A mere twenty months ago the Dallas Mavericks were up 2-0 in the NBA Finals. Since this time the Mavericks experienced a devastating low (four straight losses in the NBA Finals), a high (best record in the 2006-07 season), and another devastating low (upset in the first round of the 2007 playoffs).
Although the playoffs in 2007 were disappointing, people still expected a team that won 67 games last year to contend in 2007-08. But at the midpoint of this season Dallas had clearly fallen off the pace. The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) had fallen from 7.8 in 2006-07 to only 5.1 after 41 games in 2007-08. Such a mark at the midpoint was eclipsed by Boston, Detroit, Phoenix, New Orleans, San Antonio, and the LA Lakers.
At the All-Star break the team’s differential was only 4.3, a level that now lagged behind the Utah Jazz and the Toronto Raptors (in addition to all the other teams listed). If efficiency differential predicted the seedings in the Western Conference playoffs, the Mavericks would only hold the 6th seed in 2008. In sum, the Mavericks title window was clearly closing and something had to be done.
That something happened over the All-Star break. After much discussion, the Mavericks finally acquired Jason Kidd from the New Jersey Nets. Dallas clearly expects the acquisition of Kidd to vault the team back into title contention. But do the numbers support this belief?
Before I get to that question, let me address a few other issues about this trade.
Why did Dallas Decline?
This question was addressed earlier in the season. Basically, the MVP of 2007 – Dirk Nowitzki – is offering less this season. Last season his WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] was 0.306. This season his mark stands at 0.218. As Table One illustrates, much of the decline in the Mavericks fortunes this year are due to the drop-off in the 2007 MVP’s production.
And as detailed in December – and repeated in Table Two below — much of Nowitzki’s decline is due to reductions in his level of shooting efficiency. In 2006-07 Nowitzki scored 1.06 points per field goal attempt [(PTS-FTM)/FGA]. This year he’s only getting 0.98 points per shot from the field.
When we look at Nowitzki’s shooting we see declines in all areas. From the free throw line his percentage has dropped from 90% to 87%. From two point range his efficiency has also dropped, but only from 51.5% to 50.5%. And then there is his shooting from beyond the arc. Last year Nowitzki converted on 41.6% of three point shots. This year his conversion rate is only 28.7%.
It’s his performance from three point range that’s clearly the bulk of the problem. If Nowitzki maintained his 2006-07 shooting efficiency levels from the free throw line, two point range, and beyond the arc, his scoring output would be 82 points higher this season. Of these 82 points, 68% would come from returning his efficiency from three point range to what we saw last year.
It should be emphasized that even if Nowitzki was hitting his shots, the Mavericks would not quite have the efficiency differential it had last year (the current mark of 4.3 would rise to 6.0) And even if it had the efficiency differential it had in 2006-07, this team would still be lagging behind Boston and Detroit. And given the Lakers acquisition of Gasol, probably the Lakers as well. So the Mavericks needed to do more than hope Nowitzki would get his shot back.
Has Jason Kidd declined?
Obviously the Mavericks think the acquisition of Kidd helps this team contend with Boston, Detroit, and the Lakers. Critics, though, note that Kidd is not an efficient scorer. Furthermore, Kidd’s turnovers are suddenly up. This combination of inefficient scoring and high turnovers would suggest that Kidd cannot possibly help the Mavericks.
When we turn to all the statistics, though, that’s not the story we see. Table Three compares Kidd in 2007-08 to three benchmarks – the average point guard in the NBA, Devin Harris (the player Kidd replaces in Dallas), Kidd’s career performance prior to this season.
As noted, Kidd has problems with shooting efficiency and turnovers. We see this whether we compare him to the average point guard or Harris. But Kidd is very good on the boards and as a passer. And these two positives overwhelm his negatives.
It’s important to note that Kidd, despite his age, has not declined much in overall productivity. He has never been an efficient scorer, and that remains the case. Although his turnovers are somewhat higher, his rebounds are also a bit higher. Consequently, Kidd has a very high Win Score this season and his WP48 of 0.337 easily surpasses the mark of an average point guard (0.100) and Harris (0.135).
In sum, if the Mavericks replaced Harris with Kidd at the start of the season, Dallas would be on pace to post the same Wins Produced it posted last year. In other words, swapping Harris for Kidd more than overcomes the decline we see in Nowitzki’s production.
Back on Top?
But again, as noted above, returning to what this team was last year is not good enough. Yes, the team won 67 games last year. That record, though, was a bit of an illusion. When we look at efficiency differential, the Mavericks in 2006-07 lagged behind the Spurs (who eventually took the title).
And the Kidd trade does not exactly return the Mavericks to what they were. To get Kidd the Mavericks had to send Harris, DeSagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Keith Van Horn, Maurice Ager (along with draft picks and cash) to the Nets. In return, the Mavericks were given Kidd, Malik Allen, and Antoine Wright. As noted, Kidd and Harris are above average performers this season. Of the remaining players, Hassell, Ager, Allen, and Wright post a WP48 that is below zero. So these players do not help either team.
Diop, though, is a different story. Diop has developed into an above average center, with a 0.212 WP48 this season (last year it was 0.151). The loss of Diop hurts the Mavericks. Yes, it’s still the case the Mavericks are better after the trade. But by my calculations (which assumes I can guess how minutes are going to be allocated on the re-configured Mavericks), Dallas will only win about 55 games this season. Prior to the trade the team was on pace – given its efficiency differential – to win 51 games.
Obviously this trade is not about the regular season. It is the playoffs that matter for the Mavericks. Given that focus, here is what we know:
1. The Mavericks before the trade were not going to be favored in any playoff series. So a title run was improbable.
2. After the trade they are better, but I do not think they have closed the gap with the Lakers (assuming Bynum comes back healthy).
3. I do think this trade makes the Mavericks more competitive with the other top teams in the West. But there are quite a few “top” teams, so the playoffs are still uncertain.
One last note on the trade: I don’t think the Mavericks mortgaged their future in this trade. Harris is only slightly above average. The core of this team – Nowitzki, Josh Howard, and Jason Terry – remains intact. So I think this team can still contend over the next few years, even when Kidd stops playing like a kid.
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.