In Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Portland Trail Blazers blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter and were eliminated by the Lakers. The biggest culprit in the loss was FFH favorite Rasheed Wallace
, who missed a bunch of field goals consecutively in the second half (A sportswriter buddy/Laker fan remembers it as nine). At one point in the fourth quarter, the Blazers missed 13 straight field goal attempts. Wallace authored six of those bricks. It was the worst single-game choke job in recorded playoff history. It was also proof, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Rasheed Wallace is a great player. We judge great players by how they perform in the huge moments. A large part of that is simply the inclination to take big shots; remember the Michael Jordan commercial?
Our little network of blogs seems to be abuzz about this Malcolm Gladwell
article from the New Yorker, a discussion of basketball Sabermetrics. And the NBA Finals seems as good a time as any to discuss what makes a great basketball player. I don't have an actual answer to this question, but it's fun to talk about.
Gladwell leads his piece with Allen Iverson, who may or may not be overrated. Iverson is a volume shooter, a guy who can go for 50 points one night and need 23 shots to score 30 points another. Sabermatricians and old-school guys alike would probably agree that this is a pretty inefficient way to play basketball. According to the metrics, however, Iverson is a drain. But when the 76ers reached the NBA Finals in 2001, the conventional wisdom was that his team was so good at offensive rebounding that Iverson's copious misses acted as passes. That might not be bullshit, in that Philly was fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounding that year.
The Sixers won the first game of the 2001 Finals, with Iverson scoring 48 points. He never scored more than 37 in the Sixers' four straight losses.
Everyone is acknowledging that basketball is the hardest sport in which to judge individual impact. Ben tracked down the actual formula for "win score
," and it seems really complicated, adding and subtracting lots of different statistical categories. The good folks over at 82games.com
, were the first pioneers in the field. Their general approach is to measure the team's performance when individual players are on the floor. There is a contradiction in the two approaches. Win scores tend to de-emphasize points, arguing that lots of factors lead to a valuable contribution. The 82games method uses points as the primary measure of team success.
Certainly there are the measurables. But intangible factors have so much to do with team success that an over reliance usually leads to a world of pain for team. Take the Blazers post-2000. They were extremely talented and could match up with Shaq and the Lakers. But their players didn't get along and actually kept going to jail. The team started losing in the first round every year. This year the Blazers lost 61 games.
Teams function properly over the long haul when every player understands and buys into his role on the team. That's a cliche. But if two guys believe they're the No. 1 scoring option, they'll make it very difficult for players 3-5 to get enough shots. And some players are great individual players and terrible teammates. Stephon Marbury may be the ultimate current example. But some guys need to be in the right situation. Cuttino Mobley struggled in Sacramento because he didn't trust the ball would come back to him after he gave it up. So he simply made sure that he got his shots, to the detriment of the team's offensive sets. But Mobley was fine in the more structured system employed by the Clippers, and made that team better. Knowing what guy is going to work in a given situation is tough to quantify.
Which brings me back to Rasheed Wallace. He is unafraid to shoot in the big moments. And his teammates like having him around. Not surprisingly, he was considered the reason that the Pistons went from good team to championship caliber team. And in the playoffs, after he turned his ankle and stopped playing well, the Pistons went from championship caliber to not very good.
One other note on the overpaying of basketball player: The NBA financial system, as designed in the collective bargaining agreement, is logic-option. Some teams can pay a free agent more than others. Also, every multi-year contract is back-loaded, so deals that make sense in the first two seasons often don't after that, when they are more damaging. The first round of maximum contracts following the 1999 CBA are unwieldy for the first few years before entering the realm of the insane. The Kings paying Chris Webber $14 million in 2001 was acceptable. The Sixers paying him $21M next year on the back end of that deal is obviously ridiculous.