Anarchy, Championships and the Orlando Magic

TrueHoop had a field of writers at the Sloan Sports Conference a few weekends ago and did a fantastic job covering the event. Journalists, general managers, owners and the leading minds in the field got together at this conference to discuss different ways to quantify basketball and translate them to wins and to discuss the latest methods.

One of these ideas has a special connection to the Magic.

Brian Skinner presented a paper at the conference entitled, “The Price of Anarchy in Basketball.” Rob Mahoney of Hardwood Paroxysm wrote a great summary of the article and what it argues. What it pretty much is trying to get at is that it is sometimes best not to use your most optimal scoring weapon on every possession.

The example given in the article involved Ray Allen. Allen is widely considered the best shooter in the NBA. In Seattle, he was THE MAN. He had a very high usage rate and was relied upon to score in bunches to help his team. But Allen could not deliver much in the way of playoff success to the Sonics. They never made much noise in the playoffs and it was a struggle for him.

But when he was traded to Boston he was no longer depended on for most of the scoring. Instead he was a piece of the puzzle. Allen continued to shoot at an incredibly efficient rate, but because his usage rate had decreased (from a high of 29.5 in his last season in Seattle in 2007 to 21.6 when Boston won the title in 2008 and 20.8 last year) he was helping his team more.

Obviously you can argue that now, as Boston is still a pretty good team, but not quite championship caliber (or so we think). There is clearly a balance star players need to have between using up too many possessions and using the right amount to help their team.

But the thought goes against intuition. As Mahoney puts it, “It’s completely possible, supposing you buy Skinner’s basic argument, that Jordan and the Bulls underachieved. If they had achieved the perfect offensive balance — where Jordan may have stopped scoring well before the point which Skinner describes as something akin to the Nash equilibrium, in which a player’s likelihood of scoring is equivalent to that of his teammates scoring — the ‘96 Bulls could very well have improved upon their 72-10 record.”

It is certainly an interesting theory.

Something Orlando is known for, ahead of maybe other contending teams, is its lack of a dominant scorer. That was half the reason the team acquired Vince Carter. If there was ever a team that could test out Skinner’s theory it would be the Magic.

Look at the team’s scoring spread: Dwight Howard leads the team with 18.7 points per game (18 percent of Orlando’s scoring this season), Vince Carter is next with 16.6 points per game and Rashard Lewis is third with 14.2. Those top three scorers, who combine for 49.5 points per game and 48.6 percent of the team’s scoring, hardly look like the top three of a championship team.

For comparison, the Lakers have Kobe Bryant scoring a ton of points (27.7 points per game and 27 percent of the Lakers’ scoring) and Pau Gasol with 16.9 points and Andrew Bynum at 14.9 per game — good for 58.0 percent of the team’s scoring. Cleveland’s top trio of LeBron James (29.9 PPG), Antawn Jamison (16.8 PPG) and Mo Williams (15.8 PPG) account for 61.2 percent of the team’s scoring. James scores 29.3 percent of his team’s scoring.

Kobe and LeBron obviously would use more possessions than anyone else. But it makes you think, doesn’t it? In the last Bulls championship Michael Jordan scored 29.7 percent of his team’s points. The top three scorers accounted for 63.2 percent of the scoring.

Obviously that formula can work too.

But I was curious how this compared to other scoring spreads from past championship teams.

The Lakers followed the Bryant-heavy formula but not as heavy as this year. Bryant accounted for 25.1 percent of the team’s scoring and Bryant, Gasol and Bynum scored 56.1 percent of the team’s points.

Orlando last year had 54.6 percent of its scoring come from its top three players. Dwight Howard’s 20.6 points per game accounted for 20.4 percent of the Magic’s scoring. The Cavs top three scorers had 58.9 percent of the team’s scoring and James’ 28.4 points per game accounted for 28.3 percent of their point production.

Last year the numbers appear to support Skinner’s anarchy theory. Cleveland relied too much on James while the Lakers and the Magic had better balance among their top scorers and the rest of the team. As the table below will show though, Bryant was able to dominate the ball better than Orlando’s top scorer and get points when his team needed them at a higher rate. It certainly could be one reason why the Lakers took home the title last year.

Here are the spreads for the last five champions:

Year Team Top Scorer (% of scoring) Top 3 Percent Scoring
2009 Lakers Kobe Bryant (25.1%) 56.1%
2008 Celtics Paul Pierce (19.5%) 55.5%
2007 Spurs Tim Duncan (20.3%) 55.9%
2006 Heat Dwyane Wade (27.2%) 59.6%
2005 Spurs Tim Duncan (21.1%) 55.0%

All stats used above and in this post are regular season stats

Looking at the graph it is clear that recently it does not matter how much your primary scorer scores. Wade went bonkers in leading the Heat to the title in 2006 and the Lakers rely heavily on Bryant for their offense. But it is also clear a dominating offensive player is not necessary to win a title.

Very good news for the Magic.

What the graph also shows is that most championship teams depend on their top three scorers for between 55-56 percent of their scoring. Obviously there are exceptions.

But that does not bode too well for the Magic. Both Howard (18.0 percent of the team’s scoring this year) and the top three scorers (48.6 percent of the team’s scoring) are well below the numbers offered in the table above.

So who is in this range right now? The Lakers (Bryant 27.0%/trio 58.0%) appear to be within the range. The Cavaliers (James 29.3/trio 61.2) appear to rely too much on their star players for success. The Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony 26.4%/trio 59.2%) appear to fall within the range; the Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki 24.6%/trio 57.3%) seem to fit better; and the Celtics (Pierce 17.9%/trio 49.0%) seem to fall well short of the championship line.

The numbers make me think the Magic have too much anarchy on offense to win a title. But of course, there are plenty of other factors that go into winning a title.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily