At times it appears Kevin Durant’s path to the Rookie of the Year award is as clear as Raul Castro’s ascent to the presidency of Cuba. Despite questions about qualifications, it’s hard seeing much of an opposition campaign building between now and the RoY election.
Currently Durant has a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] in the negative range. And this level of productivity has been observed the entire season. If he is elected RoY, that can mean that either
a. this is one of the worst rookie classes in the history of the NBA.
b. voters are overly impressed by scoring totals.
Looking over the performance of various rookies, it’s hard to see how (a) could be true. Al Horford and Joakim Noah are just two rookies who have been above average performers this year.
The Florida graduates, though, are not the only outstanding rookies. Over the past few months another player has managed to eclipse – on a per-minute basis – both Horford and Noah.
Houston Solves a Problem
On January 9th the Houston Rockets had a record of 19-17. For a team some considered a candidate to contend for a title in 2008, the first half of this season was a disappointment.
The next game, though, Carl Landry – who had only played 17 minutes all season – was given 20 minutes of playing time. In this time he grabbed 11 rebounds and hit all seven of his shots. Not surprisingly, the Rockets won. The next two games, though, saw Landry glued to the bench for all but 12 minutes. In each game, Houston lost.
After those two losses, though, Landry became a frequent guest in the Rockets rotation. Counting Sunday’s game, the Rockets have won 16 of their last 17 games. In these games Landry has averaged more than 18 minutes of playing time. And with a WP48 of 0.308 for the season (prior to Sunday’s game), it’s not a surprise that the Rockets are suddenly successful.
Who is Carl Landry?
Landry is a 6ft. 7in. forward from Purdue University. Prior to the draft, ESPN.com ranked Landry as the 63rd best available prospect. Since the first and second rounds do not have that many slots, Landry was not considered a player who was likely to hear his name called.
Despite this ranking, Landry was selected by the Seattle Supersonics with the first pick of the second round in the 2007 NBA Draft. He was then traded to the Houston Rockets for cash and a future second round pick. Although his height suggests small forward, the Rockets have primarily played him at power forward. And his performance – relative to the other rookie power forwards – suggests the Rockets cash has purchased one of the best buys of the 2007 draft.
The First Round Power Forwards
Table One reports how Landry compares – across a variety of statistics – to the power forwards selected in the first round of the draft.
Before we get to Landry, let’s start with the power forwards who have disappointed. When we look at the individual statistics we see that Yi Jianlian (the 6th choice), Al Thornton (14th pick), and Jason Smith (the 20th choice) have been not produced much. Yi is only above average with respect to free throw shooting, blocked shots, and assists. Thornton is good at taking shots, but with the exception of free throws, not good at getting shots to go in. He’s also below average with respect to every other aspect of the game. And then there’s Smith, who is below average at everything except blocked shots and personal fouls. Not only are these three players well below average, they also rank in the top four in our sample in minutes per game. In other words, the least productive rookie power forwards are playing the most minutes. And not surprisingly, all three play for losing teams.
Smith’s team – the Philadelphia 76ers – is only losers by a little bit. The team’s efficiency differential – offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency – is -0.4. In other words, this team is quite close to being average. One reason for this is the play of Thaddeus Young, the Sixers other rookie big man. Young is an above average scorer. He’s also good at getting steals. Although he’s slightly below average on the boards, the overall picture is above par.
Young is certainly having a good rookie campaign. But his performance, on a per-minute basis, lags behind Brandan Wright. Wright is above average as a scorer and a rebounder. At least, the early returns suggest this is the case. But when a player has only played 155 minutes, it’s hard to be sure.
Back to Landry
When we look at Win Score per 48 minutes, it appears that Wright and Young are the leading power forwards. But both players fall short of the standard set by Landry. In this sample, Landry is the best at shooting, scoring, and rebounding. Not surprisingly, he also leads in Win Score and WP48. Yes, the first choice in the second round is so far out performing all the players at his position taken in the first round.
And this brings us to the moral of this tale. Over the past few weeks we have seen rebuilding teams trade established players for first round draft choices. But as this story highlights, first round draft choices are not always more productive than the cheaper second round selections. And consequently one has to wonder what the Sonics, Grizzlies, and Nets received for the talent they surrendered. Certainly the very top choices in the first round tend to perform at a high level. But once you move past the first few picks we see a great deal of variation in performance. Young and Wright are currently offering more than Yi. Jared Dudley has outperformed Smith and Thornton. And Landry is giving more than all these players.
Yes, Landry’s performance is a surprise. Certainly his college numbers didn’t suggest he could play this well. But the fact that so many first round draft choices struggle suggests that trading a star for a collection of low first round talent may not be a bright idea. You may be just as well off trading for second round choices. These are certainly cheaper. Of course telling your fans that you traded Pau Gasol for a few second round choices could be a publication relations nightmare. Then again, giving a guaranteed contract to a player who can’t produce isn’t going to win you any elections either. Well, not unless your franchise is in Cuba.
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.