Another Perspective on the Mike Bibby Trade

Way back in the 20th century, the Atlanta Hawks could be counted on to make the playoffs on a regular basis.  But in the 21st century, playoff basketball has been non-existent in Georgia. 

For much of the first-half of the 2007-08 season, though, it looked like this could change.  On January 15 the Hawks defeated the Denver Nuggets to even their record at 17-17.  But after this victory, the Hawks won only four of their next fifteen games.  Consequently, with a record of 21-28 at the All-Star break, it looked like Atlanta was once again going to visit the lottery.

The Hawks Make a Move

At least, that was the expectation last Friday.  On Saturday, though, the Hawks took a bold step to halt the slide.  Atlanta sent starting point guard Anthony Johnson, reserve point guard Tyrone Lue, 2006 lottery pick Shelden Williams, and veteran big man Lorenzen Wright to the Sacramento Kings for Mike Bibby. 

This is how Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-C0nstitution described this move:

The Hawks are suddenly a factor. Why? Because Knight, their general manager, acted like a general manager. He acquired a starting point guard (a little late, but let’s not quibble). He admitted a draft mistake (dumping Shelden Williams). He dealt two other players (Tyronn Lue and Anthony Johnson) who were not meant to start NBA games.

Five days before the trade deadline, Billy Knight was a player.

We pause now for a moment of reflection.

Mike Bibby is a legitimate starting point guard, and he, therefore, makes the Hawks a legitimate playoff team.

Writing a few days after the trade, it’s perhaps too late for me to say “before Atlanta fans get too excited, let’s look at the numbers.”   My sense is Atlanta fans are already pretty excited.  Nevertheless, let’s look at the numbers. 

Entering the All-Star break the Hawks had an efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of -1.8.  The Kings had a mark of -1.8 last season, and at the All-Star break this year, posted a differential of -2.1.  Turning to WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], we see that the average WP48 of everyone not named Mike Bibby on the 2006-07 Sacramento Kings  was 0.088.  This season the mark of everyone not named Bibby in Sacramento is 0.086. 

For the Hawks, this season the average WP48 of everyone not named Anthony Johnson or Tyrone Lue is 0.087.  So it looks like Bibby is leaving a below average team that’s just about the same as the below average team he’s joining.  Such a team would miss the playoffs in the West.  In the East it can make the post-season and probably lose in the first round.  In sum, with this move, Bibby might be able to extend his season by a handful of games.

More Numbers on the Trade

Okay, here are some more numbers.  Table One reports the career performances of everyone in this trade.

Table One: Career Performances of Players in the Bibby Trade

The four players Atlanta is sending to Sacramento have produced 54.3 wins in their respective careers.  Bibby has produced 56.7 wins, and is the only player with a career WP48 that’s above average (average WP48 is 0.100).  So the career numbers tell us that this trade is a winner for Atlanta.

The recent numbers of these players, though, tell a different story.  Anthony Johnson was actually an above average point guard this season.  In fact, except for his rookie season, whenever A. Johnson averages more than 25 minutes per contest in his career his WP48 has been above average. 

When we turn to the individual stats – reported in Table Two – we see why A. Johnson has been above average in 2007-08.

Table Two: More on the Career of Mike Bibby

In term of shooting efficiency and assists, A. Johnson is about average for a point guard.  Although rebounds and steals are below average, A. Johnson has done a good job of avoiding turnovers.

Now consider the numbers of Bibby.  This season he has been hurt.  But in 2006-07 – relative to A. Johnson this season – Bibby offered fewer assists and more turnovers.  And his shooting efficiency was not much better.  Let me repeat this observation.  When we look at point guards we often look at assists and turnovers.  For these two stats, though, the point guard Atlanta had is better – at least today — than the one Atlanta is adding.

Of course, Bibby has been better in the past.  And he was the starting point guard on a successful Sacramento team.  But as I noted last summer – in the post The Return of the Kings – Bibby was not the primary reason the Kings challenged the Lakers for Western Conference supremacy earlier in the decade.

The following tables – first posted in the earlier column — report what the Kings did from 1997-98 to 2006-07.

Tables 3-6: The Kings from 1997-98 to 2004-05

Table Seven: The Kings in 2005-06 and 2006-07

Bibby was added to the Kings in 2001-02 and that season Sacramento won the most games in franchise history. When we turn to Wins Produced, though, we see that Kings were led that season by Doug Christie, Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, and Vlade Divac. In other words, Bibby was not the primary reason this team was successful.

As time went by, Bibby did play better for the Kings. Unfortunately, the leaders of the 2001-02 season eventually got old and left the franchise. When that happened, the days of the Kings contending also left.

Although the numbers tell us Bibby was not the driving force behind Sacramento’s success, people still perceive Bibby as a player that’s well-above average.  When we look at the individual stats – again, back in Table Two – it’s hard to see where Bibby is exceptional.  His career shooting efficiency is somewhat above average.  His career numbers for assists, rebounds, and steals, though, are below average.  When you put the whole picture together, what emerges is a point guard who has been slightly above average for his career, and more recently, below par.  In sum, Bibby appears to be a player who has managed to create the impression of being well above average without actually being well above average at any aspect of the game.

So what does this mean for the Hawks?  Atlanta will probably make the playoffs.  The Eastern Conference is very weak and this trade doesn’t seem to hurt Atlanta’s chances.  But this team may have made the playoffs without this move.  So Atlanta has added quite a bit to the team’s payroll in 2oo8-09.  But it’s not clear that this cost is going to yield much of a benefit. 

At least, that’s what the numbers suggest.  It’s important to emphasize, though, that this move is not just about the numbers.  The fact Atlanta made this move tells us that the front office of this team – who did very little for a very long time – is at least trying.  And the fact that Atlanta is now trying to build a winner, might be the best news about this trade.

About Sacramento

Now what does this move mean for Sacramento.  At the All-Star break the Kings – relative to the Hawks – had a better won-loss record and a similar efficiency differential.  But the Kings play in the West, where a losing record means you are most definitely going to be in the lottery in 2008. 

Earlier in this column I noted that A. Johnson has been at least as productive as Bibby this season.  But I also noted that A. Johnson seems to play better the more he plays.  Unfortunately in Sacramento, A. Johnson will not be the starting point guard.  Beno Udrih will probably get most of the minutes at this position.  So A. Johnson will go back to the bench, where he has generally not played well throughout his career.

A similar story can also be told about Lue and Wright.  Again, these players are probably not going to get minutes in Sacramento, and so the Kings will not get much production from either player.

What this trade does for Sacramento is provide a little bit of salary cap relief this summer and a chance to see if Shelden Williams – who was above average his rookie season – can actually play.  Of course, to see if Williams can play the Kings will have to actually play Williams.  This means the Kings will need to send Mikki Moore – the prize free agent from 2007 – back to the bench. 

Will that happen?  It might, although it didn’t happen tonight.  In his first game in a Kings uniform, Shelden Williams logged five minutes (with a zero Win Score).  The Kings did defeat Portland (although Portland didn’t have James Jones, a story I should talk about sometime).  So the first return on this move is both positive and meaningless.

The same can be said for the Hawks first game with Bibby.  Losing by 29 to the Lakers isn’t good news, but it is also doesn’t mean much.  Again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hawks in the playoffs (despite what happened tonight).  But I don’t think this trade actually helps Atlanta see the post-season.

The Kidd Trade

Although the Bibby-A.Johnson swap is big news, it’s not the biggest point guard trade in the news these days.  My next column will look at the Jason Kidd trade.  That should be posted in the next couple of days.

– 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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