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Chris Kaman: Undervalued by new-age statisticians, or overvalued by old-school NBA lifers?

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Quite the debate has been brewing over at the Wages of Wins, a statistically-minded sports blog known for producing work that is consistently insightful if not often controversial, the latest example of which comes on the subject of the NBA's blind spot with centers. New Dallas Mavericks center, Chris Kaman, who has already come under attack from Bill Simmons(who Kaman rather hilariously responded to via twitter) this offseason, now faces the ire of the WoW bloggers(who I doubt Kaman has ever, ever, heard of). Well, maybe "ire" is putting it too strongly, but, certainly, they suggest he is not worthy of the playing time he's received.

Much like after the Simmons' cheap shot surfaced, Kaman's most committed defender was not his agent, or his mother, but owner Mark Cuban, who took to the unglamorous platform of internet message board comments section to offer his rebuttal.

We've known for a while that Mark Cuban reads many stat-friendly NBA blogs, and specifically the Wages of the Wins, who he cites in that summer league interview(he's also commented previously on the site), yet apparently Mr. Cuban draws the line at criticizing his new favorite 7-foot gun-toting Michiganian(Michigander? Just makes me think of poultry).

For those that don't want to scroll, or click links, what the WoW post tried to do was determine which NBA centers were undervalued and overvalued, and why. The results pegged players like Kosta Koufous and recently-paid center Omer Asik as underplayed, and Glen Davis and Kaman as overplayed.

Mark Cuban's response:

Im not a huge fan of WP for the NBA, but its still fun to read the craziness you guys post.

has it dawned on you guys that other than obvious superstars, the "best " and "underused" players all tend to look pretty much the same for every position ?

Maybe you should start looking at WP for lineups ?

Coaching matters. Who you play with matters. Who you play against matters.

"WP" refers to "Wins Produced", the all-encompassing stat developed by the Wages of Wins, and one that, without getting too technical, condenses the entire breadth of basketball accomplishment into one simple numeric value. I'll pause for those that wish to scoff now.

Also chipping in in this star-studded comments section is Neil Paine of basketball-reference.com, who identifies a common theme in the model that separates the good from the bad: many of the so called "bad" centers rely on a large percentage of shots away from the basket. This is something more casual fans might not be fully aware of with Kaman, who has a reputation as a skilled post-scorer, but has, with age and injuries, drifted farther from the rim to find his points.

Another sub-topic of the overall discussion focuses on Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs' improbable championship run, to which the Wages of Wins puts forward the argument that highly efficient but less heralded complimentary players like DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd were as important to the championship as Dirk. Mark Cuban replies in kind:

How many wide open threes do you think dsteve, jet or jkidd get without diek on the floor.

Jet was the only one who played any meaningfully minutes w out dirk. To say dirk was our fifth best player doesn’t pass the most basic of smell tests.
Who should have taken dirks minutes?

One of the huge failures of win share is that there is no context. Is the first basket as important as the last in a close game? A good team vs a bad team all count the same? Why the variance in playoffs?

Look at the win shares of our centers over the past. Seems to me they always got better and we’re considered way above average. Damp, Tyson, haywood, bwright all got better. Bwright is a star, the other three were 10game winners and Tyson more.

Are we that good with our centers or do we just use them differently. Or do we recognize that a good player is only as good as they contribute to a team game

Should I ask coach to consider giving moat of dirks minutes to bwright?

Let's skip my impassioned, likely angry defense of Dirk and that incredible Finals team, and stick with Kaman. I am unashamedly a supporter and believer in advanced statistics and I almost always strive to better understand and interpret the game I love in an objective manner. I do think there are elements within the discussion here that deserve recognition. We don't know exactly what kind of player we're going to get in Chris Kaman next year. For one thing, Kaman has had trouble with the injury bug lately, but more importantly, his general profile is pretty different from the type of center we've grown accustomed to seeing suit up for Dallas, and the way players gel and mesh on the court is never easy to predict.

Chris Kaman, as I detailed when he first signed, had trouble scoring close to the basket last year. Is this the result of injury, and an aberration, or declining skill and athleticism? The Wages of Wins would say that we should be worried, but while analytics can be a tool, there is more to the game than this. Indeed, it becomes a philosophical question, when a metric breaks down a player's production, is it looking at the player, or the system? Is it that singular performer's actions, or his interaction with others? It's not clear-cut how to divorce one from five, and this is where it becomes really important to look at what Kaman does that the other guys on the Dallas Mavericks don't.

Now, even if I'm disagreeing somewhat with the WoW's point, it doesn't exactly mean I'm fully in love with the idea of Kaman on the Mavs. I think there's going to be some give and take in this relationship. I do think that Kaman is a pretty underrated defender, and that those who look at him and see an awkward, weird-looking, unathletic white stiff, are going to be in for a surprise. That's assuming he's healthy, of course(and if he isn't, I expect we'll see Elton Brand elevated to the starting lineup at some point).

However, Kaman's inefficient offense, brought about by questionable shot selection, may not be all we're hoping for, and one major issue I have is going to be the offensive rebounding for Dallas, which was already suspect due to Dirk, and with Haywood(one of the best offensive rebounders in basketball) out and Kaman(one well below average for his position) in, Dallas could be historic in its ineptitude in this one area.

The games still have to be played, though, and to echo the owner's point, which is worth echoing, coaching matters here. Player skills are fluid, and a great coach, like an accomplished chef, can find the proper mixing and matching of ingredients to create the right stew.