Allen Iverson and the Wages of WinsThe Wages of Wins Journal (WoW) is a popular sports statistics site based on a book titled Wages of Wins; WoW is frequently cited by mainstream media sources, including best selling writer Malcolm Gladwell and Henry Abbott's popular True Hoop blog (Abbott has also provided links to several of my articles, both from 20 Second Timeout and other publications). While I disagree with the methodologies and conclusions of many "stat gurus," I particularly find fault with WoW, starting with the basic premise of WoW creator Dave Berri that not only can basketball (and other sports) be understood without even watching the games but that watching the games biases the viewer because he is more likely to be influenced by a few spectacular-looking plays at the cost of losing sight of the larger picture. Competent NBA executives, coaches and scouts don't watch games in the way that Berri describes and it is insulting to imply otherwise; I believe that to understand NBA basketball you first must watch games with understanding and only then can you utilize certain statistical tools to add nuance and detail to what you observed--but the numbers can never take the place of watching games with understanding.
Berri's statistical system is based on calculating "wins produced"; he claims to be able to determine exactly how many of a team's wins each player "produced." This approach has led to some "interesting" conclusions: Berri applied his metric to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that won a record 72 regular season games en route to capturing the NBA championship and he concluded (page 144 of Wages of Wins), "Per 48 minutes played, Rodman's productivity even eclipsed Jordan. Rodman's WP48 of 0.415 was four times the production offered by an average player in the NBA and even surpassed the 0.386 WP48 posted by Jordan."
Dennis Rodman was a great player, a Hall of Fame caliber player (though he will likely not be inducted for reasons that have nothing to do with his basketball accomplishments)--but to suggest that on a per minute basis Rodman was more productive than Jordan is silly. Why does WoW make such a silly contention? WoW places a very high value on rebounding, a lower value on scoring and completely disregards the value of being able to create a shot (for oneself or for one's teammates); this also explains how Berri could assert--using the same metric that crowned Rodman over Jordan--that early in the 2007-08 season Andrew Bynum was more productive on a per minute basis than Kobe Bryant. The reality, then and now, is that Andrew Bynum is a young big man who has a lot of talent but he is still developing into someone who can be a productive player on a consistent basis; there are very good reasons why L.A. Coach Phil Jackson has tried to lower the public's expectations about Bynum and why Jackson has often benched Bynum down the stretch in games. Of course, Berri would likely assert that he simply understands the real value of NBA players better than Jackson and other NBA decision makers do; don't laugh, because that is not a sarcastic comment: Berri truly believes that by NOT watching NBA games he can more completely understand them than NBA lifers do, which makes almost as little sense as saying that by not working out you can attain the same level of physical fitness of a world class athlete who works out regularly.
Allen Iverson is one of WoW's favorite targets. On page 136 of Wages of Wins, Berri wrote, "At the end of the day, by some numbers Iverson is truly great. By other numbers, though, he is very far below the average player. When you summarize the great and the not-so-great into one metric, the net value of Iverson during his career is a bit below the average NBA player" (p. 136). Iverson's style of play and off court dramas are not everyone's cup of tea but to assert that overall he is "a bit below the average NBA player" is delusional.
Naturally, it would not be very good for the credibility of WoW if Iverson does well individually or if he leads his team to a successful season. Therefore, WoW frequently contains articles "proving" that Iverson is responsible for many of his team's losses and very few of their wins. I've done posts about the flaws of WoW (including one titled The Counterfeit Currency of David Berri's Wages of Wins) but the system is so obviously misguided that I eventually lost interest in even discussing it; however, a recent WoW post about Allen Iverson is so tendentious that I not only rebutted it but I did so at their site:
Really the Answer is Iverson
In the above post, WoW asserts that Iverson is the main reason that the Detroit Pistons struggled a bit after trading Chauncey Billups to Denver in exchange for Iverson and Antonio McDyess. As I noted in my comment at WoW, McDyess is not a mere throw-in with this deal; he was Detroit's leading rebounder last season by a wide margin and without his services the Pistons plummeted from near the top of the league in rebounding differential to near the bottom. The loss of McDyess' paint presence is a major reason that the Pistons did not win at their usual rate, not anything that Iverson did. By NBA rule, the Pistons could not re-sign McDyess for a month but now he is back with the team and Detroit is doing quite well, riding a four game winning streak that includes a victory last night over Orlando, ending the Magic's seven game winning streak.
It is horribly biased and just downright sloppy to purportedly analyze the impact that a trade has had on a team without even mentioning one of the key components in that deal (McDyess); just because Denver had no intention of keeping McDyess (due to their own roster and salary cap considerations) does not mean that he lacks value--far from it. This is what bothers me about WoW and other "stat gurus": they pretend to be engaging in a scientific, objective evaluation of basketball but once their precious systems make certain conclusions about player values then they feel duty bound to slant their articles to make it seem as though they have found the "Holy Grail" of basketball stat analysis. The formulas are considered to be error-free, so any difference between what the formulas say and what happens in the real world is the result of you believing what your "lying eyes" tell you. WoW stated that Iverson is a "below average" player, the Pistons struggled a bit after the trade, therefore WoW decided that this would be a perfect time to do a post reminding the world that for some time WoW has boldly gone against conventional wisdom with its rating of Iverson; data about McDyess does not fit into this "higher truth" and therefore is completely ignored.
I was disgusted after I read this WoW post and this has nothing to do with being a fan of a particular player or team; I really don't care how many games Detroit or Denver win this year and I don't think that Iverson is the best player in the NBA (though he certainly is well above average). What bothers me is that this post is either very poorly thought through or else deliberately deceptive--and although I think that WoW is misguided I don't think that they are stupid, so deliberately deceptive gets my vote. Basically, the post is the basketball equivalent of propaganda, like one of those political attack ads (by either party) that very selectively chooses information in order to not just make the opposition look bad but to completely distort the very essence of what that person is.
In my comments in the discussion thread after the WoW post, I made several of the above points and then offered three predictions:
1) By the end of this season, Denver will drop from second in the West (where the Nuggets were when the post was published) to a battle for the eighth-ninth spots; I expect the Nuggets to fall just short of making the playoffs, despite all of this overheated talk about a "new" Denver team and the ludicrous assertions in some quarters that Billups should be the MVP (which makes as little sense as crowning Gilbert Arenas an MVP candidate a few years ago when the Wizards were in first place in the East for a minute and a half but clearly were not the best team in the East, much like this year's Nuggets are clearly not an elite team in the West).
2) By the end of the season, Detroit will be battling Orlando for the third spot in the East.
3) Denver will struggle to beat plus-.500 teams, which is the main reason that I expect the Nuggets to plummet in the standings (they had been feasting on weak teams in the immediate aftermath of the trade).
There is still a long way to go, but the Pistons are 9-3 this season with McDyess in the lineup (two of those victories happened prior to the trade). Meanwhile, the Nuggets have gone 3-5 in their last eight games, including four losses by at least nine points versus plus-.500 teams; the Hawks drilled them 109-91 last night.
You can rest assured that whatever happens down the stretch, WoW will not budge from their engraved in stone conclusion that Iverson is a "below average player." If the Pistons drop off the map, it will be all his fault (according to WoW); if the Pistons perform along the lines that I expect, WoW will suddenly "discover" McDyess or someone else who will get credit for the wins, leaving Iverson to take the blame for the early losses. As for Denver, the story will be very similar but in reverse, because Billups scores well in WoW's metric: Billups will get credit for Denver's wins, someone else will get the blame for the losses.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 AM