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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Evaluating Gilbert Arenas' Value During his Prime

Neil Paine wrote an interesting article asserting that Gilbert Arenas was an MVP level player back in 2007 and an elite level player for several seasons. I disagree with Paine's premise, his evidence and his conclusion, so I wrote a comment responding to his article. This initiated a very interesting exchange of ideas that provides an instructive look at the difference between the way that I think and write about basketball and the way that other people (particularly "stat gurus") think and write about basketball.

Here is the first comment that I posted in response to his article:

The 2005-2009 time frame is a very interesting choice. The 2009 Wizards were not only without Arenas' services but Caron Butler missed 15 games, Brendan Haywood essentially missed the entire season and Antonio Daniels--who filled in very capably for Arenas in previous seasons--was on his last legs before being traded to the Hornets.

The period when Arenas was allegedly an elite player had already ended by 2009, so let's just look at 2004-05 through 2007-08; during those four seasons Arenas made his only three All-Star appearances and earned his only All-NBA selections (Third Team in 2005 and 2006, Second Team in 2007). The Wizards won 45, 42, 41 and 43 games during those seasons. Keep in mind that in each of those seasons Arenas had at least one other All-Star or All-Star caliber player by his side. Here are the Wizards' records with and without Arenas in each of those seasons:

2005: 44-36 with, 1-1 without
2006: 40-40 with, 2-0 without
2007: 39-35 with, 2-6 without
2008: 6-7 with, 37-32 without

The Wizards were 129-118 with Arenas during his prime (.522) and 42-39 without Arenas during his prime (.519).

It would also be very interesting if you shared with your readers the Wizards' record in games that both Arenas and Butler missed as opposed to the games that only Arenas missed. I am surprised that someone who is trying to look at things analytically would not want to factor in the impact of another All-Star being out of the lineup at the same time that Arenas was out.

The reality is that even when Arenas was at his best he was on the fringe of being elite (I consider elite to be top five to top 10, but some people throw that term around so loosely it seems like there are supposedly 20 or 30 "elite" players at any given time) and his team only performed slightly better with him than it did without him. The Wizards were slightly above .500 during Arenas' prime when he played and they were slightly above .500 during Arenas' prime when he did not play.


Paine responded simply, "Arenas still had the benefit of the doubt through 2009. It wasn't until 2010 that he definitively proved he was no longer his old self."

Obviously, that hardly addresses the points that I made, so I answered with this comment:

You do not find it statistically significant that throughout the period when Arenas was an All-Star/All-NBA player (1) his team was barely above .500 when he played and (2) his team essentially posted the same winning percentage whether or not he played? How many "elite" players barely led their teams to .500 records during their primes over a period of four years? How many teams performed essentially the same without an "elite" player even when that "elite" player missed a substantial number of games?

It is instructive to compare Arenas' impact on the Wizards to Tracy McGrady's impact on the Rockets during a similar time period, a subject that I discussed in March 2008 when the Rockets posted the second best regular season winning streak in NBA history:

"There is a stark and dramatic contrast between the Rockets’ record when McGrady plays (162-83, a .661 winning percentage) versus their record when he is not in the lineup (19-46, a .292 winning percentage). Prorated over 82 games, the Rockets have essentially performed like a 54 win team with McGrady and a 24 win team without him. This year, the numbers read 36-13 (.735) with McGrady and 8-7 (.533) without him, which prorates to 60 wins and 44 wins respectively."

From 2005-08, McGrady made the All-Star team three times and made the All-NBA team three times (Third Team twice, Second Team once) but he had a much greater impact on his team's won-loss record than Arenas did during that same time frame. Overall, McGrady made the All-NBA First Team twice and the All-NBA Second Team three times and he was clearly an elite player (when healthy) for an extended period of time, whether one looks at his skill set, his individual numbers or the striking impact that he had on his team's won-loss record--when he played the Rockets were a contending team (projecting to 54 regular season wins) but when he did not play the Rockets performed like a lottery team.

