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Unrepeatable Shaqness: O’Neal as Statistical Curiosity

This is what Shaq looked like OVER A YEAR AGO.

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.

But...how...so confused...

Believe it! Those players:

  • Chris Paul: .292 wins for every 48 minutes. A small god.
  • Manu Ginobili: .255 WS/48. Best player on the best team in basketball. Notice how we’re basically at Shaq’s score already.
  • Tyson Chandler: .255 WS/48. Shooting 70% and one of the league’s top ten rebounders. Don’t laugh, because there’s a 70% chance he will stuff a basketball in your open mouth.
  • Al Horford: .254 WS/48. Everyone knows how good he is by now, right?
  • Shaq: .254 WS/48.

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).

  • GranTur

    One of the best articles I've read on this website., from its structure to its content. Amazing read!

    Nice pictures, by the way. Haha

  • CG12

    Shaq has been playing great, but it sure isn't because of conditioning. The man is enormous. Even more enormous than usual.

    The Cs are making sure Shaq gets good touches close to the hoop, where he can still score over most anybody, even though he can't jump anymore. He is playing hard, and the Celts veterans know how to play with a guy like Shaq. Shaq has been great. I just hope the team doesn't get over-excited and extend his minutes more than they should.

    • willybeamin

      shaq looks to be in great shape to me, and while he's certainly not the leaper he once was you can't just say "he can't jump"…. he's gotten up on a few of those alley oops.

  • AussieCeltic

    Now if he can only keep this up for another 90-odd games…….

  • LStrike

    So contributing the least wins to your team in the league can earn you $45 million… Interesting.

  • carpenter

    youre gold hayes

  • Jay P



    …Was that freak out good enough for you?

    Nice article, enjoyed it. Oh and your question about the reason for it all?… The answer would be "C: All of the Above"

  • kricky

    Great article. This sight has really picked up since the new writers took over!

    I think the basic lesson form this is that stats can't tell us much really. They can give us a kind of bird's eye view, but they need to be augmented by detailed loos at individual cases. Otherwise it is useless.

    Shaq has been phenomenal. But he is VERY limited in what he can do out there and has been scoring when he gets the ball right under the basket. He is no longer really posting up his man by himself with his back to the basket and backing guys down anymore at all. In fact he kid of tried to do it at the beginning of the season, realized he no longer has the ability to do it successfully, and then wisely gave it up. He has even said so himself. On D he has given up on getting blocks or taking charges and just resorted to hard fouls.

    We need to give him tremendous credit for realizing his limitations and sticking with things he can do to help the team. He is doing these things really well and not doing stuff that he can't do and thus hurts the team.

    If you look at the top win share guys in the league, 2 of them, Horford and Chandler are guys whose games are really limited but who do really help their teams with the stuff they can do really well.

    SIde note: It was awesome to see Shaq just eat Horford up when they played last week :)

  • Devin_in_Maine

    The Cs have handled Shaq and his role on this team PERFECTLY! They go to him early, whether he's hitting shots or not. He rocks the rim on a few Hulk-Jams, gets the other team close to or in the penalty. Then he sits down to rowdy and appreciative applause from the Garden…He ends up with double digit points, close to that in rebounds with most of his points coming from alley-oops and uncontested jams. He's gotta be the happiest guy in the league right now!

  • zebulon

    Glen Davis looks like shaq, but smaller. He's shooting almost 70% at the rim this season, which means if he (like shaq) only took shots at the rim, he would also be shooting 70% from the field. Obviously.

    Glen Davis is shorter. BUT he has a jumper, which is the most important basketball skill ever, except for height. Jumpshot and height are actually exactly equal in importance, which means that GLEN DAVIS is EXACTLY as good as SHAQUILLE. Which means your analysis is stupid, because how could Shaq be the best on the Celtics, and Davis is the worst, when they are exactly equal as players?

    Plus, Baby hits is foul shots. You didn't count that, huh.


    • Jay P

      Nothing you just said makes any sense whatsoever. Please go away.

      And he never said anything about Davis, simply that his WS/48 is the lowest on the Celtics. Advanced stats can be misleading, no one is claiming Davis isn't an important part of the team.

      I honestly have no idea what your Jumpshot vs. Height argument is, it's probably the single most retarded things I have ever heard. How can you compare a Basketball skill with a player's athletic gifts (height, speed, etc… would be athletic gifts and not learn Basketball skills.) Having one or the other is comparing apples to oranges, doesn't make any one player better than another, it just makes them different players.

