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[Ed. Note: Because of the number tables in this post, it is best viewed from a desktop/laptop computer or tablet.]

Dave Berri, Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University, sports economist and author of the books “The Wages of Wins” and “Stumbling on Wins” has long been a friend of 3 Shades of Blue.

Berri has been keeping our readers informed of his unique manner of evaluating players via his advanced statistical work at the blog The Wages of Wins Journal a lot longer than John Hollinger has been imploying his own blend of statistical measurements for the Grizzlies.

With the playoffs starting tonight we felt it was time to revisit our old friend and see how he views the series that most pundits predict will be the most hotly contested of all the first round games. As usual Dave gives the series a view often times at odds with traditional ways of looking at games. However, with the recent increase in advanced statistics taking hold in the Grizzlies front office, we felt it important to hear how Dave sees the series. We hope you enjoy reading his thoughts.

3SOB: The Clippers-Grizzlies had one of the most exciting series in the playoffs last year, they are meeting again this year in the 1st round. Which team do you feel should be the favorite considering their records are so similar?
Dave Berri: I think this is a little known aspect of this series.

The Clippers franchise has existed since 1970.  For much of this history, the Braves-Clippers have been awful.  So although winning 56 regular season games doesn’t qualify as the greatest season in NBA history, it is the greatest season in the history of this franchise.

Likewise, the Grizzlies have not exactly dominated the NBA since entering the league in 1995.  But like the Clippers, the 2012-13 edition of this team is the best in franchise history.

And that means this playoff series is a match-up of the best teams in the history of each franchise.

The question is who is responsible for each team’s success.

To answer that question we turn to Wins Produced (which I think your readers already saw).  According to theNBAGeek.com, here is the Wins Produced of the Clippers from this past regular season.

Clippers             Games     Minutes     WP48      Wins Produced
Chris Paul                70           2335         0.348           16.94
Blake Griffin            80           2598         0.178            9.66
DeAndre Jordan      82            2010        0.197            8.23
Matt Barnes             80            2058        0.166            7.13
Eric Bledsoe             76            1553        0.151            4.89
Lamar Odom          82            1616         0.107           3.60
Jamal Crawford      76            2230         0.065           3.04
Willie Green            72           1188          0.081           2.01
Caron Butler           78           1879          0.029           1.15
Chauncey Billups    22            418           0.111           0.97
Ronny Turiaf          65             701           0.061           0.89
Ryan Hollins           60             663           0.033           0.46
Maalik Wayns          6               37            0.073          0.06
Travis Leslie            0                0              0.000          0.00
Trey Thompkins      0                0              0.000          0.00
DaJuan Summers   2                7              -0.288         -0.04
Grant Hill               29             437            -0.030         -0.27

TOTALS                                                                          58.72

The most productive player on the Clippers – the person most responsible for this team becoming a contender – is Chris Paul.  Not only did Paul lead the Clippers, he was third in the NBA in Wins Produced (behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant).

Paul, though, was not a one-man team.  The Clippers also received above average production (average is 0.100 WP48) from Griffin, Jordan, Barnes, Bledsoe, Odom, and Billups.  The production of Barnes, Bledsoe, and Odom is especially important since this trio only combined to produced 0.3 wins last year (this is what Bledsoe did in 2011-12, Barnes and Odom were not with the Clippers last year). So it is the addition of Barnes and Odom – and the improved play of Bledsoe – that really made a difference this year.

For the Grizzlies we see the following:

Grizzlies               Games      Minutes     WP48      Wins Produced
Mike Conley              80             2757           0.195           11.20
Marc Gasol               80             2796            0.176          10.23
Zach Randolph         76             2607            0.161           8.75
Tony Allen                79             2109             0.169           7.42
Jerryd Bayless          80             1765             0.096           3.52
Quincy Pondexter    59            1243              0.130           3.35
Ed Davis                   36              544               0.239          2.71
Tayshaun Prince      37             1174              0.089         2.17
Rudy Gay                  42             1541              0.035         1.11
Marreese Speights    40             579                0.087         1.05
Wayne Ellington       40             676               0.055          0.78
Austin Daye               31            328                0.090          0.62
Jon Leuer                  19             96                  0.217          0.43
Chris Johnson            8              102                0.116          0.25
Keyon Dooling            7              82                 0.058          0.10
Donte Greene             0                0                  0.000          0.00
Willie Reed                 0                0                   0.000         0.00
Hamed Haddadi        13             87                  -0.008        -0.02
Dexter Pittman          7              20                  -0.456        -0.19
Tony Wroten             35             272               -0.042         -0.24
Josh Selby                  10              59                 -0.341        -0.42
Darrell Arthur           59             970               -0.054        -1.10

TOTALS                                                                           51.72

The first number we notice is that despite the Grizzlies winning the same number of games as the Clippers, the Wins Produced of Memphis is seven less.  This is because there is a difference in each team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency). The Clippers have a mark of 6.9, which is consistent with a team that wins nearly 59 games.  The Grizzlies mark of 4.5 (which again, is the best mark in franchise history) is only consistent with a team that wins about 52 games.  So this suggests the Clippers are the better team.

