With all the talk of trading Allen Iverson, it reminded me of an interesting book review by Malcolm Gladwell. The book, The Wages of Wins, was written by a group of economists. It uses regression analysis to determine how many wins each player is worth his team. As usual, Gladwell’s book review is wonderful. Here is an excerpt (please read the full article to get Gladwell’s perspective):
“The first player picked in the 1996 National Basketball Association draft was a slender, six-foot guard from Georgetown University named Allen Iverson. Iverson was thrilling. He was lightning quick, and could stop and start on a dime. He would charge toward the basket, twist and turn and writhe through the arms and legs of much taller and heavier men, and somehow find a way to score. In his first season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Iverson was voted the N.B.A.’s Rookie of the Year. In every year since 2000, he has been named to the N.B.A.’s All-Star team. In the 2000-01 season, he finished first in the league in scoring and steals, led his team to the second-best record in the league, and was named, by the country’s sportswriters and broadcasters, basketball’s Most Valuable Player. He is currently in the midst of a four-year, seventy-seven-million-dollar contract. Almost everyone who knows basketball and who watches Iverson play thinks that he’s one of the best players in the game.
But how do we know that we’re watching a great player? …The fact that Allen Iverson has been one of the league’s most prolific scorers over the past decade, for instance, could mean that he is a brilliant player. It could mean that he’s selfish and takes shots rather than passing the ball to his teammates. It could mean that he plays for a team that races up and down the court and plays so quickly that he has the opportunity to take many more shots than he would on a team that plays more deliberately. Or he might be the equivalent of an average surgeon with a first-rate I.C.U.: maybe his success reflects the fact that everyone else on his team excels at getting rebounds and forcing the other team to turn over the ball. Nor does the number of points that Iverson scores tell us anything about his tendency to do other things that contribute to winning and losing games; it doesn’t tell us how often he makes a mistake and loses the ball to the other team, or commits a foul, or blocks a shot, or rebounds the ball. Figuring whether one basketball player is better than another is a challenge similar to figuring out whether one heart surgeon is better than another: you have to find a way to interpret someone’s individual statistics in the context of the team that they’re on and the task that they are performing.
In “The Wages of Wins” (Stanford; $29.95), the economists David J. Berri, Martin B. Schmidt, and Stacey L. Brook set out to solve the Iverson problem. Weighing the relative value of fouls, rebounds, shots taken, turnovers, and the like, they’ve created an algorithm that, they argue, comes closer than any previous statistical measure to capturing the true value of a basketball player. The algorithm yields what they call a Win Score, because it expresses a player’s worth as the number of wins that his contributions bring to his team. According to their analysis, Iverson’s finest season was in 2004-05, when he was worth ten wins, which made him the thirty-sixth-best player in the league. In the season in which he won the Most Valuable Player award, he was the ninety-first-best player in the league. In his worst season (2003-04), he was the two-hundred-and-twenty-seventh-best player in the league. On average, for his career, he has ranked a hundred and sixteenth. In some years, Iverson has not even been the best player on his own team.”