July 31, 2014

Hey Nate Silver, you ignored Kyrie Irving’s age

Kyrie Irving

As expected, FiveThirtyEight czar Nate Silver was hot at the scene of another topical NBA story with a long, data-heavy feature last week at his relaunched site. This time around, the story was about Kyrie Irving’s future in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform and whether the team should offer him a max contract this summer. While Silver’s article was valuable in theory, it misfired badly with its token data.

Irving’s future with the Cavs has seemingly been a hot topic ever since the 2011 draft. Now that he has completed his third NBA season, this summer represents a key opportunity where the Cavs can offer him a maximum long-term agreement. If he agreed to the extension, that deal would keep the two-time All-Star in town through at least 2019-20. The max deal would start with the 2015-16 season and would guarantee approximately $90 million over five years.

Silver attempted to chime in with historical data to answer this very, very difficult question: When should NBA teams offer maximum contract extensions to their soon-to-be fourth-year stars? That’s not an easy research project. It requires a keen understanding of the NBA’s financial landscape, the weight of its stars and how top picks have performed in the past.

I’ll say this much immediately: The Cavs should be weighing this decision heavily. It will transform the franchise and lock in either 25% or 30% of their salary cap each season until the summer of 2020. You’d be an ignorant fool if you didn’t do your due diligence on such a long-term agreement, let alone one with an undoubtedly overrated (even last October!) scoring-dependent star.

I’ll also say this: I’m a gigantic fan of Silver’s. I wrote as much in a fan-boy letter back in 2008, just before his election writings propelled the Chicago-raised sabermetrician into the mainstream. Specifically, I’m an admirer of how he has brought “aggregation” to the limelight, as I wrote in my 2013 bracketology preview. No matter your thoughts on FiveThirtyEight’s success so far, Silver has done a lot to transform the way sports and politics buffs think about the world.

But what did Silver’s research say on this topic? His first chart showed Wins Produced by draft picks throughout their careers. The chart eloquently shows how No. 1 picks are usually much better and have a better overall career arch than No. 2-5 picks, No. 6-14 picks and No. 15-30 picks, respectively. That much shouldn’t be surprising.

Essentially, this chart below is the real meat of Silver’s analysis. Later on, he delves into top-20 and top-5 percentiles of each year’s extension class, using top-5 as a heuristic for extensions. I generally agree with his conservative spending approach. But this chart below is where I want to nit-pick. This chart shows the projected Win Share value for an average No. 1 overall pick at each point along his career path. As one can see, the value disappears under the heavy financial burden1 of the max deal starting with his fifth season.

no 1 pick value chart nate silver

As Silver points out: This chart does a phenomenal job of showing how NBA teams shouldn’t automatically extend every No. 1 pick. That’s a given. Some selections are busts. Some get hurt. And most importantly, over time, everyone gets worse eventually. Which leads me to the topic that Silver never really touched specifically: Age.

Yes, he wrote about “years of experience” and tried to pass that off as a model for NBA aging curves. But that’s not exactly accurate when comparing different eras. Not when Kyrie Irving was the third-youngest No. 1 overall draft pick ever, barely younger than Anthony Davis (2012) and only older than LeBron James (2003) and Dwight Howard (2004). Not when the average July 1 age of No. 1 picks from 1985-2002 (first 18 years of Silver’s data) was 21.5, but it’s 19.7 since 2003. Top picks are way younger in the latter half of this data set and that warranted nary a mention.

no 1 nba draft pick ages since 1985

One can easily Google search “NBA age curves” and learn tons and tons about the models of how basketball players age. There is a ton to learn here and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some of the really good existing research. Articles exist at Bloomberg Sports, Wages of Wins Journal, Basketball Prospectus, Basketball-Reference and so many other good sites. The forums at APBRMetrics are filled with posts (like here and here) on this topic. No doubt the research is a bit more robust in baseball, of course, but there’s still plenty out there.

More specifically, tons of articles have been written about age vis-à-vis “potential” for draft prospects. Two of my favorite articles on this topic are from ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton and Canis Hoops’ vjl110. For Pelton, age makes up 40 percent of his rookie Wins Above Replacement Player projections, with translated performance taking up the rest. He wrote: “History shows that age is key to understanding how college players end up developing in the NBA.” Age matters, not arbitrary starting points of NBA careers.