The burden of proof is squarely in the corner of anyone who suggests that Arenas ever was an "elite" player, because the evidence strongly suggests that this is not true--unless you define "elite" to be top 20 or top 30; I am defining "elite" to mean someone is one of the top five to 10 players in the NBA, which usually corresponds to making the All-NBA First or Second Teams. Granted, sometimes there can be mistakes in the voting and a player could theoretically be "elite" without making those teams if there is a glut of talent at his position (voting is done by position, so in theory a non-elite player could make the All-NBA team at, say, center, while an elite level guard fails to make the team).

Since you elected not to share the Butler splits with your readers, permit me to quote from some research that I did two years ago:

"In 2007-08, the Wizards essentially replaced Arenas with career journeyman Antonio Daniels--a solid pro who has played with five teams in his 11 year NBA career--and not only did not miss a beat, they actually performed better. It is important to remember that Butler missed 24 games last season; the Wizards went 33-25 (.569) with Butler and 10-14 (.417) without him--and five of the losses with Butler also came with Arenas in the starting lineup. Washington's best starting lineup last season (by winning percentage, with a minimum of 10 games) was Butler, Daniels, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. That group went 23-16 (.590) for nearly half a season without Arenas, which projects to a 48-34 record, a mark that would exceed the Wizards' best season since acquiring Arenas.
"

Each of us posted several subsequent comments. If you want to follow and/or contribute to the conversation just click on the link I provided in the first paragraph.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:31 AM

17 comments

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17 Comments:

At Friday, December 24, 2010 4:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

gilbert was great player but never elite. never made all nba first team top 5 in mvp. at peak he was 11-20 best players in nba. in contrast tmac was one of top 5 at peak so yes tmac indivudually was better than. gil was great scorer tho, i look at it like this if you can lead a team to finals or win title as lead guy or make all nba team first team and consistent second you could be elite. kobe has 8 or 9 all nba first teams lebron with 4 dirk with 4 chris paul one wade 2 howard 3 or 4. nash never made finals even tho he has mvp an d all nba first team. where dirk kobe wade lebron howard has lead team to finals all nba first team and been in top 4 in mvp. paqul hasnt as well. deron willams paul pierce carmelo anthony to me have all been between 6-10 at peak best players never top 5 in league all been to conf finals once as lead guy. all never made all nba team and never really been a mvp canidate. also b roy aswell.

pau ray allen chris bosh amare stoudamire, been that 11-15 best players guy made all nba 2nd team once in amare and bosh but been consistent 3rd teamers level players great second option on teams with a kobe lebron first option.

then 16-24 perrenial all star is what i think gil arenas was carloz boozer, monta eliis, antwan jamison, not all nba players but legit all stars manu giniobili tony parker, rajon rondo, those level players.

so to me a all star level player at peak david.

 
At Friday, December 24, 2010 5:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

I agree with most of what you wrote. The interesting thing about Arenas is that his career provides a fascinating "laboratory experiment": he was healthy for three years during his prime and the Wizards were never much more than a .500 team but then he missed almost all of the 2008 season and the Wizards' winning percentage did not decline even though they made no other significant changes to their rotation. In contrast, as I noted back in 2008, the Rockets were title contenders when T-Mac played but performed like a lottery team whenever he missed games. Arenas has never had that kind of impact on his team's winning percentage so it is really hard to make a case that he was an elite player.

 
At Saturday, December 25, 2010 1:26:00 AM, Anonymous dsong said...

Context, context, context.

That's one area that you've always preached, David, and it applies to Arenas as well.

As so many people have said, basketball is a team game and it's often difficult to determine how good a single player is by looking at the box score, looking at the won-loss, or using "advanced basketball statistics".

Often it's factors outside an athlete's control that determines his greatness or "value". For example, Dwayne Wade had that one magical playoff run in '06 when the refs blew the whistle whenever a defender was within 5 feet of him. The very next season, though the team remained intact, Miami did not get the calls and was swept out of the playoffs in the first round. Since then Wade has led his team to first round exits and the worst record in the league. Yet he is unquestionably considered to be one of the top 5 players in the league. He may or may not be at that level, but it's hard to make that determination simply on the team's W-L percentage when he was on the floor.

