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Player Audit: Antoine Walker

Posted by Neil Paine on March 5, 2009

Go ahead, admit it. The sight of Stephon Marbury in a #8 Celtics jersey getting picked by Will Bynum at midcourt and missing 3 shots against Detroit Sunday brought back some bittersweet memories of another Employee No. 8, right? No, no, I'm not talking about Scott Wedman; I'm referring to the unforgettable, roller-coaster ride that was the Antoine Walker era in Boston.

A polarizing figure for APBRmetricians everywhere during the early 2000s, Antoine could look like a versatile superstar one second, and a stubborn, selfish player with the worst shot selection in basketball history the next. Here's a great example from 2005 illustrating the difficulty we had in assessing Antoine's value to the Celtics (and, later, the Heat):

David Friedman: Based on past discussions here (actually, in APBR Analysis), Antoine Walker fares pretty poorly in most people's rating systems. Today there is an article about how much of a positive impact Walker has had on the Celtics since his return to Boston. I am interested if Walker's performance this year--or at least in this 6 game stretch--measures up differently than it did in previous seasons. Has Walker's game changed in some measurable way? Or does analysis of his game somehow miss his contributions to team chemistry? Or is six games too small of a sample size?

Justin Kubatko: I would choose (c). In those six games the Celtics have played three of the worst teams in the league: Utah, Charlotte, and Atlanta. Granted they also beat Phoenix in that stretch, but Steve Nash missed that game with a hamstring injury.

Mike Goodman: Sometimes I think I'm the only statistics person who doesn't hate Walker. He's a bit off his career rates this year, but not much. What people seem to hate most is his TS%, a career .479, which is right about where he is this year. [...] I'm not declaring Walker to be any kind of superplayer. His slippage in concentration might be seen in his FT%: from .74 just 3 years ago, to .55 this year. Almost nobody becomes a bad FT shooter at this stage in their careers.

Ben F.: I think what most people in the statistical community dislike about Walker is the abhorrent +/-. I know before leaving Atlanta he was worst in the league among players playing significant minutes with a -17.7 "Roland Rating". That's such a huge number it's hard to ignore. You'd think he was doing something to hurt the team. Then looking at the On/Off Court splits, the team played 5% worse eFG% defense with him on the court than off. [...] But he still confuses me. He's inefficient, turns the ball over, is an average rebounder for a PF, and is a horrible defender. Yet for some reason he seems to contribute to Boston.

Ben: I don't think he's that bad. He's got an above average PER this year too. I do think he wasn't the best fit with Dallas though. He's right, he's a "volume" player. He's better being a big fish in a small pond, he didn't seem to improve his efficiency when his role (usage) was scaled back (though not as much as it should have been).

Bob Chaikin: [...] let's just use some common sense to show that Antoine Walker is indeed one of the worst starting PFs in the league, and has been for quite some time. [...] is it any wonder that simulation shows the suns win 13 more games per average 82 game season with marion playing 40 min/g at PF than with walker? typically the best player at a specific position will win 15-16 more games per 82 games than the worst starting players in the league at that same position (duncan and kirilenko are even better than marion this season, by 2-3 more wins), which means walker is near the very bottom in terms of generating wins for his team as a starter at his PF position...

David Friedman: Bob, your analysis is thorough and logical--yet the Celtics have done well since acquiring Walker. [...]

Kevin Broom: I've long been befuddled by Walker's play. He sometimes make passes or plays that demonstrate to me that he sees the floor well, that he understands the game, and that he's a very smart player. Then two trips later he jacks up a 30-footer with a hand in his face and 22 seconds left on the shot clock. A few years ago, I honestly thought that he had the ability to be among the league leaders in assists and efficiency, if he'd just cut out a few of the silly shots and play with the smarts I thought he had. But that's not the way he's wanted to play. Puzzling.

