Look to 40-minute averages to find diamonds in the rough
By John Hollinger, SI.com
Let's talk about the single most overlooked statistical item in basketball: 40-minute averages. Forty-minute averages are simply a player's stats for every 40 minutes of playing time; it's a good barometer because it simulates how much a player would produce if he got the minutes of a star player. In many cases, it shows that a guy playing a reserve role would be a star player if the coach would just play him more.
Each is perceived to be making a great step forward this season. In fact, if you look at their 40-minute averages in the chart at right, they've done nothing of the sort -- they've simply been given the gift of playing time and produced better per-game stats as a result.
Let's start with Maggette. Take a look at his per-game stats, and it looks as if he's made a big improvement. But throw in his 40-minute averages, and it shows that Maggette's production increase is pretty modest -- he just doesn't have Lamar Odom stealing his playing time anymore, enabling him to achieve the 20-point average he was always capable of producing.
The same goes for Kirilenko. His per-minute numbers are virtually identical to a year ago, but he is getting All-Star consideration that he couldn't previously because he was trying to fight Karl Malone and Matt Harpring for minutes.
In Portland, Randolph's improvement has been a bit more genuine than the other two, but even he was an easy bet to become a 20-10 guy as soon as he got the minutes. Last year's playoffs against Dallas removed any doubt about that.
Yet the one that sticks out more than any of the others is Michael Redd. Redd in 2001-02 had modest per-game averages of 11.4 points and 3.3 rebounds. But projected to 40 minutes, those came out to over 21 points and a freakish-for-a-guard six rebounds.
Despite 40-minute averages that screamed All-Star, nobody wanted to take it seriously. The proof is in the pudding: Redd was a free agent in 2001-02 and got exactly zero interest. He ended up signing a four-year, $12 million deal with the Bucks -- and had to wait two weeks into training camp to get that much (although he did turn down slightly more money from Dallas).
Let's put this in perspective: This was the same summer that Raef LaFrentz signed for seven years and $70 million, Malik Rose got seven years and $42 million, and Wally Szczerbiak got a $65 million extension. Two teams offered Ricky Davis $35 million. Heck, Jerome freaking James (three years, $16 million) got more coin than Redd that summer. Unbelievably, so did Devean George, Eduardo Najera, Jeff Foster, Jonathan Bender, Greg Buckner and Pat Garrity.
All because people saw Redd as a nice guard who scored 11 points a game instead of the 23-year-old All-Star that his numbers showed him to be. In fact, not even the Bucks knew what they had. George Karl still took his sweet time getting minutes for Redd in 2002-03, when he put up the same 40-minute numbers in a slightly expanded role. Even heading into this season, Redd was in a training camp battle for the starting shooting guard spot against Desmond Mason.
And the reason this happened is because nobody trusts the 40-minute averages. It's not just a few NBA GMs, either; I constantly get e-mails from people saying I should rate players who come off the bench differently. The reasons appear sound: Doing it for 40 minutes a night would appear to be harder than doing it in a 10-minute burst off the bench. Additionally, players coming off the bench tend to go against the opponents' backups, who in most cases aren't as good.
It all seems reasonable enough. Reasonable, but in reality untrue. Every shred of available research shows that the vast majority of players are more productive with increased minutes, not less. For a 10-second proof of this, take a look at almost any player's stats when he starts against when he comes off the bench; his shooting percentage will almost always be higher as a starter, and so will his 40-minute averages. Once in a blue moon a player like Oliver Miller or Robert Traylor comes along who is so out of shape that he couldn't possibly play 40 minutes in one night without having a coronary, but for everybody else, the 40-minute averages are an extremely reliable indicator.
The experiences of Randolph, Kirilenko, Maggette and Redd bears that out. Teams and fans wrongly discount the accomplishments of highly productive reserves, and this thinking in turn made it possible for the play of Randolph, Kirilenko, Maggette and Redd this year to be seen as a "breakout."
Now, for the hard part. It's easy for me to crack on everybody for missing out on four guys who have already emerged, but who are the players who are still stuck under the radar? Unfortunately, there's nobody quite as sledgehammer-to-the-head obvious as Redd was this year. Yet there are still a few players who are a lot better than their per-game stats (and reputations) would have us believe.
Swift's averages have been like this for the past three years. Basically, he's the Grizzlies' second-best player. But he plays the same position as the Grizzlies' best player, Pau Gasol, so he can't get on the court, especially since, at 225 pounds, Swift isn't big enough to play serious minutes at center. Swift also has one other problem: He drives coaches crazy with his mental gaffes, especially on defense. But despite his bouts of cluelessness, Swift's abundant athleticism and soft mid-range touch would make him a 20-10 threat if he saw the floor more.
I can hear Joe Dumars now. "Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Sorry, Joe. Okur's averages of 10 points and six boards look modest until you realize he's averaged only 23 minutes a game. But it's not his fault that it took Larry Brown half the season to figure out that Okur's better than Elden Campbell. Okur grades out as a high-teens scorer and a double-figure rebounder. Additionally, his 3-point range and solid shooting percentage mean that he gets his points on relatively few shots. So why does Dumars want me to hush up? Okur is a free agent after the season, and the Pistons are in a precarious position because they will have only about $6 million under the cap to offer him.
If I was the Charlotte Bobcats, I would have this guy's agent on speed dial. The Nuggets seem prepared to trade White for peanuts -- they tried to give him away for Darius Miles last week -- in spite of the fact that he would be one of the league's top scorers if he didn't have Carmelo Anthony taking most of his minutes. After two unimpressive seasons, White has come into his own this year, and he's still only 23. The Nuggets foolishly failed to pick up his option before the season, so White will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Bobcats should have plenty of cash to drop on him.
One of the keys to Milwaukee's surprising season has been the ability to find decent big men on the cheap. Brian Skinner and Daniel Santiago have both had their moments, but Gadzuric takes the cake. He's an outstanding rebounder, finishes around the basket and can beat almost every center in the league down the floor. He doesn't get talked about much as a shot-blocker because his per-game average doesn't jump out at you, but he averages four blocks per 40 minutes -- about 25 percent more than Ben Wallace. Yet Gadzuric has yet to start a game this year, an oversight that Terry Porter ought to correct by the end of the year.
In addition to the four players above, two other players fall into the "grain of salt" category. Their numbers this year are impressive, but because each has played only about 300 minutes, it's still within the realm of possibility that they're nothing more than glorious flukes.
Chandler is the one Baby Bull who has lived up to the hype, but a back problem may derail his promising career just as he gets rolling. He averages 14 boards per 40 minutes, so if he can come back at full strength, it's pretty easy to imagine him leading the league in rebounding.
I had to put this guy in here because he wasn't even drafted, but what he's accomplished in his limited minutes in Dallas is hard to ignore. He's out of the rotation at the moment, but with Tony Delk injured and Travis Best doing a convincing imitation of a corpse, Don Nelson might turn to Daniels for more minutes off the bench.