      Whether it's a jump shot or a dunk, it counts as two points, so you're argument is completely irrelevant. Please stop talking about Basketball if you know nothing about it.


    • Tom W

      so much hostility from someone making so little sense…

    • hdavenport

      Looks like expertly crafted sarcasm gets you a minus-4 these days. I follow, Zeb.

    • Morpheus

      I know it's sarcasm but what's the point???? Nothing to do…. plenty of time on your hands????

  • Jay P

    I'll remove my foot from my mouth if that's the case.

    Sorry Zeb, if it was sarcasm, well done, I usually pick up on that pretty well, but that one went over my head. I'll keep that in mind if I read any of your comments in the future.

    I haven't been as active here lately (sorry SBnation just has an easier comment system over on celticsblog) so I don't know much of Zebulon's intelligence, haven't seen many comments so I didn't pick up on it. The sarcasm was very veiled to say the least, and not something I'd be surprised to hear given the IQ level of so many out there in cyber-basketball land.

    You have my apology Zebulon.

    • zebulon

      Dude, your first comment was hilarious. Also great that the one inane/sarcastic/absurd comment I've ever posted here received more responses than anything else I've written.

      Also absolutely no need to apologize, you just tore apart a terrible comment. And You even did it in way that was funny.

      I guess what I really wanted to say from the beginning is, I wish Davis was about four inches taller. Because he would be absolutely dominant, and that would be awesome. But I doubt he's going to grow much more at this point (aka there is a 0% chance he gets taller), so if all we can get is Shaq playing the most effective and efficient basketball of his career, that's not the worst tradeoff in the world.

      Also of note, his rookie season Baby was listed as a "SF" by Hoopdata, ESPN, ect, his second year he was a "C", and now he has his rightful listing of "PF". I wonder how many other players have undergone such a radical shift in position listing. I find it hilarious to imagine Baby ever playing any minutes as a SF – even in practice, could you imagine him guarding Pierce or Quisy?

      • Jay P

        "I wish Davis was about four inches taller. Because he would be absolutely dominant"

        Quoted For Truth.

  • s8anicfalcon

    The fact that Mike Conley Jr. is last in the NBA in Win Shares/48 brings up 2 related points:

    1) He just received an extension that will pay him nearly as much as Rondo over the same period of time and 2) wait for it… wait for it… Guess who gave him that extension?! Chris Wallace, Ladies & Gentlemen!

    All of us C's fans should be counting our blessings that Danny is making our decisions while Wallace is simultaneously attempting to ruin franchise's hopes for the next decade.

  • phreesh

    Three factors as to why Shaq has been such a monster so far this season:

    1) limited minutes. Celtics are maximizing their use of Shaq by limiting his minutes and allowing him to play at his peak level.
    2) A system that suits Shaq's game to a 'T'. The Celtics are very, very old and hate to run. Shaq is very, very old and hates to run. Celtics play an awesome halfcourt game that gets the ball deep into the post. Shaq is one of the best low post players in the history of the game.
    3) Rondo is the best passer in the league and has been getting the ball to Shaq in exactly the right time and place.
    4) There is also a super-secret fourth factor. Three words – unlimited icy hot.

  • Ajax

    On the Glen Davis bit…it doesn't really surprise me that he's statistically somewhat of an abomination in terms of efficiency and productivity…that's for a couple reasons I think.

    – He plays best around the rim but has been transformed into a stretch four
    – Though the go-to big man off the bench for now, he spends a sizable amount of time with the second unit
    -> In that second unit, I've noticed, as of late, that he has become the go-to play maker and shot taker, and most of those shots are outside 14ft+ shots, many contested and unplanned. He's good for several of those plays in context in a given game, but not the way it's being played right now. That's why I feel Doc keeps putting Ray Ray in the game with him so there's another shot threat….

    The guards + 'Quis need to play a more fluid offense if Baby is gonna be a more effective player I think.

    • Jay P

      I agree with a lot of those points. The lack of offensive flow in the second unit is pretty apparent, and often Davis is taking mid -range jump shots simply because they aren't finding any better options.

      His jump shot is good, he's hitting it well (nearly back to 2009 form) but in that second unit, I'd rather see him crashing the glass and attacking the rim and pick and popping. I'd really like to see him start getting more aggressive rolling to the rim when he screens for Nate.

      He seems to have made a conscious decision to be a scoring threat this year, and has abandoned so many of things that made him so great last year. Especially with the second unit, when there aren't as many scorers on the floor.

