The Best Bench in the NBA and Serious Thoughts on the Earl Lloyd Story

John Davis and Deven Khrucell are the hosts of Pistonscast – Detroit Pistons Podcast.  Earlier this week – as the following announcement from their website indicates –both John and Deven interviewed me for the latest edition of their show.  

Tuesday March 18th’s episode, entitled “Why the Detroit Pistons Have the Best Bench: The Numbers Don’t Lie Featuring Sports Economist David Berri from The Wages of Wins Journal at dberri.wordpress.com,” is now available.

If you click on the now available link you will be treated to a 30 minute podcast featuring John, Deven, and yours truly.  Yes, instead of reading my rambling discourse on basketball, you can now hear me voice these very same semi-random thoughts.

For those who don’t want to listen, or just want more information, here are a few of the topics John, Deven, and I discussed.

1. The Tragedy of Kevin Garnett

2. The Potential Greatness of Amir Johnson

3. and The Wages of Wins Basketball Story: Fans really want wins but players are paid to score (and just to repeat, scoring and/or star power by itself does not produce many wins or attract many fans).

The Greatest Bench in the NBA

In addition, as the title of the discussion indicates, we talked about which team has the greatest bench.  The following table reports the WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of each team’s starters and bench players at the midpoint of this season.

Table One: Evaluating Benches in the NBA after 41 Games

As I told John, starters are defined as the top five players on each team in terms of games started.  The bench is everyone else. 

At the midpoint, the top three benches were employed by San Antonio, Boston, and Detroit.  Of these, I think the Celtics might be the biggest surprise.   People think that Boston is just Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.   But the players off the bench – specifically Leon Powe, Eddie House, and James Posey – have been very productive this season.

One should note that the Celtics bench, although still good, slipped a bit in the second-half.  After 66 games – or not counting Boston’s domination of the Rockets on Tuesday night – the Celtics bench had posted a 0.076 WP48. This mark still ranks in the top ten, but it’s now behind the Pistons mark of 0.91 (also after 66 games and not including the Pistons defeat of the Nuggets on Tuesday night).

The Spurs mark still tops the league.  But as I told John and Deven, that mark is a bit misleading. Manu Ginobili – the most productive shooting guard in the NBA right now – has spent much of the season coming off the bench. Ginobili, though, plays more minutes than Michael Finley.  So one could argue that Ginobili is the de facto starter on the Spurs.  And when you switch Ginobili into the starting line-up for Finley, you see San Antonio’s bench WP48 declines to 0.042.

Consequently, Pistons fans – or people like John, Deven, and myself – can argue that the best bench in the NBA plays in Detroit.  And if Amir Johnson could just get some more minutes, that bench production would go even higher.

The Earl Lloyd Story

In addition to the current NBA and the Pistons bench, John, Deven, and I briefly touched upon the story of Earl Lloyd.  And I wanted to add a few more details.

This story goes back to the beginning of the NBA.  The NBA’s first official season was in 1949-50 (the BAA played three seasons prior to this year).   Back in 1949-50 the NBA consisted of 17 teams.  These 17 teams employed 223 players.  And everyone of these 223 players was white.

The next season the NBA followed the lead of Major League Baseball by integrating.  Earl Lloyd, Nat Clifton, and Chuck Cooper joined the league, with Lloyd – due to scheduling – officially being the first black player to play in an NBA game.

The story of Lloyd was told in the recent ESPN documentary: Black Magic.  Lloyd starred on a West Virginia State team that went 35-0 in 1948-49.  He was then drafted by the Washington Capitals in the 9th round of the 1950 draft. 

The Capitals didn’t make it through the 1950-51 season and Lloyd was out of basketball in 1951-52.  In 1952, though, the Syracuse Nationals (who later became the Philadelphia 76ers) picked Lloyd up on waivers.  Lloyd then went on to play eight more seasons (with both the Nationals and Detroit Pistons) before retiring in 1960.

If you missed the documentary, parts of this story can be read at either Wikipedia and/or Basketball-Reference.com. What these stories do not report is the brief observation made in Black Magic.

According to ESPN’s documentary, Lloyd was not asked to score much by the teams that employed him in the 1950s.  And when we look at Lloyd’s stats, we see evidence supporting this claim. Lloyd only averaged in double figures once in his career.  Yes, he had trouble hitting his shots (career field goal percentage of 35.6%).  But that was true of many players in the 1950s, and these players could reach double figures by taking a large number of shots.  Apparently Lloyd didn’t get that opportunity.

Instead of asking Lloyd to score, his employers asked him to focus on rebounds and other non-scoring aspects of the game.  Now it’s important to remember that rebounds were not tracked in the NBA until the 1950-51 season. Initially all the NBA tracked was scoring, assists, and personal fouls.  If Lloyd was asked to focus on the non-scoring aspects of the game, then he was basically being asked to focus on factors that were not initially tracked, and probably (given what we know about the NBA today) not valued very highly by the coaches, media, and fans of basketball. 

I wish to contrast this treatment of Lloyd with the treatment received by Jackie Robinson and the other players who integrated Major League Baseball.  It should not come as a surprise that the first black baseball players were better than the average white player (and this point was made in an article in the March, 2002 issue of the American Economic Review by Brian Goff, Robert McCormick, and Robert Tollison) .  After all, if you could choose any member of a previously excluded group, you would choose the most productive members first.

This should have been the same pattern in the NBA.  But the output of Lloyd – and also of Clifton and Cooper – are not consistent with this expectation.  None of these players were outstanding scorers, and hence they were not perceived to be great players (like Jackie Robinson).  And perhaps that was because they lacked that ability.  But it’s possible that these players – due to discrimination – were not given the opportunity to score.

Remember, The Wages of Wins argues that players are often defined by their ability to score.  Scoring, though, suffers from diminishing returns.  If Lloyd scored more, other teammates would have to score less.  Consequently it’s possible that Lloyd was told to defer to his teammates, and hence his production — and people’s perception of his value — was unfairly diminished.

Let me close by noting (again) that there is more to wins than scoring.  So it’s possible that Lloyd, Clifton, and Cooper did produce wins (although we can’t tell since much of the data wasn’t tracked).  Wins production, though, is not the issue here.  Again, scoring is what drives the perception of a player’s value.  If these players were asked to score less, then it’s clear that discrimination continued in the early years of the NBA even after integration took place.

– 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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