I was flipping through the 2010-2011 Pro Basketball Prospectus in my library/home office/kitchen this evening when I came upon an interesting tidbit about Shaq.
The Prospectus has a fascinating tool called SCHOENE that compares current players to all other players in league history, finds their closest matches, and uses those matches to predict how each player is going to perform in the upcoming season. Most of the matches come in at about 95 percent similarity or higher – Paul Pierce’s stats are 97.4% similar to Chris Mullin’s at 33, Ray Allen’s match up 97.7% to Reggie Miller’s, etc.
But Shaq gives this system a very hard time. He has an 88.9% match to Artis Gilmore, the lowest best-match percentage of any player in the NBA, because there’s simply never been anybody his age performing exactly like he is. That doesn’t mean he’s better or worse, but it does mean that he’s different.
That made me wonder how Shaq’s expectations-exceeding performance so far this season compares to that of other players his age. I feel like we should talk about this now before Shaq starts playing like a normal 350-pound guy in his very late 30s.
So I looked some stuff up on Basketball Reference, and get ready for surprises.
The craziest Shaq related stat, other than his almost-league-leading FG% of .693, is his Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48). Win Shares is a stat that basically gathers and manipulates other stats to estimate how many wins a player has contributed to a team’s record. When you normalize the number of wins to 48 minutes, you get a decent guess at how well a player is using his time on the court. Here’s how to calculate it, but it’s very complicated so just go with it.
Some WS/48 historical context: Kareem had the highest ever in ’71-’72 with .340 wins per 48 minutes (unbelievably, he did this playing the 10th most minutes in a season of all time). Jordan’s highest was .321 in ’90-’91, and that’s 5th all time. LeBron fell one spot behind him with .318 in ’08-’09.
But we’re here to talk about Shaquille O’Neal. In 11 games, his mark for the season is *.254 wins per 48 minutes*. Here are some facts to help you decide what to think about that meaningless number.
FACT: Based on Win Shares/48, Shaq is performing better in his time on the court than anyone age 35 or older has ever performed over a full season.
Whoa. This is mostly because of that .693 FG%, the highest of any guy his age or older who took more than two shots. Pretty impressive when you think about the kind of seasons Karl Malone, Artis Gilmore, and Hakeem were putting together at that age.
Casual Reader: “I am eight years old and have never heard of any of those people. Please make your point using players I am familiar with, like Alonzo Gee.”
Sure. You’d be well within reason to assume that a great score for an old guy wouldn’t match up to the scores being set right now by normal-aged guys. You’d also be completely wrong.
FACT: Based on Win Shares/48, Shaq is performing better in his time on the court than all but four players, and he is basically tied with three of them.
Believe it! Those players:
Those are four guys all being recognized for tearing up the league right now. Their average salary is about ten million dollars. Shaq is making about $1 million this year. One more fact:
FACT: That is the second highest WS/48 Shaq has ever put up over an entire season.
That’s right. He notched a .283 in ’99-’00, good for 20th all time. His next highest was .252 in ’93-’94. What he’s doing right now is bonkers even for him.
FUN-REDUCING FACT: Shaq’s playing 22.7 minutes per game. It goes without saying that if he were to play the 35 or so minutes those other guys are playing he would not produce at their level or, possibly, live. They are much more valuable than he is for this reason. Still. Also we’re only 16 games into the season. STILL.
Is it the looks he’s getting from Rondo bringing Shaq back to life? Better conditioning? The Kobe thing? Whatever the reason, he’s playing very hard for not very much money, and we are privileged to watch.
ADDITIONAL FACTS: Lowest WS/48 in the league? Mike Conley, Jr. Lowest on the Celtics? Glen Davis. (Commence freaking out, commenters).