Recently I read Tom Liston’s article over on Raptors Republic. While he completes the article with two comments that I agree with — that Gary Forbes should see more playing time and that DeMar DeRozan takes too many long jumpers — at the very top of the article he also repeated a tired old cliché:
The Raptors’ offence certainly suffers without their main weapon.
For those of you who haven’t paid much attention to the NBA’s lone Canadian team since Bosh (or even Vince Carter) left town, the “main weapon” Liston is referring to here is Andrea Bargnani, who has missed the past six games due to injury. The Raptors started the season with a 4-5 record, and when Bargnani went out, the team was sporting a 4-7 record. Without Bargnani, Toronto has gone 0-6. To some, this is a clear sign that the Raptors are playing worse without Bargnani. The fact that Bargnani just returned, scored over 30 and helped Toronto end its winless streak against Phoenix cements it for others.
To Liston’s credit, he doesn’t simply cite the win-loss record to support his claim; instead, after four games (and yes, he mentions the small sample size as well), Liston uses the following numbers:
Table 1: Selected Toronto Raptors team statistics with and without Bargnani after game #15
|W/ Barngani||W/O Bargnani||Change|
In the four games without Bargnani, the team’s field goal shooting efficiency, assists, and point scored declined, suggesting that Bargnani has some sort of “Melo Effect” on his teammates. According to this theory, his teammates’ shooting, passing, and scoring suffer without him in the game to “draw attention” from defenders. As of today (January 23rd), Toronto has now played six games without Bargnani. Perhaps the numbers have changed?
Table 2: Toronto Raptors team statistics with and without Bargnani after game #17
|W/ Bargnani||W/O Bargnani||Change|
A few things have changed, but the story remains largely the same. While the team’s three-point percentage has increased significantly, the decrease in three-point attempts, decreased field-goal percentage, and increase in field-goal attempts still add up to poorer team shooting in Bargnani’s absence. Without Bargnani taking free throws, the team’s free-throw percentage has also plummeted, but this is simply because Bargnani’s free-throw shooting is no longer there to prop up the averages of his teammates. It would be hard to argue that Bargnani makes his teammates better at making free-throws, now wouldn’t it?
Beyond this, the team is also doing worse with respect to defensive rebounds, assists, blocks, and points. The team is doing slightly better with respect to offensive rebounds, steals, and turnovers. But basically, it’s pretty clear that the team has performed worse in the games without Bargnani.
But why is this? If the reason is due to Bargnani’s absence, we’d expect the rest of the team to be performing worse than they do when Bargnani is playing. The above table doesn’t address this, so we’ll have to come up with something else to check this out. A simple method is to take Bargnani’s numbers and add them into the numbers his teammates accumulated without him. Then we control for minutes played — I multiplied the team totals by 85.3% and then added in the stats Bargnani would’ve accumulated in six games (given his averages). Finally, we compare this to the numbers his team posted while he was playing. If the totals achieved without Bargnani are smaller than the ones achieved with Bargnani playing, then the team has done worse without him.
Table 3: Comparing the Raptors with a real and an imaginary Bargnani
|W/ Bargnani||W/O Bargs, Bargs added||Change|
Perhaps surprisingly, the numbers seem to suggest that Bargnani’s presence is having an effect. Without him, the team did worse with respect to all aspects of shooting (although free-throw attempts were up significantly), defensive rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. On the positive side, the team did grab more offensive rebounds and had fewer fouls and turnovers, but that isn’t enough to make up for the negatives.So that’s it then: when Bargnani plays, he makes it easier for his teammates. It says it right there in the data!
Not so fast. Sure, it appears that Bargnani’s teammates performed worse without him. But why? Is it because of Bargnani, or perhaps something else? What about controlling for the quality of the opponents?
Table 4: Toronto Raptors opponent strength before and after Bargnani injury
|W/ Barngani||W/O Bargnani|
|Opp Exp W%||45.7%||65.3%|
As we can see, there is a far more obvious answer as to why the team performed more poorly without Bargnani: they faced better opponents. It’s a lot harder to maintain your performance level when the competition gets tougher. Accordingly, the Raptors’ stats suffered without Bargnani because they faced better teams than they did before Barngani was injured.
Does this completely rule out the existence of a “Bargnani effect”? No. But it certainly doesn’t support it. And this isn’t all that surprising, as the numbers from last year’s Carmelo Anthony trade don’t support the existence of such an effect either. As a matter of fact, given the data, it seems more likely to me that the Raptors actually performed better than we would’ve expected them to, given the quality of their opponents. And this is likely because — year after year — Andrea Bargnani is one of the least productive players in the league.
Of course his triumphant return last night against Phoenix may very well signal the possibility of a Bargnani effect. When we look at Phoenix’s record prior to playing Toronto, their team stats were:
- 6-10 record
- expected record 7-9
- 101.4 Ortg
- 103.7 Drtg
So the real Bargnani effect for this season appears to be that when he is healthy, the Raptors play weaker opponents, and when he is injured, they play more difficult ones. Of course, with only a small fraction of the season completed, we’ll have to wait and see if this trend holds up :)