Darko Milicic Makes Bigger Impact than Shaquille O’Neal

| by David Berri

Last August, Henry Abbott – of TrueHoop – made the following prediction:

(Darko) Milicic will help his team more than (Shaquille) O’Neal will (help the Celtics) this upcoming season.

Henry had a host of reasons behind this prediction. A sample of reasons included Shaq’s reputation as a poor team defender, his age, and the number of minutes Darko and Shaq would see. 

Of these, the latter seemed most important. It was fairly clear that Milicic would get more minutes than Shaq this season. And that led Henry to note the following:

So, here’s the deal: 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.

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.

Looking back on this, I am not really sure how this prediction was supposed to be evaluated.  But now that the season is over, we can compare what the two players offered on the court.

Just as Henry imagined, Darko did see more playing time this year. Milicic played 1,686 minutes in 2010-11 while Shaq was only on the floor for 752 minutes.  But although Darko got more playing time, it is hard to look at the box score numbers – noted in the table below — and conclude that Milicic helped his team.

The per 48 minute numbers reveal that Milicic was below average with respect to shooting efficiency, free throw attempts, scoring, rebounds, turnovers, and personal fouls.  He was above average with respect to taking shots from the field, steals, assists, and blocked shots.  But when we put it all together, Milicic had a very poor season.

To see how poor, consider Milicic’s career entering this season.  Here are his marks with respect to Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].

2003-04: -0.6, -0.171

2004-05: -1.1, -0.211

2005-06: 0.8, 0.049

2006-07: 2.4, 0.061

2007-08:-1.6, -0.045

2008-09: 1.1, 0.052

2009-10: -0.2, -0.016

Career (prior to 2010-11): 0.8, 0.006

As one can see, Milicic’s worst season of his career – in terms of Wins Produced – was 2010-11.  So even though he played more minutes than Shaq, his production of -3.4 wins was easily eclipsed by Shaq’s production of 1.6 wins.

Does that mean Henry lost the bet?  Again, I am not sure how this prediction was going to be evaluated.  And if you read over what Henry said, he never mentions Wins Produced.  He does mention Win Score, though, and if we look at that measure we see that Milicic – with a mark of 241.0 – did more than Shaq.  So by that measure, Henry wins the bet.

Of course, that is only because Milicic played more minutes than Shaq.  If we focus on production relative to position played (as we do when we look at Wins Produced), Milicic was awful.  So I don’t think Henry’s prediction came true.

I would note that someday, though, I think it has to be true.  In Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s last season he posted a WP48 of -0.056.   Shaq is old and declining, and if he keeps playing, he would eventually offer as little as Kareem did in his final season.  So I think someday, Milicic can offer more than Shaq.  Someday, though, was not 2010-11.

- DJ

P.S. One last note… having Kevin Love as a teammate didn’t help Milicic.  Love led the league in Wins Produced this season.  And the existence of diminishing returns indicates that having Love as a teammate diminishes a player’s production. But the diminishing returns effect –as I have often noted – is not that large; and given how far Milicic is in the negative range, I do not think diminishing returns explains why Abbott’s prediction didn’t appear to come true.