Sunday, May 5, 2013

Most Dominant Postseasons

What players have had the most dominant postseasons?  One way to look at that is with win shares as a percent of wins needed for a championship.  It takes 16 wins to get the ring today, but when Bill Russell played it only took 8.  The list:

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1974. (54.1%).  Kareem didn't get the ring, but he did push his team to game 7 of the finals, where they lost to Dave Cowens and the Celtics.  Kareem averaged 32 points and 16 rebounds, shooting 55% of the postseason.  In game 7 he and Cowens virtually matched numbers, with Cowens getting a slight edge, but the rest of the Bucks didn't play so well.  Only man in the top 8 who did not win the championship.

2. Dave Cowens, 1976 (47.8%).  This was the year of the triple OT game against Phoenix.  Cowens had 296 rebounds (16.4 per game) in that postseason, along with 21 points and 4.6 rebounds.  His raw numbers don't look as impressive as some others on this list, not sure how he ranks so high.

3. Shaquille O'Neal, 2000 (45.6).  30 points and 15 rebounds over 23 games.

4. Tim Duncan, 2003 (42.3).  25 points, 15 boards, and 3 blocks were especially valuable in a low scoring environment, the Spurs only gave up 89 points per game.

5. Lebron James, 2012 (42.3).  The first non-center on the list (Tim Duncan is a center no matter what the Spurs want to call him).  30 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists on 50% shooting.  Game 6 against the Celtics is certainly one of the best, if not the best, game ever played.

6. Bill Russell, 1962 (42.1).  The man won 11 championships, one of them had to show up on the list.  Russell averaged 22 points (his best figure in the postseason), 26 rebounds, and 5 assists.  He scored 30 in an overtime game 7 win against the Lakers.

7. Larry Bird, 1984 (41.7)  Bird average 27-11-6 on 52% shooting, and threw in 2 steals and a block per game (not bad for a flightless fowl).  Led his team to a game 7 win in the finals

8. Michael Jordan, 1993 (41.6).  Averaged 35 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, beat Barkley for the finals, then declared his first of 3 retirements.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

James Harden

Nice start to his Rockets career, 82 points in 2 games on .636 shooting.  So far this trade looks like the basketball equivalent of the Angels trading Mike Napoli.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bill Russell

From 1957-58 to the end of his career, Bill Russell didn't miss too many games, usually 2 per season.  It's a lot harder than with Jerry West to measure how great his impact was.  But that doesn't mean I can't try.  Bill missed 28 games over that time.  Normally I would not feel comfortable aggregating games missed over a bit more than a decade, because the quality of his team could change.  This is not the case with Bill's team though, as they were consistently great the whole time he played.
With Russell in the lineup, excluding his rookie year as well as 1966-67 (no games missed) his team averaged 115.8 points, and allowed 108.9.  They won 602 and lost 232.

When Russell missed the game, the 11 time champion Celtics were only 10-18.  They scored 122.1 and allowed 123.2 (which is better than 10-18, a team with that point differential probably should go 13-15 in 28 games.)

They might have been better offensively without Russell, never a good shooter, or they might have just played at a faster pace.  They were definitely much worse on defense.  Overall, Russell was worth an extra 8 points per game, or 9 per 48 minutes.

Fluke? Maybe.  Or maybe the rest of the team wasn't so great after all, and those who claim Russell was the greatest player of his time are correct.  Look at the 1963-64 team.  Those Celtics were actually the worst shooting team in the NBA.  They not only shot a league worst 41.3%, they didn't make up for it at the line either.  They were dead last in getting to the free throw line.  So how does a jump shooting team that can't shoot and can't get to the rim finish?  59-21, then plays two postseason series, winning each 4-1, over Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain.

How did they do it?  Rebounding, turnovers (probably), and defense.  They had about 500 more rebounds than the average team.  They had about 800 more shot attempts than average (so they pretty much had to have a huge turnover margin, though the stat was not tracked back then).  And finally, if they were outscoring people that much while shooting like crap, their opponents must have shot even worse.  Russell, being the shot blocking center, is the most important player for the defense, and led the league in rebounding.  He might have had an impact forcing turnovers, but that's a total guess. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor played only 48 games of the 1961-62 season, out of 80 team games.  This wasn't a result of any injury, he was an army reservist and called up to active duty midway through the season.  He played the first 42 games, then just a handful of the others when he could get a weekend pass.

With Elgin in the lineup, the Lakers were 37-11, scoring 120.6 and allowing 116.  Without him they were 17-15, and were outscored 115.4 to 116.  In both cases they won more games than expected, as they won 54 games despite points/points allowed numbers that would normally add up to 45.

