyman out UTEP started the first two Dreamless contests, logging 16 and 18 minutes respectively.  Feitl could not, and did not, replace Olajuwon’s contributions to the cause.  The Dave Feitl era would end quickly though, as game three in Denver would see a new starter in the middle, a 6’8″ rebounding machine in the person of Larry “Mr. Mean” Smith.  Smith, it seems, did step up, and in a very big way.

Larry Smith did not shoot as well as Olajuwon, did not score as much as Olajuwon, not did he have the propensity to get steals or block shots.  But he could rebound.  Mr. Mean had always been an effective rebounder.  Over his 13 year career, he would average just under 10 boards a game while logging just a shade under 26 minutes a game.  As the PF off the bench, Mr. Mean was collecting a rebound every 2.9 minutes in 18 frantic minutes under the hoop, almost as often Olajuwon’s rebound every 2.7 minutes. “Almost” as often…

“Almost”, though, would not have been enough when you are replacing one of the game’s greats.  But as the starting center, Smith did step up, surpassing, pulling down a rebound ever 2.4 minutes.  And consequently, 35 minutes of Mr. Mean meant that the Rockets could gather rebounds as well without Olajuwon as they did with him.  And as a consequence, the team held together in Olajuwon’s absence.

On February 28, 1991, Olajuwon again suited up again, for a loss to the visiting Clippers, a team that would finish the season with less than 20 wins.  This would be an anomaly however, and the Rockets finished the season with 52 wins, better than they had performed in several seasons.  Overall, they were a better team with Olajuwon-he really was that good-and it may well be that the Larry Smith experiment would not have continued to be as successful over the long haul.  It is hard to replace a player who gives you 20 points on more than 50% shooting to go with nearly 14 rebounds and 4 blocks a game.   However, if you need to do it, having someone like Larry Smith step up isn’t a bad option.

- Jason Eshleman

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