But the Grizzlies are still very good.  And the players primarily responsible for this performance include Conley, Gasol, Randolph, and Allen.  This quartet combined to produce nearly 38 wins, or all but about 14 of this team’s wins.

What we should also see from this above list is that Rudy Gay  — who has generally been below average across much of his career – did not do much for the Grizzlies this season before departing for Toronto (didn’t do much for Toronto either).  And one of the players the Grizzlies received in return – Ed Davis – was quite productive in limited minutes.  Since Tayshaun Prince was also a bit more productive than Gay, this trade helped the Grizzlies.

And we can see that in both the team’s record and team’s efficiency differential since the trade.  With respect to wins and efficiency differential, the Grizzlies are better without Gay.

But their differential of 4.9 since the trade (it was 4.2 before the trade) is still not as good as the Clippers.  And since the Clippers have home court advantage, the Grizzlies are the underdogs.

3SOB: Coaching is supposed to be a determinant in the playoffs. How much credit do you give coaches in general and Hollins and Del Negro in particular? Does either coach have an advantage coaching in this series?
DB: 
I am not aware of any study of playoff coaching.  We did look at the impact of coaching in the regular season.  And across 30 years of data we found that most coaches do not impact player performance.  For the most part, you are as good as your players.

3SOB: The starting lineups have some impressive players matching up. Let’s take a look at the point guard position. Chris Paul is highly rated in your WP48 ranking system but Conley has made great strides this season. How unusual is it for a player in his 6th season to raise his game so much from previous seasons and do you believe he is ready to take on this challenge?
DB: 
Players tend to improve until their mid-20s.  So it is not surprising that Conley has gotten better.  When we look at WP48, we see the pattern we expect to see.

  • Age 20: 0.037 WP48
  • Age 21: 0.118 WP48
  • Age 22: 0.080 WP48
  • Age 23: 0.135 WP48
  • Age 24: 0.171 WP48
  • Age 25: 0.195 WP48

Conley made a leap from year 1 to year 2.  He regressed a bit in his third year, and then has made steady progress.  He has been an above average point guard the last three seasons.  And in terms of Wins Produced, ranked 3rd in the NBA among point guards in 2012-13.  Unfortunately, Chris Paul tops this ranking.   So although Conley is more productive than Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall; he does offer less than his opposite point guard in this series.

3SOB: You have always had a lot of respect for Tony Allen’s game. What does he do that produces wins in your view?
DB: 
Wins Produced begins by looking at how the statistics tracked for players relate to teams wins.  Once we know these values, we then can measure each player’s production of wins.  The production, though, is weighted by the position a player plays.  This is done because different positions have different responsibilities.  Specifically, big men tend to rebound and do not tend to commit many turnovers.  Guards tend to do the opposite.

Once we understand this basic approach we can see why Tony Allen is considered above average.  Looking at his statistics (via theNBAGeek.com), we see that he has been above average (i.e. relative to an average shooting guard) with respect to rebounding (especially on the offensive end), blocked shots, and steals.  He is not particularly good at scoring.  But unlike other players who are not great at scoring (Allen Iverson – who was persistently below average from the floor– comes to mind), Allen doesn’t take a large number of shots.

One might argue that Allen’s low shot total is a liability.  But the supply of people willing to take shots in the NBA seems to exceed the demand.  In other words, it is not hard for NBA teams to find players to take shots.  Consequently, when teams lose players who take many shots (i.e. Carmelo Anthony leaving Denver or Allen Iverson leaving Philadelphia), we tend not to see much change in the number of shots the team takes (after the “star” has left).  And this is why Wins Produced (unlike measures like Player Efficiency Rating) doesn’t give players credit for just taking shots.  You only get credit if you can get shots to go in efficiently.

One last note on Allen…he is now 31 years of age.  His productivity has declined relative to what it was a few years ago.  So one should think about what he can still offer going forward.  Again, NBA players tend to peak around 25 years of age.  Once a player is past 30, they tend to offer much less (although there can be exceptions to this general rule).