Per 48 minutes, Elgin's estimated impact was 6.7 points.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Jerry West Plus Minus Impact

We don't have the kind of on court, off court ratings for Jerry West that we do for more recent players. but with some of the wonderful additions to Basketball Reference, we can at least get a rough estimate.  Basketball Reference now has scans of newspaper box scores for every NBA game, ever.  The data in these box scores are limited though.  We usually get how many points, field goals, and free throws a player has, but attempts are usually not there, so if you want to know if West held Robertson to a below average FG%, it's not there.  But just knowing which games a player played in can get you some interesting results.

Jerry West missed a decent amount of games every year.  I focused on 1962-63, and 1966-7 to 1968-9.  He missed 25, 15, 31, and 21 games those years.

1962-63:  Without West, Lakers were 11-14, being outscored 111.1 to 112.8.  With West, they were 42-13, scoring 117.5 and allowing 112.2.

1966-67: Without West, Lakers were 4-11, being outscored 116.6 to 121.2.  With West, they were 32-33, scoring 121.1 and allowing 120.

1967-68: Without West, Lakers are 19-12, but only outscore opponents 114.6 to 114.4.  With West the record is similar (33-18) but they outscore by 125.2 to 116.3

1968-69: Wilt's first year with Lakers, BTW.  Without Jerry: 12-9, 108.7 to 108.4 Pts/Oppts.  With Jerry: 43-18, outscore opponents 113.5 to 108.

Jerry's teams were generally 5-9 points better in games that he played.  This is equivalent to about an 8-10 advantage per 48 minutes.  This figure would be among the best in the NBA today, but a few players (Lebron, Chris Paul, Garnett) have been above that level the last 2 years, according to

Over those 4 years the Lakers were a .500 team without West (46-46) but 150-82 when he played.
Wilt Chamberlain presents a tougher challenge, and that would be true even if the NBA in the 1960's tracked plus minus to the same degree they do today.  Wilt didn't miss many games, and he almost never came off the court (played more than 48 minutes per game in some years thanks to OT).  But we do have some indication of his impact, thanks to one year where he missed 70 games, and two trades.

In 1970-71 Wilt missed all but the final 12 games of the season.  Lakers were 44-26, outscoring opponents 116.4 to 111.9.  Then Wilt came back, the team finished 4-8, being outscored 105.4 to 110.3.  It's not totally fair though, as Jerry West missed all of those games, and the team was probably more concerned about getting Wilt in shape for the playoffs than winning out the regular season.

Wilt was traded in mid season 1965, and for 3 fairly inconsequential players.  Here's his impact on the Warriors (who traded him) and the Sixers (who got him):

Warriors were 11-33, outscored 108-113.3.  How this is possible with a player like Wilt I don't know.  Afterwards they went into full tank mode, went 6-30, and were outscored 103.1 to 110.4.

Sixers were 22-23 at the trade, outscored 111.4 to 111.9. After the trade they were slightly better, outscoring 113.9 to 113.7 and going 18-17.

Wilt's trade from Philly to LA is more problematic, as the Sixers got two decent though not great starting players in Darrell Imhoff and Archie Clark.  Lakers improved by 3 games, and Philly declined by 7.

Wilt's estimated impact per 48 minutes from these with/without situations isn't that much, between 1-4 points.  That's excluding his 12 games with the 71 Lakers.  Wilt was part of the two greatest single season teams before Jordan's 1996 Bulls, and when everything was working right between teammates and coaches I'm sure his impact was as great as any player ever.  But for too much of his career it's hard to see evidence that his dominant stats did much to impact wins and losses.

On the Wilt-Russell debates I was always on the Wilt side from the first day I learned to add up points, rebounds, and assists.  But I don't think that's right anymore, and I think a legitimate question is whether Wilt was the second best player of his generation after Russell, or whether it was Jerry West.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The NBA Has Gotten Smaller

I looked at the average height of NBA players, weighted by minutes played. For most of basketball history the players got bigger and bigger, but they peaked in the late 1980's. Since then the league has actually gotten smaller.

Starting with 1952, the average NBA player was 6'4. Four years later he was 6'5. In 1965, with Russell and Chamberlain dominating the game, the average player was 6'5.7. One more decade and the average topped 6'6 for the first time in 1976, and 6'7 in 1986. The average height stayed above 6'7 for just 3 years (1986-88), which is the time I was in high school. So you kids out there today, you didn't have to faced the kind of trees on your way to the rim that I did.

