Kobe and T-Mac Again

Two months ago I wrote a column comparing Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. At the time, Kobe was playing for one of the top teams in the Western Conference.  T-Mac, though, was playing for a team struggling to make the playoffs.

In that post I argued that we need to separate a player from his teammates.  In essence, that is the function of player statistics.  We know who won the game.  We wish to know which players were responsible for the win (or the loss).

Kobe Better than T-Mac?

Back in January I argued that when we make the effort to separate the player from his teammates, it’s clear that T-Mac – prior to this season – has generally been a bit more productive than Kobe.  This point was made in the following three tables.

Table One: Comparing the Per-Minute Performance of McGrady and Kobe

Table Two: Comparing the Careers of McGrady and Kobe

Table Three: What If McGrady and Kobe Switched Teammates?

The first of these tables tell us that although Kobe has historically been a better scorer than T-Mac, McGrady’s production with respect to the non-scoring aspects of the game is superior. Consequently, as both Table One and Table Two demonstrate, T-Mac has produced more wins.

The third table imagines what would happen if T-Mac got to switch teammates with Kobe.  In essence, if Kobe had to play with McGrady’s teammates, Bryant would still be waiting to win his first title.

T-Mac Better than Kobe?

About two months have passed since this post, and I sense the perceptions of McGrady have now changed.  Certainly I would like to think it was my eloquent writing that turned the tide of popular perception.  Of course, though, the Rockets winning 22 games in a row has been the reason why the McGrady story has changed.  Now that Houston sits atop the Western Conference standings, people are now arguing that T-Mac – the leader on this team in points-per-game – is clearly a candidate for Most Valuable Player.

When I heard that during the broadcast of the Rockets-Lakers game on Sunday, I had to stop for moment.  Are people now arguing that McGrady is on the same level as Kobe?  Is this the same McGrady that people were bad-mouthing just two months ago?

Earlier in the season, McGrady was clearly struggling.  My analysis of T-Mac and Kobe in the above tables did not consider what each player had done in 2007-08.   My column from January, though, did indicate that Kobe was more productive this year.

And when we again look at the numbers from this season – reported in Table Four – we see that Kobe’s advantage remains.

Table Four: Kobe Bryant vs. Tracy McGrady

Table Four offers three comparisons of Kobe and McGrady.  The players are compared across the entire season, for just the first half of the season (through 41 games), and in the second half of the season (the last 25 games).  Regardless of comparison made, Kobe is the more productive player.

Just as we see when we look at the career numbers, Kobe is still the better scorer.  The advantage that McGrady had in the non-scoring aspects of the game, though, has now vanished.  This year Kobe is better on the boards and better with respect to steals.  T-Mac does get more assists, and he turns the ball over less frequently.  Overall, though, Kobe has a slight edge with respect to the non-scoring stats, and given his substantial advantage in the point production department, Kobe is producing more wins.

Does this make Kobe the MVP?  If MVP is defined in terms of M2P – Most Productive Player (or leader in Wins Produced)-than the answer is not going to make Kobe fans very happy. Although Kobe is offering more than T-Mac, there are a few players who have offered more to their teams – in terms of wins – than Kobe. 

Who are those players? That will have to wait for another post.

McGrady is not why the Rockets have improved

For this column, let me offer two more observations.  Table Four makes it clear that McGrady’s production in the second half of the season is essentially the same as it was in the first half.  In other words, McGrady is not the reason the Rockets were transformed from a 24-20 squad across the first 46 games to the 22-0 team we observe today. 

The key to the Rockets transformation – and this is another topic that deserves a full column – is the play of Dikembe Mutombo, Carl Landry, Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Luther Head, and Luis Scola.  Yes, there are number of players who have stepped up in the second half of the season.  But none of those “stepping up” are named McGrady.

So T-Mac is not the key in Houston.

Is Kobe still the key player in LA? 

Kobe is certainly a very productive player.  In the three years after Shaq left, though, the Lakers were 121-125.  Or in other words,  the Lakers were average.  This year, Andrew Bynum became very productive and the team started 25-11.  Bynum then got hurt and the Lakers went 5-5 before adding Pau Gasol.  With Gasol in the line-up, the Lakers went 15-3. But then Gasol got hurt in the early part of the game against the Hornets.  The Lakers then went on to lose against both New Orleans and Houston.  Add it all up (and yes, it is a small sample), and we see that the Lakers without Bynum and Gasol are about a 0.500 team.  Or in other words, not much different from the team we saw the last three seasons. 

Does this mean Kobe is not a great player?  No, but it should cause people to think twice about the MVP award.  Kobe is a little bit better this year (relative to past seasons), but the difference is not that great.  So it is hard to argue that Kobe is the reason this team is now a contender in the West.

Certainly if we take away Kobe the Lakers would struggle.  But the same argument can be made if you take away the dominant big men on the roster.  This was true when it was Shaq, and it is just as true when it is Bynum or Gasol.

Kobe seems to need a productive big man to win consistently. The good news for Laker fans is that – thanks to the brilliance of GM Mitch Kupchak – the Lakers now have two of these players. And when these players are finally healthy, the Lakers will indeed have a team that might give Kobe his fourth title.

– 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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