Posts Tagged ‘Wilt Chamberlain’

Q: Who the hell is Cleveland Buckner? A: He’s the “JD Tippit” of the Chamberlain 100 Point Game

March 3, 2012

Following up on yesterday’s post, a couple more thoughts on the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point scoring night.

At least the Knicks made Wilt earn his 100

I ran ten simulated games on Whatifsports between the 1962 Knicks and the 1962 Warriors and the average effective scoring for the Knicks was (-7.9) points and for the Warriors it was (+3.5).  The highest effective scoring totals I could achieve for each team was (+6.5) for the Knicks and (+27.0) for the Warriors. On Wilt’s Big Night, the Warriors were (+28) and the Knicks were (+9).  So its theoretically possible that each team simply had an unusually hot night on that particular night. However, it would have been unlikely without some defensive laxity.  In the 10 game simulation run, I produced only one positive scoring night for the Knicks and five for the Warriors.  I produced no games where both teams had positive scoring nights.

Something else weighing somewhat in Chamberlain’s favor is the breakdown of his scoring.  First of all, the Knicks were making Chamberlain earn his hundred from the foul line.  On a normal night in the 1962 season, Chamberlain would have shot 26 free throws on 63 field goal attempts.  On this night the Knicks made him shoot 32, of which he made 28.  Moreover, Chamberlain must have fouled out the Knicks best defensive center, Darrell Imhoff, so he presumably was going against their second stringer, Cleveland Buckner, for most of the game.  And while Chamberlain’s teammates were clearly force feeding him in the second half (I have no problem with that), the Knicks were just as clearly playing some semblance of defense on Chamberlain, as Chamberlain went 22 for 37 from the field in the second half.  Yeah, that’s not great defense, but its not dunk after dunk.

Curiously Huge Scoring Night for a Knick named Cleveland Buckner

Here’s where I have a problem.  It appears the Warriors were giving up points on the offensive end to get more opportunities for Wilt on the offensive end.  In my mind, that’s “queering the pitch” as the British would say.

Here’s my evidence that everything wasn’t on the up-and-up. The three backups for the Knicks (Buckner, Dave Budd, and Donnie Butcher) combined to make 25 of 40 shots from the field (62.5%).  That’s 48% better than the 1961-62 NBA average.  If the 29-51 Knicks had that kind of scoring talent on their bench, they shouldn’t have been 29-51!!  Indeed, on a normal night in 1962, with the same shot mix from the same players, the three should have hit only 40.0%.  That’s a large increase in average, suggesting lack of contested shots by the Warriors (or possibly by Chamberlain himself) in the second half of the game, possibly for the purpose of getting the ball back faster to get shot attempts for Wilt (I’m assuming the second half is when most of the reserve minutes happened).  It’s sort of like deliberately letting the computer score in Tecmo Bowl in order to see how many rushing yards you could get for Randall Cunningham.

The box score contains even more evidence of potentially soft defense by Philadelphia.  Far fewer than average free throw attempts by the Knick reserves. Why is that evidence of soft defense?  On one occasion one of my basketball coaches came in to the locker room at halftime and he simply stared at the score book.  When he finally raised his head, he looked directly at me and screamed, “Ty!! Do you know how many fouls you have?!”  I was completely dumbfounded at the question and I replied timidly, “I don’t know… I think zero”.  I really didn’t understand what he was getting at.  He pounced on that answer, “Yeah, that’s right… you aint playin no defense!!”

If my ex-coach’s somewhat suspect logic is accepted as presumptive evidence of soft defensive effort (I still to this day won’t accept it as conclusive proof of lack of effort, but I will accept it as presumptive proof.  In other words, once established, then the burden would have shifted to me to rebut — in which case I would have cited my counterpart’s lack of inside shooting as explanation for my lack of fouling), then the Warriors “weren’t playin no defense” on two of the aforementioned 3 reserve Knicks: C Cleveland Buckner, and F Dave Budd (both inside players — pointing again to Chamberlain as the culprit).

