How Has Texas Survived the Loss of Kevin Durant?

Last week I received an e-mail from Thomas Hackett, a writer for the Austin Chronicle.  Thomas wished to know why the Texas Longhorns were able to survive the loss of Kevin Durant. Hackett thought that it was because of the play of D.J. Augustin, but wanted to know if the numbers agreed with his assessment.   

When I looked at the Texas numbers from 2006-07 and 2007-08, a different answer emerged.  And since Hackett is a professional writer (and I am not), I think I will let him tell the story. 

Playing Through

By Thomas Hackett

“Put Damion in!” someone yelled with a minute left in the first half and the University of Texas struggling against Colorado. No, the shout hadn’t come from Damion James himself, though it might have.

“I was begging to be put back in,” said the 6-foot-7-inch forward, benched for all but a couple of minutes of the half after picking up two quick fouls. “I knew when I got back in the game, I was going to bring it.”

And so he did. In the first eight minutes of the second half on Saturday, Texas erased a 9-point deficit to take a commanding 9-point lead. James scored only 6 of those points – it was hardly his best night of the season. Yet with his eight rebounds, he was the difference maker.

That comes as no surprise to Dr. David Berri, even though he has never seen James play. Berri is an economist and co-author of The Wages of Win, a mathematical analysis of basketball performance that turns a lot of conventional wisdom on its head. For example, individual scoring isn’t that big of a deal, according to Berri. The NBA’s Allen Iverson scores a lot, but he also misses a lot. What matters is overall efficiency, and for all his flair, Iverson is an incredibly inefficient player who doesn’t really help his team win.

I had called Berri to understand why the Longhorns are playing exactly as well this year (they’re 15-3) as they did last year, when they had the best college player in the country in Kevin Durant. I thought D.J. Augustin had to be the reason: To my eyes, the kid is clutch, averaging 20 points and six assists a game. But nope, that’s not it. According to a metric that Berri and his co-authors call a “win score,” the biggest reason the Longhorns have been able to pick up where Durant left off is James.

Last season Augustin had a win score of .149. So far this year, it’s .182 – an improvement but nothing compared to James’ .393, which is within spitting distance of Durant’s score of .403.

“It’s important to understand that when Kevin Durant is not there, somebody else is going to take those shots,” Berri explained. “The question is: Are they doing that and the other things that create wins efficiently?”

With most things we do in life, performance is difficult to accurately assess: The data can be limited, the criteria arbitrary, and the analysis subjective. That’s one appeal of sports: Objective measures reign supreme. If you don’t score more points than the other team, you lose. Even so, in a complex and fluid team sport like basketball, individual performance is still hard to separate from team performance. We know who won the game, but without meaningful statistical analysis, we just don’t know why. We don’t know who is responsible.

For his part, James doesn’t tout his stats and seems a bit surprised that some economist out in California would. Surprised but flattered.

“I don’t think about Damion James,” he says. “I just try to bring some energy and production when I’m out there – and help the Longhorns win. It’s a team thing.”

More on Hackett

In talking to Hackett I learned that he is the author of Slaphappy: Pride, Prejudice, and Professional Wrestling.  Like The Wages of Wins, Hackett’s book was also discussed on the pages of the New Yorker.  And here is what the New Yorker said about Slaphappy:

Hackett travelled around the various circuits of professional wrestling-that peculiar mixture of Olympic games and the burlesque, in which beefy athletes beat each other up in scripted bouts-determined to take its participants seriously. The result is an enjoyable and astute appraisal of a too easily maligned subculture. Hackett believes that wrestling, with its “blue collar” celebrity, convoluted sexuality, and faked reality, epitomizes something essential about American culture, although his attempts to discuss these theories with the subjects themselves often prove comically inconclusive. At one point, he tells a good natured young wrestler named Altar Boy Luke (who has just insisted that “wrestling is real,” unlike, say, “Star Trek”) that somewhere among the sport’s layers of fakery is a bit of truth, “and everybody is trying to figure out what that is.” “And the truth is,” the wrestler replies, “I’m an athlete and you’re an asshole!”

I think you have to admire a writer who inspires such a comment from a professional wrestler. 

By the way, if anyone is interested, I could add a table detailing how each Texas player improved from last season.  Please let me know in the comments.   

UPDATE: The following table reports the analysis of the Texas Longhorns I provided to Thomas Hackett.

Table: The Texas Longhorns in 2007-08

The table reports Win Score, Win Score per 48 minutes, and Win Score per minute for each player on the Longhorns in 2007-08 (after 13 games) and 2006-07.  It’s important to note that the data has not been adjusted for position played.  So the analysis only shows how a player has improved or regressed. It doesn’t show exactly how players compare to each other.

I should also note that Erich Doerr, who provided a wonderful analysis of the 2007 NBA draft, has written a column looking at the current top prospects in college. This should be posted sometime in the next few days. 

- DJ

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