A Familiar Story Plays Out in Los Angeles

Patrick Minton usually writes on his blog over at The NBA Geek.  Today he brings us a familiar story about how NBA Decision makers think.

Last week, the Los Angeles Lakers attempted to trade Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol for Chris Paul (a third team was involved, but this was the trade from the Laker’s viewpoint).  Since that trade was vetoed, the  ”other” Los Angeles team has reportedly been trying to acquire Chris Paul. The trade has (again, reportedly) reached an impasse because the Clippers are willing to part with only two of the following three pieces/players: Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe and/or Minnesota’s first round pick.

In these two stories, we’re seeing the classic story play out.  It’s a story we repeat on the Wages of Wins a lot:

  • Decision makers consistently undervalue efficient scoring and net possessions (i.e. rebounding and “not turning the ball over”)
  • Decision makers overvalue scoring totals
  • Decision makers overvalue draft picks
  • Decision makers tend to ignore the short supply of tall people (or perhaps they just wish it didn’t exist, so they pretend it’s not a problem)

The last point is particularly important.  One generally has to be about 6’8″ or taller to be able to play power forward or center in the NBA.  What most people don’t seem to be aware of is how exceedingly rare this is.  The average American male is about 5’10″.  A person 6’8″ tall is somewhere between 3 and 4 standard deviations from the mean.  What this means is that there are probably less than 100,000 6’8″ men in the entire US, and with each inch this decreases exponentially; there are probably only about 3-4,000 American men that are at least 6’10″, and fewer than 50 are 7’0″ or taller (statistics quoted here).  And I don’t need to explain that only a tiny fraction of those men have the athletic skill necessary to play basketball at all, and an even tinier fraction will have enough skill to play professional ball.  There is a reason that NBA scouts love to say that “You can’t teach a guy how to be tall.”

The upshot of this is that finding a 6’4″ player that shoots the ball very efficiently and doesn’t turn the ball over may not be easy, but it is vastly more difficult to find a 6’10″ person that fits that description, and finding a 7’0″ player that skilled is (statistically speaking) a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Dre brought this up last weak, but these numbers demonstrate that trading both Odom and Gasol for Chris Paul was probably not a “fair deal” for the Lakers (and yes, this means that Dan Gilbert’s whine about the unfairness of it all is unintentionally ironic).

The reverse of this, of course, is that the Clippers are being highly irrational by balking at trading two guards and a draft pick for Chris Paul.  There are three reasons that this confuses me.  First, neither player is tall.  There are plenty of wing players on the free agency market (or available for trade) every year.  It makes no sense to treat either player as a precious commodity.  Second, Eric Gordon is probably going to get paid a lot of money soon.  And that leads me to my third point:  neither player is a particularly good player.

The following table shows the production of Eric Gordon and Eric Bledsoe, along with the average players at their position in 2010-11 (note, all stats are per 48 minutes, and are from the comparison engine at my site The NBA Geek, with the exception of WP48, which I took from the Wins Produced 2011 section of this blog, because my site hasn’t updated the formula yet, but you can read up on it here!):

WP48 PTS REB AST TO BLK STL PF
Bledsoe .006 14.2 5.8 7.5 5.1 0.7 2.4 3.4
Average PG .100 19.8 4.6 8.6 3.5 0.2 1.6 3.3
Gordon .110 28.3 3.7 5.5 3.4 0.4 1.6 2.6
Average SG .100 21.1 5.1 4.0 2.3 0.4 1.5 3.2
FG% 2FG% 3FG% FT% eFG% TS% FTA
Bledsoe 42.4% 47.0% 27.6% 74.4% 45.7% 49.9% 3.5
Average PG 43.2% 47.7% 35.6% 82.5% 47.8% 53.2% 4.8
Gordon 45.0% 48.8% 36.4% 82.5% 50.6% 56.6% 7.9
Average SG 44.0% 48.2% 36.3% 80.1% 49.4% 54.5% 4.6

As we can see, Gordon was above average in assists, personal fouls, getting to the line (which is a consequence of the fact that he shoots a lot), and scoring points (and again, this was not because of his efficiency, which was average, but because he shoots a lot).  He was below average in rebounding and turnovers.  Bledsoe was below average in shooting efficiency, getting to the line, assists, turnovers (badly so) and scoring points (this latter is actually a good thing, if he shot more at this efficiency he’d be even worse).  He was above average only in steals, rebounds and blocks, but didn’t excel in any of them.  Thus, neither player posted an exceptional WP48, and Bledsoe was nowhere near average.

Now let’s take a look at Chris Paul:

WP48 PTS REB AST TO BLK STL PF
Paul .375 21.1 5.4 13.0 2.9 0.1 3.1 3.3
Average PG .100 19.8 4.6 8.6 3.5 0.2 1.6 3.3

Shooting comparison

FG% 2FG% 3FG% FT% eFG% TS% FTA
Paul 46.3% 48.2% 38.8% 87.8% 50.2% 57.8% 6.4
Average PG 43.2% 47.7% 35.6% 82.5% 47.8% 53.2% 4.8

In contrast to Eric Gordon, my opinion of Chris Paul won’t surprise any readers: he was really, really good.  He was above average in every category but blocks and fouls, in many spectacularly so (assists, steals, turnovers).  He is, quite simply, one of the top 5 players in the league.

Finally, there’s the draft pick.  Arturo has broken down the draft before. Benjamin Morris has also written great stuff.  The upshot is that if it isn’t the overall #1 pick, it’s a bit of a crapshoot.   And although Minnesota was terrible, and likely to be so again, it would be foolish to rely on the pick becoming the #1 pick in the draft.  As such, holding on to it as if it were a precious commodity is foolish; one assembles draft picks precisely so that one can use them to nab superstar players!  Why does it matter if you draft the superstar or you trade the pick for one?  It’s the proverbial “two in the bush” fallacy to cling to this pick.

So revisiting: the Clippers don’t want to trade Bledsoe, Gordon, and Minnesota’s first pick (and filler) for Chris Paul (who is a superstar), because Bledsoe “might become a star” and that pick “might become a star”. And presumably because Gordon scores a lot (but just about any NBA guard who takes 17 shots a game would, too).  A better solution might be to trade for Paul and be happy with winning. If the Clippers want higher scoring totals they could just try having Chris Paul and Blake Griffin shoot more.

-Patrick

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