...And so on and so forth. Get the idea? Walker had truly horrendous efficiency stats throughout his career, that much is undeniable. Here are his career ORtg/%Pos/DRtg numbers, normalized to this year's environment of 1.0855 pts/possession:

Year Ag Tm Ht Pos G MP trORtg %Poss trDRtg
1997 20 BOS 80 F 82 2970 100.0 25.3 112.6
1998 21 BOS 80 F 82 3268 101.2 28.4 107.0
1999 22 BOS 80 F 42 1549 102.5 26.4 106.8
2000 23 BOS 80 F 82 3003 104.4 27.8 109.6
2001 24 BOS 80 F 81 3396 104.5 28.8 107.7
2002 25 BOS 80 F 81 3406 102.5 27.5 104.4
2003 26 BOS 80 F 78 3235 96.8 27.5 106.2
2004 27 DAL 80 F 82 2840 106.2 22.3 112.7
2005 28 ATL 80 F 53 2128 96.7 27.2 112.2
2005 28 BOS 80 F 24 827 97.7 25.1 107.2
2006 29 MIA 80 F 82 2199 103.7 22.5 107.6
2007 30 MIA 80 F 78 1818 90.3 22.0 107.9
2008 31 MIN 80 F 46 892 95.8 22.0 112.1

As you can see, not once was Walker at an average level of per-possession offensive efficiency. And some years he was well below the average mark of 108.6 -- including 2005 in Boston, when the excerpt above referred to his "positive impact on the Celtics". After arriving in the Hub, his efficiency level was more than 10 points/100 possessions worse than the NBA's average.

Of course, that's an overly simplistic interpretation of Walker's value. He was also above the NBA's average of 20% possession usage while on the floor in every season of his career, and sometimes he pushed his offensive burden into the lofty 27-30% range. How much of that was selfishness and how much was borne of necessity cannot be determined from the table above, but it's clear his extreme possession usage simultaneously drove down his own personal efficiency, and drove up that of his teammates. It's also clear that Walker was not as bad a defender as he was frequently made out to be throughout his career: adjusted to 2008-09, his lifetime defensive rating is 108.6 -- exactly the same as the league's average rating.

This more favorable assessment of Walker's contribution is corroborated by his statistical +/- record:

Year Ag Tm G Min P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1997 20 BOS 82 2970 18.2 47.4 3.3 3.7 5.7 2.9 1.3 0.7 3.4 8.3 36.2 -1.50
1998 21 BOS 82 3268 21.8 48.1 3.2 3.2 6.7 3.5 1.7 0.7 3.1 8.9 39.9 0.18
1999 22 BOS 42 1549 19.7 47.6 3.3 2.7 6.4 3.0 1.6 0.7 3.6 8.3 36.9 1.40
2000 23 BOS 82 3003 22.0 49.4 4.0 2.6 5.9 3.4 1.5 0.4 3.4 9.1 36.6 1.26
2001 24 BOS 81 3396 22.0 50.5 5.2 1.8 6.6 3.5 1.6 0.6 2.9 9.8 41.9 2.99
2002 25 BOS 81 3406 20.7 49.0 4.7 1.7 6.5 2.9 1.4 0.4 2.7 9.3 42.0 2.50
2003 26 BOS 78 3235 19.4 46.7 4.6 1.2 5.7 3.2 1.4 0.4 2.7 8.6 41.5 -0.73
2004 27 DAL 82 2840 15.7 47.5 5.0 2.7 6.6 2.8 0.9 0.9 2.9 9.0 34.6 0.05
2005 28 TOT 77 2955 19.7 47.8 3.5 2.4 6.9 3.4 1.2 0.8 2.9 8.7 38.6 -0.62
2006 29 MIA 82 2199 18.0 52.4 3.0 1.9 5.7 2.7 0.8 0.5 3.4 7.4 26.8 -1.34
2007 30 MIA 78 1818 14.8 46.2 2.9 2.1 5.6 3.2 1.1 0.4 3.9 6.9 23.3 -4.61
2008 31 MIN 46 892 16.6 45.5 2.0 2.5 5.1 2.1 1.5 0.4 3.6 6.3 19.4 -2.86

A career SPM of 0.09 (0.48 if we throw out his last two awful seasons in Miami and Minnesota) speaks fairly well of the guy, considering his rather brutal offensive efficiency marks. But then there's his raw on-/off-court data at 82games (which goes back to 2003):

