Assessing Player Value – The Case of Dirk Nowitzki

(this is cross-posted at Wages of Wins).

Bill Simmons is out with his MVP picks. Like everyone else, he’s got Durant-James one and two. No one is really going to argue with that. At number three, he’s got Blake Griffin who, as I’ve said before is a very good but increasingly overrated player. He hasn’t declined. It’s just that the hype about him is now far exceeding his actual contributions on the floor. Fourth is Joakim Noah, who is a terrific player. And No. 5 is Dirk.

That’s who I want to talk about. According to Wins Produced, Nowitzki is about the 50th best player in the league. Lots of people don’t like WP. It squares poorly, in some cases, with people’s perceptions of who is a good basketball player. And we love us our perceptions. By wins produced, Terrence Jones and Kenneth Faried were substantially better players than Nowitzki, to name two fellow power forwards. And well, that just can’t be, because Dirk is great, a unique blend of size and scoring touch.

A common criticism of Wins Produced is that it fails to account for the ways in which high scoring players attract attention from defenses, thus opening up teammates for easier shots. Efforts at identifying the “Kobe assist” exemplify this tendency to value scorers even when they are low percentage shooters. They must, the thinking goes, be helping their teammates, even when they are missing. How else to explain the Philadelphia 76ers improbable run to the NBA finals behind the low efficiency but nevertheless highly valuable Allen Iverson?

Simmons credited Nowitzki with helping an underrated team overachieve, with clutch shooting, and with great “intangibles.” Nowitzki is certainly an excellent shooter. No argument here. The other parts of his game are not great, however. He is a good passer for a big man. He’s also a below average rebounder for his position. There’s no evidence that he’s a particularly good defender. He’s a good, though not great player, primarily because he’s a good shooter, much better than the average power forward from distance and from the line. But taken as a whole, there is no compelling statistical case that he’s anything like a top five player. Implicit in the case for Nowitzki being one of the best players in the league – one of the most valuable – is that he has to be making his teammates better. His game must be opening up possibilities for them that they would not have were they playing alongside a lesser go-to player.

How do we evaluate that? One way is to look at the performance of players who were elsewhere last year and joined the Mavs in the off-season. Dallas had three major contributors in 2013-14 who played for other teams in 2012-13 – Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert and Monta Ellis.

Two of those three players – Calderon and Dalembert – are really good and definitely helped Dallas win games this year. The third, Ellis, is an overrated player, but I include him here because he’s getting a lot of credit for the team’s success and he played the most minutes on the team by a wide margin.

So, how did the three key transplants do? Is Nowitzki’s value evident in their play, as critics of WP have often suggested must be the case about players to which WP ascribes less value than does conventional wisdom?

In turn:

Jose Calderon. He was a plus point guard this year. There is no doubt he made the Mavs better than they were a year ago. But did they make him better? There’s scant evidence of that. Calderon played at an extremely high level in 2012-13, while splitting time with the Pistons and Raptors. In fact, no measurable part of his game improved this season and his assist totals notably plummeted. He was a fantastic shooter from three-point range this year – over 45% – but it’s hard to chalk that up to Nowitzki, since he was slightly better last year from downtown (46%).

Monta Ellis. As I said, Monta Ellis is an overrated player. His scoring totals are good because he takes a lot shots, not because he shoots efficiently. In 2012-13, with Milwaukee, he shot especially poorly. This year, he shot like an average shooting guard. But don’t get excited about a Nowitzki effect. He was just returning to his career norms as an average shooting shooting guard (yes, I meant to write shooting twice there). One thing Ellis does better than the typical shooting guard is dish out dimes. He did that at an almost identical rate in 13-14 as he did in 12-13. He also turns the ball over more than is normal for shooting guards and this year he was worse than ever in that department. He doesn’t rebound well either. All in all, Ellis produced this year at almost exactly the same level he did a year ago.

