The recent signing of Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko to a 6-year, $86 million contract raised a pertinent question: Is he worth it?
And here's the answer: "Absolutely."
That's the informed opinion of Roland Beech, an NBA stat analyst who runs the Web site www.82games.com.
"Kirilenko's a no-brainer," Beech said. "He's one of the top players in the league and the Jazz are lucky to have him. He just does it all."
Beech has contracts with NBA teams to provide statistical analysis that goes beyond the points, rebounds and assists so beloved of fantasy-game geeks.
"We're trying to do the 'money ball' kind of stuff for the NBA," Beech said. "There are a lot of statistics known events that can be tracked. We're trying to take statistical detail to the next level."
Beech said he can not only tell you such rudimentary stats as the difference between a player's shooting percentage on layups and jumpers but also such things as how a player performs on contested and uncontested shots or how productive a player is when a certain play is run.
He can even tell you how a specific pair of players perform together. An analysis of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant duo revealed that the Lakers were great with both players on the floor, but a lot better with O'Neal on the floor without Bryant than the other way around.
That conclusion was arrived at by study of one of the chief things Beech and his colleagues look at: the "plus-minus" statistic. It's a measure of how a team performs when a player is on or off the floor.
There are several approaches to making such calculations, but Beech's site offers ratings of the top 50 players in the league, as gauged by a couple of the simpler measures.
According to that system, Kirilenko ranked fourth in the league last year. If you think that sounds high, consider that the top three players produced by this measure were, in order, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal.
It's hard to argue with results like that.
But people do still argue, preferring to go with their gut instinct about a player over statistics derived by a system that to them seems nothing short of alchemy.
"We can show people statistics, but if it disagrees with their opinion, they just go, 'Bah, stats don't matter,' " Beech said. "A lot of people look at players' points-per-game average, and that's as far as they go."
Surprisingly, it's not just fans who resist, but team executives. Many of them are old-school guys who are suspicious of anything that goes beyond what they see on the court.
"Not a lot of teams are doing the in-depth statistical work yet," he added. "And it can be a huge edge, both in terms of personnel evaluation and game scouting."
Beech doesn't try to claim that his system is perfect, at least not yet. It's an evolving science. And he also recognizes that teams have to take factors into consideration even beyond statistics.
Money, for instance.
"Of course, with the NBA you always have to backtrack the stats to a player's salary," Beech pointed out. "A player might be a bargain at $1.7 million but not such a good buy at $10 million.
"It's also a complicated process to not only recognize talent but whether that talent fits in your roster and in your salary cap."
Beech used Seattle's Jerome James as an example. Stats seem to show the Sonics perform a little better with James on the floor. But word is the quirky James is disliked by his teammates, in which case the team might be better off dumping him.
Naturally, this kind of comprehensive analysis is bound to result in some surprising findings, especially with regard to over- and underrated players.
For instance, Brian Cardinal, the hustling forward deemed not worth re-signing by the Golden State Warriors, checked in at tied for 23rd on Beech's rankings, which includes everyone who played at least 600 minutes.
And Washington's Brendan Haywood, generally considered too soft by most NBA "experts," ranked 25th.
Notably missing from the top 50, meanwhile, were such acclaimed players as Philly's Allen Iverson and Atlanta's Antoine Walker, who with Dallas last season posted negative plus-minus numbers.
Walker, Beech said, is a "low-efficiency guy. Fantasy players love him, but he was a bad decision for Dallas. It's surprising not only that they got him but that they gave him so many minutes."
As for Iverson, Beech agreed with The Answer's fans that he's immensely talented and absolutely fearless, but the Philly guard rated just a +4.0. Not a spectacular score for a guy who was voted league MVP a few seasons ago.
"A lot of big scorers are inefficient shooters," Beech noted.
Kirilenko led Utah's rankings with a +17.5, but the No. 2 Jazzman probably will surprise you: Gordan Giricek, at +5.5. Carlos Arroyo and Matt Harpring were next, tied at +2.7, followed by, in order, Greg Ostertag (+1.8) and Mikki Moore (+0.8). All the other Jazz players received negative plus-minus ratings.
New Jazzmen Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur ranked 12th and 42nd, respectively, facts that led Beech to praise Utah's offseason effort.Comment on this story
"There's a lot of moves they made that meet with the approval of people in the stats world," he said.
A Warriors fan, Beech was less happy with Golden State's offseason decisions, particularly the recent lucrative contract extensions given to Troy Murphy and Jason Richardson.
Richardson, who, according to Beech's analysis, can't shoot from outside, ranked a +2.8, while Murphy checked in at -1.2."They're young players with good upsides who might turn into good players," Beech said. "But from a money ball standpoint, you can't justify those signings."