Are There No “Stars” for Team USA?

Patrick Minton was born and raised in Minnesota.  After graduating with a degree in Psychology, he travelled abroad in Germany.  In Germany he did a number of odd jobs to pay the bills, including coaching basketball at all levels.  He says he has always been a numbers freak, going so far as to enlist friends to score-keep the games he coached, keep shot charts, track turnovers, rebounds and assists.  In his late twenties, he finally turned one of his hobbies into a ‘career’ and became a software engineer at Amazon, where he worked for quite a while before taking a gig at Microsoft.  In 2007, he did an MBA at the University of Washington and discovered a love for economics.  Scouring the internet for economics blogs, he came across the Wages of Wins Journal.  He says he always had a coaching philosophy similar to the tenets of the WoW story (scoring totals don’t matter much, rebounds and turnovers are really important, etc), but this was the first time he had seen someone quantify this philosophy.

Wednesday on Truehoop.com, Henry Abbott posted an interesting article called Team USA: The Undeserving Favorites.  The central crux of the article appears to be that since there are not many superstars on Team USA, the team should not be so heavily favored to win.

From the article:

The players still in the mix for the national team include Kevin Durant, who is a virtual lock to be the team’s high scorer. Others in the mix include Chauncey Billups, Rajon Rondo, Brook Lopez, Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Gerald Wallace and Russell Westbrook.

The article goes on to mention that LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony won’t be with the team, and further says:

M. Haubs of the Painted Area finds that shocking, and actually thinks the U.S. should be considered underdogs to Spain. In a quick analysis of past U.S. rosters, he finds U.S. teams with as few superstars as this one have almost never won international tournaments.

One wonders, of course, how Mr. Haubs defined “superstars”, so I visited the article.  It appears that Mr. Haubs defined “superstar” by counting the inclusions to NBA 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd- All-NBA teams, as well as All-Star appearances. Those familiar with Wins Produced, though, are aware that factors that are not particularly well correlated with winning (such as the beloved points-per-game metric) tend to far outweigh other factors (such as rebounding, shooting efficiency, and not turning the ball over) in determining the inclusion into the traditional All-Star ranks.

What does Wins Produced say about Team USA?  Let’s assume that all of the above players make the list.  Here are those players’ wins-produced per-48 minutes stats in the NBA 2009-2010 regular season:

When using the Wins Produced metric, it’s common to define a player with a WP48 of .200 or higher as a “star” player (average WP48 is .100, and a team full of such players would be expected to win 41 games); and .300 or higher is commonly used as the bar for “superstars” (a .300 player produces 3 times as many wins as an average player per 48 minutes).

According to Wins Produced, the above list of Team USA players does appear a bit short on superstars, with only two Kevin Love and Gerald Wallace (and interestingly enough, these are likely not the players Mr. Haubs would categorize as this team’s “superstars”), although Rajon Rondo and Kevin Durant (the more likely candidate for Mr. Haubs attention as a superstar) both come close.

I’ve expounded on the virtues of Kevin Love before:  he’s the NBA’s (and therefore, arguably, the world’s) best rebounder, is an above-average passer, gets to the free-throw line relatively often (and shoots well when he gets there) and commits fewer fouls than most power-forwards.  Wallace had an equally amazing season last year.  His 11.7 rebounds per-48 minutes was nothing short of spectacular for a small forward (it’s what power forwards average), he was an effective shot-blocker, was above average in steals and personal fouls, and he shot very efficiently from the field.

The virtues of Rajon Rondo as a hyper-efficient passer, rebounder, and general net-possession-generating machine are well-known (but under-appreciated) and Kevin Durant’s virtues are perhaps best known of all these players (but few appreciate his excellent rebounding or the fact that he still turns the ball over a bit too much, and concentrate rather on his prolific scoring).

Clearly, the loss of players of the caliber of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul are not easily offset.  But should this team truly be considered “undeserving” of a favorite?   Clearly a team whose “average” player has a WP48 of .200 should be expected to win every game (5 such players on the court would produce 1.0 win per 48 minutes).  How can such a team not be the deserving favorite?  Mr. Haubs argues that Spain should be the clear favorite. Spain, though, will not have the services of Pau Gasol (a “superstar” who posted a 0.310 WP48 last season).  They will have March Gasol [WP48 of .178], Rudy Fernandez [WP48 of 0.131], and Jose Calderon [WP48 of 0.145].  The remainder of the roster, though, was not in the NBA last year and it is hard to believe that a roster of non-NBA players would average the level of win production we see from the NBA players currently on Team USA.

Let us also not forget that this post does not even consider Carlos Boozer (.293 WP48), Tyson Chandler (.246 WP48 in his last healthy season), or Lamar Odom (.249 WP48), all players that are associated with this team and verge on “superstardom”.

To be fair, though, it also doesn’t consider some below-average players that Team USA’s coaching staff is likely to overvalue, such as Rudy Gay (.050), O.J. Mayo (.065), LaMarcus Aldridge (.077), Eric Gordon (.027), and Jeff Green (.022).  All of these players are in Las Vegas as well.  And if many of those players make the roster and receive significant playing time, then Team USA will indeed be more likely to disappoint.  But that won’t be because Team USA didn’t have “stars” to employ. It is because the “stars” that could have played were left on the bench.

– Patrick Minton

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