Friday, August 8, 2008

Left Handed Quarterbacks and the NBA

In the NFL, the left side of the offensive line, and particularly the left tackle, are the most athletic and talented offensive linemen in the game. The supposed reasoning for this asymmetry is that left tackles are responsible for protecting the quarterback's blind side. That is, when dropping back to pass, a quarterback won't see what's coming behind and could very easily be injured by a 300+ pound defensive lineman without ever having seen him. So the left tackle is entrusted with protecting perhaps the most irreplaceable player on the team.

Because of their importance, competition for left tackles is high and they are usually the highest paid offensive linemen on a given team (Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns is currently the highest paid offensive lineman in the league, and he is their starting left tackle). [A side-effect is that, in general, teams have a better rushing average to the left side than they do to the right side, because you get more yards when you run behind better lineman].

You might have noticed, though, that constructing a line around an elite left tackle assumes that the quarterback is right-handed. A left-handed quarterback would have his blind side on the right side, flipping the necessary line strength along the vertical axis. In theory, this should make a good left-handed quarterback a roundabout economic advantage in a league with a salary cap -- with less competition a team could sign an elite right tackle to an average salary while paying for an average left tackle and spending the extra money at other positions (perhaps a great running back who can run to the right?).

This argument might be oversimplifying, and maybe it's easier for players to move between tackle positions that I'm aware of, but hey, this isn't a football blog. The point of that story was to introduce the notion of advantages in a league with salary restrictions.

The NBA, of course, has both a salary cap and a luxury tax. So it is reasonable to wonder if there are certain advantages that might be gained by identifying undervalued abilities. It's been written in other places that shooting efficiency might be undervalued in the NBA, and it's believable considering the huge salaries of mid- to low-efficiency volume scorers such as Jamal Crawford. But I'm wondering if there aren't more position-specific undervaluations at play in the league.

I'm not sure the best way to test my hypothesis. It's easy to do a straightforward correlation test between salaries and various boxscore statistics, but given the salary cap and salary structures in general I don't think salaries in general are completely determined by perceptions of absolute value. So any proof is for a later time.

But there are still things to say right now. The general tone I get from reading columns and sports reporting is that interior players are generally evaluated based on points and rebounds, with little regard given to passing ability, including assists and turnovers. As an example: last year, Dwight Howard averaged 20.7 points and 14.2 rebounds per game, while Tim Duncan averaged 19.3 and 11.3. Dwight Howard received more MVP votes despite the fact that the Spurs won more games than the Magic.

It looks as though Howard had a better season. But factor in the fact that 1.3 assists and 3.2 turnovers, compared to 2.8 and 2.3 for Duncan, and suddenly things are a bit murkier.

Similarly, it seems as though perimeter players who can rebound might also be undervalued. For instance, Rajon Rondo was the 2nd leading rebounder per minute in the league among point guards last year, behind Jason Kidd and ahead of Baron Davis, but received much less attention than either of those two. And the top 5 shooting guards in terms of rebounds per minute were, in order, Mike Miller, Kelenna Azubuike, Carlos Delfino, Kobe Bryant, and Manu Ginobili. That's the MVP and the 6th man of the year sitting behind three guys who got very little if any national attention.

These anecdotes hint at some sort of systematic undervaluing of particular talents, but don't prove anything. Hopefully in a future post I'll be able to say something more definitive.

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