Samuel Dalembert was a very productive player for the Mavs this year. But guess what? On a per minute basis, he was more or less as productive in 2012-13, when he played for the Milwaukee Bucks? Should we give Brandon Jennings credit for his 12-13 play? The big difference between this season’s version of Dalembert and last season’s was that he played double the minutes. Unless Dirk is doubling as the team’s trainer, it would be hard to credit too much of Dalembert’s increased productivity to the big German.

Brandan Wright and Shawn Marion were two other very valuable players for the Mavs this year. Wright, plagued by injuries throughout his career, managed to stay on the floor more than usual this season. And Marion was really good just like he’s always really good.

In sum, I don’t know how you get from how Nowitzki actually performed and how his supporting cast performed to fifth in the MVP balloting As is often the case, when evaluating players, pundits take a guy who performs very well in one statistical category, pretend they’re ignoring that category, and then conjure up a bunch reasons why that guy is really so valuable and why anyone disagrees is spending too much time focusing on stats. Of the guys on the team who got substantial minutes, Nowitzki led his team in two categories – free throw percentage and scoring average.

If he improved his teammates dramatically from a year ago, it’s not obvious from any available data. Yeah, yeah, but you have to watch him every night. Guess what? If you’re making that argument, you’re disqualifying yourself as a voter, unless you watched every other player every night, too.

Dirk’s a good player. He’s nowhere close to top five.

Clown show

Mark Emmert was on Mike and Mike this morning with Jorge Sedano and Mike Golic. Sedano tried to get in some meaningful questions – he asked Emmert about the origins of the term “student-athlete” as a response to the threat of worker compensation claims. But most of the twenty-minute segment was a forum for Emmert to spout his increasingly desperate sounding pabulum about the NCAA’s commitment to change and to its athletes.

Some especially choice comments:

- about transfer rules, Emmert purported to agree that they were unfair. He said: “You don’t want to be punitive to an athlete who makes a change, obviously, but you don’t want to have coaches recruiting people off other people’s benches.” This absolutely classic NCAA stuff – in order to prevent the coaches from engaging in improper practices, we’re going to punish the players. Brilliant. In professional sports, they have this thing called “tampering.” Why can’t the NCAA have such a rule? Hint: their main concern isn’t coaches recruiting off each other’s benches. It’s about restricting player movement to increase control over them.

- Emmert repeated that he’s not a dictator. The NCAA is just an amalgam of its member schools subject to the decisions and preferences of its members and decisions take a long time to make. Or they don’t get made at all. Fine. But if your argument for why you can’t do a better job of meeting the players needs – which you profess so much concern for – is that you preside over a slow, unwieldy apparatus, you’re only adding to the players’ case that some other mechanism might be necessary to prompt the changes you say you favor. Like mandated bargaining. Only if you are incapable of conceiving of the players as adults with minimally valid rights would you believe that there are only two possible choices – 1) either wait for the NCAA to spend years at a time ruminating over issues like “full cost of attendance”  2) or DESTROY THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.

- Not surprisingly, Emmert’s least coherent comments came when he tried to address all of the horrible things that happen if unionization were to come to pass. He claimed that universities would no longer cover health insurance because that would be covered by workmen’s compensation. Totally, Mark. No employers in the United States cover health care. I am sure that you, for example, as an employee of the NCAA must rely solely on workers’ comp to cover your own medical bills.

(not making that up. He actually said that).

Dr. Emmert also said that such a decision would “completely” change the relationship between coach and player, because he would no longer be “a coach, a teacher or a mentor.” Exactly, just like there are no coaches in the NFL or NBA.

But my favorite one, which has gotten less attention in the twitterverse than it should is that since they don’t allow “public unions in parts of the South” he “guessed” they’d be “scab labor.” Absolutely. Every single public employee in the southern United States, including yours truly, is a scab, because state laws prevent us from collectively bargaining. Again, not making that up. He actually said that.The whole interview was an embarrassment, from his insistence that recent changes have nothing to do with the unionization effort, to his pathetic claim that many universities would just go to Division III sports if unions became a reality – you wanna bet, Mark, that schools are not going to walk away from these gargantuan television contracts? – to his idiotic statements about scabs and health insurance.This is what happens when you try to defend the indefensible.