Year Team +/-
2002-03 BOS 7.1
2003-04 DAL -3.4
2004-05 ATL -5.8
2004-05 BOS -0.5
2005-06 MIA -3.8
2006-07 MIA -0.2
2007-08 MIN 3.9

It's also worth noting that in the '06 playoffs, when Miami won it all, Walker was at -3.7, basically the same level of impact he had during the regular season. At the same time, Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley played 'Toine 37.5 MPG during those playoffs, including the 2nd-most minutes (36.5 MPG) of any Heat player during the Finals, knowing that at least some portion of his legacy rode on the outcome of that series, since many felt he'd unfairly forced Stan Van Gundy into a "resignation" earlier in the season.

How can we reconcile the varying perceptions of Walker? Let's break down what the stats say about each facet of his game, and perhaps come to a clearer understanding of Walker's true ability level.

Physical Tools:

Category Walker Lg Avg F Avg
Height (in) 80 78.9 80.7
Weight (lbs) 224 216.3 229.0
Energy Index 1.25 1.11 1.33

Walker never really lacked for physical tools -- he had the prototype size & strength, plus better quickness than you'd expect from a 4. The "energy index" (invented by John Hollinger) is simply the cube root of (OR/40)*(BK/40)*(ST/40), and serves as a rough proxy for "athleticism" when compared to other players of the same size/position. Walker was known for being overweight & out of shape late in his career, but he posted good energy indices (1.58, 1.62, & 1.48) in his 1st 3 NBA seasons; it was only in 2000 that you started to see a drop-off in his effort, athleticism, and conditioning, culminating with what we saw in Miami and Minnesota.

Shooting/Scoring:
(Note: "NBA" is the entire league avg., "Fwd" is just the avg. for forwards)

Shooting
Year Tm 2P% NBA Fwd 3P% NBA Fwd FT% NBA Fwd TS% NBA Fwd
1997 BOS 43.8 48.0 48.6 32.7 36.0 35.1 63.1 73.8 71.8 47.4 53.6 53.4
1998 BOS 44.7 47.0 48.0 31.2 34.6 33.9 64.5 73.7 72.1 48.1 52.4 52.9
1999 BOS 42.6 45.7 46.2 36.9 33.9 33.8 55.9 72.8 71.7 47.6 51.1 51.4
2000 BOS 47.1 46.8 47.4 25.6 35.3 34.7 69.9 75.0 73.9 49.4 52.3 52.6
2001 BOS 43.9 46.1 46.8 36.7 35.4 34.6 71.6 74.8 73.2 50.5 51.8 52.0
2002 BOS 42.5 46.5 47.2 34.4 35.4 35.0 74.1 75.2 74.6 49.0 52.0 52.4
2003 BOS 42.7 46.3 47.2 32.3 34.9 34.6 61.5 75.8 74.2 46.7 51.9 52.4
2004 DAL 48.7 46.0 46.7 26.9 34.7 34.3 55.4 75.2 74.3 47.5 51.6 52.1
2005 ATL 45.0 47.0 47.6 31.7 35.6 35.3 53.4 75.6 74.5 47.4 52.9 53.2
2005 BOS 46.7 47.0 47.6 34.2 35.6 35.3 55.7 75.6 74.5 49.0 52.9 53.2
2006 MIA 49.3 47.8 48.6 35.8 35.8 35.6 62.8 74.5 73.2 52.4 53.6 53.9
2007 MIA 49.9 48.5 49.5 27.5 35.8 35.8 43.8 75.2 73.2 46.2 54.1 54.6
2008 MIN 40.1 48.4 49.5 32.4 36.2 35.8 53.0 75.5 73.8 45.5 54.0 54.5
Scoring
Year Tm P/36 NBA Fwd %FGA NBA Fwd FTr NBA Fwd 3Ptd NBA Fwd
1997 BOS 16.4 14.4 14.3 26.1% 20.0% 19.7% 27.0 32.0 34.0 11.7 21.2 13.4
1998 BOS 19.6 14.2 14.5 29.7% 20.0% 20.1% 27.7 33.0 35.4 17.1 15.9 10.1
1999 BOS 17.7 13.6 14.0 27.7% 20.0% 20.2% 27.5 33.0 35.7 23.9 16.8 10.6
2000 BOS 19.8 14.5 14.7 28.8% 20.0% 20.0% 29.5 30.8 33.3 18.9 16.7 12.2
2001 BOS 19.8 14.1 14.5 31.0% 20.0% 20.3% 20.2 30.9 32.6 35.1 17.0 13.2
2002 BOS 18.6 14.2 14.3 29.2% 20.0% 19.8% 19.2 29.3 31.2 38.2 18.1 14.4
2003 BOS 17.5 14.1 14.4 29.3% 20.0% 20.1% 18.4 30.2 32.0 37.5 18.2 14.4
2004 DAL 14.1 13.9 14.3 21.8% 20.0% 20.1% 16.5 30.3 32.9 27.0 18.7 14.3
2005 ATL 18.2 14.5 14.7 28.3% 20.0% 20.1% 29.0 32.4 34.3 26.5 19.6 15.4
2005 BOS 16.6 14.5 14.7 26.9% 20.0% 20.1% 21.7 32.4 34.3 20.1 19.6 15.4
2006 MIA 16.2 14.4 14.6 25.4% 20.0% 20.1% 14.4 33.3 34.7 42.7 20.2 17.1
2007 MIA 13.4 14.7 14.9 23.2% 20.0% 20.0% 15.7 32.7 34.3 45.7 21.3 16.8
2008 MIN 14.9 14.9 15.3 24.3% 20.0% 20.1% 17.6 30.6 33.1 50.1 22.2 17.6

