Build me a winner rev. 1.1 now with the Salary Cheat Sheet

Posted on 09/01/2010 by


As previously stated this will be a work in progress and I will be making additions as needed. Complicating things is that Hurricane Earl knocked out my home internet so updates will happen during the day. Here’s take 1.1 of the Build me winner algorithm.

“All right, what do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” –And the Band Played On

Friend of the blog, co-conspirator and instigator extraordinaire Andres Alvarez (He of nerdnumbers & Automated Wins Produced) comments:

Loving it! So as a GM would you agree with the following strategy. Find a superstar player, position doesn’t matter but age does. Now try and fill your roster “around” the player is the order of Center, Point Guard, Power Forward, Small Forward, Shooting guard. Also try and add depth to your roster in the following order. Would such a strategy work as a general heuristic? Last but not least hope the league isn’t super awesome your year (sorry Utah!).

This is not the first time something like this has been asked and it made me think of writing down a simple algorithm of how I would build and run an NBA team for success. So what follows is the “Build me a Winner Algorithm” for the NBA take 1.1 (Now with the Salary Cheat Sheet).

A winner? Whatever you say Mr. Steinbrenner.


This article uses Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] to evaluate player’s performance.* This measure uses three key components to evaluate a player:

  • The player’s per minute box score statistics
  • The player’s team’s per minute box score statistics
  • The average performance at the player’s position (PG, SG, SF, PF or C)

A full explanation can be found here. To give a general scale, an average player has a WP48 score of 0.100. The very best players in the league usually have a WP48 over 0.300. To put this in perspective; an average player who plays a full season at 40 minutes a game would generate around 6.83 wins for their team.  In contrast, a player posting a 0.300 WP48 would generate about 20.5 wins at 40 minutes a game over an 82 game season.

I may also talk about the half-baked notion and Wins over replacement Player (WORP).

The Data

Let’s review first: what do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?

  • Wins are a direct result of the marginal absolute productivity of the players on the court as measured in point differential (margin of victory).
  • Wins produced uses regression to build a causal model for wins based on the statistics available in the standard boxscore.
  • There are multiple factors and contributions (let’s call this player productivity) that go into scoring a point and the boxscore reflects a significant portion of these factors.
  • Wins are a function of Point differential
  • Point differential is a function of Player Productivity as measure in the boxscore stats and actually it’s a function of marginal player productivity (i.e. how much better your player’s on the court  are than your opponent’s )
  • Wins can thus be modeled as a function marginal player productivity
  • Wins Produced uses regression to build that model and can be shown through correlation to be successful.
  • The Short Supply of Tall people. Big Men (F/C) are on average more productive than everyone else . They in fact account for 50% of all productivity.  This makes it harder for a center to be better than the average and thus accumulate wins in our model but this is not out of step with the reality of the situation.  Teams also have a lot more at risk with their big men. It’s also much easier for a team to accumulate negative value at center and power forward because there is much more at risk.
  • The Short Supply of Ball Handlers. Average Center and Point Guards have over time been much more valuable to teams than any of the other positions. Over the last 5 years the difference between an average center and a replacement level one  is 4 more wins than the same at shooting guard (and 2 at Point Guard). The short supply of tall people is really not a surprise however the short supply of ball handlers is.
  • The best individual seasons generally come from players playing with the team that drafted them (or the #$$%@%@ Lakers)
  • The draft is not a place for quick fixes. Impact rookies are a rare breed. There have been 330 rookies selected in the top 10 since 1977and less than 15% of these rookies – who were generally considered “hot prospects” – have made substantial impact (>8 wins) his rookie season (and only 13 of the 33 players chosen with the first pick). If we look at the top 25 draft picks ever, the average pick of the top 25 is 12.24. Only 3 were the top pick (Magic, Robinson & Shaq) and only seven were in the top 3 picks (and none at number 2). This, and the fact that 8 of the top 25 were picked at 20 or later, strongly suggests the league in general is not very skilled at pinpointing incoming talent. The probability of getting no value or negative value from a draft pick fluctuates around 30% , however Impact players (Superstars & All time greats) are coming into the league at an increasing rate. This would help explain the fact that the quality of basketball seems to be at it’s highest levels in recent years (see here).
  • The number 1 pick can and has been flubbed massively. 10 of the 30 #1 Picks fall in the second half of the rankings. The list includes some old WoW friends:
    • Mark Aguirre
    • Allen Iverson
    • Kenyon Martin
    • Glenn Robinson
    • Kwame Brown
    • Joe Barry Carroll
    • Joe Smith
    • Kent Benson
    • Michael Olowokandi
    • Andrea Bargnani
  • Drafting Players under 20 is an extremely dangerous game. Only 13 of the top 200 players were aged 19 or younger at the end of their first NBA season
    • Dwight Howard
    • Tracy McGrady
    • Kevin Garnett
    • LeBron James
    • Andris Biedrins
    • Luol Deng
    • Tyson Chandler
    • Josh Smith
    • Rashard Lewis
    • Chris Bosh
    • Kobe Bryant
    • Cliff Robinson
    • Andrew Bynum
  • The Half baked notion that what wins in the regular season is not necessarily what  gets you the trophy. The difference? Minute allocation & how wins produced are affected by that allocation. We continuously hear terms like playoff rotation & playoff minutes thrown around come playoff time. The half baked notion tells us that a good deep team filled with average and above average players will get you in the playoffs but to get far in the playoffs you need your wins to be concentrated in your Top 6.
    • In the Regular Season:
      • Your starting five account for 82% percent of your wins.
      • Your second unit is important over the course of an 82 game regular season accounting for 18% of your wins
      • After that everybody else is statistically meaningless.
    • In the Playoffs :
      • Your starting five account for 94% percent of your wins in the playoffs.
      • Only the first guy of your bench matters accounting for 5% of your wins
      • After that everybody else is statistically meaningless.

