Archive for the ‘NBA History’ Category

Correcting the ABA-NBA “equality” myth

January 9, 2010

Since reading Bill Simmons views on the history of the ABA and how the ABA favorably compared to the “too white” NBA when both were in existence (all of this, of course, written in his Book of Basketball) I wondered “How did the NBA actually compare to the ABA?” and “Were the NBA and ABA ever truly equal?”

A lot of people — not just Simmons — believe that in the last waning years of its existence the red-white-and-blue ball of the ABA caught up to, and perhaps even dribble drove right past, the traditional NBA orange ball we all grew up with and love.  Was that possible?  Was the NBA the inferior league?

Those that believe that point as evidence to the ABA’s growing dominance over the NBA when the rival Association’s faced off during the 1971-75 exhibition seasons.   The two leagues played a total of 155 times, yielding increasingly positive results for the upstart as the series went on.

Sure the ABA got their asses kicked pretty badly in the first couple of years, but the ABA and its supporters could legitimately brag that they indeed won the majority of the exhibitions in each of the last three years and actually won the overall series 79 games to 75.

Does that mean the ABA was actually better than the senior NBA?  Not so fast.

You can’t compare two leagues by simply pointing to a series of games and saying the bare results hold the comparative truth.  The truth does not arrive until you adjust the results so that one’s apples are being compared to the other’s apples, not its Buffalo Braves.

What nearly all who point to the ABA-NBA exhibition results as proof of ABA equality fail to mention is the location of the games and the matchups.  Since the NBA did not want to “legitimize” the ABA with a lot of games in NBA arenas, an overwhelming majority of the games were played in ABA gyms and were therefore officiated by ABA refs.  Thus to have any comparative value whatsoever the scores must first be adjusted to account for homecourt advantage.

Moreover, to get a true feel for the relative strength of each Association, you have to “neutralize” the two teams playing so that each game can stand as a reliable comparison.  The games weren’t match ups of relative equals like the Big Ten-ACC challenge in college basketball.  The NBA often used bottom feeder clubs in the exhibitions (the Lakers didn’t play in a single NBA-ABA game) while the ABA kept its bottom feeders at home and instead sent its marquee clubs.

So you must account for those disparities when considering the exhibition results and I below I did that.  And the new outcomes I came up with put the lie to any notion of ABA equality until the very last days of ABA basketball (1976 the ABA drew even after it contracted itself down to its “cream” six teams).

Here’s the method  I used.

Utilizing Country Club Scoring to Settle the Issue

To give a clear accounting of each Association’s strength with relation to its rival, I just applied golfers logic to all of the exhibition results.

When two golfers are of uneven strength the pair “handicap”  the score to create the illusion of even competition.

Similarly, I used Basketball-Reference’s “Simple Rating System” to adjust the exhibition outcomes so that, to the extent possible, every single game matched a fictitious “Average ABA team” versus a fictitious “Average NBA team” on even footing.  (So for example, in 1971-72 the Bucks were something like +10.0 points above NBA average on the Simple Rating System, so for every Bucks exhibition the Bucks had to give ten points and so on).

After that I gave +3.4 points, the standard Vegas homecourt adjustment, to the visiting team.  If the game was a “semi-home” game I gave +1.0 point to the visitor, and for seemingly “neutral” site games I gave nothing.  Given the passion that reports say the games brought to ABA arenas, that more than probably understates the value of homecourt advantage, but its close enough.  (Note that I threw out several games to keep the comparison legitimate.  For instance I threw out all of the Atlanta Hawks games in which they suited up Dr. J, and all of the Virginia Squires from that exhibition season that did not feature the Doctor).