This is where the classic Walker M.O. starts to appear. Simply put, Antoine was not good at shooting the rock -- sure, he had range, but his jumper was just flat-out inaccurate, as evidenced by his horrendous percentages. You name the category (2-pointers, 3-pointers, free throws, etc.), and Walker was below par; he once claimed he shot so many threes because "they don't have fours," but I'm guessing he wouldn't break average on those, either.

He had no problem creating shots, though, often taking around 30% of his teams' FGAs when in the game, and that alone allowed him to score at an above-average rate in all but two of his NBA campaigns. But even if you had never seen Antoine play, you could look at these numbers and envision the (de-?)evolution of his career... As the years piled on, his FTr, which was never even average to begin with, dropped precipitously and his 3-point tendency rose proportionately. This tells you all you need to know: Antoine started settling for more and more jump shots, which of course is why his percentages were so low -- he was taking the majority of his attempts from areas of the floor where he simply wasn't very good at making shots. Frankly, if he had worked harder on a post-up game instead of forcing so many ill-advised jumpers, he could have been a much more valuable player over the course of his career.

Passing/Ballhandling:

Year Tm AsR NBA Fwd ToR NBA Fwd PPR NBA Fwd
1997 BOS 15.3 15.4 10.7 15.3 16.7 16.0 -1.86 -0.14 -1.64
1998 BOS 15.4 15.4 10.8 16.2 16.4 15.6 -3.37 -0.06 -1.61
1999 BOS 15.2 15.3 10.6 15.2 16.5 15.7 -2.09 -0.35 -1.90
2000 BOS 18.2 15.3 10.8 15.7 16.0 15.7 -1.85 0.01 -1.74
2001 BOS 26.8 15.4 10.9 16.0 15.8 15.2 -0.13 0.05 -1.62
2002 BOS 22.8 15.3 10.6 13.9 15.2 14.8 0.60 0.33 -1.29
2003 BOS 23.3 15.2 11.3 15.4 15.7 15.2 -0.35 0.03 -1.40
2004 DAL 19.4 15.3 11.1 16.4 15.8 15.2 1.55 -0.02 -1.48
2005 ATL 16.8 15.0 10.6 16.6 15.2 14.6 -2.52 0.14 -1.33
2005 BOS 15.0 15.0 10.6 17.3 15.2 14.6 -2.74 0.14 -1.33
2006 MIA 12.8 14.6 10.3 15.9 15.2 14.2 -1.79 -0.01 -1.29
2007 MIA 12.1 14.7 10.2 18.8 15.8 15.2 -2.99 -0.13 -1.77
2008 MIN 8.0 14.7 10.3 12.3 14.7 13.8 -1.79 0.40 -1.15

One of Antoine Walker's strengths as a player was his ability to handle the rock and see the floor; the Celtics even used him sometimes as a "point forward" to distribute the ball to teammates. He was also good at getting out in transition and finishing or making passes in the open court, because of his nice combination of size and dribbling skill. The downside to putting the ball in Walker's hands that much was that with too much freedom, 'Toine had a tendency to make bad turnovers and call his own number too often. In other words, Walker's greatest strength (his floor game) could lead to his greatest weakness (shooting/shot selection) if he wasn't kept on a tight leash.

