The NBA All-“Ken Phelps” Team

As a would-be analytical writer, I am stuck in a kind of Twilight Zone of mediocrity. As a statistician, I cannot produce statistical work that would even pass the scrutiny of a Professor Berri 101 class, and as an essayist I cannot produce anything that would even come close to the literary work of Bill James.  But there’s hope for me. I think I am slowly improving, and I continue to be inspired by the writings of both men.

Last night, for instance, I reread a chapter from Bill James’ second to last Baseball Abstract, published in 1987. In it he listed his choices for his famous “All-Ken Phelps Team”.

Ken Phelps players, according to James, are players:

 whose real limitations are exaggerated by baseball insiders, players who get stuck with a label — the lable of their limits, the label of the things they can’t do — while those that they can do are overlooked. 

Reading James’ work got me to thinking about the Ken Phelpses of the National Basketball Association. Which players, in other words, tend to be underappreciated because of what they cannot do while the things they can do go overlooked?  Here are the players I nominated for my All-Ken Phelps NBA team:


PG: Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks

“He’s slow, old, and he can’t shoot a stone into the ocean from the pier”

  WS oppWS MWS W% W__L W>0.5% VALUE
J Kidd 10.58 6.49 2.04 0.849 9.5__1.7 3.9 13.4

Yes, Kidd.  Can you believe he would make an All-Underappreciated team. But he is underappreciated. Instead of recognizing Kidd’s all-around game, and his incredible basketball genius, critics of Kidd focus on his poor shooting and perceived lack of athleticism. Thus he never gets the credit for the incredible win production he provides every season for the Dallas Mavericks.

SG: Mike Dunleavy, Indiana Pacers

“He’s too slow, he’s unathletic, and too… white”

M Dunleavy 10.32 7.21 1.55 0.766 5.4__1.6 1.9 7.3

When healthy, Dunleavy has been an above average win producer his entire career. But few would know it, probably because of his early struggles with the Golden State Warriors. Dunleavy is an efficient and productive player who tallies wins, if not minutes played.  This season Dunleavy posted a winning percentage of 0.766%. I’d take that any day.

SF:  Shane Battier, Memphis Grizzlies

“Can’t get his own shot. Boring. Offensive liability. Lacking athleticism.”

S Battier 10.08 7.78 1.15 0.698 5.4__2.3 1.5 6.9
S Battier 8.92 4.68 2.12 0.862 2.1__0.3 0.9 3.1

This is a cliched choice, I realize. But nevertheless I think it is an accurate choice. Battier’s contributions consistently go unnoticed, or I assume they go unnoticed because they are never pointed out, and he’s been traded several times. Battier may not do any of the things that put fannies in the seats, but he does all of the things that put wins on the board. Why would you ever even consider trading a Shane Battier? If your goal is to win championships, you should be trying to acquire Shane Battiers not get rid of them (to paraphrase Bill James).

PF: Amir Johnson, Toronto Raptors

“He fouls too much. He has no range on his jumpshot. He’s uncoordinated.”

Am Johnson 13.23 11.53 0.85 0.647 5.0__3.8 0.6 5.6

This position was a toss-up between Johnson and the emergent Kris Humphries of the New Jersey Nets. But Johnson has produced on a more consistent basis than Humphries, so I chose him. Johnson has produced above average win stats throughout his entire career, but insiders still view him as a thick fingered hatchet man, with cymbals for hands, who does only a few things well and too many things poorly. This is an unfair characterization. The things he does well have always exceeded the things he does poorly. The problem is that insiders do not properly value the things he does well. But that is not Johnson’s fault. I was ecstatic a couple of summers ago when the Bucks acquired him from Detroit. But, in typical Ken Phelpsian fashion, the Bucks did not know what they had and traded him to Toronto before he even played a minute in Milwaukee. I wish they hadn’t.

C- Marcus Camby, Portland Trail Blazers

“Too skinny to play center. Huge offensive liability. Can’t shoot a lick.”

M Camby 17.69 9.83 3.93 1.169 7.6__(-1.1) 4.3 11.9

This was the easiest choice on the board. Camby has absolutely zero offensive game, but he is a mega-winner because of everything else he does on the court. He is a great shotblocker and rebounder, and he will mix in assists and steals as well. He has been a big producer for almost a decade, and I’ll bet you a significant number of fans think he left the NBA long ago. He’s got a ton of stickers on his luggage, but that’s only because GMs don’t recognize the value of peripheral production.


4 Responses to “The NBA All-“Ken Phelps” Team”

  1. Devin Says:

    Another cool post Ty!

    Amir Johnson is a current Raptor. Marcus Camby and Kris Humphries were former Raptors. Another Raptor in this vein is Reggie Evans, who probably won’t be back next season.

    Is it surprising that the Raptors are usually terrible?

  2. J.D. Mo Says:

    “The Charlie Bell Factor” is essential reading for those who look for unsung heroes and winners who post extremely low measurables. I’m sure that if you measure it out that Keith Bogans has had a similar effect with the Bulls, Afflalo with the Nuggets, etc. Low production guys that somehow get you wins when they are on the court but are doing relatively little that can be measured statistically.

  3. brgulker Says:

    Ty, you don’t give yourself enough credit. You run a fantastic blog. The type of work you’re doing isn’t popular in general; it’s not that your work in particular isn’t.

  4. jbrett Says:


    I’m with brgulker on this subject. You’re a consistently good read, and unlike most other sports analysts, you frequently look back to eras before advanced measures and attempt to quantify them in modern terms, which I particularly appreciate.

    As for this post, there are other labels that stick to Camby in particular, from the new ‘stats don’t tell you everything’ camps: He’s a rebound moocher, who specializes in ‘easy’ boards that teammates could get just as well, and sacrifices team defense to pad his stats. Kind of like saying Phelps’ slugging and on-base percentages were selfishly motivated–as if that made them less valuable to his team.

    It might be said that some bloggers are the Ken Phelps of their field–perhaps they themselves see it that way. As long as there are positives in what you do, and feedback should tell you there are, the weaknesses you perceive are just areas to work on–or, for that matter, ignore, if they don’t feel like part of your objective. I’ll keep coming back, and I doubt I’m alone. Keep up the good work.

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