3SOB: Griffin and Randolph look pretty even overall but Randolph hasn’t been the same player since his injury as he was before. How do you feel this matchup will affect the series?
DB: Across the entire season, Randolph and Griffin were fairly similar on a per-minute basis.  Across the last 10 games of the season, Randolph posted a 0.141 WP48 while Griffin had a mark of 0.117.  So again, both are above average.  Given these numbers, this match-up looks fairly even.

3SOB: Marc Gasol has been getting some notice as Defensive Player of the Year. Do you feel that is appropriate from his performance and why?
DB: A team’s defensive efficiency is driven by defensive rebounds, the opponent’s turnovers, opponent’s made field goals, and opponent’s made free throws.  Part of this can be linked to the individual player (defensive rebounds, steals, and blocked shots).  Part of this, though, seems harder to link to the individual.

In calculating Wins Produced, it is assumed that factors that can’t be linked directly to individuals are simply team variables that should be credited to all players on the team equally (weighted by minutes played).

So Wins Produced doesn’t tell us who is the best defensive player.  Hopefully, though, we will get to a point where we can either

a. link more of defense to individuals or

b. conclude that defense is really primarily a team activity (as Wins Produced currently assumes) and individuals cannot be credited for these factors

There is some evidence that (b) is the more likely story.  But I think there needs to be more research on this.

3SOB: I feel the benches are going to make the biggest difference in the series. Clippers have the experience but the Grizzlies may be more athletic. Who is going to make the biggest impact off the bench for these teams and who do you think should be more important than most people realize?
DB: One issue for the Grizzlies is which big man is coming off the bench.  Darrel Arthur has never been an above average player, and the same is true this year.   In contrast, Ed Davis has always been well above average.  If the Grizzlies can get away with playing mostly Randolph, Gasol, and Davis up front; that can help.  Certainly Arthur is not likely to help much.

For the Clippers, Ryan Hollins plays the role of Arthur.  Hollins has never been that productive.  So Hollins is not really helping the Clippers.

Beyond Hollins, though, the Clippers have some fire power off the bench.  Barnes, Bledsoe, and Odom – as noted – are all quite productive (Jamal Crawford – as has been for much of his career – really doesn’t help).

But I don’t think this is the key to the series.  The Grizzlies have some productive players off the bench (Davis and Poindexter come to mind).

What the Grizzlies don’t have is someone like Chris Paul.  Conley is a very good point guard.  But he is simply not as good as Paul.  And if Conley was as productive as Paul, the Grizzlies would be at least as good as the Clippers.

3SOB: Robert Pera and Jason Levien are telling fans that the Rudy Gay trade made the Grizzlies a team better suited for the playoffs. Do you believe there is a difference between the regular season and playoffs in how a team performs? Is there such a thing as a team built for the playoffs?
DB: 
The only research I have published on the playoffs examined whether or not a player could “turn it on” in the post-season.  We found no evidence that this happens.  For the most part, players are less productive in the playoffs (the competition is better).

Trading Rudy Gay for Ed Davis did make the Grizzlies a better team. And better teams do better in the playoffs. So in that sense, the owners are correct.

3SOB: Million dollar question: Who’s going to win and why? 

DB: Again, I think the Clippers – because of Paul – are the better team.  And they have home court advantage.  So I think Memphis fans might end up disappointed.

That being said… the Grizzlies could win.  Unfortunately, the winner of this series probably gets to play the Thunder.  And the Thunder would be favored over either the Grizzlies or Clippers.

In other words, the Grizzlies – as is true for 15 out of the 16 teams in the playoffs – are likely to end the playoffs disappointed.

While we here at 3 Shades of Blue can’t say we are pleased with his evaluation, we do appreciate Professor Berri taking time away from his students and writing to give us his perspective on the game.

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2 Responses to Working the Numbers with Dave Berri

  1. [...] at 3 Shades of Blue, the Memphis Grizzlies’ site for the TrueHoop Network, our own Dave Berri was asked to [...]

  2. CarlCRNo Gravatar says:

    The statics, experts and almost everyone else are picking the Clippers to win. So, the Grizzlies will win to prove them all wrong. This is not a scientific analyzed statement, even though I like statics and believe they tell a lot. What they don’t tell is who is more motivated and hungry to win. That, I believe, goes to the Grizzlies and their fans.

    Thanks Chip for the good article. The game starts at 5:30 AM my time. So, will hopefully catch the 2nd half.

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