Build me a Winner

So Based on this knowledge, let’s try to summarize what my management philosophy would be as an NBA GM.

Rev 1.0:

  • A wins produced model (such as Prof. Berri’s Wins Produced or my own Wins over replacement Player (WORP)) gives a team  a statistical edge over other teams in building a roster by properly identifying a player win contribution with a high level of correlation. My team would be built around just such a model (probably with enhancements for individual defense which as a gm I could design and pay somebody to data enter) and identifying underrated/underpriced players that are available.
  • I’d use picks rather than free agents to keep my team successful both on the court and in the bottom line (See San Antonio and Oklahoma City). The draft is,  the best source of cheap labor there is. When dealing with draft picks it is important to remember that you are getting a low cost player for four and not one year and any evaluation of draft picks should go beyond the rookie year. Of the top 100 picks half (and 122 of the top 200 picks) were taken after pick 9 suggesting there is always value in the later part of the draft. The draft is a high stakes lottery but it’s a rigged game for the owners. Salaries are fixed at a discount  and the risk of utter failure is relatively low (30%).  So we build thru the draft and not thru free-agency.
  • Scorers are common and overpaid. I’d flip scorers for picks, picks and more picks see the previous point on draft picks.
  • I’d prefer later picks in volume over high end lottery picks. Stars can and are had late in the draft.  Picks would be used exclusively on high risk/high reward guys. You don’t play the lottery to win third prize. Second rounders would be used mostly on Euro guys that I could stash and see if they’re any good.
  • Hate overpriced free agents but love minimum salary level players. We know that the talent identification algorithm for NBA teams is broken. That means good talent must be available out there and I’d spend money to find it. So I’d buy one (or possibly two) D-league teams to stash, test and develop talent. I’d look into buying a Euroleague team as well. I’d also be the the king of 10 day contracts and call ups. Roster spots 10 and up would be used at least 75% of the time for auditions and talent evaluation.
  • Given that the top 6 is what matters for the playoffs.  I’d trade three .100 WP48 guys for one .250 WP48 guy in a hummingbird’s heartbeat.
  • Big Men and Ball handlers (Centers and Point Guards) are more scarce resources than shooters. I’d pay for skilled labor at those positions and always focus on depth there. This is the central idea behind my own Wins over replacement Player (WORP).

Rev 1.1:

  • Follow the Japanese principle of 5-s, spend money on the organization. Do everything possible to build a pleasant and world class organization. There’s no salary cap on facilities and amenities. Players are significant capital assets and I would provide as much maintenance as you can for them. Your training & travel should be the best. I would provide nutrition and fitness counseling to all my players and I would offer to pay for all their meals (on a designed diet plan). I would spend money on as many shot, workout and video or other coaches as a player needs to improve his game.
  • All my analysis seems to point to the following skills being critical:
    • Size and the ability to rebound and play defense  like a center
    • Ball handling
    • Efficient shooting

All personnel decisions should be made based on these three skills

  • Here are some more thoughts on drafting. I’d look for productive/athletic/high skill players who are available even if they are being passed up for some reason (character,size, being a tall white dude).  I would vet the players thoroughly (like the Republicans didn’t do for Palin). For the 2010 draft I love Cousins, Turner,Heyward and Aldrich. I Hate John Wall (too expensive and not polished enough to contribute and all see the previous point on ball handling). I love what the Celts did in drafting Avery Bradley and Luke Haragondy. They’re both chancy picks with a lot of upside. If they don’t work, you at worst lose a min salary. The draft should be treated like a penny poker game, go big or stay home.
  • To clarify, as Man of Steele points out in the comments for rev 1: ” ….trade the overrated scorer for an above average (but underrated) player at the same position and a draft pick or two. For example, the Spurs would trade Parker for Steve Blake and a draft pick. This kind of move would create salary cap room, stockpile picks, and your starting lineup would be no different. Or say you were charge of the Nuggests for instance. You might trade Carmelo for Luol Deng and two or three draft picks. There’s not a GM in the league that wouldn’t take that deal, and your lineup would be no different.
  • Every undrafted free agent gets an invite and a tryout on my team. Every one.

Nick Fazekas come on down !!!

  • The big question I left pending is how and when  do I pay for free agents. I believe in paying for value but i’d set some guidelines to follow (see table Below).  My simple assumptions (based on the age model here) are as follows:
  1. I’d like to win 55 Games
  2. I’d like to stay under the cap
  3. 23-27 Year old starters will play about 30 minutes a game and improve about 13% over the previous five years
  4. 28-32 Year old starters will play about 28.5 minutes a game and decline  about 3% from the previous five years
  5. 33 and up starters will play about 22.5 minutes a game and decline  about 5% from the previous five years

  • Before signing a contract with a player, I would investigate him like I would an employee I was hiring for a Fortune 500 company at his salary. I’d like to know his injury history and his personal habits (does he drink, smoke,party with Barkley and Tiger etc.) before giving him the money.
  • I would always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always, always try to frontload  contracts. Always. I would also incentivise the hell out of the contracts. Things like weight,BMI, body fat, supervised shooting practice hours and shooting percentages will all be standard fare in any contract (as much as the league and the union let me get away with).

Substitute Frontload here.

As I said this is a first take on this algorithm and I will probably revisit this over and over in the future. Please provide feedback and comments . As always this is only my opinion and I am the first to admit it could be flawed.You never know, If I get to be an NBA GM, I might hire you 🙂 ( Andres you get to be assistant GM, Devin you have a job) . More ridiculous things have happened.

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