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Do rookies need to learn how to win?

One of the classic bits of conventional wisdom you hear bandied about is that it's tough to give rookies substantial minutes since they make so many mistakes that they will end up costing a team games. There are a number of NBA head coaches who have a reputation for "not liking" rookies and usually they play the 1st year guys sparingly if at all.

Of course this season has seen a class of rookies up there with the very best years (at least at this stage of the careers), and we are seeing big minutes played by a number of guys, with 9 of the 29 first round picks cracking the starting lineup with regularity!

At the same time, some veteran players with perhaps only average personal statistics have become coach favorites on the grounds that they know what it takes to win in the NBA. So the question is, do players have to learn how to win?

Rookie numbers of note
We're not going to worry about individual stats for the rookies at the moment since what we are trying to ascertain is are they a drag on a team's chance of winning. Instead we'll focus on a couple of key "how the team plays with this player" metrics:

  • Plus/Minus -- the raw points scored minus points allowed for the team while the player is in the game
  • Won-Lost % -- charting the plus/minus on a game by game basis, we record a Win for the player if the +/- is +1 or more, and a Loss if it's -1 or worse
  • Roland Rating -- the difference between the player's on court and off court "Net48" ratings, which is just plus/minus scaled to 48 minutes. In other words does the team play better (a positive rating) with the player on the court, or worse (a negative rating)
Pick
Player
Team
Min%
+/-
Net48
W
L
W%
Roland
1
 James
CLE
82%
-110  -3.4 
15
24
39%
+1.5 
2
 Milicic
DET
2%
-15  -16.1 
6
8
43%
-21.4 
3
 Anthony
DEN
72%
+32  +1.1 
19
21
48%
-2.2 
4
 Bosh
TOR
60%
-47  -2.1 
15
17
47%
-0.5 
5
 Wade
MIA
55%
-107  -4.9 
11
17
39%
-1.1 
6
 Kaman
LAC
43%
-1  -0.1 
15
17
47%
+3.8 
7
 Hinrich
CHI
60%
-66  -2.8 
11
21
34%
+9.1 
8
 Ford
MIL
55%
+10  +0.5 
20
17
54%
-3.2 
9
 Sweetney
NYK
3%
-22  -16.5 
5
8
39%
-14.9 
10
 Hayes
WAS
65%
-150  -6.0 
11
26
30%
+0.0 
11
 Pietrus
GSW
7%
+42  +14.8 
11
5
69%
+18.3 
13
 Banks
BOS
32%
-29  -2.1 
16
21
43%
-2.9 
14
 Ridnour
SEA
33%
-51  -4.1 
14
19
42%
-4.6 
15
 Gaines
ORL
5%
-13  -5.7 
6
6
50%
+0.1 
16
 Bell
MEM
0%
+9  +63.7 
1
1
50%
+62.7 
17
 Cabarkapa
PHO
11%
-48  -10.6 
6
9
40%
-7.9 
18
 West
NOH
20%
-62  -7.7 
13
22
37%
-10.8 
19
 Pavlovic
UTA
27%
+18  +1.8 
18
17
51%
+1.2 
20
 Jones
MEM
2%
+16  +14.4 
3
3
50%
+13.5 
21
 Diaw
ATL
39%
-143  -9.1 
12
21
36%
-3.0 
22
 Planinic
NJN
7%
-50  -18.6 
4
11
27%
-22.8 
23
 Outlaw
POR
0%
-8  -63.3 
1
3
25%
-59.8 
24
 Cook
LAL
9%
+21  +6.4 
3
6
33%
+1.0 
26
 Ebi
MIN
1%
-8  -15.1 
5
8
39%
-21.4 
27
 Perkins
BOS
0%
+1  +8.6 
1
1
50%
+8.8 
28
 Barbosa
PHO
18%
+0  +0.0 
15
14
52%
+4.4 
29
 Howard
DAL
34%
+72  +5.3 
13
14
48%
+4.4 
All
Averages
27%
-709  -2.4 
270
357
43%
-0.1 
Data as of 01/17/04

Well at a glance you might be tempted to say yes the rookies as a whole need some seasoning before they can develop the all around NBA game that contributes to a team winning. After all, the first rounders from this exceptional rookie season have combined for a -709 plus/minus number to this point, with a 43% W-L percentage, and a weighted average Net48 of -2.4 points per game.

However, it has to be recognized that the rookies with the most playing time typically play for the teams with poor records, whereas the teams with good records give fewer minutes to their first year players. This bias would skew the plus/minus on an overall look, which is why turning to the Roland Rating is a better way to examine the question. Are teams playing better when the rookies are on or off the court?

The answer turns out to be basically neither -- the rookies as a group are on a weighted basis (take the rating times the minutes) show a virtual breakeven -0.1 Roland Rating. In other words there's no sign there whatsoever that Rookies know less about what it takes to win than your typical NBA non-rookie player. Indeed if we made the weighted average across all players in the league it would be a balanced 0.0 net.

