For all the stick that ESPN gets for any one of a number of sins (relentless cross-promotion, favoritism to certain reviled teams, Stuart Scott, etc.), articles like this one from John Hollinger($) make it all worthwhile that I spend $5 per month to breathe in the rarified air of Insider status. I am a sucker for a well-reasoned, empirical approach to evaluating...just about anything and Hollinger does a great job with the question of what factors are relevant to determining who will be a hit and who will be a miss. My only quibble is that he should have used a larger sample size of draft classes. Maybe a follow-up article would be in order?
Hollinger's approach mimics that of Football Outsiders on quarterbacks, which concluded that the most important stats in evaluating college passers is completion percentage and career starts. Hollinger doesn't have the same sample size that Football Outsiders did, but he does measure for strength of schedule, which was a problem with the Football Outsiders approach. Neither Hollinger, nor Football Outsiders have figured out a way to control for the quality of teammates, which seems to be to be the critical unanswered question when drafting players. For instance, Hollinger notes that steals are a critical stat in evaluating college players, but a player like Mike Conley would have an advantage over other point guards in that respect because he had Greg Oden behind him to erase mistakes and he could therefore be more aggressive in hounding opposing guards and jumping into passing lanes. I suspect that Hollinger's counter would be that indexing for teammates is something that scouts have to do and that statistical analysis should work in tandem with scouting rather than replacing it.
A few random thoughts on the article:
1. The NBA's decision to require players to be at least one year removed from high school before being drafted makes Hollinger's analysis more potent because it allows statistical analysis of (non-foreign) draft prospects. David Stern hit on this on Bill Simmons's podcast, when he explained that the reason for the one-year rule was to provide NBA teams with more reliable information when making draft decisions.
2. Billy Knight comes out OK in the article. Josh Childress ranks 6th among available players from the '04 Draft, although Luol Deng ranked first and Deng was the player for whom Hawks fans (or at least yours truly in the parking lot of the Borders on Ponce listening to the Draft) were screaming when the Hawks took Childress. Still, Childress has turned into a good player and Hollinger's system reflects that. Marvin Williams comes off as the second-best player in the '05 Draft, which makes his selection with the #2 pick defensible, although again, Chris Paul is #1 in Hollinger's rankings and Hawks fans (often in retrospect) wanted Paul. What surprised me the most is that Shelden Williams was the second-best player available last year, despite the fact that the system penalizes four-year players. If Hollinger's system is correct, then one of the following needs to be true:
a) The Hawks have been unlucky in that the Williamses and Childress have been banged up at inconvenient times over the past several years;
b) Mike Woodson is not a good coach and is squandering a talented roster (a theory that doesn't seem to be advanced much, as all of the criticism falls on Billy Knight for some unknown reason); or
c) The Hawks have a talented roster, but it consists of mismatched parts and/or it lacks quality veteran players to fill in around the youngsters.
In light of the Boris Diaw experience, options b and c seem unfortunately plausible to me.
3. As for this year's draft, Hollinger's system indicates that the Hawks should grab Mike Conley, who is the 12th highest-rated player from the last six drafts and is the best option after the big two by a significant margin. The fact that he answers a need for the Hawks only increases the importance of taking him. I can't believe I'm siding with Terrence Moore over Mark Bradley, but I've swung back to advocating for Conley, although Horford does well in the rankings and he would certainly not be a bad pick. Hollinger's rankings set off all sorts of alarm bells about Acie Law, which I have been feeling for weeks. The Hawks taking him with the #11 pick would be the one event that could make me angry tomorrow night.
Then again, the Hawks could swing the #3 and #11 picks in some sort of four-team mishmash trade that nets us Amare Stoudemire (as was discussed on the radio this morning) and then I will dance through the streets.