Buckner, a reserve forward-center who didn’t even last one more full season in the NBA, and who shot just 43.7% from the field for his career, somehow went 16-for-26 against Wilt Chamberlain, and, since he was a big man with a low field goal percentage, one can assume that most of his shots on Wilt’s 100 point night were close-in shots.  If that is the case, and if you wanted to argue against the point that the Warriors were “laying down” on defense in the second half, then how would you explain the fact that in 26 field goal attempts, Buckner shot only 1 free throw!! If he were going to the line at his normal rate, he would have shot 10 free throws.

And then there’s the case of reserve Dave Budd.  Budd was a also a 43% field goal shooter who took about 0.4 free throws for every field goal attempt. Yet on Wilt’s night he shot 75% from the field (6-8) and took only one free throw attempt for his 8 field goal attempts.  So, combined, you have 34 field goal attempts, 2 free throw attempts, and 22 made field goals from a piss poor team’s two reserve front court players, where on a normal night you would have expected 34 field goal attempts to produce 14 makes and 14 trips to the free throw line.  So, either these guys both got peculiarly hot at the same time on the same night, or we someone or “ones” was letting them get to the basket in order to get Wilt more shot attempts.

So, all in all, here’s is what I’m going to conclude about Wilt’s 100 point night:

1. The Warriors force fed Wilt the ball in the second half to get him to 100 (which is fine);

2. The Knicks made him earn the 100 by putting him on the line; but,

3. The Warriors, and possibly Wilt himself, laid down on defense to get more scoring opps for Wilt in the second half, which in my mind taints the result.

Footnote:  While I could not find Cleveland Buckner’s college statistics, its interesting to find that he is 74 and he has a Facebook page.  Which is more proof that Donnie Deutsch was right to predict that some hipper social media site will soon displace Facebook.

Conditions made Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point night a bit of a sham

March 2, 2012

To commemorate Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point night that took place 50 years ago tonight, the radio show Mike and Mike in the Morning asked its audience to rank Chamberlain’s performance alongside other great individual efforts in a single sporting event.  Two of the events that the audience was asked to compare against Chamberlain’s point output were baseball’s two most immortal “perfectos”, Don Larsen’s perfect game pitched against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series, and Harvey Haddix’s incredible, tragic 12 innings of “perfect game that wasn’t” against the 1959 Milwaukee Braves.

Numbers say Chamberlain’s “Honey Spot” came under “All Star Game-Like” defensive conditions

Now, anyone who knows this blog knows I am anything but a Chamberlain basher.  I believe that, by the comparative statistical numbers, Wilt was either the most valuable NBA player of all time (in terms of wins plus wins above 0.500%), or he was the second most valuable player of all-time behind Russell (my tentative belief is that he was second behind Russell).  That said, a cursory look at the incomplete box score data from the 100 point game in the Chocolate City of Hershey, Pennsylvania (it was a home neutral game for Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors) shows that neither the Warriors nor the lowly Knicks (the Knicks finished the season 29-51) put out any defensive effort on that mythical March night in the year of American Graffiti.

How do I know?  I don’t… there’s no existing footage of the game.  But I can surmise with some degree of certainty what happened by examining the box score and comparing it to the story the existing data from the 1961-62 NBA season tells us about the scoring trends in that season.

In the ’61-’62 season, the NBA average “Effective Points” per game (meaning Points – FGAs – 0.5FTAs) was (-7.5), meaning there was not a lot of efficient scoring that season.  And neither the Warriors (-6.2) nor the Knicks (-10.7) bucked the trend (I don’t think any team produced more points than scoring attempts per game).  And when one considers that Wilt himself WAS an efficient scorer (+2.5) points per game, that means everyone NOT named Wilt would not have been expected to score the ball effectively. All in all, if the two teams were putting out an average defensive effort, one would have expected a total of (-16.9) effective points from the two teams and (-19.4) effective points from everyone not wearing #13.  That’s not what happened.

Instead, the two teams combined to score (+37) effective points — a whopping 53.9 effective points above what should have occurred under normal defensive circumstances.  Even more tellingly, when one removes Wilt’s (+21) effective points, one is still left with (+16) effective points from a bunch of players who should have produced (-19.4), another whopping total of 35.4 too many “effective points”.

So there was absolutely no defense being played on that night, and there is evidence of a farce.  The Knicks effective scoring total (+9) suggests the Warriors may have been actively “giving up” hoops to get the ball back so that the team could feed the ball to Wilt to get him to 100.

