Back in 2004-05, the Atlanta Hawks won 13 games with a -10.2 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency). Looking at the ten players who led this team in minutes played, we can see why Atlanta failed so miserably (WP48 = Wins Produced per 48 minutes).
Al Harrington: 2,550 min., -0.1 Wins Produced, -0.003 WP48
Josh Childress: 2,376 min., 10.8 Wins Produced, 0.218 WP48
Antoine Walker: 2,128 min., -0.1 Wins Produced, -0.002 WP48
Josh Smith: 2,050 min., 8.1 Wins Produced, 0.189 WP48
Tyronn Lue: 1,528 min., 2.4 Wins Produced, 0.076 WP48
Pedrag Drobnjak: 1,435 min., -2.7 Wins Produced, -0.091 WP48
Tony Delk: 1,340 min., 0.3 Wins Produced, 0.012 WP48
Boris Diaw: 1,201 min., 1.1 Wins Produced, 0.044 WP48
Jason Collier: 942 min., -3.1 Wins Produced, -0.158 WP48
Royal Ivey: 809 min., -0.7 Wins Produced, -0.039 WP48
The Wins Produced of this collection sums to 16.0, telling us that this team failed because the players it employed were generally (although not always) unproductive.
Over the next three seasons the Hawks improved, winning 26, 30, and then 37 games. Last season the Hawks took another step forward and won 47 games, advancing to the second round of the NBA playoffs.
When we look at the players who led the Hawks in minutes played we can see who is responsible for this outcome.
Joe Johnson: 3,124 min., 8.6 Wins Produced, 0.131 WP48
Mike Bibby: 2,740 min., 7.8 Wins Produced, 0.136 WP48
Josh Smith: 2,421 min., 5.9 Wins Produced, 0.116 WP48
Al Horford: 2,242 min., 9.4 Wins Produced, 0.201 WP48
Marvin Williams: 2,093 min., 6.5 Wins Produced, 0.149 WP48
Ronald Murray: 1,975 min., 1.4 Wins Produced, 0.035 WP48
Maurice Evans: 1,840 min., 2.1 Wins Produced, 0.055 WP48
Zaza Pachulia: 1,473 min., 2.7 Wins Produced, 0.088 WP48
Solomon Jones: 675 min., -0.2 Wins Produced, -0.012 WP48
Acie Law: 560 min., 0.5 Wins Produced, 0.040 WP48
If we look over these two lists we note that only Josh Smith appears both times. This suggests that the Hawks improved because different players got to call themselves Hawks.
Now the Hawks wish to take the next step. Steve Aschburner of Sports Illustrated, though, tells us — in Can Hawks evolve into contender? — the plan is now changing.
The Hawks, for the most part, have had a “stay-cation” summer. With Rick Sund passing his one-year anniversary as GM this offseason, Atlanta diligently has kept intact the nucleus assembled by predecessor Billy Knight. …”Yeah, I like our club,” Sund told the AJC. “The only reason I say that is there’s still growth from within.”
The Hawks have not entirely stood pat. The team traded Acie Law and Speedy Claxton to the Golden State Warriors for Jamal Crawford. On draft night the Hawks chose point guard Jeff Teague. And in the past few days the Hawks signed Joe Smith.
Judging by what he did last year in college, Teague is not expected to be a major producer of wins next season. The following numbers from 2008-09 suggest the same story can be told about Crawford and Smith.
Jamal Crawford: 2,479 min., 1.2 Wins Produced, 0.023 WP48
Joe Smith: 1,102 min., 1.2 Wins Produced, 0.051 WP48
Given the quality of players added, it does look like the Hawks are simply expecting the players currently on the roster to get better. Now this is possible. Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Al Horford are still in their early twenties. Improvement at that age does happen.
But we should be realistic about how much improvement is likely. Basketball players – relative to what we see in baseball and football – are very consistent over time. So although there is a standard age profile in basketball (players first improve and then decline), the slopes up and down are gradual. Consequently, a dramatic change in player productivity is not something one should count upon.
Let’s imagine, though, that a dramatic change did happen. Specifically, what if Williams, Smith, and Horford all boosted their WP48 by 50% (a fantastic percentage I just made up)? These three players produced 21.7 wins last year. Therefore, a 50% jump would result in 10.9 additional wins. Such a leap moves the Hawks from a 45 win team (that is what their efficiency differential said they should have won in 2008-09) to a 56 win team. Had this happened last season, the Hawks would have moved from the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference all the way to…. okay, the 4th seed. Yes, the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Magic all won more than 56 games last year. And these teams have all made moves this summer that will likely increase their win totals in 2009-10.
So a 50% improvement in the three young players the Hawks are counting on to evolve (as Aschburner put it) would not be enough to overtake the top teams in the East. And even if that improvement happened, the Hawks are still likely to lose production from players like Mike Bibby, who are on the wrong side of the age profile.
If we put it all together, the Hawks plan to contend in the East appears flawed. Improvement from within is probably not going to close the gap between Atlanta and the top teams in the East. This team might as well hope the Cavaliers, Magic, and Celtics suffer major injuries. Certainly if such a hope was realized, the Hawks could also rise to the top.
As the saying goes, though, hope is not a plan. And at this point, it doesn’t look like Atlanta really has much of a plan. This is a team that has risen from the ashes because it acquired more productive players. To move on, more roster changes are needed.
It’s possible fans of this team might disagree. Two years ago Boston Celtics needed seven games to eliminate the Hawks in the playoffs. This year, injuries to the Hawks appeared to derail their post-season run. Despite such evidence, we must remember that the 82 game regular season is the better measure of a team’s quality. In 2009-10 the Hawks finished with a win total in the mid 40s. To seriously contend in the East, the team needs at least 15 more wins. Improvement from existing players should simply not be expected to close this gap. Yes, one can hope. But again, that’s not really a plan.
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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.