The Stats Say: Howard and Harden could make the Rockets contenders through the end of the decade

“It is a merciless system weighted toward the superstar,” concludes an article from RealGM analyzing what it takes to contend for an NBA title. Put less delicately, there are only about a dozen players in the NBA that even matter. A team without at least one of the best dozen players — even if that team has several All-Stars and a really good supporting cast (e.g., the Warriors, Nuggets, and Grizzlies) — has virtually zero chance of competing for an NBA title, let alone winning it. This is called the “Superstar Theory,” and its basic point is that the best players are ridiculously valuable and all the rest are merely large bodies occupying space.

Endogeneity aside, there is some compelling evidence to support the theory. In the article referenced above, the author made a list of the 117 all-time greatest NBA players based on MVP votes and All-NBA votes and several other criteria, and then counted how often teams in the Finals or conference finals had one of these 117 players. Here I’m handpicking results:

Every single NBA champion has been led by one of the 117 superstars on this list, and so has all but one of the losers in the NBA Finals. (The exception? The 2000 Pacers.) 107 of the 116 Finals teams had at least a qualifying silver medal superstar, i.e., basically an all-time top 60 player. Even eighty percent of the 116 teams that lost in the conference finals were led by one of the 117 superstars.

If the Superstar Theory is true (and it appears to be), then there are only four to six current teams with realistic title hopes. That’s because, according to the author’s criteria, there are only 13 and a half active superstars in their prime (shown below; bold indicates under age 35; please note: I say 13.5 superstars rather than 14.5 because I refuse to count Amar’e).

Platinum Medal: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan

Gold Medal: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki

Silver Medal: Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, Amar’e Stoudemire, Blake Griffin

Bronze Medal: Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Paul Pierce, Paul George

Honorable Mention: James Harden (3.8 points, barely missing bronze status; seems likely by 2014 unless injured) 

These superstars are spread across 9 teams, with 4 of those teams having more than one superstar, with one of those teams being the Houston Rockets. So unless you have doubts as to the bona-fide-ness of Harden’s superstardom or the herniation of Dwight’s discs, then the Rockets can safely be declared contenders. But they have formidable competition in the Thunder, Clippers, and LeBrons (and maybe also the Spurs and Bulls). So the next logical question is how long their championship window might last.

Barring catastrophic injuries or other McGrady/Yao-like events, I estimate that Howard and Harden should be “superstar” enough for the Rockets to be within title-sniffing distance for at least 5 years and maybe as many as 9. That’s based on the rate that the average Hall-of-Famer ages:

NBA hall of fame age curve v2

Applying those age curves to Howard and Harden yields these projections:

dwight howard and james harden age curve v2

And then lining up those age projections with the corresponding year yields this:

Harden and Howard projections by year v2

So if Harden and Howard age at a normal rate and continue producing at the supra-hall-of-fame level they have been, then the Rockets could be contenders through the end of the decade. But even though the window appears large-ish, Harden and Howard will likely never have a better chance than the one they have over the next couple of years. Their peak is, or should be, right now.

It’s probably a good time to remind you that it’s very hard to predict the future and that these simple projections could be way off. For example, while my estimates assume that both players’ performance will decline at a normal rate, many people expect Dwight’s performance to decline faster than average due to his reliance on his athleticism (and his reliance on back surgeries) and Harden’s performance to decline slower than average due to what-he-must-be-tired-of-hearing-called his “craftiness.” I have reasons to believe that both assumptions are mostly wrong, but even if the Rockets get a Laker-quality, rapidly-declining version of Dwight, I’d estimate that the Rockets should still be good enough for several years of title sniffing.

The critical question, I think, is not one of aging but rather one of competition. I’m confident that the Rockets can be top tier through the end of the decade, but I’m not confident that they can win four out of seven playoff games against the Thunder, Clippers, or LeBrons. At present, all of those teams appear to have more starmuscle than the Rockets, and, except for Miami, that starmuscle doesn’t appear to be significantly weakening anytime in the next few years. But that’s a topic to be continued in next Wednesday’s post.

View this discussion from the forum.

This entry was posted in essays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
Login to leave a comment.
Total comments: 13
  • Sir Thursday says 10 months ago

    ST, it sounds like what you’re saying is that maybe Howard and Harden just had an unusually good start to their career and that they may end up regressing to sub-star level. I don’t think that’s likely just because most outliers in the NBA tend to stay outliers over time (with respect to age), but it’s certainly a possibility, and it’s another interesting topic that I might later investigate. But I consider the point you are raising just one of the many unknowns (along with injuries and coaching and motivation and intrateam dynamics and game evolution and so on) that make predicting the future extremely hard. I don’t think it’s a data or interpretation issue.

    I’m surprised, though, that you’re picking on the Howard/Harden superstar assumption rather than the superstars-are-necessary assumption. That, to me, is much more controversial.

    NorEastern, I can’t tell whether your compliment is backhanded, but I will never apologize for using a simple method. (And it isn’t just dots on a graph: it’s based on averages of hundreds of players.) I like RAPM and would have used it instead of PER but (1) I don’t have enough historical data, and (2) it tends to be less stable than other performance metrics, so I’d expect a lot of noise in the aging curves.

    The reason I picked that objection is that the thrust of your argument was that the Rockets pair would be performing at a high level for some time. Don't worry, I'm not sold on the Superstar theory either :P.