Rebounding:

Year Tm OR% NBA Fwd DR% NBA Fwd
1997 BOS 10.4 6.2 7.9 19.0 13.8 16.4
1998 BOS 9.0 6.3 8.0 22.3 13.7 16.1
1999 BOS 7.5 6.0 7.7 18.9 14.0 16.3
2000 BOS 7.2 5.8 7.3 18.2 14.2 16.5
2001 BOS 5.0 5.6 7.1 20.4 14.4 16.8
2002 BOS 4.7 5.8 7.2 18.6 14.2 16.6
2003 BOS 3.4 5.7 7.2 16.7 14.3 16.8
2004 DAL 7.4 5.7 7.3 19.1 14.3 16.8
2005 ATL 6.6 5.7 7.3 21.4 14.3 17.0
2005 BOS 8.1 5.7 7.3 19.6 14.3 17.0
2006 MIA 5.8 5.5 7.0 16.3 14.5 17.5
2007 MIA 6.1 5.4 7.2 15.7 14.6 17.6
2008 MIN 7.1 5.3 7.0 15.0 14.7 17.5

Antoine was frequently called out for a lack of intensity on the glass, but as you can see, he wasn't a particularly bad rebounder, especially early in his career. As the years went on, he stopped working hard on the offensive boards, but his defensive rebound rate was consistently above average until his final 3 seasons with Miami and Minnesota.

Defense:

Year Tm DRtg NBA Fwd Blk% NBA Fwd Stl% NBA Fwd
1997 BOS 110.6 106.7 106.1 1.3 1.6 1.8 1.8 1.8 1.7
1998 BOS 103.5 105.1 104.6 1.4 1.5 1.7 2.2 1.8 1.7
1999 BOS 100.5 102.3 101.9 1.3 1.5 1.7 2.1 1.9 1.7
2000 BOS 105.0 104.2 103.7 0.8 1.5 1.7 2.0 1.7 1.6
2001 BOS 102.2 103.1 102.4 1.1 1.6 1.9 2.1 1.7 1.6
2002 BOS 100.5 104.7 104.0 0.9 1.6 1.9 1.9 1.7 1.6
2003 BOS 101.4 103.8 102.8 0.8 1.5 1.8 1.9 1.7 1.6
2004 DAL 106.9 103.0 102.2 1.7 1.6 1.9 1.2 1.7 1.6
2005 ATL 109.6 106.2 105.4 1.2 1.5 1.8 1.6 1.6 1.5
2005 BOS 104.8 106.2 105.4 2.4 1.5 1.8 1.6 1.6 1.5
2006 MIA 105.3 106.3 105.5 1.0 1.5 1.9 1.1 1.6 1.4
2007 MIA 105.8 106.5 105.6 0.7 1.5 1.9 1.4 1.6 1.4
2008 MIN 111.0 107.6 106.3 0.7 1.5 1.9 1.9 1.6 1.5

Defense was arguably Walker's biggest flaw as a player: he'd fall asleep on the weak side all the time, give up too many easy buckets simply for lack of hustle. He was also undersized in pure post-up situations against true 4s, and didn't give you the shot-blocking you'd want out of a frontcourt defender. But at the same time he was surprisingly decent at stealing the ball early in his career, and his prominent playing time on some tough defensive teams under Jim O'Brien in Boston suggests that he wasn't as horrendous a defender as the popular perception held. I'm not saying anyone would confuse him with Tim Duncan down low, but he was probably no worse than an average defensive player during his prime.

