One of the interesting aspects (at least, interesting to me) of basketball performance is the consistency we see across time. Relative to what we see in baseball and football, year-to-year performance in basketball is simply more stable.
Although consistency is the general trend, exceptions do happen. Players can decline because of age (when they are old) and injury. They can also get better because of age (when they are young) and when they recover from injury. And changes can occur for other reasons as well (although the “other” reasons seem less systematic).
The players who get “better” are generally thought of as candidates for “Most Improved”. But how do we define “better?” Not surprising, the focus here will be on Wins Produced. Specifically, we are going to look at each player who played 1,000 minutes in 2008-09 and 500 minutes across the first 41 games of 2009-10. And then we are going compare how many wins the player produced in 2009-10 to how many wins we could have expected given the player’s per-minute performance in 2008-09.
Given this approach, the fifteen most improved players are as follows (number of additional wins after 41 games reported):
- Corey Maggette: 4.8
- Josh Smith: 4.4
- Chris Bosh: 3.8
- Marc Gasol: 3.2
- Baron Davis: 3.1
- Gerald Wallace: 3.0
- Ben Wallace: 3.0
- Zach Randolph: 2.9
- Steve Nash: 2.4
- Kevin Love: 2.4
- Jermaine O’Neal: 2.3
- Raymond Felton: 2.3
- Carlos Boozer: 2.3
- Kevin Durant: 2.2
- Louis Williams: 2.0
Two quick thoughts on this list:
- Maggette’s leap is primarily tied to an increase in shooting efficiency. He is getting a few more rebounds and assists, but for the first time in his career his adjusted field goal percentage is above 50%. Last year he posted a mark of 47.9%. This year, though, his mark was 55.5% after 41 games.
- The Josh Smith story has been noted before (see HERE and HERE). If Josh Smith maintained what he did last season – and every other Atlanta player continued doing what they are doing this year – the Hawks would only be on pace to win 47 games this season (last year the Hawks won 47 games). So the improvement we see in Smith’s production is really driving the story we see in Atlanta in 2009-10. Interestingly enough, Smith’s shooting efficiency hasn’t changed much (50.8% adjusted field goal percentage last year, 51.2% adjusted field goal percentage after 41 games this year). No, Smith has improved with respect to offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots, and free throws. In essence, Smith has gotten better across the board. And now the Hawks are serious contenders in the East.
Certainly other stories can be told (and I look forward to seeing these in the comments). I want to close, though, by observing how little change we are seeing. Zach Randolph is eighth on the list. But his dramatic improvement is only worth 2.9 wins across 41 games, or less than six additional victories across an entire season. Obviously if he is 8th most improved, the vast majority of players are not making this much progress from what we saw last year.
Consequently, what we see in Atlanta is all the more impressive. In general, players do not make huge leaps from season-to-season. And therefore – again, in general – teams cannot expect to return the same cast of players and get very different results.
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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.