If the NBA playoffs began today the Phoenix Suns would currently have the 4th seed – and home-court advantage in the first round — in the Western Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers – in the Eastern Conference – also hold the 4th seed. Why is this comparison important?
Last year the Cavaliers were the best team in the NBA (at least, in the regular season) and the Phoenix Suns missed the NBA playoffs. This past summer the Suns sent Shaquille O’Neal to the Cleveland Cavaliers. And after one-quarter of the 2009-10 season, it appears that Shaq’s departure has made the Suns better and caused the Cavaliers to decline.
Shaq’s impact on the Cavs was discussed last week (and it ain’t a pretty picture). Today we are going to examine the surprising Suns.
Are the Suns Rising?
The Suns have won 16 of their first 24 games. Such a record, though, is somewhat deceiving. When we turn to efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) we see a mark (after Saturday’s games) of 2.85. This mark ranks 7th in the West, just ahead of the Utah Jazz (2.70) and the Houston Rockets (2.15). So a focus on efficiency differential reveals that the Suns are not far from slipping into the 9th spot (and out of the playoffs).
A differential of 2.85 is consistent with a team that wins 48 games across an 82 game season. Last season the Suns posted a differential of 1.95, a mark consistent with a 46 win team (the number of wins the team had last season). So the Suns have not really improved much relative to last year.
Not much, though, is still something. And something has happened without Shaq. When we look at Wins Produced – reported in Table One — we can see where the improvement has come from.
Table One reports what each player has done for the Suns this season. It also reports each player’s expected production, given what the player did last year. A quick glance at the numbers reveals that the two players who have improved the most are Steve Nash and Channing Frye.
A different picture emerges, though, if we consider what Nash and Frye did two years ago. If Nash and Frye were repeating what they did in 2007-08, each player’s production would be as follows:
Steve Nash [2oo7-08 production]: 0.276 WP48, 15.7 Projected Wins
Channing Frye [2007-08 production]: 0.043 WP48, 2.3 Projected Wins
Team Wins Produced [with Nash and Frye from 2007-08]: 46.1
Again, the team is currently on pace to win 48 games. So the story in Phoenix is simply that Nash and Frye have reverted to what we saw in 2007-08.
It’s important to emphasize. Frye from two years ago was still below average (and a bit better than what we are seeing this year). He just wasn’t as bad as he was in 2008-09.
When we look at the leader in Wins Produced, we don’t see Channing Frye. And we don’t see fellow big man Amare Stoudemire until we get past Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, and Jared Dudley. Yet it’s Stoudemire — with the help of David Spade – who is campaigning to start the 2010 All-Star game.
Once upon a time it made sense for Stoudemire to think about the All-Star game. In 2004-05, Stoudemire produced 12.9 wins with a 0.214 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]. After missing much of 2005-06 with injury, Stoudemire came back to produced 12. 1 wins in 2005-06 [with a 0.217 WP48]. And then in 2007-08, he posted a 0.251 WP48 and produced 14.0 wins.
Last year, though, Stoudemire’s WP48 dropped off considerably. Many people blamed the addition of Shaq or perhaps a change in the team’s offensive philosophy. This year, though, Shaq is in Cleveland. And the team’s offense is supposed to be a return to what we saw before Terry Porter became coach. Despite these changes, though, Amare’s production is hardly at an All-Star level. So what’s happened?
Table Two reports the box score statistics for Amare. Relative to what we saw prior to last year, Amare is offering fewer rebounds and blocked shots. These changes, though, don’t explain the entire gap. Another issue is the number of shots Amare is taking. More specifically, Amare is simply taking fewer shots than he did in the past. And because he’s an efficient scorer, this reduction in shot attempts is reducing his overall production.
Unfortunately for Stoudemire, both Nash (59.6% adjusted field goal percentage) and Richardson (56.8% adjusted field goal percentage) are currently more efficient scorers. So it’s not clear that giving more shots to Stoudemire (55.8% adjusted field goal percentage) is such a good idea. Still, it does appear Stoudemire’s drop off in shot attempts – coupled with a decline in rebounds and blocked shots – explains why Stoudemire is no longer that productive.
So here’s what we’ve learned. In spite of their impressive record, Phoenix is not dramatically improved over what we saw last year. What improvement we have seen can be linked to Nash and Frye reverting to form. And Stoudemire – who really wants to be an All-Star – is simply not as productive as he was in the past.
Can any of this be linked to the departure of Shaq? I really don’t think so. Although Shaq bears some responsibility for what’s happened in Cleveland, the small improvement we see in Phoenix – and it is rather small – is really not about Shaq departing.
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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.