Just like the rest of us

A quick pet peeve, while working on a post about the all-important issue of why Bill Simmons was dead wrong to say that Dirk Nowitzki is the fifth most valuable player in the league.

James Harden said yesterday that he wouldn’t shave his beard for a million dollars. This touched off a discussion on Mike and Mike this morning about what people would and wouldn’t do for a million clams. All fine and in good fun. At one point, Greenie noted that a million dollars isn’t actually all that much money for Harden, who signed an $80 million contract last year. Real money, for a guy like Harden might be more like ten million bucks. Greenie then averred that Harden is atypical in this regard, and that for “most of us,” a million bucks is a lot of dough.

The pet peeve – celebrity sports talking heads talking about players’ salaries, wealth and so forth as if they are “just like us.” News flash. They’re not. As best as I can tell, Greenie and Golic make $2.5 million per year. According to the Census Bureau, in 2012 median household income in the United States was about $51,000. That means that, roughly speaking, the two Mikes each make fifty times the median income in the United States. Greenie and Golic aren’t one-percenters. They are in much more rarefied air than that – they are 0.1 percenters, among a relative handful of the most well remunerated Americans. I know a million dollars isn’t pocket change, even for them. But the bottom line is that they live lives of wealth and privilege that most people cannot fathom.

The coin of the realm in sports talk radio continues to be how well you communicate that you are an “every man,” just another sports junkie who happens to have a platform that most people don’t, from which you speak for the masses of (mostly) guys who are just like you. Golic is in a bit of a different position because he’s a retired pro athlete, understood to be different in that critical respect from virtually all of his audience. Both Mikes do, however, play to their base when it comes to discussions of wealth and money. So as Golic often says, “just stop it.” You’re not like us. I don’t personally begrudge them their salaries at all (I think people who make that kind of money should pay more in taxes, especially since it turns out the world doesn’t end when they do, but that’s another story). Our elite sports commentators are not every men. They are celebrities in every sense of that term, including in how differently they experience money than do ordinary Janes and Joes.

On this score, I think it would be more honest to drop the faux populism.

Reform!

The NCAA’s Legislative Council approved a rule change today that will allow Division I athletes “unlimited meals and snacks in conjunction with their participation.” The change takes place effective August 1 and will be a supplement to the standard meal plans that athletes already receive. Within hours of UConn’s national championship victory last Monday night, star senior guard Shabazz Napier said he often went to bed hungry and he’s not the only high profile college athlete to say so, and juxtaposed to the evermore lavish and commerically-drenched spectacle that is the NCAA tournament, caused college athletics another embarrassing round of bad publicity.

The NCAA announced other new rules as well, including a longer break time for football players during preseason camps.

The immediate impetus for these changes would appear to be the looming threat of unionization is terrifying the NCAA. The announced reforms today are, in the grand scheme of things, trivial fixes. But there is mounting pressure on multiple legal fronts. As I wrote last week, the mere prospect of unionization will induce changes, since the member schools no longer have *all* the leverage in their dealings with the players. The Northwestern vote next Friday remains very significant. Even if the players vote not to unionize, though, the NCAA will remain on the defensive. Today’s changes are small potatoes, but they are nevertheless the actions of an increasingly desperate enterprise.

Floodgates

John Calipari just told Mike Greenberg that if you allowed basketball players to go straight to the NBA, they would start blowing off their classes in high school, and you’d have “thousands” in that position.

Yeah, thousands. Or maybe five or six or so a year. Same dif…

Can we have a remotely honest and grounded discussion about these issues?