Enough about Wade, though. Arenas was a serious talent in his prime. He created nightmares for the defense and opened up the floor for his teammates. And even in the Cleveland series where he "choked" by clanking 2 free throws, he had a tremendous game, scoring 36 points, including a 35-foot three-pointer to send the game into overtime. When a guy goes off for 36-5-11, he's probably not the reason the team lost the game.

I think Arenas was definitely a talented player in his prime, but never really had the chance to prove himself to be "great". You have to a leader of great teams and win multiple championships to deserve that kind of label. Kobe, Shaq, and Duncan have done that. Most players - even perennial all-stars - will fall short by that standard.

If he wishes to be considered "great", Arenas has a golden opportunity in Orlando. So far it's been a mixed bag - his shooting has been terrible, but the team seems to go on a big run whenever he's in the game. If Orlando can win the championship, they will need Arenas to perform like a superstar. Unlikely, but it'll be exciting to watch.

 
At Saturday, December 25, 2010 5:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dsong:

You are right that Arenas was "a serious talent in his prime"--but the question is whether or not he was truly an elite player. The answer depends on how one defines the meaning of "elite" and how one characterizes Arenas' impact during his prime. I define "elite" to mean one of the top five to 10 players in the NBA or, to put it another way, a player who likely is good enough to be the best player on a championship team. At best, Arenas was briefly among the NBA's 10 best players. I don't think that there is any evidence that he ever was good enough to be the best player on a championship team.

You are right that Arenas now has a great chance in Orlando to change the way that he is perceived. Former All-Stars like Bob McAdoo, Mark Aguirre and Antoine Walker accepted lesser roles in order to be key contributors to championship teams and Arenas has the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.

However, even if Arenas wins a ring as a reserve this does not prove that he once was an elite player--but it will demonstrate that he finally learned to value winning over other factors, something that I do not think was the case earlier in his career.

 
At Saturday, December 25, 2010 5:44:00 AM, Anonymous dsong said...

I think the word "greatness" gets thrown around way too often. At any given time, there's going to be maybe 2-3 players who will stand above the rest and achieve true greatness - the ability to lead his team to multiple championships. After that, it's all window dressing - there's a group of maybe 15 guys who are very good players, but either were never in the right situation or came up just short of the mark for one reason or another.

Obviously, Arenas falls short by the first standard while he meets the second one.

It's hard for me to tell whether Player A is the 5th best player in the league or the 15th. I'm pretty sure Dirk, Carmello, Arenas and maybe 10 other guys could have done what Wade did in '06 with similarly shady officiating. And there are probably a lot of guys who could have replicated what Paul Pierce did if he was playing with Garnett, Allen, and Rondo, along with a good supporting cast and coach. It all depends on the situation.

In short, I think "greatness" is a subjective measure that depends a lot more on context and situation than most people think. Talent alone will not achieve greatness. In Arenas' case, he may or may not have had the talent to become great, but he was never in the situation to prove himself.

Arenas has his chance now, so let's see. One thing I'm sure of: if Orlando is to actually the championship this season, they'll need Arenas to do something special. Just look at the roster. If he's just a pretty good sixth man, the team just isn't going to reach that level.

 
At Sunday, December 26, 2010 12:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dsong:

You are right that words like "great" and "elite" are overused. I also agree with your statement that at any given time there are just a handful of truly great players and then there is another set of a dozen or so players right below them. My point is that the statistical evidence, anecdotal evidence and "eye test" evidence all indicate that Arenas never rose to elite status. I don't see any reason to believe that he could have been the best player on a championship team; in the real world, I only saw him play in the second round of the playoffs one time! I seriously doubt that if Arenas had replaced Wade on the 2006 Heat that Miami would have won a championship. Arenas is too much of a high variance player, he is poor defensively and he just does not seem to be as dedicated to winning as the truly great players are. Arenas has always focused more on calling attention to himself or avenging perceived slights (his draft status, being cut from Team USA) than on trying to make his team better.

