The Story of the 2009-10 Season Might Just be Happening in Atlanta

Last season the Atlanta Hawks finished with the 4th best record in the Eastern Conference.  Such a mark gave this team home-court advantage in the first round.  After barely defeating the Miami Heat, the Hawks then were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round.

In the off-season the Hawks made very few changes.  Atlanta drafted guard Jeff Teague in the first round.   And then the Hawks acquired veterans Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith.  Last October I summarized these moves as follows: Hoping for a Plan in Atlanta.

Here is the essence of my argument.  The Hawks last year had a 1.70 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  Such a mark is consistent with a team that wins 45 games (the team actually won 47 games).  In the off-season the Hawks added three players who were not expected to produce many wins.  Consequently, the Hawks were really just hoping that their existing players would suddenly get much better.  Although I acknowledged improvement within was a possibility, I argued it would take a very dramatic change in the productivity of Atlanta’s players to close the gap between this team and the top contenders in the Eastern Conference.  In sum, the Hawks plan appeared to be “We hope these guys get a lot better”.  And as I noted last October, hope is not a plan.

Wrong and Right

Well, twelve games into the 2009-10 season and here is what we see from the Hawks.

Record: 10-2

Efficiency Differential: 8.46

Projected Record (given efficiency differential): 63-19

Wow, that’s quite a leap forward.  So I guess I was wrrrrrr……  I mean, I might have been wrrrrr…..  Okay, maybe there was a problem with what I said a few weeks ago.

To see where I was wrrrr….. (okay, I will stop doing that), let’s look at the players.

Here is what Hawks acquisitions have done thus far:

Jamal Crawford: 347 minutes, 0.044 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]

Joe Smith: 110 minutes, 0.082 WP48

Jeff Teague: 110 minutes, -0.044 WP48

Combined, these three players – if this level of productivity continues – can expect to produce 2.8 wins by the time the season is over.  So it looks like I was right about these guys.  The additions are not really helping.

Now let’s look at the players the Hawks returned.  Here is what the team’s top four producers of wins in 2008-09 are doing this year (after 12 games):

Al Horford: 0.201 WP48 [2008-09], 0.279 WP48 [2009-10]

Joe Johnson: 0.138 WP48 [2008-09], 0.172 WP48 [2009-10]

Mike Bibby: 0.136 WP48 [2008-09], 0.138 WP48 [2009-10]

Marvin Williams: 0.149 WP48 [2008-09], 0.058 WP48 [2009-10]

Yes, Horford and Johnson are doing more.  But M. Williams is doing less. If we project to the end of the season (again, assuming per-minute performance stays the same), this quartet will produce 37.4 wins.  Last season these four produced 32.2 wins.  Again, that is more wins.  But the size of the improvement we see in these players is not enough to explain what we are observing for the Hawks.  In sum, if we look at the team’s acquisitions and the top producers of wins in 2008-09, it looks like I was right (didn’t have trouble saying that, did I?).

Josh Smith as Superman

But then there is Josh Smith.  The Hawks selected Josh Smith with the 17th pick in the 2004 draft.  Across the next five seasons, he posted the following numbers:

12,533 minutes played

35.9 Wins Produced

0.138 WP48

Last season, Smith produced 5.9 wins and posted a 0.116 WP48.  Yes, Josh Smith was a bit above average.  But he was not one of the most productive players employed by Atlanta.  And what we have seen from Josh Smith had been remarkably consistent for five seasons (and more than 10,000 minutes of playing time).

Something, though, had happened to Josh Smith.  And if this continues, this could be THE STORY of the 2009-10 season.  Table One reports what Josh Smith had done across his career.

Table One: The Career of Josh Smith

Prior to this season, Josh Smith’s career numbers indicate that he was slightly below average with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, and turnovers.  He could, though, block shots, get steals, and get assists. So on average, he was a bit above average.  But he was hardly outstanding.

Thus far in 2009-10, though, Josh Smith is one of the most productive players in the entire NBA.  No, I don’t just mean on the Hawks.  If Josh Smith was this productive in 2008-09, only Chris Paul and LeBron James would have produced more wins.  That is how good Josh Smith is playing.

So what is he doing well?  Well, his shooting efficiency had increased dramatically.  But relative to last year, he is also getting more rebounds, blocked shots, steals, and assists.  And he has reduced his turnovers.  In sum, across the board Josh Smith is a much more productive player.

Converting all these numbers into wins we – if this production continues – Josh Smith will finish the 2009-10 season with 22.4 Wins Produced and a 0.387 WP48.  Again, only Chris Paul and LeBron James did more last season.

To put Josh Smith’s production in perspective, let’s imagine that all the players on the Hawks keep doing what they are doing in 2009-10, but Josh Smith only produces at the level we saw in 2008-09.  If that happens, the Hawks should expect to win 47.2 wins.  Yes, without this amazing leap in Josh Smith’s production, the Hawks would be essentially the same.

So it appears that the Hawks did have a plan.  The plan was for a five-year veteran who had never been much better than average to suddenly become one of the very best players in the game.  In essence, the Hawks were hoping that Josh Smith could suddenly offer the same production the Orlando Magic get from Dwight Howard [22.2 Wins Produced and 0.378 WP48 in 2008-09].

Now had I know about this “plan” (i.e. Josh Smith is now going to be as productive as Dwight Howard), I would have definitely agreed that the Hawks were going to get better.  But to be honest, I just didn’t see this coming.

And again, if this continues then this should be the story of the 2009-10 season.  A slightly above average NBA veteran has suddenly become another Superman.  I can’t remember seeing something like this happen in all the years of NBA data I have examined.  So what we are seeing from Josh Smith is truly something special.

- 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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