Since then the giants have become more rare. Average height fell to 6'6.5 in 2000, rebounded a bit, and then back to 6'6.5 in 2010. While there is a bit of year to year fluctuation, the average height has been within a half inch (6'6.5 and 6'7) for over 30 years now, 1981-2011.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

They Play The Best When It Matters Most - Part 2

And now the top dozen postseason performers. To get this list I'm looking at postseason win shares, above and beyond what you would expect given their regular season win shares per minute rates. An adjustment has been made for the fact that with improved competition, WS/48 is on average 0.018 lower in the postseason.

12. Reggie Miller (+3.0 wins) If you need 8 points and only have 9 seconds to get them, then you want Reggie on your team.

11. Scottie Pippen (+3.2 wins) Scottie was a forward who had the skills of a guard because he was a 6 foot 1 or so guard when he went to college, and a late growth spurt made him a 6 foot 7 lottery pick 4 years later. What some people don't know is that he kept growing the longer the postseason went on (to be reset after the season to 6'7). Scottie was HUGE in the playoffs. By the time he got to the finals he was 7 foot 4, and still could handle the ball like a guard.

10. Ben Wallace (+3.4 wins) - here's a speech from the 2004 NBA finals, never before reported:

Piston: The Lakers are too many.
BW: Sons of Detroit,
I am Benjamin Wallace...
Piston: Benjamin Wallace
is seven feet tall (including his fro).
WW: Yes, I've heard.
Blocks shots by the hundreds,
and if he were here,
he'd consume the Lakers with fireballs from his eyes
and bolts of lightning from his arse < laughter >
I AM Benjamin Wallace,
and I see a whole army of my countrymen
here in defiance of tyranny.
You've come to fight as free men,
and free men you are.
What will you do with that freedom?
Will you fight?
Piston: Against that? No, we will run, and we will live.
BW: Aye, fight and you may die.
Run, and you'll live... at least a while.
And dying in your beds many years from now,
would you be willing to trade all the days,
from this day to that,
for one chance,
just one chance,
to come back here and tell our enemies
that they may take our lives,
but they'll never take our Championship Trophy!!!

9. Derek Fisher (+3.6 wins)
Fisher has gotten a lot of criticism lately because he's too old andslow to guard speedy point guards. But he had a fine career and was an important part of 5 Laker championship
teams. Shot 40% (37 from 3) for his career, but in the playoffs he upped that to 43% and 40%.

8. Walt Frazier (+4.1 wins) Improved both his volume (PPG) and efficiency (FG%) in leading the Knicks to two championships.

7. John Havlicek (+4.6)
Won 8 championships, including two after the Bill Russell era was over. He took on more of a scoring role in the playoffs, and from what I understand had a pretty important steal in one game.

6. Elvin Hayes (+4.7) This one is a bit of a surprise. He did improve his FG% while shooting more and rebounding more. Won one championship with the Bullets, towards the end of his career.

5. Robert Horry (+4.8)
I would not trust this list if the numbers didn't give me Big Shot Bob. In the playoffs his 3 pointers made jumped from 0.7 per game to 1.1, with an increased percentage, but these numbers can't even tell you how big some of those were, at the last second to win or tie games. Won 7 championships, 2 with the Rockets, 3 with the Lakers, and 2 with the Spurs.

3T. Jojo White and Dave Cowens (+5.0). These were the big stars of the 1970's Celtic championship teams, in between the Russell and Bird eras. White was the 1976 Finals MVP, leading the NBA playoffs in field goals, free throws, and assists that year. For Cowens my numbers show him getting better in the playoffs, Basketball-reference's numbers do not. He did increase his rebounds and scoring, but his FG% is slightly lower.

2. Isiah Thomas (+6.3)
To be frank about it, by regular season numbers Thomas looks like a very good but hardly dominant point guard. 19 points, 9 assists, 45% shooting. You can find a ton of players who could do that. What makes Thomas the all-time great is his playoffs. His WS48 is .146 for the regular season (very good, .100 is average) but .200 for the playoffs (among top 25 all time for all positions). His biggest statistical jump in the playoffs is his rebounding (4.7 vs. 3.5), he scored more while playing on a team that shut down opponents and made every point more valuable. He just got better as the games got bigger, and even a severely twisted ankle could not stop him when he got on a roll.

1. Michael Jordan (+7.3)
It's really not fair - he's already the best player in the game and then when everyone else's stats drop in the playoffs he gets even better? Jordan's WS48 is .286 for the regular season (actually slightly behind David Robinson) but .315 for the playoffs (100 points ahead of the Admiral).