How would the Pacific Division be different if the Golden State Warriors had signed Matt Barnes to play small forward rather than draft Harrison Barnes to do it? The Warriors would be in first place, that’s how the division would be different!
If we were to simply reverse the two players–trading Matt for Harrison and playing what-if for the season to date–then the Golden State Warriors would gain about four wins while the Clippers would lose four. The resulting standings would look something like this today:
|Hypothetical Record in Bizarro Barnes-Land||Games||Back||Winning %|
|Los Angeles Clippers||28-15||2.5||.651|
|Los Angeles Lakers||17-23||12.0||.425|
Here goes Wages of Wins again, right? We are about to say something absurdly good about a player who people say is obviously not so good. We are about to say something about this player being much better than you would think… significantly better, in fact, than another player who you would think of as being good instead. Why do we keep doing this!?
Science teaches us to think systematically in a world that thinks anecdotally; abstractly from 10,000 feet above when everyone else sees single concrete examples planted firmly on the ground. This kind of systematic thinking runs the risk of alienating readers by sounding downright autistic, as some commenters have been happy to let us know. Perhaps the trick to telling stories from 10,000 feet up is knowing how to do it without ever leaving the ground.
Who cares about Matt Barnes?
As a fan of the Golden State Warriors, I care about Matt Barnes. Not long ago the Warriors were a bad team that failed to make the playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons. Then in 2006 they were still a bad team with a record of 26-35 until something miraculous happened: they won 16 of 21 games to sneak into the playoffs with the 8th seed. This and the subsequent playoff run became known as the “We Believe” team, inspired by Matt Barnes’ neck tattoo reading, “BELIEVE.”
In addition to his tattoo, people said Matt Barnes brought tough defense, locker room presence, and hit big shots when it mattered. He was not a star, but a role player who helped the team’s chemistry to gel. The fact that Matt only scored 9.8 points per game while offering no other notable statistic seems to reinforce his status as supporting cast. He only played one additional season for the Warriors–a season they finished 48-34–before taking his services to the Suns, Magic, and then most recently the Lakers.
This past offseason Matt Barnes was a free agent. The Warriors publicly expressed interest in improving their small forward position–the one Matt Barnes plays–but declined to extend Matt an offer to play for them again. The local press cited “character issues” as a reason they stayed away. Matt signed a one-year contract for the veteran minimum salary with the Los Angeles Clippers instead. The Warriors drafted another Barnes–Harrison Barnes–with the seventh pick in the draft lottery to fill small forward need. Clearly they did not believe Matt Barnes nor his tattoos would bring them success.
What do most of us see when we compare Matt Barnes to Harrison Barnes? Matt is an older journeyman, Harrison a rookie lottery pick full of potential. Matt has played 26.6 minutes per game for the Clippers while Harrison has played 25.6 per game for the Warriors. Matt scores 11.3 points per game while Harrison scores 9.2. The Clippers lead the Pacific Division with a record of 32-10, while the Warriors hold second place just behind them with a record of 25-15. Six games can be said to separate them.
In order to see how these two players’ contributions stack up, let’s zoom out a few thousand feet to compare them using all those wonderful boxscore metrics the NBA bothers to record in detail. These metrics let us see aspects of the game and these players that our naked eyes are not good at seeing when we are at the game or watching on TV.
We know from using science (!) to model the NBA that basketball is a game of possessions more than it is of points. Teams exchange the same number of possessions each game–not unlike ping pong–so for a player to help their team win they need to spend possessions wisely (shoot well, not waste it by turning the ball over, assist teammates), create do-overs (offensive rebounds), prevent opponent do-overs (defensive rebound ‘keep-aways’), and cause their opponent to spend possessions poorly (block shots, steal the ball back, avoid fouls). How well do our two Barneses do these sorts of things?
What can this information tell us? It tells us that Matt Barnes is a much better small forward than Harrison Barnes. In fact, it tells us that Matt is in the top 16% of small forwards in the league, whereas Harrison is below average. Multiply their Wins Produced (per 48 minutes) to the minutes they have played, we see that Matt has produced 5.4 wins for the Clippers, whereas Harrison has produced only 1.5 for the Warriors. This difference is enough to separate first from second place in the Pacific Division this year. But why?
When Matt spends possessions, he shoots exceptionally well. He is also one of the league’s best small forwards at getting his team do-over rebounds when they miss. Harrison does neither of these things well.
On defense both Matt and Harrison are among the best at keeping the ball away from opponents by rebounding it, however that is all that Harrison contributes to defense right now. Matt, on the other hand, is good at stealing the ball away and great at blocking shots. It is hard for opponents to beat the Clippers when Matt Barnes is blocking 1.7 of their shots. It is easier for opponents to beat the Warriors when Harrison is only blocking 0.4, much less than the average Joe Schmoe small forward.
Should we have seen Matt Barnes’ productivity coming? Yes. His 4.1 points over par follows previous years of 3.7, 3.3, and 3.1. His career wins produced per 48 minutes stands at .149 or half again above average (.099). Matt Barnes is producing slightly better than he has in the recent past. This should have been expected and rewarded with a lot more than a one-year contract for minimum salary.
But wait a minute! Harrison Barnes is a much younger player. He is on a cheap rookie contract and figures to get better over time. It is ridiculous to compare a veteran to a rookie and ignore the long-term strategy of building around youth, right?
Yes, sort of! Harrison Barnes is actually above average for a rookie and we should expect him to improve with time. This is great news for Warrior fans. However, he is beginning his career at a mighty deficit. His record so far in the NBA and in the past at college suggests he is a poor shooter who loves to shoot. That is a dangerous combination typically rewarded with high dollar contracts while producing few wins.
Put it this way: Matt Barnes is costing the Clippers about $154,000 per win he produces this year. In contrast, Harrison Barnes is already costing the Warriors $1,706,000 per win he produces this year. And Harrison’s cost will rise with the points he scores. Again, he will improve, but he is starting out at a costly deficit for his team.
Stories will get told and retold about players like Matt and Harrison that reinforce the wisdom of what people already believe–for instance, that Matt Barnes is a limited role player or that Harrison Barnes is an up-and-coming rookie with tons of potential. Lost in these concrete stories about personalities and intangibles is the ability to see the game with a better view thanks to some know-how combined with the right numbers.
What this Barnes vs. Barnes thought experiment highlights is how out-of-whack player evaluation in pro basketball can be and how capricious winning and losing is as a result. The NBA’s top team would be in second place in their own division, while a perennial also-ran would be in first place instead. All because of a player nobody cares much about.