You Are Here > Basketball-Reference.com > BBR Blog > NBA and College Basketball Analysis

SITE NEWS: We are moving all of our site and company news into a single blog for Sports-Reference.com. We'll tag all Basketball-Reference content, so you can quickly and easily find the content you want.

Also, our existing Basketball-Reference blog rss feed will be redirected to the new site's feed.

Basketball-Reference.com // Sports Reference

For more from Neil, check out his new work at BasketballProspectus.com.

High-Peak vs. Consistent Stars, Part II

Posted by Neil Paine on January 11, 2010

Last week, I attempted to replicate an old Bill James study on high-peak (since people apparently don't like the word "peaky") vs. consistent pitching aces, adapting it to basketball. The goal was to see whether a team would expect to win more championships over a 20-year span with a guy whose peak was fast and meteoric -- but whose decline was just as abrupt and total -- or a guy whose career slowly built to become a solid star, never contending for MVP but performing at a high level for a long time. To accomplish this, I took real-world data and built a composite player for each type of All-Star, each with the same number of career Win Shares, and then ran a Monte Carlo simulation of 10,000 careers, tallying how many times each player won a title when surrounded by average teammates. The results were that the consistent player won a ring slightly more often in his career, which contradicted James' findings in baseball, but the # of rings/season for each type was so negligibly different that there was an advantage of just 0.011 championships per 20-year career for Mr. Consistency, not enough to make any difference for real players.

However, there were a number of flaws with the first study, chief among which was the fact that I lumped all "peaky" players into one group and all "consistent" ones into another. In effect, I took a bunch of players whose careers peaked at different times, threw them together, and the peaks for one subgroup were cancelled out by the valleys of another -- I basically averaged the individuals' peaks into a consistent career arc for each type of player, which defeats the entire purpose of the exercise.

Luckily, I get a second chance at these things, and a number of users suggested that instead of taking real-world data like I did on Friday, I should create an exaggerated version of each player type and re-run the simulation. So I put together these fictional career arcs for each player type:

High-Peak Consistent
Year Min WS Min WS
1 1800 3.0 600 1.5
2 2300 4.0 1000 3.0
3 2600 8.0 1500 5.0
4 3000 11.0 1800 6.0
5 3000 14.0 2500 7.0
6 3000 16.0 2800 8.0
7 3000 14.0 2800 8.0
8 3000 11.0 2800 9.0
9 2600 9.0 2800 9.0
10 2300 7.0 2800 9.0
11 1800 5.0 2600 8.0
12 1500 4.0 2600 8.0
13 1200 3.0 2600 7.0
14 600 1.5 2400 6.0
15 500 1.0 2400 5.0
16 300 0.5 2000 4.0
17 0 0.0 1800 3.0
18 0 0.0 1500 2.5
19 0 0.0 1300 2.0
20 0 0.0 1000 1.0

Again, the career totals were equal, 112 for each player, but this time the distributions are radically different and it is very easy to tell at a glance which player type is which. Notice as well that the High-Peak player doesn't even play out the final 4 years of the 20-season block; in those years, he was replaced by a bench-level player to punish the otherwise average team for having to find a replacement for their one-time star player.

Now, it was time to run the 10,000-season simulation again. With our new and improved model, would Mr. Consistency still cop the most NBA titles, or would the brief brillance of the High-Peak star be a better formula for postseason immortality?

Player High-Peak Consistent
# of Careers 10000 10000
Titles 2626 1720
% of Years 1.3% 0.9%
Careers w/ Rings >= 1 2337 1613

Well, that's quite a different result. Exaggerating the "peakiness" of the High-Peak player and the stability of the Consistent one, we see that having a very short stretch of essentially being the NBA's best player is more conducive to winning championships with a typical team than being a consistent lower-end All-Star. This supports what James found in baseball, which was basically that you needed to be better than just good for a long period of time to win a pennant -- you needed to be dominant in your best years, without much regard to how bad you were over the rest of your career.