This blog is sub-titled “Evidentiary Sports Analysis”.  While its a clumsy phrase, I try to live by the proposition. In sports, the numbers usually provide the most objective description of what really happened. And in the case of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point night, the evidence suggests to me that his accomplishment might have been slightly undercooked.

By contrast, the numbers tell a different story for the Perfect Games. In fact the numbers suggest that those performances may have been even better than I imagined.

Haddix a bit better than Larsen… maybe

To pitch any perfect game, one needs a lot of luck.  No matter how great you throw, balls will be put in play, and one has to have a situation where the balls that would normally fall do not.  That’s a given.

So to compare the perfect games by Larsen and Haddix, I removed the element of defense.  Instead I examined the exact lineups each pitcher faced on the particular night and compared those two lineups according to the number of “pitcher bases” (meaning bases that can be exclusively charged to the pitcher — 4 bases on homers, 1 base on walks, and 1 base per hit bats men) each would be expected to produce for every “pitcher out” (meaning strikeout) the lineup would yield.  What I wanted to know was which lineup was filled with the “tougher” outs.

Before I answer that, let me say that both lineups, the ’56 Dodgers and the ’59 Braves, can be called “historically great”.  On those grounds alone, each pitchers accomplishment on his particular perfect or near perfect day was remarkable. The 1956 Dodger lineup featured the immensely underrated Duke Snider, the much appreciated Jackie Robinson, and Gil Hodges and others.  There was only one “easy” out in the Brooklyn lineup, and that was the pitcher Sal Maglie.

By contrast, the power in the Milwaukee Braves formidable lineup was concentrated in Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews (along with Joe Adcock and Del Crandall).  Remember, it was a regular season game late in May.  It wasn’t the World Series.  And so the Braves lineup that night had several holes or “banjo” hitters: SS Johnny O’Brien, RF Andy Pafko, and the pitcher Lew Burdette.

Even so, when you judge each lineup by its overall strength, you end up with a pretty even distribution of hitting weight.  In absolute terms, the Dodger hitters were a bit tougher, but not by much.  The Dodgers lineup in Game 5 produced 1.737 Pitcher Bases per Strikeout in 1956, while the Braves lineup that took the field at old County Stadium produced 1.615 Pitcher Bases per Strikeout in 1959. In short, both lineups were awesome.

Braves Lineup a bit stronger (in relative terms)

However, those numbers were produced in separate seasons.  They may, therefore, have been “pitcher quality” or park effect induced.  So, the true comparison ought to be against the average in the National League in the particular season.

If one does this, one finds that the ’59 Braves were quite a bit stronger and tougher to get outs against.  The 1959 Braves lineup, as presented to Harvey Haddix at County Stadium on that Tuesday May 26th evening, was +0.250 points above the 1959 National League average, whereas the Dodger lineup presented to Don Larsen at Yankee Stadium on that Monday afternoon, October 8, 1956 (YES… Game 5 of the ’56 Series was played on a weekday afternoon!) was “only” +0.025 points above the 1956 National League average.

So the relative edge would go to Haddix.  Then you consider that he retired 9 more batters without giving up a base than Larsen was required to retire, and I have to give the edge in “greatest” accomplishment to Haddix.

Of course, Haddix’s performance occurred during an ordinary weeknight game early in the baseball season, whereas Larsen’s happened on the largest stage in American sports at that time (with the possible exception of a Heavyweight Championship Fight).  That does lean toward Larsen, but I still give the slight edge to Haddix.  Indeed, Haddix performance came against a Brave team playing at home (where half of the above Braves statistics were produced), whereas Larsen was pitching at cavernous Yankee Stadium against a team that produced half of its 1956 numbers at their bandbox home park called Ebbets Field.

Slight Edge to Harvey

So, all in all, edge to Haddix.  But no one can doubt the accomplishments of himself and Don Larsen.  Both have earned and rightfully deserve their glorious status.

The main point of this post is that Chamberlain’s 100 point performance has not.  It was a lot less than the glittery three figure point total would suggest.  There was a bit of a sham going on that night in Hershey, Pennsylvania… the numbers sometimes lie, or rather the numbers sometimes get misinterpreted.

