Quick Thoughts

I know it’s exciting that training camps are open and players are playing actual basketball but actual news is quite hard to come by.  We’ll have full NBA previews coming in the next few weeks but we thought we’d tide you over with a little bit of basketball talk.  We often associate a particular position with a particular player (i.e. Magic Johnson at the point in the 1980s or Michael Jordan at shooting guard forever).  We were wondering whether our mental associations comport with the stats.  Obviously, the stats don’t reflect all the value of a player (particularly not the defensive side of the equation) but PER is a very nice barometer of offensive accomplishment.  I thought we could look at the PER leaders year-by-year since 1979-80 (the first year of the Magic/Bird Era) and see if the yearly PER leaders by position really comport with our conceptions:

1979-80 Mag. Johnson G. Gervin J. Erving Marq. Johnson K. Abdul-Jabbar
1980-81 M. Richardson G. Gervin J. Erving Marq. Johnson K. Abdul-Jabbar
1981-82 Mag. Johnson G. Gervin J. Erving D. Roundield M. Malone
1982-83 G. Williams S. Moncrief L. Bird T. Cummings M. Malone
1983-84 Mag. Johnson S. Moncrief A. Dantley K. McHale M. Malone
1984-85 Mag. Johnson M. Jordan L. Bird T. Cummings K. Abdul-Jabbar
1985-86 Mag. Johnson S. Moncrief L. Bird C. Barkley H. Olajuwon
1986-87 Mag. Johnson M. Jordan L. Bird C. Barkley H. Olajuwon
1987-88 J. Stockton M. Jordan L. Bird C. Barkley H. Olajuwon
1988-89 Mag. Johnson M. Jordan C. Mullin C. Barkley H. Olajuwon
1989-90 Mag. Johnson M. Jordan D. Wilkins C. Barkley D. Robinson
1990-91 Mag. Johnson M. Jordan D. Wilkins C. Barkley D. Robinson
1991-92 M. Price M. Jordan D. Wilkins K. Malone D. Robinson
1992-93 M. Price M. Jordan D. Wilkins K. Malone H. Olajuwon
1993-94 M. Price R. Miller S. Pippen S. Kemp D. Robinson
1994-95 J. Stockton C. Drexler S. Pippen C. Barkley D. Robinson
1995-96 T. Brandon M. Jordan C. Ceballos K. Malone D. Robinson
1996-97 J. Stockton M. Jordan G. Hill K. Malone S. O’Neal
1997-98 J. Stockton M. Jordan S. Pippen K. Malone S. O’Neal
1998-99 J. Kidd A. Iverson G. Hill K. Malone S. O’Neal
1999-00 G. Payton V. Carter G. Hill K. Malone S. O’Neal
2000-01 J. Stockton V. Carter K. Garnett K. Malone S. O’Neal
2001-02 G. Payton T. McGrady K. Garnett T. Duncan S. O’Neal
2002-03 S. Nash T. McGrady K. Garnett T. Duncan S. O’Neal
2003-04 S. Cassell T. McGrady K. Garnett T. Duncan S. O’Neal
2004-05 S. Nash D. Wade K. Garnett T. Duncan S. O’Neal
2005-06 G. Arenas K. Bryant L. James D. Nowitzki Z. Ilgauskas
2006-07 G. Arenas K. Bryant L. James D. Nowitzki A. Stoudemire
2007-08 C. Paul K. Bryant L. James K. Garnett D. Howard
2008-09 C. Paul D. Wade L. James T. Duncan D. Howard

 In addition to the defense issue we noted above, there are other problems with this kind of list.  First and foremost, positional definitions are quite slippery.  Was KG a small forward or a power forward?  Was Tim Duncan a power forward or center?  The fact is we make approximations that can often yield results we don’t love.  That being said, we still have some interesting results here: 

-For the most part, the huge stars like MJ, Magic, and Bird did dominate their positions.  Jordan was in control whenever he played but Magic and Bird didn’t quite dominate as long.  Indeed, Magic and Bird, on occasion, were outplayed statistically by Gus Williams and Adrian Dantley respectively. 

