T-Mac and Kobe

Tracy McGrady is an NBA star. 

For his career he has averaged more than twenty points per game and earned nearly $100 million. Despite his personal success and wealth, though, his teams have never made it out of the first round of the playoffs.  Certainly he and his team have come close.  The last three trips into the playoffs have seen his team battle to a decisive seventh game.  But each time when the deciding was over, McGrady and company took a vacation.

The inability to have any playoff success has led some to question whether T-Mac really is an NBA star.  Sure he score.  Sure he gets paid.  But if you don’t win, how can you be considered one of the game’s best?

For example, consider Kobe Bryant.  Like McGrady, Kobe scores and Kobe gets paid.  But unlike McGrady, Kobe’s team wins. Kobe has played for three NBA championship teams.  And as we learned this summer, Kobe will demand everyone in LA get traded – including himself – to win another title.

This “will to win” is what appears to separate Kobe and T-Mac.  One player would like to win.  The other player demands that he win.  Or at least, that’s what we are told.  But is it true that Kobe is clearly a better player than McGrady? Or is this just another Kobe myth?

Comparing T-Mac and Kobe

Let’s begin our answer to this question by comparing the career numbers – per 48 minutes – of McGrady and Kobe.

Table One: Comparing the Per-Minute Performance of McGrady and Kobe

As Table One indicates, Kobe has been a better scorer in his career.  He’s both more efficient from the field and the line.  And although McGrady takes more shots, Kobe gets more points. 

When we look past scoring, though, we see that McGrady has the advantage. McGrady is better with respect to rebounds, turnovers, blocked shots, assists, and personal fouls.  Although Kobe has a slight advantage in steals, McGrady is clearly better at every other non-scoring aspect of the game.  As a result, McGrady has posted a higher Win Score per 48 minutes.

And this higher Win Score translates into more wins.

Table Two: Comparing the Careers of McGrady and Kobe

Table Two indicates that McGrady has posted a career WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minute] of 0.247, which is well above average (average is 0.100).  Kobe is also well above average, but his career WP48 of 0.202 falls short of McGrady’s mark.

Table Two doesn’t just reveal that T-Mac has been consistently the more productive player; it also reveals the productivity of each player’s teammates. On this score, Kobe clearly has the edge.  Again, an average player posts a WP48 of 0.100. In seven of the eleven seasons Kobe has played his teammates surpassed this mark. In contrast, McGrady’s teammates have only been above average twice. And when McGrady was at his best – in Toronto and Orlando – his teammates were consistently below average.

Playing “What If?”

It’s this difference in the quality of teammates that I think drives the perception of the two players. To see this point, let’s play with the numbers.  One of the neat things you can do with numbers is play “what if?” For example, what if Kobe and McGrady switched teammates?  The answer is in Table Three 

Table Three: What If McGrady and Kobe Switched Teammates?

Entering the 2007-08 campaign, Kobe’s teams have averaged 52 wins per season while McGrady’s teams had only averaged 39 victories.  But if these players switched places, we would see the final results also switch.  Kobe’s teams, with McGrady’s teammates, would have averaged 38 wins per season.  McGrady with Kobe’s teammates – and yes, that includes Shaquille O’Neal in his prime – would have averaged 53 victories per year. In fact, the 2001-02 Lakers team – with McGrady replacing Kobe – may have been the best team ever.

Unfortunately for T-Mac, the alternative world presented in Table Three isn’t the one we live in.  McGrady wasn’t drafted by the Lakers.  And when he tried to join a championship caliber team in Orlando, Grant Hill – the other key piece to the puzzle – was never healthy.

If McGrady and Kobe were somehow able to switch places over the past decade, how would we perceive each player today?  I think we can see the answer when we look at the coverage of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen today.  The Big Three in Boston are now referred to in glowing terms by the sports media.  If we go back just a few months, though, the coverage was quite different.  When each of these stars played for losing teams, the media questioned each player’s ability to lead a team to victory.  Strange how a 30-5 start causes these stories to fade away.  In sum, when KG, Piece, and Allen changed teammates, the perception of each player also changed.

I think the story would be the same if Kobe and T-Mac switched places.  At least, I don’t think anyone would think Kobe is the best player in the game today if his team only averaged 38 wins in his career.

T-Mac and Kobe Today

Unfortunately for T-Mac, we may never see a Garnett story for him. Looking over Table Two it’s easy to see that McGrady has not quite been the same player in Houston that we saw in Orlando and Toronto.  And this change is most likely due to injuries. 

In Tables One and Two the careers of T-Mac and Kobe were compared.  And when we look over all the years each has played, McGrady is the more productive player.  But if we focus on the past two seasons – where McGrady has missed 46 games — Kobe has offered more (both in terms of WP48 and Wins Produced).

This trend has continued this season.  Heading into Sunday’s game Kobe had a WP48 of 0.240.  In contrast, before McGrady finally sat down his WP48 was only 0.134.  This is easily the lowest mark of McGrady’s career.  When we look at the individual stats we can see that the key difference in his game is rebounding. Again, this decline on the boards is probably due to a decline in health. 

Much has been made of the fact the Rockets were 13-15 when McGrady was hurt and have been 7-3 since.  I would note that the Rockets schedule across the past ten games hasn’t been that difficult.  Of the seven victories, four came against Memphis, New York (twice), and Minnesota.  Against teams with a winning record this team is 3-3 without McGrady.

That being said, replacing a player with a 0.134 WP48 is much easier than replacing a 0.247 player.  McGrady in 2007-08 has simply not been the star we have seen in the past.  What we should see, though, is that despite the playoff record of McGrady’s teams (by the way, one should note that McGrady’s teams were never clear favorites to advance past the first round), T-Mac was a star before his recent health problems.

Let me close by repeating something I have said before.  The purpose of tracking player statistics in sports is to separate the individual from his team.  When we make an effort to separate player from teammates in the NBA, it’s clear that T-Mac has been more productive than Kobe.  Unfortunately, if McGrady is unable to recover from the injuries that have plagued him, this point will only be clear in the past numbers.

- DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially 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

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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