The “New” Results

Here are my new adjusted results season-by-season:

1971-1975ABA-NBA Exhibition

Handicapped Results

ActualNBA

wins

ActualABA

wins

NBAPoint

Spread

With

handicap

ABAPoint Spread

With

Handicap

NBARelative Winning% ABARelative Winning%
1971-72 (21 games) 14 7 +5.1 -5.1 .648%(13.6 wins) .351% (7.4 wins)
1972-73 (30 games) 22 8 +8.4 -8.4 .745%(22.3 wins) .255% (7.7 wins)
1973-74 (24 games) 9 15 +4.6 -4.6 .633%(15.2 wins) .367% (8.8 wins)
1974-75 (22 games) 7 15 +4.7 -4.7 .637%(14.0 wins) .363% (8.0 wins)
1975-76 (48 games) 18 30 +0.5 -0.5 .513% (24.6 wins) .487% (23.4 wins)
OVERALL (145 games) 70 75 +4.1 -4.1 .620% (89.9 wins) .380% (55.1 wins)

ABA was about 80% of the NBA

As  you can see, the adjusted results paint a different picture than the one propagated by ABA enthusiasts, one of more prolonged and consistent NBA dominance.   At no point prior to 1976 was the ABA anywhere near the NBA’s equal. (note:  “Relative Winning %s” for each Association were determined according to each season’s adjusted average point differential — which I for some reason referred to as “point spread”… sorry — and the number of games a fictitious team would likely win with such an average point differential — using this formula).

The results, I think, need to be read in two year increments.

It seems in the first two exhibition seasons the NBA thoroughly dominated, both actually and in adjusted terms.  Then in the next two seasons the ABA leveraged the matchups and locations but nevertheless the adjusted point spreads — which ended up being remarkably similar despite the sundry adjustments — painted a continuing picture of dominance, albeit adjusted dominance.

Then in 1975-76, the year before the merger, the ABA placed itself basically on equal footing with the NBA.  Based upon the results I would go so far as to say all six of the ABA teams that were then on-going concerns were in fact NBA worthy teams — not just the “ABA Four” that were ultimately allowed to merge and that continue to this day.  The Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis could have been very respectable NBA franchises, and their fan bases were deprived of that chance (although the owners of the Spirit cut one of the most famous and best “buy-out” deals in the history of contract law).

What happened in Year Two?

The one result that makes no logical sense is the second exhibition season.  Even though it was the second longest exhibition schedule, the results were out of whack with the rest of the series.  The NBA simply whooped up on the ABA.  In fact the adjusted result would have been even worse had I not thrown out five NBA wins that were tainted by Dr. J’s weird decision to sign with — and play two exhibitions for — an Atlanta Hawks team that had no write to sign him — notwithstanding that he was still under contract to the ABA Squires (your Milwaukee Bucks owned his NBA rights.  How on Earth his agent advised him that signing with the Hawks would somehow have a constructive result no one has ever explained to my satisfaction.  If I were the Bucks or the Squires I would have hit the Hawks with a tortious interference action, not just an injunction.  They had no colorable right to Julius Erving… they just decided to sign him and play him!)

I really don’t know what happened or why the NBA delivered such a beatdown.  I think it may be an aberration.

Or perhaps it has something to do with the strength or waning strength of the homecourt advantage enjoyed by the ABA that season.  At any rate, if you adjust the 1973-74 results and put them in line with the (+5.1) point advantage held by the average NBA team over the average ABA team in the preceding season, then the final result would favor the NBA by about +3.7 relative point advantage.  That would mean over the entire existence of the ABA we could conclude that the average NBA team was about +3.7 points better than the average ABA team.

No big deal?  Actually that’s pretty substantial.  That translates into a winning percentage advantage that would be about +20.2% on average.

This I think is the correct ABA equivalency number — somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% less than the NBA.  I think that way because it would comport exactly with another study I did of the Win Score production of 25 random ABA-NBA performers which I outline below.

ABA-NBA Win Score comparison

I used Professor Berri’s basketball analytic known as Win Score to compare how 25 of the biggest ABA stars did when they played in the NBA.  The group of 25 I came up with either were named to the “All-Time ABA team”, are well known, or were mentioned by Bill Simmons as prominent ABA players in his Book of Basketball.

