Bulls

NBA Analysis: Will Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose Get Even Better?

| by David Berri

The following article by Rick Telander appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday.  The story reveals that Gar Forman – general manager of the Bulls – thinks Derrick Rose is going to get better.  This belief is based on a certain study readers in this forum might have heard about.

After the article I have added a few more notes on both Telander’s story and the study Forman notes.

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Bulls’ Derrick Rose has room to grow, or so the study goes

Before the NBA season ended, I had a casual chat with Bulls general manager Gar Forman.

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It’s a GM’s duty to study basketball and its permutations the way a naturalist studies an anthill. For an outsider to tap into that focus is always enthralling.

Forman doesn’t spew his deepest thoughts or really say anything that might affect his team beyond the obvious. In that regard, he has some Jerry Krause in him, if not the Sleuth’s dubious personal skills.

But there are stats for everything in basketball, philosophies for everyone, and then there are the games and the players and the emotions right before the GM. There is the salary cap and the unknown of injuries. There is the coaching staff you have to hire, the college kids to look at. And it’s all moving, all the time.

All a GM has to do is figure it out and put together the best team in the world.

Earlier in the season, I had asked Forman about the universally endorsed notion that point guard Derrick Rose, just 22, will get better and better. This was before Rose was named MVP of the league and, yes, before Forman shared the NBA Executive of the Year Award with Miami Heat president Pat Riley.

What I said to Forman, basically, was: How does anyone know for sure?

He had nodded and mentioned, without much comment, that there were some stats he had looked at, some analysis he recently had read, that shined some light on that question.

Now, during this chat in late May, courtside at the Berto Center, he said, ‘‘Let me go upstairs and see if I can find it.’’

In time, he came down with a two-page printout with a photo of LeBron James at the top. There was no dateline, but the brief piece seemed to have appeared in the Wall Street Journal a year or so ago, and it was done by reporter David Biderman.

James’ best is behind him?

‘‘LeBron James turns 25 next Wednesday, which means one thing: He’s about to get worse,’’ the story began. ‘‘Ignore his gaudy statistics, and never mind that many analysts consider him the best player on the planet. By one statistical measure, Mr. James is just a week from being over the hill.’’

OK. Clearly, the piece was a year and a half old because James, whose birthday is Dec. 30, is now 26.

But the meat of the thing was stunning: According to David Berri, a professor of applied economics at Southern Utah University and the author of the book Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of Many Myths in Modern Sports, NBA players peak at 24 and basically stay at that level until they turn 25, at which point they start declining.

The article continued: ‘‘Mr. Berri’s research, which examined every player from 1977-2008, says the statistical output of the average 24-year-old is equal in value to six wins per season for his team if he plays 35 minutes a night. From then on, the average player keeps getting worse each year until age 35, at which point he begins costing his team wins.’’

And the kicker, with stats scattered about: ‘‘Mr. James seems to fit the statistical model perfectly. . . . The downfall has begun.’’

After the recent fade by the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, what can we say?

But stats can do darn near whatever you want them to. Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki will be 33 in three days, for instance.

And fellow champ Jason Kidd, for God’s sake, he’s older than tumbleweed. Well, 38.

And how can anyone explain, at any age, the Mavericks’ starting combo of J.J. Barea and Kidd, one being kindergarten-sized and the other being AARP-aged? And both being point guards?

You can’t. Intangibles everywhere, including an innovative coach, Rick Carlisle, who would put such an outrageous lineup on the floor.

Improving MVP — just maybe

So what is going through Forman’s opaque mind as the draft nears?

We don’t know, but this age thing seems to bode well for the Bulls. Rose is 22. Joakim Noah is 26. Luol Deng is 26. Taj Gibson is 25. Omer Asik is 24.

The Heat, the Eastern Conference team to beat, has James, 26, Chris Bosh, 26, and Dwyane Wade, 29.

Could the Big Three all be in decline?

But above all, if the little tidbit Forman pondered was correct, Rose will get better.

An improved MVP. That’s something.

But as Forman surely knows, numbers can mean little. Even can be lies in disguise.

To wit, Michael Jordan was 35 when he led the Bulls to their sixth NBA title in 1998. Scottie Pippen was 32. Ron Harper was 34. Dennis Rodman was 37.