Now you can still challenge this assessment by stating that the players who are not producing will see less playing time and thus we are weighting the average in favor of the players who are, and on a player tally we find that 11 players have positive Roland Ratings, 13 have negative ratings, and 3 have virtual even ratings (between -0.9 and +0.9). Of the players in for at least 20% of the total team minutes so far, 5 are positive, 7 negative, and 2 even.

So our initial reaction is that perhaps the notion of this needing to learn how to win is part myth. Of course other objections to the premise we are building on (that the teams do not play better or worse with rookies on the floor overall), notably that the rookies who play the most are indeed super-talented and their Roland Ratings if you will at this point may be slightly positive, but will move into the very positive domain as they get more experienced. This does seem believable and likely, but unfortunately we only have last season's data and this season to work with.

Still, even if it is the case that the rookies will get better with years on their uniforms, there does not seem to be grounds for not playing them on the theory that they cause undue harm to a team's performance.

Another key objection with merit is that perhaps the minutes they do receive are more commonly in garbage time and thus to be disregarded if the team does show a positive score, especially if the rookie comes into the game with his team trailing by a huge margin. We could do some checks on this, but the counterargument is that both teams probably slide their rookies in on such occasions, which should even out the equation.

Finally one year of rookies is not by any means a convincing sample, and in light of the almost undisputed brilliance of the 2003-04 class, we may find different results in different years. Hence we will turn to the 2002-03 rookie brigade, who at this point are regarded as a down year in the rookie heritage (may they prove this assessment wrong!)

2002-03 Rookie Class
Pick
Player
Team
Min%
+/-
Net48
W
L
W%
Roland
1
 Ming
HOU
48%
+147  +3.0 
45
33
58%
+3.6 
2
 Williams
CHI
39%
-349  -8.7 
25
47
35%
-7.1 
3
 Dunleavy
GSW
26%
+41  +1.5 
39
40
49%
+3.9 
4
 Gooden
MEM
27%
-157  -5.7 
16
31
34%
-3.8 
4
 Gooden
ORL
11%
+34  +3.0 
10
8
56%
+3.6 
5
 Tskitishvili
DEN
27%
-218  -8.0 
25
53
32%
+0.4 
6
 Wagner
CLE
28%
-268  -9.4 
9
34
21%
+0.5 
7
 Hilario (Nene)
DEN
46%
-223  -4.8 
28
48
37%
+8.2 
8
 Wilcox
LAC
9%
+28  +2.8 
20
21
49%
+7.9 
9
 Stoudemire
PHO
52%
+19  +0.4 
37
42
47%
-2.6 
10
 Butler
MIA
59%
-368  -6.2 
23
54
30%
-4.1 
11
 Jeffries
WAS
6%
+43  +7.1 
11
9
55%
+8.8 
12
 Ely
LAC
16%
+24  +1.4 
23
27
46%
+7.0 
13
 Haislip
MIL
9%
-69  -7.6 
16
22
42%
-8.8 
14
 Jones
IND
2%
-14  -6.1 
5
10
33%
-9.7 
15
 Nachbar
HOU
1%
-14  -8.9 
6
5
55%
-10.6 
16
 Welsch
GSW
4%
+5  +1.1 
16
18
47%
+2.3 
17
 Dixon
WAS
13%
-18  -1.3 
20
21
49%
-0.4 
19
 Humphrey
ORL
6%
-63  -9.5 
11
21
34%
-10.3 
20
 Rush
LAL
18%
-71  -3.9 
27
39
41%
-8.0 
21
 Woods
POR
6%
-66  -9.7 
16
32
33%
-13.4 
22
 Jacobsen
PHO
23%
+105  +4.5 
39
29
57%
+4.5 
23
 Prince
DET
8%
-33  -3.7 
15
23
40%
-8.2 
25
 Williams
NYK
3%
-84  -24.4 
5
13
28%
-24.1 
26
 Salmons
PHI
10%
+12  +1.2 
33
28
54%
-1.4 
27
 Jefferies
TOR
13%
-102  -7.4 
15
32
32%
-1.9 
28
 Dickau
ATL
10%
-128  -11.9 
15
32
32%
-9.6 
All
Averages
21%
-1787  -3.3 
550
772
42%
-0.7 

So with the "weak" 02-03 class we do find some similarities -- the -3.3 net48 isn't that far from the -2.4 of the 03-04 crew, and likewise the 42% game-by-game W/L plus minus is in line with the 43% we are seeing this year. The Roland Rating was however somewhat worse for last year's group, as a -0.7 is starting to become a bit more significant, and there were 9 positive, 15 negative and 3 even ratings in the mix.

Unfortunately then without more years to refer to the results are inconclusive: the strong 03-04 rookie class defies the conventional wisdom, while the uninspiring 02-03 first rounders suggests that rookies as a generalization may have some level of damage to a team's winning outlook.

Again, using complete, unadjusted by circumstance season stats may not be the best approach. We could look only for instance at our current "clutch time" performance (or any other time/game situation breakout), but we'll save those numbers for another day.


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