ABA-NBAPerformance Comparisons

using Win Score / 48

ABA NBA
Julius Erving, F 18.39 14.08
-23.4%
Rick Barry, F/G 10.65 9.15
-14.0%
Billy Cunningham, F 15.06 12.73
-15.5%
Spencer Haywood, C/F 21.30 13.18
-30.1%
Connie Hawkins, F/C 17.89 12.86
-28.1%
David Thompson, G/F 11.23 9.78
-13.0%
Zelmo Beatty, C 17.40 14.02
-19.0%
George McGinnis, PF 16.18 12.92
-20.1%
Artis Gilmore, C 21.21 16.78
-20.8%
Charlie Scott, G 4.49 2.12
-52.7%
Dan Issel, C/F 12.94 14.06
+8.6%
Bobby Jones, F 17.28 13.41
-22.4%
Billy Knight, SG 12.21 8.72
-28.5%
Maurice Lucas, PF 11.64 11.66
+0.0%
George Gervin, SG 10.64 8.49
-20.2%
Jim Chones, PF 14.72 10.15
-31.0%
Swen Nater, C 19.45 15.87
-18.4%
Super John Williamson, SG 2.13 1.69
-20.6%
Ron Boone, G 5.98 4.17
-30.0%

Marvin Barnes, F

15.56 7.92
-49.0%

Caldwell Jones, F/C

16.29 11.37
-30.0%

ML Carr, F/G

10.21 8.04
-21.2%
Larry Kenon, F 12.45 11.69
-6.1%
Don Buse, G 10.18 8.11
-20.4%

Tom Owens, C

13.85 10.94
-21.0%

20.2% Rule

As you can see, nearly every one of the 25, save for Dan Issel, saw a decline in his productivity when he brought his game to the NBA, with the average decline being 20.2%, and the median being 20.8%.

So everything seems to come up “20% reduction” when evaluating the strength of the ABA visavis the NBA.  Even Dr. J took a 20% haircut when he made his famed jump to the senior circuit.

But none of this should be read to diminish the achievements of the ABA.  Frankly, I’m stunned at what they were able to accomplish, given the fact that they were somehow able to run a respectable “Shadow NBA”, paying top dollar for talent, when they had little attendance money and no television money to draw upon.  Frankly, they had some balls to give it a go.

And give it a go they did.  And bare this in mind Bucks fans.  Without the ABA, there’s probably no Milwaukee Bucks.  The Bucks improbable bid for franchise came as part of the “panic response” sudden expansionist movement the NBA undertook after the ABA tugged at its contented tail.

So thank you ABA.  But just don’t try to say you were equal to the NBA.  You weren’t.  Not till closing time you weren’t.

Footnote: I just found an eerily similar but much better written piece comparing the NFL to the AFL using virtually the same techniques and some of the same kind of data. (my writings getting so sloppy lately.  Like I told you, I have this weird habit of mirroring the linguistic patterns of the author I’m reading at the moment and at the moment I’m reading “Mr. Everything’s a Digression”.  I gotta throw that fucking book away now. But it has given me a lot of ideas for posts that don’t begin with “The Bucks STILL can’t shoot” so I owe it that much.)

Did Bill Walton deserve the 1978 MVP?

January 3, 2010

In Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, he includes a chapter entitled “Most Valuable Chapter”.  In it he speculates about who the most dominant players were in every era in NBA history (what he calls “Alpha Dogs”).  Part of this analysis includes an evaluation of whether or not particular NBA MVP awards were justified.

One of the awards Simmons calls into question is Bill Walton’s 1978 MVP award.  Walton’s 1978 MVP award falls into the subset of awards Simmons labels “Fishy But Ultimately Okay”.

The Brief Age of the Mountain Man

Simmons does not question Walton’s dominance in 1978 nor his dominance over a small window of time surrounding 1978, but rather Simmons calls Walton’s award into question because Walton only played 1929 minutes.  Simmons writes that “its hard to imagine anyone qualifying for MVP after missing 24 games”.  (see, The Book of Basketball, page 234)

Simmons then argues the case for and against Walton, and compares Walton’s 1978 credentials to the credentials of the MVP runner-up candidates from that season. Ultimately Simmons concludes that while he would be cautious about granting an award to a part-time player, none of the runners-up presented strong enough claims to call Walton’s choice into question.

The 1977-78 NBA MVP Race using Win Contribution Index

It so happens that last summer I did Win Charts for every 1977-78 NBA team.  As part of every Win Chart I do, I always calculate every players “Win Contribution Index”.  (Please refer to the “Win Charts” page for explanation).