-Power forward in the early 1980s was the weakest single position at any time in the last 30 years.  Before Barkley and Malone, Marques Johnson and Dan Roundfield led the league. 

-Most unlikely PER leaders by position?  Clearly Roundfield is in the discussion.  A couple of nice but underappreciated points like Brandon and Cassell were surprising too.  The most surprising has to be a tie between Cedric Ceballos of 1995-96 and Ilaguaskas of 2005-06.  The Ilgauskas year was more about the lack of great centers than about Big Z playing out of his mind.  

Ceballos, on the other hand, didn’t quite get credit for how well he played in 1995-96.  The NBA had a bunch of great small forwards then (Pippen, Hill, Schrempf, Elliott) and Ceballos was in their class for a short time.  This career year wasn’t out of the blue, as Ceballos had great rate stats as a role player in Phoenix and he was very good in his first year in L.A. in 1994-95.  Still, Ceballos was able to score at a high volume with remarkable efficiency and he boarded and didn’t turn the ball over to boot.  In fact, Ceballos peak with the Lakers (1994-95 and 1995-96) compares favorable to franchise legend James Worthy, who was a similar player.  But Worthy is a Laker playoff legend and Ceballos is more remembered for going AWOL late in the 1995-96 season.  

Ceballos was angered when Magic Johnson’s comeback ate into his shots and minutes.  To express his anger, Ceballos left the team to go water skiing in Arizona and refused to take phone calls from coach Dell Harris.  Ceballos, saw his minutes and playing time erode a little, culminating in two 2-point games in March, which led to the water skiing issues.  Ceballos eventually did make it back to the Lakers and had a fairly solid playoff series against the Rockets (Houston took the series 3-1). 

In retrospect, one might think that the incident is what ended Ceballos’ time in L.A..  It probably didn’t help but they brought him back for 1996-97.   This time, Ceballos struggled playing with new acquisition Shaq.  In eight games with the Lakers in 1996-97, Ceballos has 11 ppg on 41% shooting.  The Lakers decided they needed more of a complementary player who did the little things and dealt Ceballos back to Phoenix for Robert Horry.  Ceballos scored a lot in limited minutes for the Suns (15 ppg in 27 mpg) but he would never get another shot to score like he did with the Lakers.  He played only four more seasons before bouncing to Europe.

8 comments for “Quick Thoughts

  1. penbeast0
    October 11, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    interesting list, I was surprised to see Nique up there so much with all the other great SFs of that era.

    Not sure why you put Marques Johnson at PF, he was clearly the SF on those Bucks teams. In 1980, the PFs were Dave Meyers and Pat Cummings (with a 3 headed monster at center), in 1981 the PFs were Mickey Johnson and Pat Cummings (with Lanier and Catchings playing center). Nellie does have a tendency to play smallball more than most but the regular rotation was pretty set with Marques at SF.

  2. Malemute
    October 12, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Ceballos and Brandon really jump out. How about the best players who have not made this list? Maybe Isiah / Richmond / Pierce / Webber / Ewing ?

  3. October 14, 2009 at 9:44 am

    What’s surprising for me was Duncan recently led his position in PER, with all the talks that he will be rested.. will have a lesser role.. etc. Duncan’s still one of the best, and he will age beautifully because of his fundamental basketball skills.

    O’Neal was crazy dominating that long, and I wonder if we will be able to see anything like him in the future. Also reminds me that I started watching the NBA late as I missed watching a lot of the all time greats.

  4. October 19, 2009 at 8:34 am

    What are other sabermetric-esque statistics did you consider before deciding to use PER primarily in your analysis?

    Thanks for the tips on the Pluto books.

  5. Harlan Schreiber
    October 20, 2009 at 11:51 pm


    Marques Johnson was a stretch at PF but I saw Mickey Johnson as more of a back up to Lanier and Pat Cummings as a back up too. Marques definitely played some power and the next three players in minutes were guards and Junior Bridgeman.


    I don’t specifically remember who just missed the list but it was the usual suspects (Karl Malone v. Barkley) almost every year.


    I thought about win shares but I like PER a little better as a catch all stat.

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