If Arenas helps the Magic to win a championship--which I don't expect to happen--he certainly will improve his reputation but unless he has a much bigger role than his current one he will not have proven that he could have led a team to a title as a first option player during his prime.

 
At Sunday, December 26, 2010 1:21:00 AM, Anonymous dsong said...

David:

Agreed on most of your points, though I do think Wade would be perceived very differently had the Heat not gotten the calls and suffered an early exit in '06. Situation and context often separates the "greats" from the "also-rans". I cannot emphasize this point enough.

We're talking hypotheticals here, but Orlando has to be considered a longshot to win the championship at this point. They're too flawed and need more than a Bob McAdoo, Mark Aguirre or Antoine Walker to win the championship - they basically need the Arenas of '06, along with a rebirth of Hedo Turkouglu, solid contribution from Jason Richardson and the emergence of Brandon Bass. Jameer Nelson is also a big concern and may need to be traded for some depth in the front line.

As for elite status, I maintain that there are three guys (Kobe, Shaq, and Duncan) who have proven that they deserve to be considered elite. No one else has achieved that. There are a lot of "what if" stories out there, which may or may not include Arenas - but at the end of the day, it's just one big shell game. You have to go out there and earn it.

 
At Sunday, December 26, 2010 10:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dsong:

Yes, Wade would no doubt be perceived differently had the Heat not won the 2006 championship but he has shown enough during his career that it is pretty obvious that he is a better, more dominant player than Arenas.

I don't think that even Otis Smith believes that he acquired the Arenas of 2006/2007. Arenas is not even starting for the Magic. No, Smith wanted to add some offensive firepower and some players who can create shots off of the dribble for themselves and others.

It is hard to argue against Kobe, Shaq and Duncan being considered the top three players of the post-Jordan era but LeBron's regular season production and the way that he led the Cavs to the 2007 Finals indicate that he has the capability to join that group; the way that LeBron quit during last season's playoffs is very disappointing not just to Cleveland fans but to anyone who appreciates greatness and does not want to see a great talent sell himself short in some fashion.

 
At Monday, December 27, 2010 8:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

First of all, I am glad to see the increased frequency of your writing. Although you may not have the readership of a Simmons or a Hollinger, I hope you do not underestimate the value of your commentary to those who are exposed to it.

Your exchange with Neil and several others on "basketball-reference.com" is interesting to me personally on many levels.

Before I discovered your blog I frequented Neil's site and several others like it; I took pleasure in the "advanced theory" and "definitive" conclusions offered by the "stat gurus," and thought I had discovered the definitive science to put all subjective argument to rest.

Unfortunately, as I delved deeper into the world of advanced basketball statistics I discovered two repugnant inconsistencies: advanced basketball statistics, for all their publicity, are far from infallible in their predictive ability; and it is possible, easy even, to either pick-and-choose or create whichever formula/statistic bolsters an argument.

If I wanted to argue, for example, that Dwyane Wade is better than Kobe Bryant, I could make a very strong case simply by cherry-picking certain advanced statistics; or, if I have the wherewithal, I could tweak an existing formula or create a new one to generate numbers that are conducive to my position.

I don't mean to suggest that Neil and others like him are being deliberately deceptive a la the above paragraph; however, the fact that these statistics can be manipulated to create evidence for virtually any argument is, I think, evidence of a fundamental deficiency.

 
At Monday, December 27, 2010 8:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Part 2)

As you correctly point out, the adequacy of a statistic/theory/postulate is predicated on its singular predictive accuracy. This is THE ONLY WAY to ensure that it is rooted in reality.

As I began to look for a correlation between these statistics and reality I started to encounter situations that did not make sense. This lack of predictive accuracy created in me a state of cognitive dissonance; I had a choice: either reexamine my initial assumptions about advanced statistics, or alleviate that dissonance with selective exposure to pro-statistical information.

I don't know if you are familiar with the theory of cognitive dissonance, but your exchange with Neil and others provides a superlative example.

Whether or not I agree or disagree with your postulate about Gilbert Arenas is, to me, irrelevant to the underlying theme of the exchange: advanced basketball statistics provide a perfect outlet for those who deal with cognitive dissonance through selective exposure.