  • CG12

    I'm mildly worried that teams are going to continue to find more and better ways to exploit Shaq's immobility on D. You saw it against Toronto, where the immortal Johan Petro drained 3 consecutive and relatively easy foul line Js over Shaq who was either unable or unwilling to contest.

    Shaq has been doing a great job running the floor, much to my surprise. It seems like he may have seen how well it works for KG and said "I can do that." He is just so big, especially with the decline of the classic 5-man, that when he gets close to the hoop there is little that anybody can do to stop him, except, of course, foul him. I'd love to see him play a little more down the stretch in games with a decent lead, since his post play and rebounding make a big difference.

    Baby needs to continue to diversify his game. I'd love to see him work on his passing. He never passes, except to clear out to the top of the key. But he is a decent-becoming-good jump shooter, and he is indeed quite short for a PF/C, so we have a good idea of what he is and can be.

    • zebulon

      CH12- Your first paragraph is spot on, Shaq's biggest weakness is on defense, where he can't move his feet at this point in his career. This has lead to innumerable wide open jumpers for the opposing big Shaq is 'guarding'. Luckily, teams haven't been able to hurt us with this (so far).

      However, at the moment I think there are a lot of positives associated with Shaq's unwillingness to ever venture more than ten feet from the hoop on defense – most notably, our defensive rebounding. Last year our best rebounding bigs (kg/perk) were so often out of position to rebound because they were also the primary help defender on the floor, tasked with cutting off dribble penetration before opposing pg's and wings could get to the hoop. This year, that problem has largely disappeared, and I think Shaq's constant presence in the paint is a huge reason why.

      Also, for many teams a mid range jumpshot from a big is a pretty low percentage shot. In the New Jersey game, Brook Lopez hit a couple of long jumpers in the early going that Shaq totally conceded. And Mike (the announcer) commented that the Celtic's were getting beat by those shots. But by the end of the game, those J's came back to haunt Jersey, as Lopez finished the night something like 5-14. There are almost no bigs (or really, any player) in the league for whom a long two pointer is a good look – even if it is totally uncontested. And these bigs are typically finesse players that KG matches up with very well, allowing Shaq to guard the less mobile big. The only team I can think of that could absolutely take advantage of Shaq's inability to come out and contest jumpers, and that's Utah once Okur comes back. Both Okur and Millsap are exceptional shooters from all over the floor, and KG can only guard one of them.

  • I_Love_Green

    And there were people concerned about Shaq joining this team. Most notably, our very (ex)own Zach Lowe. I remember him giving us all these stats and what not, and then saying "and people ignored the stats that said Rasheed Wallace wouldn't work out. Look out that turned out." I'm glad to say, respectively of course, that Mr. Lowe was incorrect. Of course, I don't think any of us thought he would be starting over JO, and doing it very effectively, and also putting up these kind of numbers at 38 going on 39.

  • Morpheus

    WOW you really do have too much time on your hands….LMAO

  • roundo

    great article haha shaq/hayes are hilarious

  • Jamie

    I was worried about signing Shaq signing with the Cs but so far so good. What I have noticed is how he uses all of his basketball smarts and experience now. He knows how to set guys up on the block or under the basket so that when he does get the ball it requires the minimum effort possible for him to score. Just an easy lay in and then they have to decide if they want to hack him or not.

    When he does run the floor, which he picks his spots, Rondo is definitely looking for him, and Shaq goes right to the rim every time.

    Very smart basketball player even with diminishing physical ability and weight/conditioning issues.

  • Jeff L

    Just want to point out the Kendrick Perkins led the league in fg.% most of last season. Implies that Shaq's near league-leading percentage may be a function of playing center for the Celtics.

    • Jay P

      Very true, but I don't think we could argue that Shaq is far better finisher near the rim than Kendrick "I will travel 40% of the time I touch the ball and do more than immediately dunk it" Perkins.

  • JP-

    Great article, pretty interesting. I think it has a lot to do with the Kobe thing, I think he really wants to at least get as many rings as Kobe and also potentially beat him in the NBA Finals to get it. That would be great revenge for him. Hope he keeps it up.

  • Alex

    Ha! Liar. Now I should give you a minus 1 because of your false prediction.

  • Greg

    After Mike Conley putting the Griz on his back last night offensively to beat the Lakers, I hope hes not still the lowest rated player. He's making a run at most improved player this year, even if the wins haven't shown up yet.

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