Now, maybe I made the apex of Mr. Peaky's career a bit too amazing. I mean, very few players will ever reach 16 Win Shares in a season; in fact, it's only been done 62 times in the history of the NBA. Perhaps we should reduce the High-Peak star's best years to something more reasonable. Would that change the outcome?

As it turns out, no. Even if you reduce the peak to 10-11-12-11-10 WS instead of 11-14-16-14-11, the High-Peak star wins you a significantly larger number of championships over 20 years than his Consistent counterpart -- and that's all while being replaced with a bench scrub for the final four seasons of his career.

Given that the first study was both fatally flawed and showed very little in the way of conclusive results either way, I'm inclined to trust these results more, especially since they seem to dovetail with what you see in a cursory analysis of real-life championship results. Dominant players with ridiculous peaks own the Larry O'Brien Trophy, with all but 5 of the past 58 NBA champions being led by a player with double-digit Win Shares (one was Tim Duncan in '99, a season shortened to 50 games; had he played all 82, he was on pace for 14.3), more than half being led by 13+ win players, and a quarter being carried by stars with 15.8 or more WS. Given that the same six franchises (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, LA Lakers, and San Antonio) have controlled 28 of the past 30 NBA crowns, it also makes sense that it takes a truly epic peak performance to break through and capture a championship. Lower-tier All-Stars who can be counted on for solid production every year are nice, but it seems that your best chance for a ring lies with a superstar capable of a handful of monster seasons, even if the rest of his career is mediocre.

ShareThis

14 Responses to “High-Peak vs. Consistent Stars, Part II”

  1. DSMok1 Says:

    That looks better, Neil.

  2. izzy Says:

    This is much better. That was some Gerald Wallace-like improvement.

  3. Romain Says:

    Bill Simmons comes to the same conclusion in his latest book (although without the statistical evidence of course) when ranking Bill Walton in his HOF pyramid.

    You're better off with one and half amazing years from Bill Walton (the Blazers won a title and started 50-10 the next season before Walton got injured) than with 10 or 12 consistently good or very good years from a player who just can't carry his team to the title (someone like Patrick Ewing).

  4. kevin Says:

    At his peak, Walton was the best player I ever saw. I only saw Russell at the end of his career. His peak years in the mid-sixties I don't remember so well.

    But when Walton had it going on, he was unreal. He might be professional sports biggest "what if...?".

  5. Mike G Says:

    Neil, in your sim, what % of the player-seasons with 10, 11, etc WS end with a title?
    How does that compare to the real-life relation between WS and a title?

    If we knew these, we could get 'expected titles' from a career, without running a sim.

  6. Mike G Says:

    I just looked at the eWins equivalent of what I asked (since that's what I have).
    Actually, I just did 2000-2008. In that time, 4 players had over 18 eW in a season: Shaq '00, Duncan '02 and '03, Garnett '04. Half were titlists.
    Just 2 of 11 players with 16-18 eW won: Shaq '01, Duncan '07 -- 18%
    The breakdown:

    eWins   Title  Sample
    18 +    .500      4
    16-18   .182     11
    14-16   .120     25
    12-14   .038     52
    10-12   .038     80
     8-10   .053    150
     7-8    .016    124
     6-7    .008    125
     5-6    .006    173
     4-5    .041    245
     3-4    .038    313
     2-3    .039    433
     1-2    .029    629
     0-1    .032   1600
    < 0     .024    419
    

    That crater at 5-8 eW is rather striking. Almost no one in that range has one a title.
    Maybe this has just been a superstar-dominated decade, and ensemble winners are rare.
    1/30 of all players win a title in a given year, so .033 would be par.

  7. kevin Says:

    Mike, it looks like the eWins below 5-6 represent players who hardly ever play and end up on winners by random chance, as end of the bench garbage time types.

    The guys in the range where your stat craters represent guys who play a lot but suck, hence dragging dwon the team and preventing them from winning.