Holy crap… so far LeBron’s having the greatest NBA season ever!!

February 25, 2012

Using my estimate of what a player’s Marginal Win Score probably was, I believe the most productive individual professional basketball season (measured by wins attributed to the player) was Wilt Chamberlain’s 1967-68 season with the Philadelphia 76ers.  I estimate he posted a Marginal Win Score of +7.34 in 1967-68, that he was responsible for 19.9 of the Sixers 21 wins above 0.500%, and I gave him a Value Ranking of approximately 47.8, which is simply off the charts (last season’s Marginal Win Score MVP, Dwight Howard, had a Value Ranking of 33.4).

While my numbers are based upon estimates, for various reasons I think I am in the right ballpark with Wilt, but for historical reasons I thought a MWS of +7.00 was no longer achievable in the modern age (a player has to almost thoroughly dominate every opponent he faces to a productive degree that the pace of today’s game seemed to make unachievable).  Incredibly, I was wrong.

LeBron James is currently posting a Marginal Win Score of +7.35, just slightly better than the Marginal Win Score posted by Chamberlain in 1968.  I can’t really express how shocking this is.  Part of the reason Wilt was able to post such a high MWS is because he only played against a handful of opposing centers.  Thus, if he were more dominant than that small group, he could post big numbers over them night in and night out.

Somehow, though, LeBron is “Wilting” the opposing small forwards in the NBA.  He’s doing it mainly with extremely efficient scoring, coupled with his normal “stat box” full of positive winning statistics (or “Win Score” as we call it).  LeBron is averaging 20.14 points per 48 minutes more than his counterparts at small forward (82%) and power forward (18%), yet he is only using 12.8 more “scoring attempts” (FGAs +.5FTAs) per 48 to do it.  That’s an incredible “marginal” gap in efficient scoring.  Then you throw in the fact that he rebounds well for a small forward, and you especially add the fact that he hands out assists like a point guard, and you have yourself a mid-season that has been slightly better than Wilt’s brilliant campaign.

On the whole, I have LeBron producing about 8.7 wins and (-3.7) losses, which means he is responsible for +6.2 of the Miami Heat’s 10.0 wins above 0.500% (note= the Heat are 27-7.  In sports vernacular, they are “20 games above 0.500%, but in mathematical terms they have 10 wins above 0.500%.  20 wins above doesn’t work.  If you remove 20 wins, those must become losses, which would put the Heat at 7-27.  If you remove 10 wins, they are 17-17.  So when I say “Wins Above 0.500%” I mean literal wins above 0.500%.)

Let’s see if he can keep the pace up for the second half of the season.

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.

Constructing bad basketball arguments

December 29, 2009

As you know, I am currently reading Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball.  I’ve never had a literary experience quite like it.

Half of the book is so aggravating I want to tear the pages out.  The other half is so engrossing I can’t put it down.  And the other half (as Mickey Rivers would say) is just annoying (parts where he bullshits like a frat boy about this experience with some unbelievably well-endowed skank, or that night when he drank four gallons of beer upside down, or this trip to Vegas… yadayadayada).

How NOT to put together an argument

In general the book aggravates me everywhere Simmons attempts to make an objective argument.  And its never because I believe the argument is wrong.  Its because of the sloppy manner he uses to construct the argument.

Nearly every objective argument made in the book employs either irrelevant, misleading, or completely inadmissible evidence as its foundation.  I’ll give you a “for instance”.

One of the chapters is devoted to the argument that Bill Russell is a better player than Wilt Chamberlain.  That is an argument I am inclined to slightly believe (each outproduced his contemporary counterparts more dramatically than nearly any other player (excluding the other) I have yet been able to find in basketball history).

So why do I get so aggravated?  Here’s an example of the “evidence” he puts forth in support of his argument.

In this particular part of the argument he’s trying to establish the point that Wilt Chamberlain blocked shots for “dramatic effect” whereas Bill Russell blocked shots for a “purpose”, from which he concludes, somehow, that Russell’s shotblocking was more “effective” than Chamberlain’s.

“Opponents eventually gave up challenging Russell and settled for outside shots (my comment: where is the evidence for this contention?)… So Russell affected every possession without even swatting shots (my comment:  Does this even need a comment?  Its a completely unsupported opinion dressed up as a conclusion).”

