Does Loss of Caron Butler Even Hurt the Mavs?

| by David Berri

It’s not often you see a 65-year old man referred to as a boy-toy.  But this is what Mark Cuban called Phil Jackson this week. Cuban’s “odd” statement was in response to another “odd” statement from Jackson.

In response to the season-ending injury suffered by Caron Butler, Jackson said (according to the Los Angeles Times): “He just leaves a vacuum that’s going to be very hard for them to fill.”

Jackson attempted to clarify this comment with the following:

“I feel badly for [the Mavericks], that’s what I was saying. It’s hard to replace a player that good,” Jackson said. “They do have a good player that’s sitting behind him. Shawn [Marion] is a fine player, but it’s not Caron Butler, so it’s hard to replace a player like that.”

Hopefully it is easy to see why Cuban’s comments about Jackson are best described as “odd”. What about Jackson’s comments about the Mavericks and Caron Bulter?

First of all, I am not sure I believe that Jackson really feels badly about the Mavericks. But beyond this point, I also don’t agree with his assessment of Butler.

Before we get to what Butler has done this year, let’s note the following numbers:

  • Entering this season, Butler had produced 52 wins in his career with a 0.122 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]
  • His best season was in 2007-08, when he produced 10.4 wins with a 0.216 WP48
  • Last year, though, he produced 4.7 wins with a 0.080 WP48
  • Butler is now 30 years of age.

Okay, now let’s look at the numbers for this year. And let’s not just look at Butler. Let’s look at the Mavericks in 2010-11.

After 34 games, the Mavericks have won 26 games and currently have the second best record in the Western Conference. This record, though, is a bit of an illusion. Currently the Mavericks are scoring 105.7 points per 100 possessions, while allowing 100.6 points. So the team’s efficiency differential is 5.1.  Such a mark is consistent with a team that will win around 53 or 54 wins across an entire season. This is close to what was projected for the Lakers earlier this week, but in terms of efficiency differential, Phil Jackson’s team has the edge.

Although the Lakers have the edge, the Mavericks have been quite close. Does the injury to Butler make Jackson breathe a bit easier (contrary to his public comments)?

To answer this question, let’s move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced. The following table reports the productivity of the Mavericks’ players this season.

Again, the Mavericks are projected to win about 53 games. Of these wins, 48.6 can be linked to the play of Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and DeShawn Stevenson. These five players are the only Dallas players to play more than 100 minutes and post a WP48 beyond 0.100. In other words, the remainder of the roster – a remainder that includes Caron Butler – are either not playing much and/or are below average.

If we look at Butler specifically, we see a player who has posted a 0.018 WP48 and is on pace to produce 0.8 wins. Such numbers suggest that the loss of Butler does not leave “a vacuum that will be hard for the Mavericks to fill.” And moving from Butler to Shawn Marion is probably not a big problem. 

What is a big problem is the loss of Dirk Nowitzki, who has missed the last six games due to a knee injury. Behind Nowitzki is Brian Cardinal, a player who has produced in the negative range in each of the past three seasons. And he is in the negative range this season as well (if only barely). So moving from Nowitzki to Cardinal isn’t very helpful.

Reportedly, though, Nowitzki only has a knee sprain. And when he returns, the Mavericks will have a fairly impressive starting line-up of Kidd, Stevenson, Marion, Nowitzki, and Chandler (or maybe, Kidd, Jason Terry, Stevenson, Nowitzki, and Chandler). 

Two more observations on this team:

First, Tyson Chandler appears to be back. Here are the WP48 numbers Chandler has posted across the past seven years:

  • 2009-10: 0.093
  • 2008-09: 0.078
  • 2007-08: 0.244
  • 2006-07: 0.301
  • 2005-06: 0.234
  • 2004-05: 0.333
  • 2003-04: 0.228

As one can see, Chandler was far above average for five consecutive seasons. But injuries (and it is injuries that seem to change player performance more often than not) caused his production to fall the past two years. Now Chandler appears to be healthy. So the Mavericks acquisition of Chandler is looking good.

The other player who has improved is DeShawn Stevenson. Prior to this season, Stevenson had produced 0.6 wins for his entire career (a career that stretches back to 2000-0). His best season was 2007-08, when he produced 4.4 wins – and posted a 0.082 WP48 – with Washington. So at his best, Stevenson was below average. This year, though, his WP48 is 0.139. What explains the difference?  Currently Stevenson has an adjusted field goal percentage of 0.634. Obviously this mark is well above average; not just for Stevenson, but for any player in the NBA. And it seems obvious (but it may not be) that Stevenson can’t keep hitting shots at this rate. After all, for his career he has hit on less than 35% of his shots from beyond the arc and this year he is hitting on 47% of these shots.

If Stevenson can’t keep hitting his shots, the Mavericks might decline a bit. Nevertheless – even if Stevenson reverts to form — the Mavericks are a “good” team. But I don’t think they are a “great” team or a title contender in 2011 (at least, I don’t think they are as good as the Heat, Celtics, and Spurs). And I think that assessment stands, with or without Caron Butler. 

- DJ