2011 NBA Playoffs: Hornets Strong Play vs. Lakers Not Surprising

| by David Berri

Chris Broussard and Ric Bucher debated the following question at ESPN.com: Who will make a Bigger jump in 2012: Nets or Clippers? (insider access required).

The debate begins with the following comment from Chris Broussard:

Every season there’s a surprise team in the NBA, one that comes “out of nowhere” to either reach the postseason or challenge for a playoff spot. Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks and Memphis Grizzlies were among the teams that did it. This season the list included the New Orleans Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers. Who’s going to do it next year?

When I read this statement I immediately thought, “The Hornets were a surprise team this year? Really?”

Okay, the Hornets are surprising in the playoffs.  The playoffs, though, are a small sample and upsets can happen.   And by upset, I mean a better team can be beaten by a team that is not as good.   When that happens – and it could happen in the series between the Lakers and Hornets – it is surprising.

But Broussard wasn’t talking performance in the playoffs.  He was talking about the Hornets regular season.

Broussard’s comment reminded me of an Ian Thomsen story that appeared in Sports Illustrated last November.  Thomsen argued last fall that the Hornets have improved dramatically because of all the changes made to the team’s roster and their front office.  At the time, though, I thought something else was going on.

To see this something else (assuming you are too lazy to click on the above link), let’s look at the Hornets in 2009-10.

The Hornets won 37 games in 2009-10 and missed the playoffs.  The team’s efficiency differential (from which Wins Produced is derived) suggests this team should have won about 34 wins.   So this was not a “good” team last season.

When we look at the individual players, we see the following:

  • Paul, Okafor, and West in 2009-10 produced 24.9 wins
  • Everyone Else produced 9.5 wins

Again, this is not a good team.  And not surprisingly, decision-makers in New Orleans decided to make a few changes.  Actually, few is an understatement.  Of the players listed above, only Paul, Okafor, West, and Gray finished the 2010-11 season with the Hornets.  That means, that the Hornets changed virtually everyone else that comprised “Everyone Else” for the 2010-11 season.

Despite all these changes, though, the results for “Everyone Else” – as the following table indicates — didn’t really change.

The above numbers can be summarized as follows:

  • Paul, Okafor, and West in 2010-11 produced 35.9 wins
  • Everyone Else in 2010-11 produced 7.8 wins

Had Gray maintained his performance, Everyone Else would have produced 9.2 wins.  In other words, the Hornets made extensive changes to their roster.  But all the new players were essentially the same as the old players. And when we look at the past performance of these players, this is not surprising.  Everyone Else’s performance in 2009-10 suggests these players would have produced about 13.2 wins in 2010-11.  Except for Jarrett Jack, every veteran player the Hornets added was below average in 2009-10.  And since Jack slipped this year, every single veteran the Hornets added was below average in 2010-11.  So all the changes the Hornets made to their roster simply consisted of swapping a collection of mostly below average players for another collection of mostly below average players.  The result of this swap was not exactly surprising.

So how did the Hornets become a “surprise” team?  The key is the health of Chris Paul.  In 2009-10 he 1,712 minutes and produced 11.5 wins.  This past season he played 2,865 minutes and produced 20.8 wins.  Those nine additional wins represent most of the improvement we see in the New Orleans Hornets.

Now maybe we are surprised that Paul’s health improved.  One suspects, though, that Broussard was not talking about how surprising it is that Paul was able to play more than 2,800 minutes this year.

That being said, there is something that seems somewhat surprising in New Orleans (and again, I am not talking about the playoffs).  As noted, the Hornets made substantial changes to their roster.  Twelve players who played in 2009-10 did not finish the 2010-11 season in New Orleans.  And thirteen players who played in 2010-11 were not with the team in 2009-10. With all this movement, one would think that the Hornets would find someone to add significantly to the production the team was getting from Paul, West, and Okafor.   But it didn’t happen.

All of this suggests that the decision-makers in New Orleans are just guessing.  They know that Chris Paul is an amazing talent.  They know that West and Okafor help more (although I am not sure they know that Okafor offers more than West).  Beyond that, though, they don’t know how to find additional role players who can help.

This is essentially the same scenario that played out (or is playing out) in

  • Minnesota with Kevin Garnett (and perhaps again with Kevin Love)
  • Orlando with Dwight Howard

Teams acquire a player – like Paul, Garnett, or Howard (are there other examples?) – who produce wins in large quantities.  All the team has to do to build a team that can contend for a title is find role players who can also produce wins. But instead of identifying those players, decision-makers acquire relatively unproductive role players.  Eventually the star player gets frustrated and then leaves. The team then has to try to build a contender without the star.

Of course, if you can’t build a contender with a player like Chris Paul (or Garnett, or Howard), what are the odds you can do this without one of these stars?

Let me close with one ray of sunshine for fans of the Hornets.  People have trouble understanding that upsets happen in the playoffs.  When upsets do happen, they tend to think that the lesser team that won is really much better than we thought.  So maybe the Hornets can pull off an upset of the Lakers.  If that happens, Paul might think his team is really better than he thought.  And then maybe he will stay when his contract expires.  This isn’t much hope to cling to (I still think the Lakers will win).  But the other hope is that the decision-makers in New Orleans can re-shape the roster again and find productive role players.

- DJ

P.S. Quick note on the above numbers.  There are slight differences in the 2009-10 numbers for players in each table.  That is because I am using the position averages in 2009-10 in the first table and the position averages for this past season in the second table.  And in writing this post, I discovered I made a small error (actually Excel made the error).  So I will need to re-post my hand-crafted numbers.  Hope to get to this sometime this week (the differences are quite small, so it is not a very big deal).