Silver decided to use the wrong principal data point when trying to make an argument about Kyrie Irving’s potential. Certainly, it would seem initially valuable to look at season-by-season progressions when discussing max contract extensions. That’s the easiest route. But it just isn’t relevant to compare how former top picks like Derrick Coleman, Michael Olowokandi or Kenyon Martin, all 23 years old by their NBA debuts, regressed around the time of their fourth seasons2. Irving won’t even turn 23 until next spring.

In the landscape of point guards, there’s no doubt that age, not experience, is a major factor in Irving’s widely regarded upside. He’s 21 months younger than Jrue Holiday, 20 months younger than Damian Lillard, 18 months younger than John Wall and 17 months younger than Ricky Rubio. In fact, he’s actually five months younger than Michael Carter-Williams, this season’s Rookie of the Year. He’s also younger than a couple of likely first-round picks in this year’s draft.

Of course, this is not all to say that the Cavs should necessarily extend Irving just because he’s younger and Nate Silver made an oversight with his data. There are issues with Irving. The Cavs have yet to make any type of leap in the win column. He’s hardly played defense at a replacement NBA level in three seasons. And most damningly, he’s actually regressed offensively since the 2013 All-Star Game.

kyrie irving since 2013 all star game

The larger point I’m making is that the NBA community has only seen a few examples like Irving in its history due to his remarkable age. He’s one of only 33 players to ever have 5,000 minutes played through their age-21 season3. Among those players, he’s sixth in PER, behind only Shaq, LeBron, Chris Paul, McGrady and Durant. Irving is the first player in NBA history to have three seasons with at least 1,000 minutes and a 20 PER through age 21. We don’t know yet how good he might become. He’s still so very young.

That’s the conundrum of Kyrie Irving. We have a lot of meaningful data, as counted by three seasons, 181 games and 6,102 minutes. But even with that, there’s so much projecting and guessing to know what kind of player he’ll be for these next six seasons. Even still, he’ll only be 28 in the summer of 2020. By then, he could actually turn into a top-10 player, as #NBARank predicted before this season. Or he could flop. More likely than not, the Cavs will need to take that risk. And his favorable age will be a major reason why.

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

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Footnotes:

  1. One could point out that Silver’s article also assumes that Irving’s value, even if overpaid, is easily replaceable on the open market. That’s definitely not the case in the NBA system. Irving likely also brings in entertainment value to his basketball city, regardless of his exact value on the court. []
  2. Coleman’s best PER/minutes seasons were his third and fourth. Olowokandi’s best season was his fourth. Martin’s best seasons were his third, fourth and fifth []
  3. Basketball-Reference uses February 1 as the endpoint for age-seasons. []
  • 6thCity

    Great write up. I agree that Silver missed a few basketball-centric data points, and would also say that in this sport of 5 players and several bench guys there is a lot of specificity; data measurements like these work better to look at how individuals hold up against hundreds and hundreds of other players over time than they do in a tiny sample of one roster. There is the rest of the team to consider, the draft, the next few drafts, who we need to build-to-beat, etc.

  • Adam Copeland

    Fantastic piece.

  • Lowkey Kyrie

    Good call on age vs years in the NBA. Also, Silver never gives his methodology into “Market Value of Production” except by mentioning off-hand WS and +/- which are incomplete measurements of production, at best.

  • Pat Leonard

    Great stuff here. I never realized age was the more determining factor over time in the league.

  • MoreGolfLessWork

    Wow he is still so young. If he can show some form of commitment on the defensive end, you have to lock him up. But if not…I don’t think he is worth it. He doesn’t help the team when he scores 25 but the opposing team’s PGs consistently light him up. It’s a wash at that point. And never pay max money to a player who’s overall impact on the court is neutral.

  • Steve

    He does link to the Galletti piece that on the value of a win.

    I think if you’re going to just casually mention that the two metrics he used are incomplete, the burden is now upon you to demonstrate what they’re missing, and what is better. The fact of the matter is that there are quite a few measures of total production that show Irving to have some notable shortcomings.

    “Irving’s value, even if overpaid, is easily replaceable on the open market. That’s definitely not the case in the NBA system”

    Jacob – I’m not sure that Silver would say that Irving is easily replaceable. In his footnotes, he mentions that he has Irving in the 92nd percentile according to the WS measure.

    And I think that is the bigger overall takeaway from the piece. Teams that succeed are the ones that have drafted the 95-99th percentile players. The ones that draft and then give max extensions to those below that rung have issues, which, yes, everyone knows. He’s trying to figure out where that rung is and how harmful some of the bad max extensions actually are. Irving is just the easiest example to use.

