NBA

Better Free Agent Pick-Up: Darko Milicic or Shaquille O’Neal?

| by David Berri

On Wednesday Henry Abbott offered the following bet/prediction: (Darko) Milicic will help his team more than (Shaquille) O’Neal will this upcoming season.  

Henry went on to explain his prediction:

I’m not saying Milicic will score more, play better D, have a better PER or anything else. I’m saying that over the course of this season, smart analysis will show he’ll produce more at both ends of the floor, in total. In other words, heck yes we’ll factor in defense, and heck yes, I’ll take the advantage I’ll get from the reality that he’s likely to play more minutes.

And that may not be fair in judging the better player, but it’s fair when we’re talking about the value of signing this or that player — players who can get on the floor are more valuable than players who can’t.

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If the two have similar production, at both ends of the floor, we’ll appoint some kind of commission of stat geeks to poke into all the best available metrics — PER, SCHOENE, plus/minus, WinScore, or whatever they want to use — to break the tie.

Here’s what I’m really getting at with all that. O’Neal has a huge reputation. Milicic has a tiny one. But reputations aren’t everything, and in reality these two players are not so different.

My first reaction to this column is that Henry is likely to be wrong. Here are the Wins Produced (the more complex version of Win Score) numbers for both players last year:

Shaquille O’Neal: 2.2 Wins Produced, 0.086 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]

Darko Milicic: -0.2 Wins Produced, -0.016 WP48

And if we look at Milicic’s career we see the following: 0.8 Wins Produced, 0.006 WP48

Given these numbers, it seems unlikely that Milicic is going to offer more than Shaq in 2010-11. At least, that’s not likely if Wins Produced (or Win Score) is your measure.

But if you look at a different set of Wins Produced numbers… well, maybe Henry is on to something. This is what Milicic had done each season of his career:

2003-04: 159 minutes, -0.6 Wins Produced, -0.171 WP48

2004-05: 254 minutes, -1.1 Wins Produced, -0.211 WP48

2005-06: 767 minutes, 0.8 Wins Produced, 0.049 WP48

2006-07: 1,913 minutes, 2.4 Wins Produced, 0.061 WP48

2007-08: 1,663 minutes, -1.6 Wins Produced, -0.045 WP48

2008-09: 1,034 minutes, 1.1 Wins Produced, 0.052 WP48

With the exception of 2007-08 – his first season in Memphis – Milicic has produced a positive quantity of wins when he has gotten minutes.  No, he is not a great player. But his production of wins can exceed zero.

If we look at Milicic numbers after Detroit (where he spent his first 2½ seasons) and excluding the first disastrous season in Memphis (yes, I know these are somewhat arbitrary exclusions) we see the following: 4,260 minutes, 4.2 Wins Produced, 0.048 WP48

Now here is the key point Henry was making.  Milicic will probably get more minutes than Shaq next season. If Milicic plays 2,000 minutes – and posts a 0.048 WP48 – he will produce 2.0 Wins. If Shaq only plays 1,000 minutes – and continues to post a 0.086 WP48 [what he did last year] – then he will only produce 1.8 wins.

Okay, there were quite a few assumptions made to get that result.  We don’t know how many minutes each player will play. Darko was also in the negative range last year in Minnesota (where he will be playing this year). And it’s possible Shaq will play better; although at his age it seems more likely he will get worse.

But the point of this exercise was not to establish with certainty who would do better. The idea was to see if Henry had a good chance of being right on this one. And I think – despite what I thought when I first read his column – that his chances are not too bad.  Darko Milicic might offer more than Shaq in 2010-11.

Let me close with one more observation. Age ultimately destroys all athletes.  Last December I noted that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – one of the greatest centers in NBA history – was reduced to the production level of Spencer Hawes in the last year of his career. We see the same story with Shaq.  Yes, Shaq in his prime is much better than Darko Milicic. But Shaq is far removed from his prime. And at his age, he might fail to offer more than Milicic.

- DJ