WCI is tailor made for “player value” issues like the one that arose in the 1977-78 MVP Race.  That’s because WCI melds each player’s performance level, wins produced, and minutes played into one single numerical expression of the player’s overall value to his team.

The Index comes in handy in 1977-78 because in that season the NBA’s two best “performers” (by Player Win Average) were centers Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Yet neither led the NBA in “Win Credits” because each was limited by injury. (as you will see, the Win Credit champions were Bucks rookie Marques Johnson and George Gervin of the Spurs).

Yet each of the two big men still played pretty substantial minutes and played those minutes at a high level, so each must be considered for MVP.

But how to weigh each player’s relative value?  Enter WCI.

CLICK HERE to see the 1977-78 MVP race according to WCI

Kareem a bit more valuable than Walton

If you look at the chart you will see that Kareem barely edges out Bill Walton for overall WCI value.  While Walton was the more productive statistically, Kareem’s extra 300 plus minutes of action allowed him to make a higher positive impact on the Lakers than Walton made on the Blazers.

Does that mean Walton did not deserve the MVP?  No. The value margin is so close either player is a worthy choice.

And from a practical standpoint, Kareem never really had a chance.  First, his team won only 45 games.  Voters hate that.  Second, there’s an unwritten rule that a player who wins the award must have had a better season than his last season.  Kareem’s numbers were down from the season previous.  Finally, Kareem won no friends when he sucker punched the rookie Kent Benson early in the season.

The ROY scandal of 1977-78

The true scandal of 1977-78 was the Rookie of the Year award.  The winner, SG Walter Davis of the Phoenix Suns, had a very nice season.  But according to me Milwaukee Bucks PF/SF Marques Johnson had a tremendous season, maybe one of the best rookie campaigns ever.  I have him as the third most valuable player in the entire NBA in 1977-78.  There is no way he should have been denied the Rookie of the Year.

According to Marginal Win Score, Walter Davis had an MWS48 of +1.73, and he produced 8.5 wins and 1.3 losses for the Suns, with a WCI of +0.227.  Those are all outstanding numbers, especially for a rookie.

But they don’t match up to Marques Johnson’s numbers.  As the chart shows, Johnson had an MWS48 of +3.36, he produced 12.3 wins and (-1.4) losses, and had a WCI of +0.469.  In short, all of his production numbers were superior to Davis.

Even Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares system, a system that tends to undervalue possession creation (which was Marques Johnson’s strong suit in 1978), has Johnson as the more productive player.  By Win Shares, Johnson produced 10.6 wins in 1977-78 while Walter Davis produced 10.1 wins.

Of course, none of that really matters.  Its long been known that one statistic overwhelmingly determines who wins Rookie of the Year:  points per game.  And in that area Davis was clearly superior.  Marques Johnson averaged 19.1 ppg that season while Davis finished with a 24.2 ppg average.  (The players think that way as well.  According to this famous Sports Illustrated story, Walter Davis won the ROY vote among players in a landslide.  Johnson and  the Bucks got revenge in the playoffs, making the Suns a first round “See Ya” victim).

Interestingly, neither player ever really fulfilled their rookie promise.  Both had nice careers, but when you make the kind of splash that the two of them made in your first season, “nice careers” are a bit of a disappointment.  One could argue that both Davis and Johnson never again matched their rookie seasons.

ABA Superstar Infusion

If you notice, the MVP chart provides strong evidence to support Bill Simmons contention that the 1975-76 NBA season, the last season before the ABA merger, was the most watered down season in NBA history.

Of the 10 most valuable players in 1977-78, only 3 were even active NBA members two seasons earlier in 1975-76, and one of them (Bill Walton) spent most of that season on injured reserve.

Meanwhile, 6 of the 10 most valuable players were active ABA members in 1975-76.   Does that mean the ABA had more talent than the NBA?  No, I don’t think so.  I think the ABA talent pool was extremely top heavy.  If you look at the production numbers for ABA players in the season after the merger, you will notice that those numbers almost uniformly shrank by right around 20%.  (If you look at the pythagorean wins for the Spurs and Pacers, you find the exact same thing.  Denver actually did better in their first NBA season, but I would argue that was because they enjoyed the greatest home court advantage in history.   The Nuggets won 36 of 41 at home that season, but were well below .500% on the road.  If you normalize their home numbers, you get the same 20% reduction in wins you get with the Spurs and  Pacers).