  • humboldt

    Great, great work. Hope Nate Silver sees this

  • cmm13

    How I feel reading Nate Silver or any of the advanced metric aggregation articles.

    http://youtu.be/ZfYBsuBzulE

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com WFNYBen

    Good stuff. Irving’s age is why I’d be in no hurry to move him if he balks at the max extension. He’s so unbelievably young, there’s no need to rush things.

  • mgbode

    Great job balancing both sides here and I absolutely agree that age is a big determining factor in how we should judge Kyrie’s current development.

  • Steve

    I was in the “rushing things” side before they got this #1 pick. As I said above, I think Silver’s larger point is showing how a max contract to the wrong guy sets a franchise back. If they were going to run with Irving and the rest of this crew and whoever was the likely pick at #9, I don’t think they were ever going to get too deep into the playoffs. You’ve given the max to the 92nd percentile guy instead of the 95th+ guy. But now, you’ve got an excellent chance to get that 95th+ guy, and I think in that situation, you can overpay a bit to keep Irving.

  • Matthew Grant Anson

    Trade him for the #2, completely start over the rebuild because it’s increasingly likely that this one has already failed.

  • Steve

    Why would the Bucks give up the #2 pick for a guy who’s about to be expensive and pretty clearly needs a lot of help to win in this league?

  • mgbode

    New owners, it would build a lot of goodwill among their fans if he agreed to a contract extension as part of it (due to Kyrie’s national image as much or more than his play) and they have been subjected to Jennings and then Brandon Knight running the point the past few seasons.

    I think Milwaukee would consider it.

  • Dave

    The reasons against re-signing Kyrie Irving come down to 4 problems:
    1. He doesn’t play defense.
    2. He is not an efficient scorer, with FG% and TS below that of an average point guard. The only reason he scores the most points on the Cavs (per 48) is that he takes the most shots.
    3. His assists and turnovers are also below average, suggesting that he’s neither a willing nor accurate passer.
    4. Did I mention he doesn’t play defense?

    Alan Iverson had much the same issue: He scored a lot of points, but mostly because he’d chuck up a lot of shots. More of them went in, so he looked like a superstar, but more of them also banged off the rim and lost his team the ball, so it didn’t help his team win.

  • Matt S

    Furthermore, of all the available stats that attempt to show overall contribution, Silver actually chose the stat that gave Kyrie the *best* grades. He mentions in his piece that other metrics had Kyrie much lower, one ranking him as the 37th best point guard in the NBA (ESPN’s real +/- system).

    There’s nothing statistically that suggests Irving is a max player right now.

  • mgbode

    Iverson got a 76er team to the Finals though.

  • mgbode

    Iverson got a 76er team to the Finals though.

  • Matthew Grant Anson

    With his rights being held by the Bucks then (that’s what would happen right?) they’d be able to offer him the most years/money — that may give them enough confidence even without a promise to sign an extension.

  • Matthew Grant Anson

    With his rights being held by the Bucks then (that’s what would happen right?) they’d be able to offer him the most years/money — that may give them enough confidence even without a promise to sign an extension.

  • Mark Nandor

    Lumping him in with > 5000 min through age 21 season is an interesting comparison – places his TS ahead of Chris Paul, Carmelo, and T – mac (with the latter two being very much volume scorers) at the same point in their career. Say what you want about the surrounding teammates, but in this group, his assist percentage is ranked 3rd, ahead of Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, all while claiming the 4th highest usage percentage. And let’s not get too upset over the turnovers – he’s right next to Chris Paul and Tony Parker in that regard.

    The regression and defense are still concerning, but I think this is a gamble you have to take.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com WFNYBen

    I’m fine with overpaying Irving. I’m not fine with them flipping him because he’s unhappy RIGHT NOW.

  • Jim

    age has nothing to do with it. kyrie will burn out, much like some of the high schooler’s that came straight to the NBA. the college game and the NBA are 2 completely different games. Kyrie may be younger than McDermott or Napier but those other 2 guys will be in the longer than Kyrie will. Nate states facts and numbers that the average american won’t understand. trust me when I say this: Nate is 100% correct in his analysis

  • mgbode

    ummm…..what HS player burnt out? many busted, but burn out? Kobe, Garnett, etc. seem to be doing just fine with long careers. This was a common talking point in the 90s, but has pretty much been erased these days.