Last year the Eastern Conference consisted of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, and a whole bunch of teams that would be lottery bound if they were located closer to my new home in Utah. Now with Elton Brand’s arrival in Philadelphia, the 76ers are being ranked – by the sports media — among the power-that-be in the NBA’s lesser conference.
It’s easy to recall that this was the same sports media that thought the 76ers last season were going to be among the NBA’s worst teams (see “Better Experts Needed” an article from last April in The Philadelphia City Paper). So we might be a bit skeptical when members of the sports media claim the addition of a player who missed almost all of last year is enough to transform a 40 win team into a serious playoff contender.
Although we might be skeptical, in this case I think the general sentiment is correct. The sports media is correct to argue that Philadelphia is now one of the better Eastern Conference teams (although probably not as good as Boston). Where the sports media may have it wrong, though, is why Brand makes the Sixers a better team.
Why Brand Makes this Team Better
The why story begins with what the Sixers were last year.
If we look at what the players employed by Philadelphia did in 2006-07 (except the rookies) and the minutes each player played in 2007-08, we would have expected the Sixers to win 39 games last season. In other words, the Sixers last year were about as good as expected. At least, as good as you would expect if you had looked at Wins Produced.
When we look at the individual players we see why the Sixers should have expected to be an average NBA team (and that is all they were, average). In 2006-07, Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Reggie Evans, and Samuel Dalembert were all above average performers. Despite having four “good” players, though, the Sixers were expected to be held back by the very poor performances of Willie Green and Rodney Carney.
In 2007-08, Willie Green improved tremendously. After being one of the least productive NBA player in 2006-07, Green was merely quite bad in 2007-08. Meanwhile, Reggie Evans got a bit worse, although he was still above average.
In looking at the Brand acquisition, it’s the play of Evans that people have focused upon. Evans has never averaged as much as six points per game as an NBA player. Such meager scoring totals lead many NBA observers to conclude that Evans is not an effective NBA player. When we look past scoring, though, and consider all that Evans does -especially his rebounding – we see that Evans is actually an above average in productivity. In other words, replacing Evans with Brand – by itself – is not going to lead to that many more wins.
So how is Brand going to help the Sixers? The key is changes in position played. Last year the Sixers had two productive big men (Dalembert and Evans). After these two, the only other traditional big man to receive significant minutes was Jason Smith, and he was not very productive. With a short supply of tall people on the roster, the Sixers had to turn to Thaddeus Young at the power forward spot. This meant that Andre Iguodala had to spend more time at small forward. And Willie Green – who was still quite bad – had to take most of the minutes at shooting guard.
With Brand on board, Philadelphia now has three quality big men (and its four if rookie Marreese Speights can be productive). This means that Young can now play small forward, where he should be an above average performer. And Iguodala can now take most of the minutes at shooting guard. In sum, the Sixers can now field the following line-up of above average performers:
Point Guard: Andre Miller
Shooting Guard: Andre Iguodala
Small Forward: Thaddeus Young
Power Forward: Elton Brand and Reggie Evans
Center: Samuel Dalembert
Backing up these six players we see guard Louis Williams, a player that was almost average last year. And Speights – as noted above – might also be a productive big man.
Adding Brand to this line-up allows the Sixers to move players to their most productive positions. And as a result, Philadelphia can now expect to challenge every team outside of Boston in the Eastern Conference.
Now who should get credit for the re-building of the Sixers? The media has focused on new team president, Ed Stefanski. But of the six “good” players listed above, five were acquired by Billy King, the man Stefanski replaced. It was King that drafted Dalembert, Iguodala, and Young. And King is the person who traded Allen Iverson for Andre Miller and Reggie Evans. The only significant move Stefanski has made is to sign Elton Brand. Yes, this move helps. But when you look at all the productive players that King acquired, it’s hard not to give King the lion-share of the credit for the Sixers expected success in 2008-09.
I sense, though, that King will not get this credit. Just as I suspect the Evans will continue to be overlooked for his contribution to his team success.
So to summarize… the sports media is correct when it says the Sixers will be quite good this year. The “why” part of the story, though, still seems just a bit off.
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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.