The Great Debate: Russell vs. Chamberlain

January 1, 2010

As you know, I am currently reading The Book of Basketball.  If you’re an NBA fan, its a fun book, filled with basketball information and provocative arguments, along with a buttload of cultural references. (note: What’s with Simmons obsession with the movie Boogie Nights?  There are — and I’m not exaggerating — at least a dozen references to the movie or its central character in the book.)

Russell or Chamberlain?

One of the early chapters in the book raises the greatest argument of all among NBA fans:  who was better, Boston Celtics C Bill Russell or Phi/SF/LA C Wilt Chamberlain?  In the book, Simmons argues that Bill Russell was better.  In a prior post I criticized the nonsensical way Simmons put together his argument, but remained agnostic regarding his conclusion.  Today I am prepared to say that while the evidence is close, I agree that Russell was the better “win force” than Chamberlain. (I take no position on who had more “basketball skill”.  That is an impossible question to answer).

Applying  Historic Marginal Win Score (MWS48)

I reached my conclusion after painstakingly constructing Career Win Resumes for each player using a version of the Marginal Win Score metric (explained in a separate Page on this blog) I call “Historic Marginal Win Score”.

I will write another Page explaining Historic Marginal Win Score, but for now I’ll just say that it is the same as MWS48 except it relies on inductive reasoning and historical precedent to fill in the statistical gaps that one encounters in every NBA season prior to 1977-78.  For the main bit of missing information, Opposition Win Score, it works kind of like this. If I know I have a “2″ (Team Win Score) and I know the final answer is around “5″ (Pythagorean Wins), I can conclude that the missing number is probably around “3″.  That’s way more simplistic, but its the gist.  (The process also relies on “defensive position placement” that’s usually arduous but in this case is actually easy because I know both of these players spent all of their minutes at center.  I’ll explain the process of placement when I do the Page).

The Results

Here are the Career Win Resumes I came up with for both players:

Click Here for Bill Russell

Click Here for Wilt Chamberlain

MWS48: Russell was the larger “win force”

As you can see from the two resumes, Bill Russell — according to Marginal Win Score — was the slightly larger “win force” (if you will).  Meaning, throughout his career, and on a per minute basis, Russell outproduced his contemporary opponent centers by a bit more than Wilt Chamberlain in the categories that correlate with wins.

In a “typical” season for Bill Russell (for all the following numbers and terms, please refer to the “How to Read Win Charts” page in the blog column), the big man posted a Marginal Win Score per 48 of +6.10, he produced 20.2 wins for his team and (-7.2) losses, he was responsible for 13.7 wins above .500% (meaning if you added him to a 41-41 team, he would typically make that team a 55-27 team… absolutely Ruthian impact), and his Win Contribution Index would be +1.010.   In Chamberlain’s “typical” season, he posted a Marginal Win Score of +5.08, he produced 20.6 wins and (-5.4) losses, he was responsible for +13.0 wins above .500%, and his Win Contribution Index would be +0.932.

So while Chamberlain produced slightly more wins in a typical season, he needed nearly 400 more minutes per season to do so.  Thus in my opinion — while the decision was a close one — Russell was nevertheless the more valuable player.  Russell was more efficient with his marginal production, and Chamberlain’s extra minutes, while valuable, could not overcome that fact.  (Please also note that part of the reason for Chamberlain’s win advantage was that in Russell’s first three seasons the NBA played only a 75 game schedule).

Russell also gets the advantage because he was more consistent.  Up until his last two seasons, he produced MWS48s of +5.00 or better every single season, with most seasons being +6.00.  To get a feel for how awesome that kind of production is, check out the Win Chart from last season’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

As you can see, last season’s NBA MVP, LeBron James, had an MWS48 of +6.00, remarkable production.  By my estimates, Bill Russell averaged better than that for his career.  Repeat, he outproduced his opponents, on average, at a rate slightly better than LeBron James did in his spectacular 2008-09 MVP season.  Absorb that.  (Also, don’t get the idea in your head that Russell produced such awesome numbers only because he had some astronomical physical or athletic advantage over the 1960s competition.  Not so.  Go on Youtube and search “NBA 1965″ and watch some of the Celtic games that pop up.  Russell doesn’t even really stand out in physical terms.  And he played most of his career against high caliber centers the likes of Chamberlain, Zelmo Beatty, Wayne Embry, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, and Jerry Lucas.  In other words, he was not picking low hanging fruit.  He couldn’t shoot well, but he produced points, assists, and Rodman-like rebound numbers by playing with phenomenal passion and intelligence).

