From 1980 to 1988 the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers won every title except one. The lone exception was the Philadelphia 76ers of 1983. In 1980 and 1982 the Sixers lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. In 1981 the team was eliminated by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite this history, at the onset of the 1983 playoffs, Moses Malone of the 76ers was so confident his team would win the title that he uttered the famous “Fo’-Fo’-Fo’” prediction.
The Sixers didn’t sweep everyone in 1983. But they did sweep the opening around against the New York Knicks and the Finals against the Lakers. Against the Bucks in the conference finals the Sixers lost one game, so the playoff results for Philadelphia were actually “Fo’-Fi’-Fo’”
This “Fo’-Fi’-Fo’” team was led in Wins Produced by Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, and Bobby Jones. The next season all of these players returned and all four were still above average. But the results were quite different. In 1984 Philadelphia was bounced from the playoffs in the first round. So what happened? How did a team that dominated the 1982-83 season fail so miserably just one year later with essentially the same cast of characters?
The Efficiency Differential Story
To answer this question, let’s look at what happened to the entire team first. In 1982 the Sixers lost to the LA Lakers in the NBA Finals. When we look at efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) this was a mild upset. The Lakers had a differential of 4.55 that season. The Sixers mark of 5.51 was second in the league (behind the Boston Celtics, the team Philadelphia upset in the Eastern Conference Finals).
In 1982-83, Philadelphia’s differential improved to 7.23, a mark that led the league. In the playoffs the Sixers faced the Knicks (2.44 differential), Bucks (4.24 differential), and the Lakers (5.18 differential). As Malone noted, the Sixers were favored to win the title, and that’s what happened.
In 1983-84, though, Philadelphia declined. The team’s differential was only 2.12, a mark that ranked 7th in the league. In the first round the Sixers faced the Nets, who had a differential of 1.03. So Philadelphia should have been a slight favorite in the first round. So the fact the Nets won was not that surprising (it was also just a five game series, making an upset even more likely to happen). And had Philadelphia managed to defeat the Nets in 1984, the Sixers would not have been favored in the second round. The other three second round teams – Celtics, Bucks, and Knicks – all boasted a better differential than the Sixers that season. In fact, the Celtics, Bucks, and Knicks posted the three best marks in the NBA in 1983-84.
When we look at efficiency differential, we see the Sixers got better from 1981-82 to 1982-83. But the team also declined in 1983-84. The playoff outcomes pretty much followed the rise and fall of the team. So if people had understood what happened to the quality of the team from season to season, the outcomes in the playoffs would not have been that surprising.
The Wins Produced Story
Understanding changes in the quality of this team, though, is just half the story. What we really want to know is why this team got better and why it declined. And to address that issue, we need to look at the individual players.
Let’s start with the team getting better. Table One reports the Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] for each player on the Sixers in both 1981-82 and 1982-83.
People suspected that the addition of Moses Malone was the difference maker between these two seasons, and Wins Produced confirms this story. It should be noted, though, that the loss of Caldwell Jones, Lionel Hollins, Steve Mix, and Darryl Dawkins hurt the Sixers. So although Malone’s 23.0 Wins Produced was a big boost, the loss of the aforementioned quartet cost Philadelphia about 13 wins. Hence the team didn’t improve as much as Malone’s production would suggest.
But the team did improve. And the improvement vaulted Philadelphia to the top of the league.
As noted, though, this only lasted for one season. Table Two offers some explanation for why “Fo’-Fi’-Fo’” didn’t linger.
When we look at the players lost and added we see that Philadelphia’s player transactions left the team slightly better from 1983 to 1984. Of course the team got worse, and having eliminated the additions and subtractions from the team as an explanation, we must look at the players who played both seasons.
Looking at the numbers, we see little change in the performance of Dr. J., Andrew Toney, or Bobby Jones. But when we look at Malone – the one who gave us “Fo’-Fo’-Fo’” — we see a fairly significant decline. Malone’s Wins Production fell from 23.o Wins Produced in 1982-83 to 14.6 Wins Produced in 1983-84. Part of this decline is due to changes in minutes played. But most of this is because Malone didn’t play as well.
When we look at Malone’s stats, we can see where he got worse.
Table Three reports what Malone did in 1981-82 – his last year in Houston – as well as what he did in both 1982-83 and 1983-84. In Malone’s first year in Philadelphia his shot attempts and shooting efficiency declined. But he improved with respect to rebounds, steals, and blocked shots. Consequently, his overall productivity improved.
His second season in Philadelphia, though, saw a drop-off in production. Again his shooting efficiency and shot attempts both declined. And Malone also declined with respect to rebounds, steals, blocked shots, and turnovers. As a result of all these numbers going down, the Sixers efficiency differential and wins also went down.
A few more notes on Malone and the Sixers…
- It’s important to remember that Malone was still above average and a very good player in 1983-84 (in fact, it was not until he played 149 minutes for the San Antonio Spurs in 1994-95 that Malone’s per minute production dipped below average). He finished the 1983-84 season ranked 10th in the league in Wins Produced. In 1982-83, though, he ranked third (behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird). In other words, Malone went from being an extremely good player to just a really good player. As a result, eight games of the Sixers drop in the standings can be attributed to Malone.
- Malone had a history of increasing his production when he joined a new team, and then declining in year two. He did this when we joined the Sixers in 1982, the Bullets in 1986, and the Hawks in 1988. Each time his production got better when he joined a new team and each time his production declined in the second year in his new location. Again, he was always very good. Just not as good once he got comfortable in a new home.
- Malone’s performance with respect to both shooting efficiency and rebounds were never as good after the 1982-83 season. After this season he never posted an adjusted field goal percentage above the 50% mark. And in subsequent seasons where he played at least 1,000 minutes, he never rebounded again at the rate we saw in 1982-83. In fact, after 1983-84 he never grabbed 17 rebounds per 48 minutes again (in seasons with at least 1,000 minutes played).
- It’s important to note that although Malone’s decline was the biggest on the team, he was not the only player to drop off from 1982-83 to 1983-84. Maurice Cheeks – who may have been the most productive point guard in the NBA not named Magic in the 1980s (a post on that subject would be a good idea) – also declined across these two seasons. Cheeks, though, returned to form in 1984-85 and continued at this level through the 1987-88 season (and was always above average until he retired).
- In addition to Cheeks, the team from 1982-83 to 1983-84 also saw small declines in the production of Clint Richardson, Clemon Johnson, and Marc Iavaroni. So again, Malone was not the whole story. It’s just that the author of “Fo’-Fo’-Fo’” was the biggest part of this team’s decline.
Let me close by repeating what I said earlier. Malone was very good in both 1982-83 to 1983-84. He led the Sixers in wins in each season and both times was ranked in the top ten in the league. Nevertheless, he still got worse. And his decline highlights the difference between the very top of the league (top two or three) and the next tier. When a player drops out of the very top tier he can still be a very good player. But this decline can cause a significant decline in team performance.
This story highlights one aspect of wins production in the NBA. Most wins are produced by a few players. And although players are quite consistent from season to season, a small decline in a major star’s production from year-to-year can cause significant changes in a team’s fortunes. We see this with the decline of “Fo’-Fi’-Fo’”. And in my next post (or one of my next posts), I will discuss this same phenomenon with a team from the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
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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.