Thank goodness to Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) of Hickory High for keeping up awesome NBA news in the lockout. Recently ESPN had a gammut of sports writers rank all of the players in the league. A key part of this though was that each player had to be given a rating too. While we can question some rankings (New York is supposed to have two top 15 talents and they could only get 42 wins?) Ian noticed something much more key.
Table 1: Breakdown of NBA players by ESPN vote averages (image from Hickory High)
Now if we look at the number of players ranked highly. Only 22 players got a ranking of 8.0 or higher! What this means is that writers know only a select group of players are actually elite. Ian made the observation that if we looked at the spread of statistical measures we’d see a similar trend and guess what? He was right!
Table 2: 2011 Player Breakdown by Wins Produced adjusted to a 1-10 score scale.
There’s a small distinction between the stats and the votes. Both agree that the number of great players is few. The thing though is that the middle of the league is actually more similar than the voters thought. While the voters had a linear trend we seen once we hit the mid 100s that almost all of our players fall between a rating of 2 and 4. Dave Berri actually made this point on a recent podcast. The difference between the top player (LeBron James according to ESPN, Kevin Love according to Wins Produced) and the 30th (Andrew Bynum according to ESPN, Andre Miller according to Wins Produced) is huge! On the other hand the difference between the 100th best player (Wesley Matthews according to ESPN, Grant Hill according to Wins Produced) and the 300th best player (Ekpe Udoh according to ESPN and Leandro Barboso according to Wins Produced) is simple not as much of a hit.
So the voters slightly overrate the “role players” but pretty accurately peg the impact of the stars. We can argue if it should be Pau Gasol instead of Kobe Bryant in the top 10 but the point is actually the same. There’s a short supply of tall people. These players are much better than the other players in the league. Having one of these players means a shot at the title and not having one means you miss out. Sure some of the ESPN writers may talk about how a hard cap or rules may change parity. The truth though is when we ask them to describe the league they describe a league consistent with what we know to be true — that it’s simply not possible for every team to compete because every team can’t get a LeBron and no change to the salary structure or rules will change that.