Chamberlain had the best single season

If you notice, while Russell has the better career average MWS48, in 1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain turned in the best single season when he somehow recorded an MWS48 of +8.11 and produced 28.7 wins for a 76er team that many rank among the greatest teams of all time.  I have not calculated the Win Credits or MWS48s for more than a handful of seasons, but I would venture to say that Chamberlain’s 1966-67 season was hands down the greatest single season of all time.

A close runner-up, however, was Bill Russell’s 1964-65 season when he recorded an MWS48 of +7.75 and produced 26.0 wins for that outstanding Celtic championship team.  Another great season, obviously.  If you want to see the Win Credits I calculated for the entire ’65 Celtics, click here.

Chamberlain’s apparent inconsistency

Chamberlain’s Win Resume shows that he did not become the mega dominator that we remember him to be until he left his initial team, the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors.  Why that is, I have no idea.  The Warrior teams that featured Chamberlain were very sometimes poor defensive teams, especially considering they had a 7’1” force in the middle.  Chamberlain must take some of the blame for that, and MWS48 gives it to him.

Once Chamberlain left the Warriors, it was mostly all uphill.  He had three of the most dominant seasons in NBA history when he wore the “Phila” jersey of the 76ers, and he continued at a high level when he moved his act to Los Angeles.

In fact, the curious thing about both Chamberlain and Russell’s careers are they both retired while performing at a level that could be deemed “elite”.  Unlike Kareem (and Shaq for that matter), who sort of hung on until there was nothing left of his productive capacity, Chamberlain and Russell seem to have either believed that one shouldn’t play past a certain age, or that they did not want to play anymore if they could not play at least close to the stratospheric levels they played at in their primes.  (Click here for an interesting post on the aging of NBA stars)

Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares disagree

This summer the Basketball-Reference.com blog did a similar “fill in the blanks” calculation of wins produced by players prior to 1977-78 which they call “Historical Win Shares”.

Their results strongly disagree with mine.  According to their calculations, Wilt Chamberlain was the far superior win producer.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that Historical Win Shares considers Bill Russell to be just a “very good” player, not a great one.

A comparison of the numbers bears this out.  While MWS48 estimates Russell produced 263 wins, Historical Win Shares estimates that Russell only produced 163 wins — obviously, a huge difference.

If you make the logical assumption that a player is responsible for 1/5th of a game every 48 minutes of action, and if you make the further assumption that a player is either producing wins or he is producing losses, then you can easily translate the results into wins and losses produced.

Bill Russell’s Career Wins Produced

Win Shares: 163.5 wins and 6.1 losses; .964% winning percentage

MWS48: 263.1 wins and (-93.5) losses; 1.551% winning percentage

Less than Tim Duncan?

Let’s put Russell’s numbers in perspective by comparing Russell’s winning percentages under the two systems to a similar contemporary player. Compare his winning percentage to Tim Duncan’s career winning percentage under Win Shares:

Tim Duncan’s career wins produced

Win Shares: 156.0 wins and (-14.3) losses; 1.100% winning percentage

MWS48 (roughestimate): 149.7 wins and (-8.0) losses; 1.056%

Those numbers show Win Shares regards Tim Duncan as a greater win force in his era than Russell was in the 1960s.   While MWS48 basically agrees with Win Shares on Duncan’s win impact, you can see that MWS48 believes that Russell’s career production and win impact far exceeded Duncan’s.

Which win credit system is right?

That’s an easy question to answer.  Neither.  There is no “right” in this case.  There are only ideas and estimates based on those ideas.  The rest is conversation.

We will never settle the debate.

That said, I am more than happy to argue for a calculation that concludes that Bill Russell was a better than “very good” win producer.

