July 30, 2016

Novelty act makes good

I was just e-mailing with a friend and the topic of Muggsy Bogues came up.  The shortest man to ever play in the NBA at 5-3, he was one of the great novelty acts in the history of the Association.

What did he play, five years?
Try fourteen.

Yeah, and...wait, what?  Fourteen?  This raises issues.

The average NBA career is five years.  A mediocre player might last six or eight if they find the right situation.  Fourteen is way out there on the curve.  Furthermore, there's a definite size bias in NBA survival.  The longest NBA career is 21 seasons, a record shared by Kevin Willis, Robert Parish, and Kevin Garnett.  The implication is obvious:  to have a long career be named Kevin tall.  Here are all the players with 19-21 seasons - the median height is 6-10 vs. NBA average height of about 6-6:

  • 21 seasons
    • Parish (c)
    • Willis (c-pf)
    • Garnett (pf-c)
  • 20 seasons
    • Kareem (c)
    • Kobe (sg)
  • 19 seasons
    • M Malone (c)
    • Edwards (c-pf)
    • Stockton (pg)
    • K Malone (pf)
    • Oakley (pf)
    • O'Neal (c)
    • J Howard (pf-c)
    • Kidd (pg)
    • Duncan (pf-c)
So a tiny guy who sticks around 14 seasons is, statistically, big news.

But not of cosmic significance?
Well, it might be.  In the past generation a school of thought has emerged that longevity is - in and of itself - a marker of excellence in competitive games like stock trading (Nassim Taleb a leading exponent of this view).  In the old days we'd say "so he stuck around for a while, but he wasn't a great player."  But a modern risk theorist might say that fact in itself is a quite important component of our assessment of his quality.  And if you think about it - how do you "stick around" in the NBA?  You beat out 2nd round draft choices for your position every year for 14 years.  Not easy to do.

But he was just a bit player, right?
Actually, he was over 20 minutes a game for most of his career.  Another way to think about it:  about 3,000 men have played in the NBA.  Bogues is in the top decile of minutes played (#249) and games played (#231, just ahead of Hot Rod Williams and World B. Free).  I'm not saying he was an upper echelon guy, but you just can't be in the top decile of minutes played and be a bit player.  He was actually a good player.

You're shitting me.  
I am not shitting you.  Most similar players (pattern of career win shares):

Really...I wasn't paying attention at the time, but I had no idea.  He is right there with a bunch of very good players.

Who was Mike Newlin?
Oh for goodness sake, he was an excellent player - not triple platinum elite, but it says here the best shooting guard in Rockets history (sorry Drexler fans: minimum of 250 games).

Nickname: "Mike"

A 1981 Sport Illustrated article gives you the gist of what Mike Newlin was all about:
Newlin, 32, is, in fact, one of the last of the old-fashioned players. Not nearly as good as, say, John Havlicek, but like him...  Though he's finishing off-his 10th year as a pro, when he's in the game, he's forever diving onto the floor. "People praise my hustle, but it's not even worthy of praise," Newlin says. "It's just basketball. Every possession is worth eight-tenths of a point. It's that simple." 
He pushes, shoves, harasses. He's relentless. And he shoots an exquisitely precise jumper with one of the fastest releases in the NBA. "I love it that at one end of the court you have the finesse of a jumper and then you run 94 feet and you have the brutality of football," Newlin says. "And I love the reality of this game. Guess what? If I don't hit my jumper, I'm gone. Clean."  (link)
But let's try to stay focused here.

Since you're so high on Muggsy Bogues all of a sudden, aren't you going to claim he was one of the all-time greats or something?
No...I believe that when assessing career value in the NBA you should put a pretty heavy weight on playoff performance.  Some might argue that you have to be lucky to be on playoff teams, but I'd argue that playoff teams are always looking for great players - if you're not on them, maybe there's a problem with you.  In any case, Bogues is a virtual no-show there.   His best team was probably the '96 Hornets, who went 54-28 in the regular season, but lost quietly to the Knicks in the playoffs.

The reality is that his size really was a serious liability on defense.  Not a big deal in the regular season, but let's say his team goes deep in the playoffs and faces a top-flight player like Magic Johnson (or Dennis Johnson or Michael Jordan) who is big and physical and can take care of the ball and post up...Muggsy just becomes a non-factor.  But that's a pretty stern test:  you could say the same about a lot of NBA players of the era.

He wasn't a Hall of Famer, but Muggsy was real.  He was a genuinely capable, valuable NBA point guard for many years.  Fun to watch, too:


Post a Comment

<< Home