Who is the star of the Indiana Pacers?
If you answered Larry Bird – the team’s President – you would probably be right. On a team that’s only 17-22, it may be hard to find a star on the court. But if we confined our search to players who are in uniform, I think people would agree that the team leader is Jermaine O’Neal. At least, it’s O’Neal who currently leads this team in All-Star votes.
The Career of Jermaine O’Neal
If we turn to Wins Produced, the general perception is confirmed. At least, its confirmed if we turn back the clock a bit. O’Neal joined the Pacers in 2000. For the 2000-01, 2001-02, and 2002-03 campaigns, O’Neal led Indiana in Wins Produced.
The 2002-03 season was his best in the Hoosier state. That year O’Neal produced 12.9 wins and his WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] was 0.203. Over the last four seasons, though, someone other than O’Neal has led the team in Wins Produced each time.
This trend almost ended last year. At the mid-point of the 2006-07 campaign, O’Neal did lead the Pacers in Wins Produced. And his WP48 of 0.190 was the best mark he had posted since the 2002-03 season. But then “something” happened.
People tend to forget how much promise they showed last season after the trade with Golden State. Their victory at Memphis on Feb. 3 improved their record to 26-21 and was their sixth win in the previous seven games.
O’Neal finished with 25 points and 17 rebounds. Jamaal Tinsley added 25 points and nine assists. Ike Diogu had 19 points and nine rebounds off the bench.
That high point disguised the start of their downfall, however. O’Neal suffered cartilage damage to his knee that night. While he had some big games later in the season, his play dropped off, particularly at the defensive end.
O’Neal’s injury and the fact Rick Carlisle “lost the team” through mismanagement off the court and micromanagement on the court were the primary factors in the 11-game losing streak that kept them out of the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
As I noted last October, Montieth’s story is confirmed by the data. In the second half of last year, O’Neal posted a WP48 of 0.019. And after starting 6-1 after the Warriors trade, with an injured O’Neal this team managed only nine more victories across the last 35 games.
In the off-season O’Neal asked to be traded out of Indiana. At one point it was rumored that he was headed to LA to help Kobe win another title. And of course such a trade makes sense, since Kobe has never won a title without some guy named O’Neal on his roster. :) But when the summer ended, O’Neal was still in Indiana.
But which O’Neal remained? For an answer, we turn to Table One.
Table One reports what O’Neal has done in his career – on a per 48 minute basis – across a host of statistics. It also notes what he did his best season (2002-03) and thus far in 2007-08.
When we look at O’Neal’s career we don’t see a major star. His career WP48 is above average, but a mark of 0.143 pales in comparison to the top players in the game. Still, O’Neal has generally been a good player and he did lead his team in Wins Produced for three seasons.
What makes O’Neal “good” is his ability to get rebounds and block shots. Shooting efficiency, though, has been a consistent problem. Except for the 2002-03 season – again, his best year – O’Neal has always been below average with respect to getting his shots to go in the basket.
And this season the inefficient scoring issue has worsened. In addition, O’Neal is now below average on the boards. As a consequence, his overall productivity is now well below the average mark.
A New Star in Indy
Surprisingly, the inability of O’Neal to produce in 2007-08 has not caused the Pacers to suffer quite as much as they did in the latter half of 2006-07. To see this point, let’s review the team’s recent efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) story.
Prior to the Warriors trade (after 38 games in 2006-07): -1.1
Second half of 2006-07: -3.8
Across all of 2006-07: -2.7
First 39 games of 2007-08: -1.6
As we can see, the Pacers this season are not much different from what they were before the trade with the Warriors. But the star in the first half of 2006-07 has clearly faded. How have the Pacers avoided falling apart this season?
The answer is Mike Dunleavy. For fans of the Warriors, this is a surprising answer. Dunleavy was the third choice in the 2002 NBA draft. When one is drafted this high, it’s expected that you will develop into a star. But after his first five seasons – much to the chagrin of Golden State fans — Dunleavy was no star. His career WP48 stood at 0.101, a mark that’s decidedly average. Certainly he was not a bad player, but he certainly wasn’t as good as a third choice was expected to be.
This season, though, Dunleavy’s productivity had exploded. After 39 games this swingman has posted a 0.231 WP48. To put that number in perspective, remember that the best mark O’Neal ever posted in Indiana was 0.203 in 2002-03. In essence, Dunleavy is the new star in Indiana.
How did Dunleavy improve? The key is scoring. His shot attempts from the field and the free throw line have both increased. And his shooting efficiency has also improved. Entering this season his career adjusted field goal percentage stood at 48.9%, a mark that is about average. This year his adjusted field goal percentage stands at 56.3%, which is well above what an average player can do. With more Dunleavy shots going in, the Pacers are winning more than you would expect.
Playing What If with O’Neal
What would happen, though, if the O’Neal that departed on February 3, 2007 returned to this team? O’Neal is currently on pace to produce 0.6 wins this year. If he played as well as he did in the first half of 2006-07, though, he would be on pace to produce nearly nine wins.
An efficiency differential of -1.6 translates into 36 wins across an 82 game season. If one of your players improves by more than eight wins, though, your 36 win team is suddenly a 44 victory club. And such a mark gets you back into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
Unfortunately for Indiana, one suspects the O’Neal that left about 11 months ago is not coming back any time soon. And according to HoopsHype, the Pacers are scheduled to pay O’Neal $64 million for the 2007-08, 2008-09, and 2009-10 season. If O’Neal continues to produce at his current rate, that’s a whole bunch of money for virtually nothing.
So perhaps it is time to call the Lakers back. Kobe and company need a big man to replace the injured Bynum. And as I noted, Kobe needs an O’Neal to win a title.
By the way, do I have to note that my Kobe-O’Neal observation is meant to be humorous?
Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.