Final Assessment:

Assets Liabilities
Nice passing ability & court vision Laid a lot of bricks from the outside
Good ballhandling skills Struggled at the free throw line
Unique, versatile skill set Amazingly poor shot selection
Could create his own shot Bad habit of drifting to the perimeter
Possessed 3-point range Unable to block many shots
Clearly a talented basketball player Poor conditioning habits
Underrated rebounder & defender His focus would come and go
The "shimmy" The "shimmy"

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10 Responses to “Player Audit: Antoine Walker”

  1. Eddy Says:

    Interesting post. I would agree that Walker was always a bit of an enigma during his playing career. Clearly the end conclusion that was reached shows that .. in terms of listening his strengths & weakness as a player.

    I find it slightly humorous that the "shimmy" is both a strength and weakness. I got a nice laugh when I saw that.

    All in all, nicely done on the analysis.

  2. Eddy Says:

    Whoops, I meant to say "listing" in my above post. My mistake.

  3. David Friedman Says:

    Neil:

    Thank you for providing a thorough and well-balanced take on Walker's career. The APBR discussion you referenced inspired me to interview several people who had up close views of Walker's career--including then-Boston Coach Doc Rivers, Bob Ryan and Tommy Heinsohn.

    Here are links to the two-part series that I wrote about Walker after doing those interviews:

    Part I
    Part II

    One important thing to note about Walker's shot selection and his declining offensive rebounding is that in Boston he was filling the role that Coach Jim O'Brien assigned to him, as noted by Heinsohn: O'Brien wanted Walker to spread the court by shooting three pointers. Obviously, this took Walker away from the offensive glass. One can debate whether or not O'Brien was employing the best strategy considering the roster composition at that time, but it is not really fair to blame Walker for doing what the coach asked him to do. Note that Walker's offensive rebounding rate--as shown in your chart--increased when he went to Dallas and never again dropped to the levels it fell to when he played for O'Brien.

  4. David Friedman Says:

    Just to clarify: I'm not breaking any news, Doc Rivers is still Boston's Coach. I meant to say "recently hired."

  5. 94by50 Says:

    We should try to get Bill Simmons to comment on this critique. As a Celts fan, he had the "pleasure" of observing much of Walker's career first-hand. I suspect he would agree with most of it.

    Let the record reflect: I object to the listing of the shimmy as a liability.

  6. Saxmo Says:

    The "shimmy" was not called the shimmy, it was the Walker Wiggle.

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    Thanks for the links, David. And regarding the point about Antoine being used as a floor-spacer, perhaps that's one of the reasons his Statistical +/- looks a lot better than you'd expect from a guy with his shooting %. As Dan Rosenbaum wrote in the original SPM paper, "[...] players with more three point attempts tend to have higher offensive adjusted plus/minus ratings. This suggests that in addition to the points they score, the ability of three point shooters to spread the floor is very important for offenses. Also, note that more three point attempts is not associated with worse defense. It does not appear that the long rebounds from missed three pointers is typically leading to easy transition points." So perhaps there was some kind of "hidden value" to what I perceived at the time to be simply careless chucking.

    And that's very true, Saxmo... I refuse to call it that, though (and I always will), because I hated it when he did that -- specially on shots that didn't even matter (after he had missed a half-dozen that did matter). As you can tell, I was one of those C's fans in the staunchly "anti-Antoine" camp -- although I've mellowed over the years, and I think I was pretty fair in this article. But, man, at the time, that guy was one of my least favorite players ever.

  8. Jonathan Says:

    Is there a listing of the "energy index" with positional averages for various seasons readily available?

  9. Blake Kennedy Says:

    Why aren't S/G (shimmies per game) included in the Energy Index?

  10. Antoine Fan Says:

    I am sick of the Walker bashing. Your team wins a title and you have nothing better to do then bash a guy that worked his butt off for this team.

    I don't care about his stats. He was a true Celtics, never quit and he knew what being a Celtic was all about.

    Stats do not tell you everything. What I will remember is Antoine saving our butts hitting game winning shots or playing great defense against other teams when we needed him. So you enjoy the jokes but in the end title with Boston or not Antoine knew what being a Celtic was all about more then anyone in the last 20 years and that includes Paul Pierce.