Update: Coach Cal is making a big push to re-brand “one and done.” Henceforth, he wants everyone to use the phrase “succeed and proceed,” which sounds like a fancy way of saying “guys will leave school when they think they’re ready.” He can blather all he likes about an education, but forcing all athletes to stay in school for an extra year, as he now says he endorses, is not about an education at all. It’s about helping coaches more predictably manage personnel decision, i.e. recruiting. I appreciate his push to ensure that parents of less well-off kids could be flown to tournament games and such, but extending the age limit by a year is not in the interests of the athletes. It’s sole serious purpose is to extend further control over the players. No one should be fooled by this, even if Coach Cal sounds deadly earnest. At least the NBA folks pushing to increase the age minimum aren’t pretending they are acting in the interests of the players.

Odds and Ends

Two quickies:

1) forgive me – I only caught the tail end of it, but Greenie was expressing something close to amazement this morning while reading from an article discussing analytics in baseball. Specifically, he was wowed by an analysis of optimal lineups that suggested that it made most sense to scrap the traditional lineup for one that maximized plate appearances at the top for a team’s best hitters. For example, if Miguel Cabrera is your best hitter, don’t bat him clean up just because that’s a traditional power spot in the lineup. Doing so will cost him about 18 plate appearances over a full season relative to batting third, and 36 relative to the second spot in the order.

Greenie used this piece as a jumping off point to say that every pro team is using this kind of analysis now, which is fair enough. As it happens, though, the specific discussion of lineup optimization, which Greenie had clearly never heard of before, has been part of the discussion for a good decade or more now. Clearly, being part of the highest profile sports radio program in the United States does not require being informed about this kind of stuff.

2) The NCAA’s talking points about how to respond to the challenge of unionization has surfaced and is getting lots of attention.

I responded to some of those on Twitter yesterday, so you can check that out here.

Happy Passover to all who are celebrating/observing.

Pat Fitzgerald, Educator

Last week, Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald voiced very strong opposition to the formation of a players’ union in his program. He said, among other things, that he was an “educator,” not an “employer” and that this is not “what I signed up to be.”

No word yet on whether Fitzgerald would resign and walk away from his $2 million plus annual salary, if the players voted to unionize. It’s important to remember in all this that the question of whether the players are employees has already been settled. If they vote not to unionize, their status as employees – they are – will not change, unless Northwestern is successful in its appeal of the NLRB’s regional office ruling. Most commentators have regarded that outcome as unlikely.

In the meantime, I can’t help but note that if Pat Fitzgerald and major college coaches in general are educators, they are *highly* unusual ones.  I myself am an educator by profession, and there is very little that my job has in common with Pat’s. I also have lots of friends who are educators, both at the college level and in K-12. I can say confidently that the nature of Fitzgerald’s work would be unrecognizable to them as well.

For example:

1) that salary – it’s the equivalent of 10-40 years of pay for the range of educators I know personally. No one I know is in the ballpark, the parking lot or the highway on the way to that playing space.

2) Fitzgerald’s charges, according to the NLRB ruling, are required to secure his approval before they are allowed to seek outside employment. I have zero say over what my students do outside the confines of whatever course they are taking with me. Again, I speak confidently for all my other educator friends in this regard.

3) Northwestern football players are also required to provide detailed information about what kind of car they drive. This would be extraordinarily unusual in the typical teacher-student relationship, unless the teacher happened to be the parent of the student in question.

4) when the players, I mean students, maintain social media accounts, they are prohibited from denying a friend request from their coaches, so that they can have their activities on those sites monitored. See above, under “except for parents.”

5) NW football players are required, in their first two years, to live on campus. According to the NLRB ruling, “Only upperclassmen are permitted to live off campus and even then they are required to to submit their lease to Fitzgerald for his approval before they can enter into it.”

Again, I know of no student-teacher relationship in which such an arrangement would be conceivable.

I also know of no teacher who has control over a student’s scholarship. Academic scholarships are under the control of university administrators, or programs under their charge. In no case that I am aware is a teacher empowered to revoke a student’s scholarship.

Fitzgerald is, to be fair, also in a highly unusual position for an employer, because most employers do not exercise the extent of control over their workers in contemporary America that college coaches do. But that’s because the employment model in major collegiate athletics is an anachronistic one, more characteristic of the nature of work in the once commonplace company towns than it is of work in the 21st century.