Contending on New Years Day

Last June I picked the Boston Celtics to defeat the LA Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals.  Even as that happened, though, I warned that the Lakers would probably win in 2009.  In fact, last October I argued the Lakers might be the team to beat beyond the 2008-09 season.

After 30 games the Lakers have been very good.  The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) currently stands at 9.90.  To put that number in perspective, here are the top five differentials since 1973-74.

  • Chicago Bulls (1995-96): 13.00
  • Chicago Bulls (1996-97): 11.61
  • Boston Celtics [2007-08]: 10.95
  • Chicago Bulls (1991-92): 10.64
  • Utah Jazz (1996-97): 9.39

In sum, the Lakers – as expected – have thus far been a dominant team.  And when we look at the individual players we can see who is responsible for this outcome.

Table One: The LA Lakers in 2008-09 after 30 games

From Table One we see that the Lakers have four players – Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza, and Andrew Bynum – who have posted WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] marks above the 0.200 level.  Remember, 0.100 mark is average, so each of these players are twice as good as an average player.  And this quartet would be a quintet if Lamar Odom was producing as he did last year.  Even with Odom’s decline (and the drop-off we see with respect to Bynum), the Lakers are still expected to win 67 games this season.  Unfortunately for the Lakers (but fortunately for the rest of the league), the Lakers are not alone on top of the league.

 Rondo Stops the Decline

Last year the Celtics won 66 games and took the title.  Boston’s only significant defection in the off-season was James Posey, who produced 5.1 wins last season [with a 0.136 WP48]. With most of the team’s top producers of wins returning, one might expect a repeat performance.  This, though, was not my expectation entering the season.  Here is what I said last August:

“…given the age of its players, we should expect many of the top Celtics to actually decline.  Consequently, just like we saw when Bird led Boston to titles in the 1980s, the Celtics are not likely to repeat as champions in 2009.”

Not sure what I meant by “many”, but Table Two indicates that both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce – two players who have surpassed 30 years in age – have indeed declined. 

Table Two: The Boston Celtics in 2008-09 after 33 games

If nothing else besides the productivity of KG and Pierce had changed, Boston would only be on pace to win 62 games in 2008-09.  In other words, Boston should have been passed by the Lakers.  After 33 games, though, Boston’s efficiency differential is 10.85, or nearly exactly what this team did last year (and this is after their less than successful recent trip to the West Coast). 

So how has Boston remained a dominant team? The answer is almost entirely Rajon Rondo.  While KG and Pierce are on pace to produce 8.1 fewer wins this year, Rondo is on pace to provide 8.2 additional victories.  Consequently, Rondo is now the most productive player on the Celtics.  Yes, Rondo is offering more than KG, Pierce, or Ray Allen. 

If we look at the individual stats, we see that Rondo – relative to last year – is a more efficient scoring, tallying more assists, and getting more steals.  As a result, his WP48 has risen from 0.219 (which is very good) to 0.371 (which is amazing). Despite this performance, Rondo is not even listed among those receiving All-Star votes in the Eastern Conference. 

Cleveland Completes the Trio

The play of Rondo has allowed Boston to keep pace (and currently slightly surpass) the Lakers.  Although these teams are each having historic seasons, neither tops the league in efficiency differential.  That spot is currently held by the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Cleveland’s mark of 12.86 rivals the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, and it’s the Cavaliers who currently have the best shot to surpass the seventy win mark (assuming current production levels remain unchanged).

Cleveland’s position at the top is certainly a surprise (at least to me). Last year Cleveland had a negative efficiency differential, so the improvement in this team has been astounding.  Unlike the Celtics in 2007, Cleveland has not improved by adding two future Hall-of-Fame players.  Cleveland’s only major addition last summer was Maurice Williams.  Last year Williams posted a 0.122 WP48 mark in Milwaukee.  This year his WP48 stands at 0.130.  Although both marks are somewhat above average, Williams is simply not offering enough production to transform an average NBA team into the league’s best. 

Such was the point I made last November.  As I noted, the key to Cleveland’s transformation has been the play of Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace, and Delonte West.  Last year these players only produced 8.4 wins.  This year – as Table Three indicates – this trio is on pace to produce nearly 30 victories.  Part of this leap is tied to the increase in minutes these players are getting.   And part of this is tied to the fact that Varejao and Wallace have essentially reverted to what we saw prior to last season. 

Table Three: The Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008-09 after 31 games

The addition of Varejao, Wallace, and West are enough to transform the Cavaliers from a 40 win team (what their efficiency differential suggests they were last year) into a 60 win team.  To get to 70 wins, we need to look primarily at the play of LeBron James.  King James is producing 5.4 more wins this year than his play last year suggests.  And if it weren’t for the play of Chris Paul (and I need to write a post on Paul and the Hornets), LeBron would be the leading candidate for Most Productive Player (M2P) in the league.  Fortunately for LeBron, the MVP award is not based on Wins Produced.  Consequently, LeBron should have a very good chance of winning his first MVP award in 2009.

Brief Comments on the Other Contenders

Entering this season I worried that 2008-09 season would be all about the Lakers.  The dramatic improvement in the play of Rajon Rondo, as well as the changes we have seen in Cleveland, have produced a three-way race for the title.

Unless we see a major injury, the NBA championship will likely be won by one of these three teams.  Although our focus will likely remain on Cleveland, Boston, and LA, one might also wonder about the other contenders (or should we say pretenders?).

Immediately after this trio, we have the Orlando Magic (who I discussed a few days ago). The Magic currently have an efficiency differential of 7.8.  This is an outstanding mark, but suggests Orlando is not quite good enough to surpass either Boston or Cleveland in the East.

Although Orlando is not likely to catch the top three teams (barring injury), the Magic should maintain the fourth spot in the league efficiency differential rankings.  The fifth best team in the NBA is currently Portland.  The Trail Blazers efficiency differential is only 4.4, a mark that is barely ahead of the next seven teams on the list (New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, Utah, San Antonio, Denver, and Dallas). 

One should note that this list omits the Detroit Pistons.  Last season the Pistons finished with an efficiency differential of 8.17, a differential that was only bested by Boston. Currently Detroit’s mark stands at 0.95.  Thirteen NBA teams are currently surpassing what Detroit is doing this year.  Even with increases in the production of wins by Amir Johnson [0.171 WP48] and Rodney Stuckey [0.155 WP48], Detroit has clearly fallen from the list of top contenders for the NBA title.  This is odd, since seven of the eight players leading the Pistons in minutes played this season were in Detroit last year.  The only exception is the addition of Allen Iverson, who currently ranks second among guards in voting for the Eastern Conference All-Star team. 

As I noted a few days ago (and a few days before that), it’s difficult to look at this data and reach any other conclusion.  Adding Iverson has simply not helped the Pistons.

Fortunately Iverson’s salary comes off the books this summer.  This means the Pistons have a chance to acquire a talent (or two) to complement Johnson and Stuckey.  So it’s possible the Pistons will return to the top of the NBA sooner (rather than later).  And this means that maybe next year, the top teams in the NBA will be a quartet (or is that just wishful thinking on New Years?)

- DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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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