    I don't think my point is something that can be dismissed with "greats stay great". There certainly are plenty of players who play at a high level for several years but are unable to maintain that level later in life. Think Allen Iverson, Grant Hill or our very own Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Sometimes it's crippling injuries, sometimes it's just the decline of athleticism robbing them of their advantage, sometimes it's a change in the way the game is played that renders their style of play obsolete. But as you can see given examples like that, it's certainly not the case that all great players stay great for the majority of their career. It affects how we think of them now if they are unable to continue at that high level, but it doesn't mean that there wasn't a point in time when they were 'superstars' as much as Howard and Harden are today. When your sample doesn't have players like that in it, then it's going to result in overly positive outcomes when predicting the future.

    ST

  • NorEastern says 10 months ago

    NorEastern, I can’t tell whether your compliment is backhanded, but I will never apologize for using a simple method. (And it isn’t just dots on a graph: it’s based on averages of hundreds of players.) I like RAPM and would have used it instead of PER but (1) I don’t have enough historical data, and (2) it tends to be less stable than other performance metrics, so I’d expect a lot of noise in the aging curves.


    The compliment was not backhanded. The origination of good ideas for analysis is very difficult. The actual implementation is the easy part.
  • j_wehr says 10 months ago

    ST, it sounds like what you’re saying is that maybe Howard and Harden just had an unusually good start to their career and that they may end up regressing to sub-star level. I don’t think that’s likely just because most outliers in the NBA tend to stay outliers over time (with respect to age), but it’s certainly a possibility, and it’s another interesting topic that I might later investigate. But I consider the point you are raising just one of the many unknowns (along with injuries and coaching and motivation and intrateam dynamics and game evolution and so on) that make predicting the future extremely hard. I don’t think it’s a data or interpretation issue.

    I’m surprised, though, that you’re picking on the Howard/Harden superstar assumption rather than the superstars-are-necessary assumption. That, to me, is much more controversial.

    NorEastern, I can’t tell whether your compliment is backhanded, but I will never apologize for using a simple method. (And it isn’t just dots on a graph: it’s based on averages of hundreds of players.) I like RAPM and would have used it instead of PER but (1) I don’t have enough historical data, and (2) it tends to be less stable than other performance metrics, so I’d expect a lot of noise in the aging curves.

  • timetodienow1234567 says 10 months ago Dudley or Barnes is a superb 6th man.
  • thejohnnygold says 10 months ago

    1. Chris Paul is pretty good at making those around him better.

    2. I think there is an assumption that Blake Griffin is trying to mold himself into Karl Malone 2.0. He is working on a mid-range jumper and once he gets that set he will be a very tough match-up....especially with an elite PG.

    3. Three point shooting. They have some of the best gunners in the league and I have to presume they are going to use them.

    4. People assume Doc Rivers will be an upgrade over Del Negro...as they should.

    5. Matt Barnes is an under-rated defender and has improved his offense over time.

    6. Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford running your second unit is pretty solid along with Antawn Jamison, Louis Amundson, Ryan Hollins, and whoever else they throw out there. The defense won't be great, but they should be able to keep pace, or outpace, just about any opponent.

  • John P says 10 months ago

    can someone please explain why the Clippers are really that great. They have CP3...I get that.... but Griffin? really?
    I just don't see it. He doesn't do anything but offense with athleticsm and that will decline over time. I don't see anyone else helping out on that team. Maybe I am wrong but I just don't see them getting anywhere, even with their new quality coach.

  • BrentYen says 10 months ago

    Yes, but it is so much easier if you just use a software statistical tool.

    https://www.mppmu.mpg.de/bat/

    Warning: 1) I have not used this tool. I use expensive statistical software. 2) It depends on a basic understanding of probability and statistics.

    Cool, thanks, I have statistical toolbox in Matlab. I worked on a lot of Random processes, but Linear regression is never my strong suit :P .

  • NorEastern says 10 months ago

    Just curious, can you do it? (sincerely asking) :P Why is Blake Griffin on that List?


    Yes, but it is so much easier if you just use a software statistical tool.

    https://www.mppmu.mpg.de/bat/

    Warning: 1) I have not used this tool. I use expensive statistical software. 2) It depends on a basic understanding of probability and statistics.
  • Sir Thursday says 10 months ago

    It's an interesting theory, but I can't help but think there's an awful lot of selection bias at work here. Since the only players that make the list are the ones who manage to maintain a consistent level throughout their careers, of course it's going to predict that the 'superstar players' as defined are able to stay at the top of their games for a long period of time. There is the inherent assumption that Howard and Harden will still be members of the superstar class by the time their careers are over, which is not necessarily going to be the case (although I'm sure most readers will hope that it will be).

    If anything, the argument should go: "If Harden and Howard can maintain the level as shown on the graph, then they will be considered to be superstars in the future." That seems like a valid way of using the data provided. Not sure about the reverse as presented though.

    ST

  • BrentYen says 10 months ago

    A fascinating way of looking at the situation. I wish I had thought of it. But the analysis would have been much stronger if you had based it on a Bayesian regression similar to what RAPM uses. It would have led to a future analysis based on statistical methods rather than just dots on a graph.

    Just curious, can you do it? (sincerely asking) :P Why is Blake Griffin on that List?

  • NorEastern says 10 months ago A fascinating way of looking at the situation. I wish I had thought of it. But the analysis would have been much stronger if you had based it on a Bayesian regression similar to what RAPM uses. It would have led to a future analysis based on statistical methods rather than just dots on a graph.
  • timetodienow1234567 says 10 months ago How was Billups on that list? Decent player but not superstar calibre. All 5 of their starters were all stars or fringe all stars not superstars.
  • RollingWave says 10 months ago

    Yeah, the list of guys that actually won as a #1 player on their team or got to the finals is tinnnny, without those guys it's pointless, but even with those guys you need something around them, see Kevin Garnett's career.