How the Warriors Stumbled Instead

Jeremy Britton, an SF Bay Area interaction designer at ZURB, fell in love with NBA basketball as a kid while watching Eric “Sleepy” Floyd drop 28 fourth quarter points on the Lakers in front of a bank of TVs at a Bay Area Price Club with dozens of Warrior faithful. The Warriors took that thrilling game, but dropped the series 4-1. From Don Nelson (part 1), to Run TMC, Chris Webber, Latrell Sprewell attacking PJ Carlesimo with a 2×4, and their amazing “We Believe” run three years ago, Jeremy has inexplicably remained a part of the Warrior faithful but rarely been rewarded.

I wrote Warriors Stumble On 50 Wins? before the season started, confidently stating this year’s edition was within striking distance of 50 wins (OK, I was even more rosy with my prediction). The naysayers came out of the woodwork, quieted down briefly during the Warriors’ 6-2 start, and now are back in full force. Today the Warriors have a losing 22-28 record and dim playoff hopes. So I’m like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin.

To put it lightly, I’m taking some heat for that little prediction. From my perspective this Warrior season really sucks; not because it didn’t turn out as I wanted–it rarely does–but for at least three distinct, more painful reasons:

  • Low expectations appear justified (‘the Warriors are just losers’)
  • The losing appears to validate prior assumptions, especially for David Lee’s naysayers
  • It seems to create a red herring suggesting Wins Produced doesn’t work

This blog, sports economics in general, and behavioral economics at large, have established that savvy data analysis can tell us things our lying eyes can’t. Some people just refuse to believe these crazy insights because it runs contrary to the conventional wisdom they’re comfortable with. Often they don’t understand the analysis either.

Baseball management famously showed how judicious use of savvy data analysis can be exploited for tremendous advantage–most notably Billy Beane in Oakland. We have yet to see that applied in practice to professional basketball. Managers and fans prefer to bury their heads in the sand and rely on widely shared truisms (which by its nature cannot be exploited for advantage because everybody believes it).

Before we look at this year’s Warriors I want to reiterate two vital insights Wins Produced teaches us:

  • Basketball is a game of possessions (just like baseball is a game of outs), yet people consistently ignore this. Players help you win games note just by scoring points, but by gaining possessions and not losing them.
  • Individual scoring totals are vastly overrated. It matters how a player scores their points (i.e. how efficiently they use each possession to do so). This is an easy mistake to make because after all, how do teams win games? By scoring the most points. However, this is not true for individual player contributions.

With that rant behind me, let’s see what the data can tell us about this year’s Warrior team. I’m going to keep this simple by comparing what these players did last year–which is a terrific predictor for what they should do this year–against what they’ve actually done this year.

Cool, we see based on last year the Warriors should have about 30.2 wins, which would project out to about 49.5 wins on the season. Not quite 50, but very close. We even see three players doing better than last year–Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and Vladimir Radmanovic–to the tune of 5.0 additional wins. That’s awesome.

So what went wrong? It’s clear this squad is only producing 20.3 wins (their actual total is 22 wins). A few disasters that explain this are obvious from the list:

  • David Lee is playing the worst basketball of his pro career (5.2 fewer wins). His shooting percentage and defensive rebounding are at career lows. According to Hoopdata.com he is taking far fewer shots at the rim and his jump-shot has fallen apart. Why? Likely injury. Lee suffered a freak accident in New York getting Wilson Chandler’s tooth lodged in his elbow. He was hospitalized for days and continues to wear a large bandage.
  • Dorell Wright is also having the worst season of his pro career (2.5 fewer wins). After signing a $12 million contract proclaiming the Warriors would be “a great situation for me to showcase my talent and show everybody what else I bring to the table other than being a spot-up shooter and defender,” Wright has wobbled. He’s continued to improve his three-point shooting, but his mid-range shooting has been terrible (44 of 162 from ten to 23 feet), his rebounding is at a career low, and his turnover rate ties a career high.  
  • Reggie Williams hasn’t matched flashes we saw late last season (2.0 fewer wins). We only got 779 minutes of Williams in 2009-10, but his play was exciting and very productive for a rookie (.182 WP48 or Wins Produced per 48 minutes). His shooting is different–fewer shots at the rim, more threes–but the difference is a wash. It’s Williams lack of hustle on defense (half the steals) and rebounding (only 76% the defensive boards) that have knocked him down a couple of pegs to a below average producer.

Of the 9.9 expected wins that we have yet to see, 9.8 can be traced to the play of Lee, Wright, and Williams. 

Does the Warriors’ losing prove David Lee really wasn’t any good? Not at all. We haven’t even seen the real David Lee (except for flashes during the first eight games before he got hurt). As his elbow heals we should expect to see his shooting and rebounding bounce back.

Dorell Wright is scoring more points in total–no more than we should’ve expected when doubling his minutes on the floor–but is doing so less efficiently. Fans of Wright would point out what a great three point shooter he’s become–which is true–but overlook his less disciplined poor shooting inside the arc (27% on jumpers outside the key).

Reggie Williams may not have been that good after all (remember, his entire NBA career consisted of fewer than 1,000 minutes before this season), or he just needs coaching to remind him to hustle on defense and on the glass while attacking the rim for high percentage shots. He’s a wild card we’ll have to wait and see about.

 

All in all, the injury to Lee has been the biggest culprit holding the Warriors back this season, with undisciplined play by Wright and Williams adding insult to that injury. As Lee gets healthy, we should expect a late season surge reminiscent of a 50-win team (okay, how about a 40-win team?), but it may be too late to secure a playoff spot this year.

- Jeremy Britton

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