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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Defining the Value of a Superstar

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 4/7/07; it has been updated to include the final 2006-07 statistics

Dirk Nowitzki was not a very controversial choice as MVP--at least until his Dallas Mavericks flamed out in round one of the playoffs. Of course, that reversal of sentiment is not really fair or proper. We are talking about a regular season award and Nowitzki had an excellent regular season while leading his team to the best record in the league. Steve Nash, who won the previous two MVPs and posted career best numbers in several categories, finished second in the voting. Kobe Bryant, who won his second straight scoring title and who averaged more than 40 ppg in March to almost singlehandedly carry the L.A. Lakers to a playoff berth, came in third, his candidacy hindered not so much by anything that he did wrong but rather by injuries to key players that precluded his Lakers from keeping up their early season winning percentage.

How exactly should a player’s value be defined? One way to answer this question is to look at the player’s impact on his own team. At 82Games.com, Roland Beech compiles several statistics that, taken together, give an indication of which players are most important to the performance of their teams. "On court" and "off court," as the names suggest, reflect a team’s net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on the court and off the court respectively. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the on court/off court numbers is contained in the disclaimer that Beech wrote when he first started calculating these figures: "These ratings represent a player's value to a particular team and are not intended to be an accurate gauge of the ability and talent of the player away from the specific team." A player’s on court and off court numbers are of course affected by the performances of his teammates so it is difficult to project whether a player would do better or worse on a different team. A player whose numbers are boosted by being surrounded by talented players may not be able to be that productive on a weaker team; conversely, a superstar who is surrounded by a weak supporting cast may have his numbers dragged down by his teammates’ miscues.

"Net" is simply the "on court" rating minus the "off court" rating, while the "Roland rating" is a more sophisticated "net" rating that takes into account the player’s actual production as well as the production of the other nine players who were on the court at the same time he was. Only eight players posted Roland ratings of at least 10 during the 2006-07 season. Other than perhaps Manu Ginobili, those players are not strangers to the MVP discussion. Ginobili’s numbers probably got a boost from playing alongside alongside Tim Duncan but being Duncan’s teammate also may lead to him being somewhat underrated when it comes to MVP consideration because two-time MVP Duncan draws more attention. Interestingly, Nash fell just short of qualifying for this group, posting a Roland rating of 9.9. He finished 12th in the NBA's Efficiency Ratings, which were topped by Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming. Nash also finished 12th in John Hollinger's PER rankings, which were led by Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant.

Since Yao and Wade ranked in the top five in NBA EFF and Hollinger's PER, you may wonder why their names are not included in the chart listing players who had Roland ratings of at least 10. Yao only played 1624 minutes in 48 games, while Wade totaled 1931 minutes in 51 games; that is just not enough time on the court to merit mention as the MVP of the league, despite their splendid numbers (8.7 on court, 2.1 off court, 6.7 net and a 14.0 Roland rating for Yao; 2.3 on court, -3.9 off court, 6.2 net, 14.1 Roland rating for Wade).

It is not surprising that great players tend to have high on court ratings, because it is only natural for a team to perform well when its best player is in the game. In some ways, the off court ratings are even more indicative of a player’s value, at least within the context of his own team (which is not the same as saying that he would have the same value if he were on a different team). For instance, Kobe Bryant had a solid 1.6 on court rating--but he also had a -6.0 off court rating. In other words, when he was on the court the Lakers performed like a somewhat above average team but when he was off the court the Lakers played like a lottery team. The most eye-popping off court numbers belonged to Garnett. Minnesota finished well below .500, so it is not surprising that the Timberwolves were awful when Garnett was not in the game; they were not that good even when he played.

Only five NBA players had double digit on court ratings and it is not surprising that two of them came from the Spurs (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili), two of them came from the Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki, Devin Harris) and one came from the Suns (Steve Nash). Those three teams were the class of the league during the regular season. Harris is the one name that might raise some eyebrows here but he barely played half of his team's minutes and he shared a lot of court time with Nowitzki. Even without their best players, those teams were not terrible, as indicated by these players’ off court ratings. The Spurs outscored their opponents even with Ginobili on the bench, although they operated at a 2.0 deficit when Duncan was not in the game. The Mavericks had a 1.6 points per 100 possessions shortfall when Nowitzki was not in the game. The Suns outscored their opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions when Nash was on the court and had a deficit of .4 points per 100 possessions when Nash was off the court. What about Nash’s All-Star teammates Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion? Stoudemire’s numbers were 7.9 on court, 5.6 off court, 2.2 net and a 6.1 Roland rating, while Marion’s numbers were 9.5, 0.0, 9.5 and 7.3 respectively. This suggests that Nash had the most overall impact on the Suns’ success but does not prove (or disprove) how well any of these players would perform in a different context.

Two name players who have yet to be mentioned in this discussion are Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, who became teammates midway through the season. The pairing of these two All-Stars hardly brought instant success to Denver and their numbers reflect that: Iverson produced .9 on court, 2.5 off court, -1.6 net and a 4.1 Roland rating, while Anthony scored 1.7, 1.5, .2 and 5.1 respectively. The Nuggets actually did better when these players were not in the game than when they were on the court. It is possible that they will develop greater chemistry with each other and their teammates next season after they have the benefit of a full training camp together but, gaudy scoring statistics notwithstanding, neither player had an MVP level impact in 2006-07 within the context of his own team. Center Marcus Camby (2.3, .5, 1.8 and 4.5) had roughly as much impact on Denver’s success as his more heralded teammates did.

These statistics alone do not definitively answer the question of who was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2006-07 but they lend some context to the discussion. There is certainly a good statistical case for selecting Nowitzki. Fan favorite Nash is not among the top 10 players in the NBA in NBA EFF, Hollinger's PER or Roland rating. The heavy burden that Bryant carried is aptly reflected by his off court rating, as is also the case for Garnett; the difference between Bryant and Garnett is that Bryant kept the Lakers above .500 in the tough West, while Minnesota finished well below .500.

Impact Players

Player..Team..On Court..Off Court..Net..Roland Rating

Dirk Nowitzki..Dallas..10.8..-1.6..12.4..15.7
Dwyane Wade..Miami..2.8..-4.2..7.0..15.1
Tim Duncan..San Antonio..13.0..-2.0..15.0..14.9
Kevin Garnett..Minnesota.. .2..-14.8..15.0..13.4
Manu Ginobili..San Antonio..12.6..3.7..8.9..12.9
Kobe Bryant..L.A. Lakers..1.6..-6.0..7.6..12.4
LeBron James..Cleveland..5.6..-4.0..9.6..12.4
Tracy McGrady..Houston..7.6..-.2..7.8..11.7

Notes:

Player must have participated in at least 50% of his team's
minutes to be eligible.

On Court= net points per 100 possessions when the player
is in the game.

Off Court= net points per 100 possessions when the player
is not in the game.

Net: On Court minus Off Court (numbers may not exactly
match due to rounding).

Roland Rating: An adjustment of the net rating to account
for the player's actual production and the production of
the other nine players on the court.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:30 AM

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