NBA Draft Flashback: The 1996 Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson

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NBA Draft Flashback: The 1996 Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson
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The 2011 NBA Draft is Thursday and the typical articles on draft busts have been popping up on the blog circuit. For example, one article at Hoopism was very good, but an article at the new Wages of Wins Network blog, Shut Up and Jam, could use some work.

Allen Iverson has been a popular target for criticism on the Wages of Wins Network because the statistical models published in the Wages of Wins illustrated that he didn't have the winning impact the media claimed. There’s no denying that Iverson’s poor shooting percentage and turnovers created as many problems as his scoring and steals created highlights, but James Brocato made a mistake when he used wins produced to label Iverson a mistake as the first pick in the 1996 draft.

Yes, it’s a little silly to defend an 11-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer labeled a “bust” by a blogger, but it just takes a little context and the same statistical models to illustrate why Iverson was the right choice for the Philadelphia 76ers in the summer of 1996.

This article will use Win Score, a statistical model created by Professor David Berri from the Wages of Wins Journal, to measure how much a player's box score statistics contributed to their team's efficiency differential and wins. More information on these stats can be found at the following links:
 
Simple Models of Player Performance
Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics


The Philadelphia 76ers in 1996
The Philadelphia 76ers had the second-worst record in the NBA in 1996 at 18-64 (only the Vancouver Grizzlies were worse at 15-67). Obviously the 76ers were bad and needed a lot of talent, but where did they need it the most? This spreadsheet lists the Win Score per 48 minutes (WS48) for the 76ers guards, forwards and centers in 1996.

The average WS48 for an NBA guard from 1994 to 2005 was 6.2. The average WS48 for a 76ers guard in 1996 was 3.7. That’s 40 percent less than average. Jerry Stackhouse (3.8 WS48), Vernon Maxwell (3.7 WS48) and Trevor Ruffin (4.2 WS48) played 85 percent of the minutes in the 76ers backcourt and they were terrible. Stackhouse was a rookie and Ruffin was in his second season, so they could improve, but Maxwell was 31 and declining.

The average WS48 for an NBA forward from 1994 to 2005 was 8.8. The average WS48 for a 76ers forward in 1996 was 10.0. Clarence Weatherspoon was an above average forward with a 12.2 WS48 and played 78 percent of the available minutes. The 76ers expected to be set in the frontcourt the next season with Derrick Coleman returning from injury. Coleman produced an average of 13.9 WS48 from 1991 to 1995, so the 76ers expected to have two above average forwards if he stayed healthy (see this spreadsheet for stats from Coleman’s first five seasons).

The average WS48 for an NBA center from 1994 to 2005 was 10.8. The average WS48 for a 76ers center in 1996 was 9.0. That’s 17 percent beneath than average, but the “true” centers on the roster only played 32 percent of the available minutes. Coach John Lucas used power forwards like Sharone Wright (9.2 WS48), Tony Massenburg (9.1 WS48) and Ed Pinckney (13.8 WS48) at center for 66 percent of the available minutes.

As illustrated by the numbers above, the glaring weakness in the 76ers’ lineup was the backcourt. Since Stackhouse was the team’s star rookie at shooting guard (and young enough to improve), the focus was going to be improving the point guard position since an aging Vernon Maxwell was not going to be the solution.

The Best College Point Guard in 1996
Who was the best point guard in the 1996 draft? This spreadsheet lists the position-adjusted Win Score per 40 minutes (PAWS40) for the first- and second-team All-Americans in 1996.

Allen Iverson was the 4th-most productive All-American entering the NBA draft in 1996 (Tim Duncan did not enter the draft until 1997). He was the most productive point guard with a 12.5 PAWS40. At 6’1”, Tony Delk was going to have to play point guard in the NBA and he was more productive than Iverson in college with a 13.4 PAWS40, but he played shooting guard for the national champion Kentucky Wildcats and only averaged 2.7 assists per 40 minutes. Not exactly the solution for a team looking for a point guard to pair with Stackhouse. Iverson, on the other hand, averaged 5.7 assists per 40 minutes.

There were only two All-American point guards in 1996: Iverson (12.5 PAWS40) and Jacque Vaughn (8.6 PAWS40). Steve Nash was also in this draft class but there he had two problems:

  • He was not an All-American and in the previous 20 drafts, every No. 1 pick was an All-American. In fact, in the 15 drafts since 1996 only two college players have been taken No. 1 without being an All-American: Derrick Rose and Michael Olowokandi.
  • Nash was less productive than Iverson. He only produced a 9.2 PAWS40 his senior season in college.

For those that would suggest the 76ers should have gone with size and chosen Player of the Year Marcus Camby to improve their below average production at center, there are two counter-arguments:

  • The production at point guard was much worse than the production at center.
  • Camby was less productive than Iverson in college with a 9.4 PAWS40.

By the numbers, Iverson was indeed "The Answer" for the 76ers in the 1996 draft.

For a list of college All-Americans, see http://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/awards/all-america.html. For a list of No. 1 NBA draft picks, see http://www.basketball-reference.com/draft/.

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