When Malcolm Gladwell reviewed The Wages of Wins in the New Yorker, he highlighted one particular story in our book. Allen Iverson – a player considered by many to be one of the greatest players to ever play the game – does not actually produce many wins. At least, not as many wins as you would expect from one of the “greatest”.
This is much of the last paragraph to Gladwell’s review:
It’s hard not to wonder, after reading “The Wages of Wins,” about the other instances in which we defer to the evaluations of experts. Boards of directors vote to pay C.E.O.s tens of millions of dollars, ostensibly because they believe-on the basis of what they have learned over the years by watching other C.E.O.s-that they are worth it. But so what? We see Allen Iverson, over and over again, charge toward the basket, twisting and turning and writhing through a thicket of arms and legs of much taller and heavier men-and all we learn is to appreciate twisting and turning and writhing. We become dance critics, blind to Iverson’s dismal shooting percentage and his excessive turnovers, blind to the reality that the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off without him.
As Gladwell noted, “the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off without him”. It’s important to remember that Gladwell wrote these words before we got to see Philadelphia without Iverson. And it’s important to note that what he said turned out to be true. Philadelphia – as the following posts indicate (and these three are just a sample of the Iverson coverage in this forum) – got better once Iverson departed.
The Answer Comes to Detroit
Two years ago Iverson was traded by Philadelphia to Denver. Some people – following the logic that Iverson is one of the greatest players to ever play the game — expected Iverson to transform the Denver Nuggets into a title contender.
The numbers suggested otherwise. Adding Iverson to the Nuggets was not going to be enough for Denver to close the gap with the very top teams in the West. The inability of this team to contend – when many people thought it would happen – got these people thinking that George Karl should be fired. After all, with such a “great player” it was hard for fans of Denver to understand how the Nuggets couldn’t win a playoff series. Hence, many people blamed the coach (see Fire George Karl?).
Rather than fire the coach, though, Denver has decided to end the Iverson experiment. This week the Nuggets sent Iverson to the Detroit Pistons for Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess, and Cheik Samb.
As Jerry Seinfeld notes, in the end all sports fans are simply rooting for clothes. We are fans of the athletes who wear the uniform of our team. We are less excited about players wearing different clothes. Consequently, as a fan of the Pistons (as frequently noted, I was born in Detroit), this trade means I am now a fan of Allen Iverson.
Now that I am a fan of Iverson, let me tell you why he’s so great. Iverson is very good at getting to the free throw line, he’s good at getting steals, and he avoids personal fouls. All of these are positives. If we look at Wins Produced, we see that across the last four seasons Iverson has produced 31.9 wins. His WP48 across these four seasons is 0.123, which is above average (average is 0.100). So clearly he helps and that’s why he is one of my favorite players.
Of course if I look at this objective (i.e. not as a fan), I would note that Iverson is simply not as productive as Billups. A few weeks ago I argued that Billups was more productive than Isiah Thomas. In that discussion I posted the following table comparing Billups, Thomas, and Iverson.
The career numbers of each player indicates that both Thomas and Billups produced more than Iverson (and Billups offered more than Thomas).
If we look at Wins Produced -again, focusing on just the last four years – Billups produced 58.0 wins with a 0.257 WP48. Yes, Billups was the most productive player in Detroit. And no, Iverson is not going to make up for the loss of Mr. Big Shot.
My sense is that Joe Dumars – the general manager in Detroit – knows that moving from Billups to Iverson is not a step in the right direction. The chance of this team winning a title in 2009 has declined. But, given the strength of the Celtics and Lakers, the odds were already against a title in Detroit this season.
So if this trade doesn’t help the Pistons win a title in 2009, why did Dumars pull the trigger? It appears – and several commentators have made this observation – that the key is Iverson’s expiring contract. At the end of this season, Iverson’s nearly $22 million salary comes off the books. With Rasheed Wallace’s contract also expiring, the Pistons only have $33 million in contracts on the books for 2009-10. And for the summer of 2010, the Pistons only have $11 million in contracts (this does not count the extension Richard Hamilton just signed). This means that after this season the Pistons can be very aggressive in the free agent market.
All of this tells us that for the Pistons, “the Answer” is not on the court, but on the books. In other words, one of the “greatest” players to ever play the game has just been acquired because he had an attractive contract. He was not acquired because Iverson is really all that great (and I say that as one of his biggest fans).
This Year in Detroit and Denver
The problem with acquiring an expiring contract, though, is that expiring contracts don’t win games this year. Given that Iverson offers less than Billups, how many games is this going to cost Detroit? If Iverson had played the same minutes as Billups last year – and his productivity stayed the same — he would have produced 7.0 wins. Billups produced 16.0 wins last year, so the difference is about nine victories.
The Pistons, though, are giving more minutes to Amir Johnson. And it’s possible that Rodney Stuckey will improve. So maybe the drop off for Detroit won’t be nine wins. In other words, Detroit’s victory total could still eclipse 50 wins this season. This total is still far short of what we should see from Boston. But it might be good enough to get home court advantage in the first round in the Eastern Conference.
What about the Nuggets? Denver gave Marcus Camby away in the off-season. So it looked like Denver was taking a step-back in 2008-09. And with Iverson coming off the books, it looked like Denver would think about re-building next summer.
Now the Nuggets have added Billups, which is an upgrade. In fact, I think it’s now possible that Denver could reach 50 wins this year. This means that the loss of Camby, coupled with this trade, might leave the Nuggets right where they were at the end of last season. Unfortunately, where they ended didn’t make their fans happy. Making the playoffs and losing in the first round probably gets Karl fired. If there is a silver lining — I think that with Billups — Denver might at least win a couple of playoff games.
Denver’s position with respect to the salary cap, though, has worsened. So it’s flexibility in 2009 is weakened and building a true title contender in Denver may be a bit harder. In sum, I am not really sure what Denver is trying to accomplish.
I should note that Matthew Yglesias – in the midst of a very historic day (yes, there is something a bit more important than this trade going on) – took the time to comment on this trade. And he briefly made the same points that I made (less briefly). Let me close with the comments from Yglesias.
When I first heard that the Pistons had traded for Allen Iverson, I thought Joe Dumars had lost his mind. Give up your best player (and a useful rotation guy) in exchange for a more famous, but worse, player who plays the same position and is of about the same age? Crazy. But of course Dumars isn’t crazy so it became clear that he wasn’t trading for Iverson at all, he’s trading for . . . Allen Iverson’s expiring contract. That shifts this out of “crazy” and into “gutsy.” Pistons fans have been disappointed with the team’s performance over the past couple of seasons, but the fact remains that they’ve been much better than most NBA teams. I might well have thought that leaving well enough alone was a reasonable policy. But instead he’s looking to rebuild. Gutsy. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, Denver’s decision-making makes no sense. The Camby trade was a clear move to cut costs and rebuild. But this is a “win now” move. A team of Billups, JR Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby with Antonio McDyess, Nene, and Anthony Carter coming off the bench would be a very good team. Probably still not better than the Lakers or the Jazz, but very good. What they’ve got now is just “eh.”
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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.