Once upon a time, there was a pro basketball team in New York called the Nets.
Led by the superlative Julius “Dr. J.” Erving, it consistently made the playoffs in the old American Basketball Association (the ABA), and even won championships, in 1974 and 1976. But then, the team joined the NBA and—reneging on a promise to give Dr. J a raise—instead sold him to the Philadelphia 76ers before the start of the 1976-77 season. Then the team moved to New Jersey in 1977. After those two events, the Nets stopped contending. The franchise—which had won more than 65 percent of its regular-season games in three straight seasons just prior to the ABA’s merger with the NBA—never again hit that mark in any of its 35 seasons in New Jersey.
Of the two moves, losing Dr. J. was clearly the more important. He immediately became the 76ers’ most productive player and eventually delivered them a championship. But long after Dr. J. had left the game, the Nets in New Jersey continued to struggle. Life was especially bad in 2009-10, when the team lost their first 18 games, on the way to a record of 12-70.
Here, the story seemed about to turn, for when this dreadful season ended, hope appeared on the horizon. After the 2009-10 season, the NBA approved the sale of the Nets to the Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Prokhorov, it seemed clear, would not be selling off players to avoid raises.
The first two seasons of Prokhorov’s ownership were not especially inspiring; the team continued to lose with regularity. But in 2012, the Nets finally returned to New York. Not only did the team change its address, the Nets also changed its roster.
Not surprisingly, the 2009-10 team did not have a single player who had ever appeared in an All-Star game. But in February of 2011, the Nets traded for All-Star point guard Deron Williams, and in July of 2012 the Nets traded for All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson. With Williams and Johnson on board, the Nets managed to win 49 games in 2012-13. And if two All-Stars gets you to 49 wins, Prokhorov might have thought, what will you get if you add three more?
This past summer the Nets traded for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, future Hall of Famers who had previously led the Boston Celtics to a championship. The team also signed Prokhorov’s countryman, the forward Andrei Kirilenko. The resulting quintet entered the 2013-14 season with 34 All-Star game appearances between them, and Prokhorov spoke of victory parades.
All these All-Stars, though, came at a cost. Back in 2009-10, the New Jersey Nets spent less on payroll than all but four of the NBA’s 30 teams. This year, the Brooklyn Nets—with a payroll beyond $100 million—are spending more than anyone. Indeed, once you figure in the penalties for going above the league’s salary cap, the Nets are the most expensive basketball team ever (and by a very large margin).
All this spending on all these All-Stars led Brooklyn fans to expect something wonderful to happen—a storybook ending, if you will. But with more than 35 percent of the season now in the books, the Nets are not even in playoff contention, despite playing in the Eastern Conference, which is woefully bad. With all this spending, the Brooklyn fans expected a return to the glory days of Dr. J. What they got was a typical team from New Jersey.
So what happened?
Some may want to blame Jason Kidd, the Nets’ rookie coach. Kidd, last year a point guard with the Knicks, demoted his lead assistant (Lawrence Frank) 20 games into the season. And this past week, media reports suggested Kidd has already lost his team. The inexperience of the coach certainly looks like a problem. Yet academic research indicates that most NBA coaches have no statistical impact on player performance. And the early returns from Brooklyn in 2013-14 suggest that Kidd does not appear to be an exception.
Although coaching is often blamed when a team falls short of expectations, what could help more effectively explain the real problem in Brooklyn is to examine why Dr. J. was able to win so much with the Nets in the 1970s.
Why teams win in basketball should be easy to understand. Teams win because they:
- acquire the ball before the other team scores (by generating turnovers or securing the rebounds on missed shots);
- keep the ball so they can take shots (by avoiding turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds); and
- get those shots to go in the basket (by shooting efficiently). Once we understand what drives a team’s success, we can understand how a player contributes to team wins. To wit, a player helps his team win when the player shoots efficiently, grabs rebounds, generates steals, and avoids turnovers.
You should note what is missing from this list. The number of points a player scores in a game is not a big part of the story. In fact, scoring totals can be very deceptive. Players can certainly score points by shooting efficiently (and that definitely helps their team win). But players can also boost their scoring totals by just taking more shots. And the operative word is “takes”: When a player takes more shots, someone else on his team gets to take fewer shots. So a player’s shots are really just taken from his teammates.
Since shots are just “taken,” the key to evaluating shooters is efficiency. And when an inefficient scorer takes shots from his teammates, that most definitely does not help a team win more games.
With all this in mind, let’s look back at Julius Erving. The factors that explain wins can all be quantified. And that means how many wins a player produces can be statistically measured. This is done simply by taking the box-score statistics (which were first completely tracked by the ABA) and connecting these to team wins (via standard statistical techniques employed by economists). This allows us to translate such diverse player statistics as points scored, field goal attempts, rebounds, and turnovers into a single number capturing how many wins a player produces. The steps in this calculation—detailed in various academic papers and online—make it clear that Dr. J. was an amazingly productive player for the New York Nets. Specifically, from 1973-74 to 1975-76 he produced 70.3 wins for the New York Nets (more than 40 percent of the team’s total regular season wins).
When we think back on Dr. J., we might think about scoring. After all, he led the ABA in scoring in both 1973-74 and 1975-76. But it wasn’t his scoring totals that produced all those wins. Relative to an average small forward in the ABA, Dr. J. was a more efficient shooter, a better rebounder, and more apt to steal the ball. So Erving’s impressive production of wins was specifically about his ability to get possession of the ball and convert those possessions into points.
Now let’s think about a player like current Nets guard Joe Johnson. Like Dr. J., Johnson has been an All-Star and he scores many points. But Johnson is no better than the average NBA small forward or shooting guard at gaining possession of the ball, through rebounds and steals. And throughout his career, he has generally only been slightly above average with respect to shooting efficiency. As a consequence, Johnson has never been far removed from the average NBA player with respect to his production of wins. In the 12 seasons Johnson played before this season, he only produced 65 career wins (or a number less than what Erving produced in three seasons in the 1970s).