  8. Jason J Says:

    Can you think of any other team sport where this would be true, where having a short-lived juggernaut of a player would be more likely to get you a title than having a long time with a group of good but not ridirkulous players? I don't follow hockey enough to have an opinion, but does having a Gretzky or Lemieux bump up the title chances that dramatically?

  9. kevin Says:

    "I don't follow hockey enough to have an opinion, but does having a Gretzky or Lemieux bump up the title chances that dramatically?"

    It certainly looks like it. All the truly great players, Orr, Howe, Gretzky, Dryden, Lemieux etc, all ended up playing on at least a couple of winners. Once they got old, injured or left the team, the winning stopped.

  10. Neil Paine Says:

    Probably just starting pitchers in baseball, like James found, and maybe a hot goalie in hockey. In no other sport can a singular superstar carry a team like he can in basketball... In football, even the greatest quarterback has to rely on his defense, receivers, O-line, and/or running game to be successful. In hockey, a transcendent star like Gretzky can be dominant, but he can't guarantee victory like a Michael Jordan because he's still only on the ice for 1/3 of the game (MJ was on the court for 80% of the game during the Bulls' championship years). A brick wall of a goalie who stops everything has a history of single-handedly taking a team to the Cup Finals, but those guys typically can't sustain it for longer than a few playoffs (if even that long). And in baseball, even Barry Bonds at his peak only came to the plate in 10% of San Fran's PAs. Yes, he created an ungodly # of runs (about 180, or 22.5% of the team's total), but can you imagine if Jordan only used 10% of the Bulls' possessions on offense? Even an unhittable starting pitcher like Pedro 2000 can only go to the mound every 5 days, so you could win 20+ complete games and still miss the playoffs by a mile if your offense can't hit and your fellow starters suck.

    I can't think of another sport in which a player who is that much better than everyone else can make such a drastic impact on his team's title chances. That said, LeBron proved last year that you can be arguably as good as anyone ever has been, but if your teammates continue to blow open shots, you won't win.

  11. Mike G Says:

    Kevin wrote:
    "Mike, it looks like the eWins below 5-6 represent players who hardly ever play and end up on winners by random chance, as end of the bench garbage time types.
    The guys in the range where your stat craters represent guys who play a lot but suck, hence dragging dwon the team and preventing them from winning."

    Worth looking into. Actually, there's a smooth correlation, and players in the 4-5 eW/yr group are right about average in eW/min. Players over 8 eW/yr tend to be at least 1.50 of avg eW/min; only below 2 eW/yr do they avg less than 80% of avg eW/min.

    So, the sucky players are really the rank-and-file of 8 eW (Billups, Ben, Rip), some role players w <5 (Prince, Okur, Corliss), and no-one in the 5-8 range.

    This is likely a flukish decade. Neil, perhaps you could look into this kind of breakdown with WS. With and without this past decade.
    And thanks for the format fix on my table.

  12. Mike G Says:

    The 'greater than' and 'less than' keys cause some deletions!

    Paragraph 3 should read
    "So, the sucky players are really the rank-and-file of less than 1 eW. Even the 'ensemble' champ '04 Pistons had 'stars' w greater than 8 eW (Billups, Ben, Rip), some role players w <5 (Prince, Okur, Corliss), and no-one in the 5-8 range."

  13. kevin Says:

    "In hockey, a transcendent star like Gretzky can be dominant, but he can't guarantee victory like a Michael Jordan because he's still only on the ice for 1/3 of the game (MJ was on the court for 80% of the game during the Bulls' championship years)."

    Yeah but look at what happens when guys like Gretzky, Orr and Lemieux are on the ice. They're all scoring machines. In a game where the margin of victory is so small, guys like that have an overwhelming effect on wins and losses.

  14. Neil Paine Says:

    That's true, but I don't think even the best scorers boost their team's probability of a title as much as the best basketball players do. Look at the history of Art Ross winners:

    http://www.hockey-reference.com/awards/ross.html

    Only 17 times in 61 years has the best scorer in the league led his team to a Cup. In the 21 seasons since Gretzky did it in 1987, it's happened 3 times, the 3rd of which came last season.