For example, when responding to your body of evidence concerning Arenas (which is quite convincing, thereby creating a dissonant state in the minds of your opponents), your detractors do not break down your argument and address it piece by piece because if they did, they would more than likely find themselves to be wrong; instead, they choose one particular thread of your argument for which a decontextualized statistic can be presented and harp on that thread to further their flawed view (but not necessarily to "prove" you wrong). In this manner their statements are more deflections than arguments. Once you respond with context and real-world evidence they simply present another statistic and deflection, and so forth and so on.

Rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by your argument, they selectively expose themselves piecemeal to liminal formulas and statistics that allow them to continue to be "right." No one likes to admit their errors, and there is always another statistic that allows them to prolong the argument and never face facts.

I can relate to what they are going through because it was your site which first introduced dissonance in me, forcing me to reconcile my predispositions with reality.

For that, I thank you.

I share your desire for statistics to one day describe and predict basketball-based reality; but it is folly for the powers-that-be to insist that that state currently exists, and to attack anyone who suggest, argues, or proves otherwise.

But good luck convincing them that.

-David-

 
At Monday, December 27, 2010 11:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous/David:

It is only natural for people to look for and feel comforted by anyone who can provide definitive answers; this is true not only regarding evaluations of basketball players but also in politics, economics, medicine and just about any other field of human endeavor.

The "stat gurus" speak very authoritatively and with great conviction, plus they use numbers that seem very complex; those factors make it difficult for the average reader to fully comprehend what the "stat gurus" are really even saying, let alone figure out if the "stat gurus" are correct or not. In other words, while it is clear that the "stat gurus" believe that Gilbert Arenas was a very efficient player offensively during his prime it is not at all clear how much real evidence there is to support that assertion; as you astutely point out, it is very easy to manipulate numbers and/or selectively use data to support just about any conclusion.

I don't know if Neil and the others are being intentionally deceptive or not and, ultimately, it does not really matter; what matters is that the "stat gurus" are practicing faulty science: they cite numbers to make it seem like they are doing objective research but they are not subjecting their theories to any kind of rigorous testing.

You provided a perfect description of not only how Neil responded to me in the Arenas discussion but how virtually every "stat guru" who I have ever interacted with responds to my critiques: they use statistics out of context to try to deflect one small aspect of what I said instead of addressing my critique as a whole.

I don't know Neil personally so I have no idea if he is being deliberately evasive or if he simply lacks basic scientific training/understanding but the reason that I responded to his article and then linked to it here is that I really hope that thoughtful, intelligent people read these exchanges and see firsthand that the way that I evaluate basketball players and organize my theories/conclusions is fundamentally different from the methodologies used by the "stat gurus."

I don't have any expectation that what I wrote will persuade Neil to think differently; it is quite obvious that he is not analyzing this subject in the same fashion that you are: you are intelligent enough and open minded enough to consider all of the evidence in front of you and then make a logical conclusion, while Neil (as a self professed Arenas fan who also apparently believes very passionately in the effectiveness of "advanced basketball statistics") is far too emotionally invested in his beliefs to consider the possibility that he might be wrong.

I don't have an emotional investment in any particular conclusion; when Kobe Bryant was clearly the best player in the NBA I said that he should be the MVP and when LeBron James surpassed Bryant (at least as a regular season performer) I said that James should win the MVP, so it is amusing to read/hear some people say that I "love" Kobe and then to read/hear other people say that I "love" LeBron. I supposedly also "hate" Arenas because I have stated that he was one of the top 20 players in the NBA during his prime instead of supposedly being a top five player on the level of Kobe and LeBron. I chuckle at the nonsense--particularly when it comes from casual fans who have strong rooting interests--but I don't understand why some people get paid quite well to spew nonsense for major media outlets.

I am glad, though, that I have a cadre of dedicated, intelligent readers who find some value in my attempts to be one rational voice among the cacophony of discordant babbling emanating from so many magazines, websites and TV shows.

 
At Tuesday, December 28, 2010 12:40:00 AM, Anonymous dsong said...

