The WoW Club

In October of 2006, Gregory Mankiw wrote a column entitled The Pigou Club Manifesto.

For those not familiar with the work of economist Arthur Pigou (1877-1959), Pigou is known (among other things) for advocating what has become known as a Pigovian tax.  This is described at Investopedia as follows:

A special tax that is often levied on companies that pollute the environment or create excess social costs, called negative externalities, through business practices. In a true market economy, a Pigovian tax is the most efficient and effective way to correct negative externalities.

Whenever Mankiw observes a politician (or columnist, economist, etc…) advocating a tax to combat a negative externality, Mankiw declares that this person is now a member of the Pigou club.  According to Mankiw, members of this club include Paul Krugman, Al Gore, Gary Becker, Alan Greenspan, Thomas Friedman, and many others.

The WoW Club 

In the spirit of the Pigou club, I propose the Wages of Wins Club, or WoW Club.  What do you have to say to gain entry into this group? 

The primary story told about basketball in The Wages of Wins is that players are not primarily paid to win.  Players are primarily paid to score.  And the scoring doesn’t have to be efficient.  Basically, the more points a player scores – whether efficiently or inefficiently – the more money the player will receive.

Whenever a player, coach, pundit, etc… notes this basic story (whether they acknowledge The Wages of Wins or not) then I will declare that person as a member of the WoW Club. 

For example, back in 1994 Glenn Robinson became a member of the WoW Club.  As we note in the book (page 261 of the paperback):

Five games into his NBA career Glenn Robinson made the following observation quoted in an Associated Press article written by Jim Litke (1994): “I expect to do what I’m supposed to do. But a lot of people that don’t know the game, they think it’s all about scoring. I look at it from a team perspective. We have to do well as a team. I don’t need to go out there and score 30 points a game and have us lose. That won’t do us any good. It would help me individually.” Robinson added: “But I want to see all of us get something done.” So a very young Robinson notes that scoring helps him individually but may not help the team. It is interesting that this quote captures the essence of the argument we make in this chapter. Scoring does help a player earn more money. Wins, though, are about more than scoring.

Another member is Stephon Marbury.  Back in November I posted the following excerpt from a New York magazine article by Tommy Craig:

In the midst of our upbeat Charleston conversation about religion and the new season, he raised the subject of his reputation for selfishness. “If I didn’t play the way how I played, I wouldn’t have gotten no max contract,” he said. “They can talk about whatever they wanna talk about me, because I got maxed. I’m a max player. Don’t get mad at me, because I’m telling you what’s real. One plus one is two, all day long, and it’s never gonna change. And that’s factorial.”

And now we have the following from a Play Magazine (New York Times) article by Chuck Klosterman.  In Klosterman’s story is the following quote from Doc Rivers – head coach of the Boston Celtics:

“Most veterans in our league have had their day and chased the idea of being a star, and now they’ve fallen back to whatever they really are. They know who they are. Young guys always want to prove they’re better than whatever role you give them. They won’t buy into the system. They always say that they will, but the minute they have the chance to score, they’ll try to prove that they can be a scorer.”(hat tip to Kent for linking to this quote in the comments)

Rivers is saying that a player will choose scoring over winning.  Again, players have an incentive to follow this course of action. 

In the same article, Brian Scalabrine makes a similar argument (hence joining Rivers in the WoW Club).

The thing that really bothered me about last year’s team was the individualism during all the losses. Individual play was trumping the result of the game. If somebody went out and got 16 points in a loss, he would be like, ‘Hey, I got my 16.’ That was the culture of last year.”

Again, Scalabrine emphasizes how the focus on scoring can trump the focus on winning.

One should note that Rivers and Scalabrine are not the only Celtics in the club.  As The Wisdom of Red Auerbach (a post from November of 2006) notes, Red Auerbach was perhaps the first member of the WoW Club.  This is from a biographical sketch posted at ESPN.com.

Auerbach didn’t focus on the individuals on his teams. He looked at the “whole package.” While many of his players were outstanding, the Celtics were the first organization to popularize the concept of the role player. “That’s a player who willingly undertakes the thankless job that has to be done in order to make the whole package fly,” Auerbach said.
…. Auerbach said that the Celtics represent a philosophy that in its simplest form maintains that victory belongs to the team. “Individual honors are nice, but no Celtic has ever gone out of his way to achieve them,” he said. “We have never had the league’s top scorer. In fact, we won seven league championships without placing even one among the league’s top 10 scorers. Our pride was never rooted in statistics.”

I also noted in November of 2006 the following:

Auerbach also bemoaned in an interview broadcast on ESPN Classic that the focus of today’s players is on statistics, as opposed to winning. In Auerbach’s view, Bill Russell was a great player because he didn’t obsess on his own statistics, but rather sacrificed his stats so the team could win.

S0 there you have it.  Members in the WoW Club include Glenn Robinson, Stephon Marbury, Doc Rivers, Brian Scalabrine, and Red Auerbach.  Are there any other candidates?

Another Approach to the Story

In The Wages of Wins the incentive players have to pursue scoring is noted by looking at the relationship between free agent salary and player statistics. The regression indicates that scoring dominates player pay (a result found in a number of studies examining decision-making in the NBA).

For those looking for a different approach, I recommend a post at Arbitrarian titled “NBA Game Theory.”  This column argues – using a simple Prisoner Dilemma game – that NBA players have an incentive to shoot (rather than pass to teammates).  In other words, scoring is more important than winning.  Again, that simply theoretical story fits the WoW Club story (so I guess Arbitrarian is also a member).

About those Celtics…

I should end this column with the Arbitrarian link, but I want to comment briefly on the Celtics performance this season.

The Klosterman article emphasizes that the Celtics improvement -which will probably by the biggest one-year leap in the history of the Association – is all about Kevin Garnett.  Certainly adding Ray Allen helped. But it’s Garnett – a player who some believed was not a truly great player in Minnesota – that has transformed the Celtics into the NBA’s best (in terms of both wins and efficiency differential).

When we look at Wins Produced – reported in Table One – that’s indeed the story we see.  Table One offers two projections of the Celtics.  The first assumes that what the players on the Celtics did last year on a per-minute basis will be offered again this year (except for the rookies).  The second projects what we have seen so far to the end of the season.

Table One: The Boston Celtics in 2007-08

The first projection – based on last year – says this team will win 59 games.  The second says 66 victories.  In other word, whether we look at this year’s numbers, or what these player did last year, we would expect Boston to be quite good.   

When we look at the Celtics this year, it’s quite clear that Garnett is the most productive player on the team.  And this is the same scenario we saw last year in Minnesota.  But unlike Garnett’s experience in Minnesota, in Boston he has help.  Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Ray Allen were all above average players last year.  And each is above average again.  Kendrick Perkins – who was above average in 2004-05 and 2005-06 – is again posting numbers beyond what we see from an average center.  James Posey, Leon Powe, and Eddie House are also above average performers.

Two things to note about this list…

1.  Last year in Minnesota, Garnett only had one teammate who was above average.

2. With the exception of Eddie House, all of Garnett’s teammates who are above average have a history of above average play.

In sum, the Celtics success this year is not because of great coaching (not to take anything away from Doc Rivers), great team chemistry, or simply the development of a winning attitude.  The Boston success story is due to the decisions of Danny Ainge.  It’s the general manager of this team that assembled these players (and now he has added another above average player in Sam Cassell).

Given what these players had done in the past, it was expected that this team would perform well this season.  And that is the other basketball story told in The Wages of Wins.  Player performance in the NBA -relative to what we see in football and baseball – is quite consistent.  Not sure what to name the club emphasizing that particular observation.

– 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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