But if LeBron and Co. actually have peaked? And Rose will be a better player two years from now?

No wonder a GM’s brain never stops spinning.

A few notes on Telander’s article:

The David Biderman article he references appeared in the Wall Street Journal in December of 2009.   At that time, I added a few thoughts (see A Quick Note on Aging in the NBA) in this forum.  For those who don’t wish to click on the link, here is what I said back in 2009 (with a few more notes added in response to what Telander said):

  • Via a study of NBA players from 1977-78 to 2007-78 (a study discussed in more detail in Stumbling on Wins), we found that an NBA player generally improves until he is in his mid-20s.  Performance after this point is not much different until a player reaches about 27 or 28 years of age.  After that point – and especially when a player passes the age of 30 – performance starts to decline more noticeably.
  • It is important to note that we are reporting a tendency.  The peak at 24 or 25 will not be true for every player (as Telander notes in his article).  But when you look at the link between age and performance, controlling for a host of other factors, the general peak is in this range.
  • The results were the same when we looked at NBA Efficiency.  So this result does not depend on looking at performance via Wins Produced.
  • The key issue is not the specific point in the player’s 20s where the peak occurs, but rather that performance after age 30 has a noticeable drop-off.  In the player’s twenties the slope downward is quite gradual (and not something you would probably notice if you watched the player).  In other words, LeBron will still be LeBron – barring injury – for a few more years (although he did drop-off this year relative to his production in 2009-10).
  • The drop-off after age 30 will not be the same for everyone (again, as Telander noted).  For some players, performance declines considerably (as my post on Kareem and Shaq noted).  However, John Stockton posted a WP48 of 0.262 at the age of 40 (Stockton’s best season, though, was at the age of 25).
  • The research on aging draws upon some work done by JC Bradbury.  One issue Bradbury emphasized is that more athletic activities (like tennis, short distance running, and swimming) tend to see peak performances at a very young age.  In a sport like golf – and with respect to some aspects of baseball – peak performance occurs much later.  Basketball is a sport that relies tremendously on athletic ability, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see a peak in the mid-twenties (as opposed to a point closer to 30 years of age).

The previous points were made back in 2009.  Let me close with a few more observations

  • In thinking about “peak” performance, people tend to focus on what comes after the peak (i.e. people decline).  As noted, the decline from the peak in the NBA is gradual.  Players still peform at a high level in their latter twenties (and some – although not all – continue to perform at a high level in their thirties).  So what comes right after the peak is not very dramatic.
  • An important story is what happens before the peak.  One should expect Derrick Rose – who is only 22 – to continue to improve.  In fact, someday he might be as productive as people already think he is.  If this doesn’t happen by his mid-twenties, though, it probably isn’t going to happen.  In other words, when Rose is LeBron’s age (LeBron is 26 years of age), he might be as productive as he ever will be (although – once again – this whole study is about a tendency and individual players can be different from what we see across the entire sample).
  • One should also note that Rob Simmons and I have a paper looking at performance from 1991 to 2008 (for a study on another issue).  That study – which should be coming out in Labour Economics — showed that the peak was closer to 26 years of age in the later time period.

And here is one more observation…

The studies of aging I have conducted have looked at a large sample of players.  As noted, these studies have also controlled for other factors that impact performance.  Telander attempts to offer a different perspective with a few anecdotes.  And he throws in the standard line about statistics lying.  My sense is that this line is the refuge of those who don’t understand statistics.  In other words, rather than trying to understand whatever study they are referencing, journalists toss out the line about statistics lying and then move on to expressing whatever they believe (a belief generally supported – as Telander demonstrates – with a few carefully chosen anecdotes).  Hopefully this article indicates that Gar Forman – the Bulls’ general manager – does not rely upon Telander’s approach in making decisions.

Wait… let me amend that last statement. As I have noted in the past, I am not a fan of the Bulls (and one can argue – at least, I am going to argue – that the Bulls cost me the TrueHoop Smackdown title).   So as a Pistons fan, let me hope that Forman paid very close attention to the lesson Telander was teaching.  Anecdotes are what you need.  Statistical analysis never tells you anything.

- DJ