Clippers, Lakers Chasing Chris Paul Offers Valuable Lessons

| by David Berri

Last week, the Los Angeles Lakers attempted to trade Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol for Chris Paul (a third team was involved, but this was the trade from the Laker’s viewpoint).  Since that trade was vetoed, the  ”other” Los Angeles team has reportedly been trying to acquire Chris Paul. The trade has (again, reportedly) reached an impasse because the Clippers are willing to part with only two of the following three pieces/players: Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe and/or Minnesota’s first round pick.

In these two stories, we’re seeing the classic story play out.  It’s a story we repeat on the Wages of Wins a lot:

  • Decision makers consistently undervalue efficient scoring and net possessions (i.e. rebounding and “not turning the ball over”)
  • Decision makers overvalue scoring totals
  • Decision makers overvalue draft picks
  • Decision makers tend to ignore the short supply of tall people (or perhaps they just wish it didn’t exist, so they pretend it’s not a problem)

The last point is particularly important.  One generally has to be about 6’8″ or taller to be able to play power forward or center in the NBA.  What most people don’t seem to be aware of is how exceedingly rare this is.  The average American male is about 5’10″.  A person 6’8″ tall is somewhere between 3 and 4 standard deviations from the mean.  What this means is that there are probably less than 100,000 6’8″ men in the entire US, and with each inch this decreases exponentially; there are probably only about 3-4,000 American men that are at least 6’10″, and fewer than 50 are 7’0″ or taller (statistics quoted here).  And I don’t need to explain that only a tiny fraction of those men have the athletic skill necessary to play basketball at all, and an even tinier fraction will have enough skill to play professional ball.  There is a reason that NBA scouts love to say that “You can’t teach a guy how to be tall.”

The upshot of this is that finding a 6’4″ player that shoots the ball very efficiently and doesn’t turn the ball over may not be easy, but it is vastly more difficult to find a 6’10″ person that fits that description, and finding a 7’0″ player that skilled is (statistically speaking) a once-in-a-lifetime event.  Dre brought this up last weak, but these numbers demonstrate that trading both Odom and Gasol for Chris Paul was probably not a “fair deal” for the Lakers (and yes, this means that Dan Gilbert’s whine about the unfairness of it all is unintentionally ironic).

The reverse of this, of course, is that the Clippers are being highly irrational by balking at trading two guards and a draft pick for Chris Paul.  There are three reasons that this confuses me.  First, neither player is tall.  There are plenty of wing players on the free agency market (or available for trade) every year.  It makes no sense to treat either player as a precious commodity.  Second, Eric Gordon is probably going to get paid a lot of money soon.  And that leads me to my third point:  neither player is a particularly good player.

The following table shows the production of Eric Gordon and Eric Bledsoe, along with the average players at their position in 2010-11 (note, all stats are per 48 minutes, and are from the comparison engine at my site The NBA Geek, with the exception of WP48, which I took from the Wins Produced 2011 section of this blog, because my site hasn’t updated the formula yet, but you can read up on it here!):

Get the rest of this article of at the Wages of Wins Journal.