–The Book of Basketball, page 70

There is page after page of this kind of bullshit.

Oh, another favorite devise is to base whole arguments on single opinion-based quotes from contemporary players, normally named John Havlicek.  For instance, the contention that “Russell was a better passer than you think” is based almost wholey on a quote by John Havlicek saying, essentially, “Russell was a better passer than people think”.

Oh, and his contention that Wilt Chamberlain “cared more about statistics than winning” is similarly based on various contemporary player opinions — with none of the opinions being either supported by hard evidence or critically examined for potential bias.

If those examples of sloppy argument construction aren’t enough, here is my absolute favorite.  According to Simmons, the information contained in the following quote functions in his Russell vs. Chamberlain chapter as the bloody glove functioned in the OJ Simpson case:

If you’re wondering how Wilt was regarded around the league, here’s the ultimate story: When San Fran shopped him in ’65, the Lakers were intrigued enough that owner Bob Short asked his players to vote on whether or not he should purchase Chamberlain’s contract.  The results of the vote?  Nine to two against!!

Nine to two against!!

How could anyone still think this was the greatest basketball player ever?  In the absolute prime of his career, a playoff contender that had lost consecutive Finals and didn’t have an answer for Russell had the chance to acquire Wilt for nothing … and the players voted against it!…  Seriously, would they have voted against a Russell trade in a million years?

–The Book of Basketball, page 76

Okay, first of all, how is a player vote even remotely relevant to who the better player was?  All we can conclude from that, if we can justifiably conclude anything at all, is that Chamberlain probably was unpopular.

But lets say Simmons is right, and the vote was indeed conducted by the players purely on the merits of whether it would be beneficial to each one of them to have Chamberlain join the Lakers.  Even then, such a vote result is easily explained if you look at each player’s probable self-interest.

Its been shown by Professor David Berri and others that in the NBA player salaries are tied to points scored, not to wins produced.  That fact was just as much in play in 1965 as it is today, and the players of that era knew it.  (evidence:  Listen to how players from every era talk nonsensically about “sacrificing statistics” for “winning”.  Even the Rhodes  Scholar Bill Bradley mentions this concept in his best-selling book.  But think about the comment’s facial illogic. Why would giving up any statistic at all be considered a “sacrifice” if giving up that statistic resulted in wins?  Isn’t winning every player’s goal?  Answer:  Because a certain statistic that DOES NOT correlate with wins, namely volume scoring, DOES in fact correlate with each player’s expected income.  Thus, from an individual player’s perspective, giving up “his numbers”, meaning his opportunity to score more points, in favor of things that actually produce wins, would indeed be a “sacrifice”).

Understanding this warped economic incentive, it makes sense that a team would vote against Chamberlain, but would be unlikely to cast a similar vote against Russell.  WhatifSports.com estimates Wilt Chamberlain’s 1964-65 usage rate (roughly the number of shots and free throw attempts per the available total while he’s on the court) at 34%.  That’s beyond the number of plays Brandon Jennings was using a month ago.  Taking on that kind of player — unless he guaranteed you a championship, and Wilt was not seen as such a guarantee — inevitably meant huge “sacrifices” for the existing players.

Compare that with adding Russell.  Russell had not only won several championships in a row at the time (and people have a tendency to believe the most likely “next winner” is someone they’ve already seen win in the past) his estimated usage rate in 1964-65 was a meager 14%!  That’s less than Luc Moute!

Placed in this light, the Laker player vote makes sense, without in any way buttressing — let alone clinching — Simmons’ “Russell vs. Chamberlain” argument.

EndNote

I’m running on and on with this post, so I have to end it here.  The point is, I can always be convinced to change my mind, but only by well-constructed arguments based on well constructed logic (premise-premise-conclusion) backed up by credible, relevant evidence.  I have no time or patience for bullshit circular arguments based on nothing, especially when said arguer is constantly patting himself on the back and observing how strong his arguments are. (that kind of shit gets me so frustrated I start complaining to no one in particular, like a crazy man).

I’ll get into the thoroughly enjoyable parts of the book — and there are many — in a subsequent post.