When push comes to shove, the only true rigorous test to these statistics is to see who wins the games and championships. Alas, gamblers are way ahead of "stat geeks" in that area and I fully expect things to stay that way.

Where I really see the value with the stat geeks, however, is in fantasy sports. There, it doesn't really matter which team wins the game, nor does the context and situation matter - all that matters is whether a particular player piles up the numbers.

I think they can make compelling case as to why Wade was a superior fantasy player compared to Kobe during their respective primes. Their tools are perfect for breaking things like these.

So yeah, maybe Gilbert Arenas was an elite fantasy player in his prime. When it comes to real basketball, though, only Shaq, Duncan, and Kobe have reached the level of true elites inthe past decade and everyone else - including Lebron, Dirk, Wade, etc. - are still trying to get there.

 
At Tuesday, December 28, 2010 6:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dsong:

You may be right that Arenas was a better fantasy basketball player than Bryant a few years ago; I don't play fantasy basketball but I assume that the stats used in fantasy basketball are similar to the "advanced stats" that purportedly show that Arenas was comparable to Bryant circa 2007.

 
At Tuesday, December 28, 2010 12:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dsong's example is interesting in that it perfectly underscores the crux of the "advanced basketball statistics (ABS) vs. reality" argument.

The argument in favor of reality posits (with abundant evidence, I might add) that ABS fail to dovetail with the nuance of actual basketball interaction.

How appropriate then, that ABS can be prophetic in the case of FANTASY basketball: a perfectly decontextualized rendering of real basketball interaction where discrete results are king and circumstances are marginalized.

Does it matter to the casual fantasy owner how James Jones arrived at his 13 points on 4-6 three-point shooting? No, and why should it?

James Jones is a simplified example; most casual fans realize that his open shots are attributable to the defensive pressure dedicated to James, Wade, and Bosh. That being said, there are more subtle situations that are nonetheless analogous to James Jones in that the stat-line cannot--and should not--dictate context to the reader/analyst/statistician.

In other words, using the stat-line as a starting point from which one can extrapolate conclusions is illogical; but if one subscribes to this faux, splintered reality it is very easy to see how they could arrive at conclusions such as Arenas or Gasol's elite status.

It must be puzzling to "stat gurus" when players like Gasol and Arenas fail to place in MVP voting or when other statistically "elite" players are relegated to 3rd team All-NBA or worse.

-David-

 
At Tuesday, December 28, 2010 5:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

David:

One of those "subtle situations" involves why Gasol's FG% and offensive rebounding have increased since he became a Laker: Gasol has gone from being his team's first option who is often double-teamed to a second option who benefits from Bryant being double-teamed; therefore, Gasol often faces one on one coverage and/or has a free run to the offensive glass because the defense has trapped Bryant and is scrambling to cover the other four Lakers. Yet the "stat gurus" simply look at Gasol's raw numbers and conclude that Gasol is more "efficient" than Bryant.

 
At Thursday, December 30, 2010 9:25:00 PM, Anonymous dsong said...

Ironically, Arenas is putting up lousy fantasy numbers now but is making a huge impact on the Magic.

The team seems to go on a run every time he comes into the game and he has had a huge impact on others' productionk, J.J. Redick in particular.

It looks like the shoe is on the other foot now, and it'll be interesting to see how Arenas is perceived by stat geeks and old-school analysts - assuming he continues to make a similar impact on the Magic throughout the season and the playoffs.

 
At Friday, December 31, 2010 6:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dsong:

Arenas has played well for the Magic so far but I agree with what TNT's Kenny Smith said: this is a honeymoon period for the Magic but it is not yet clear that Orlando is better equipped to win a championship; let's see what happens when the Magic face some adversity and Coach Van Gundy has to yell at Arenas for the first time.

Of course, a lot can happen between now and May/June: if KG's injury turns out to be more serious than initially thought and one of Miami's Big Three gets hurt the Magic could end up winning the East despite their flaws. There is no doubt that the current version of the Magic is a very high powered offensive team even though they are a bit suspect defensively and lack size up front.

 

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