When Bill Russell joined the Boston Celtics in 1956-57 they were a decidedly average team (1955-56 Pythagorean: 38-34).  Immediately upon his arrival the team won its first championship.  During his career the team went on to win 10 more championships in 12 seasons.  Immediately following his retirement the same roster minus him slumped under .500%, and the Celtics did not win another championship for six seasons.

How much of that was due to Russell?  MWS48 would argue that quite a bit of it was due to Russell, but that’s for you to decide.

The “With and Without Youtest

Another unscientific test I like to use to judge how accurate MWS48 is at describing a player’s win impact is to look at the player’s team the season before and the season after his arrival.

In 1955-56, the Boston Celtics recorded 37.6 pythagorean wins and they were last in the NBA in opponent points per game.  In Bill Russell’s first season, with virtually the same roster plus Russell, the team improved its Pyth wins  total to 48.6, plus 9 wins.   Win Shares credits Russell with producing 6.2 wins that season, MWS48 credits Russell with 11.4 wins.  About equally off, with one shooting too high, the other two low.

In 1968-69, the Boston Celtics  recorded 55.2 pythagorean wins, with Win Shares giving Russell 10.2 and MWS48 giving Russell 17.1.  The very next season, with basically the same roster sans Russell, the Celtics recorded only 36.4 ptyh wins — (-18.8).  MWS48 seems to capture the impact better.

Chamberlain’s career is less helpful because Win Shares and MWS48 agree most of the time.  In Chamberlain’s first season the Warriors improved by 14.4 pyth wins.  Win Shares credits him with 17.0 wins, MWS credits him wit 16.5 wins.  Both are in the ballpark.

In Chamberlain’s first partial season with the 76ers the team improved by +10.1 pyth wins.  Win Shares gives Chamberlain 7.6 wins with the Sixers, MWS48 gives him 9.0 wins.

In Chamberlain’s first full season with Philly the team recorded 21.6 more pyth, and Win Shares seems right on the mark, crediting Wilt with 21.4 wins that season while MWS48 gives him 24.6 wins.

What happened to the Warriors in his absence?  In his final full season with the team, Win Shares credits Chamberlain with producing 25.0 wins, while MWS48 credits him with 22.3 wins.  In their first full season without the Dipper, the Warriors recorded only 33.7 pythagorean wins, compared to 53.1 in his last full season with the team (-19.4 wins).

Finally, in Chamberlain’s last season with the Lakers, the team recorded 18.4 more pyth wins than they would record in their first season without him.   In this case Win Shares seems dead on the money, giving Wilt 18.2 wins in his last season with LA while MWS48 is not far off, giving him 20.1 wins.

The results are not decisive, but it buoys me that MWS48 is, in every instance, right in the ballpark. (I’ve tested elsewhere in history — for instance, the Blazers last season with Bill Walton and first without — and gotten similarly encouraging results.  Not decisive… encouraging.)

Conclusion

The long and short of it is that Historic Marginal Win Score finds that Bill Simmons argument that he made in his Book of Basketball, namely that Bill Russell was the more valuable player than Wilt Chamberlain, was accurate.  MWS48 thinks it was close, but that the nod goes to Russell.

But not everyone agrees.  Other metrics, namely Basketball-Reference.com’s Win Shares, believe Wilt Chamberlain was the far more valuable player.  Win Shares believes that although the Celtics won 11 world championships during Russell’s tenure, and although their roster turned over at least three times in that span, Bill Russell was not even as valuable to the Boston franchise as Tim Duncan has been to the San Antonio franchise. (You like the Straw Man I built?)

Which “win credit” system comes closer to the truth?  That’s for you, the jury, to decide.

However, if you ask me whether I am comfortable resting the validity of the MWS48 system on the argument that Boston’s Bill Russell was the greatest win producer in NBA history, my answer to you would be a resounding “yes”.

Footnote:  If you are interested in seeing Historic Marginal Win Score applied to an entire season from the Chamberlain-Russell Era, click here.

PS — if you ever wondered how you could construct a team that included two of the absolute greatest players of all time and yet never even sniff an NBA title, go to the above link and click on the Cincinnati Royals.


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