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Picking the Difference-Makers for the All-NBA Teams

By Dan T. Rosenbaum
April 30, 2004

Dan T. Rosenbaum is an economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Besides this statistical work, Rosenbaum has been cited in numerous publications for his expertise on issues related to the NBA collective bargaining agreement and especially the luxury tax. He is thankful to the many remarkable individuals who have helped him tremendously in better understanding the NBA.

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Being a Sportscenter star or a fantasy league stud does not make a player All-NBA.  Difference-makers – the guys who make their teams better when they are out on the floor – that is who belongs on the All-NBA teams.

But how do we determine the difference-makers?  All of my NBA friends seem to have this gift that allows them to see greatness immediately, almost like love at first site.  Not me, I suffer from a difference-maker observing disability.  In order to evaluate greatness, I need to observe a player over and over again.  (Heck, I even observed my wife for a couple of years before asking her out.)

But I can’t watch every game, so I do the next best thing.  I look at the data.  I look for those players whose teams play better when they are on the floor.  I account for whether players are playing with or against Kevin Garnett or a recent NBDL pick-up.  I account for home court advantage and give additional credit for clutch performers and lesser or no credit for garbage time phenoms.

Using data from, I account for the players playing and the outcomes in all 60,000 blocks of games during the past two seasons during which no substitutions were made.  And with my trusty computer, I can isolate which players make a difference for their teams using a system similar to Wayne Winston’s and Jeff Sagarin’s WINVAL system that the Dallas Mavericks reportedly pay six figures a year for.  In addition, I add in players’ statistics, but only insofar as they predict how much players affect team performance.

For those of you with insomnia problems, click here for more details on my methodology, but for the rest of you read on to see what the data say about who the real difference-makers are in the NBA this season.  (The rankings are among the 128 players who played 2,000 or more minutes this season.)

First Team





Shaquille O’Neal



Kevin Garnett



Andrei Kirilenko



Tracy McGrady



Kobe Bryant


Kevin Garnett is far and away the class of the NBA, followed by Andrei Kirilenko, Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, and Shaquille O’Neal.  (Kobe Bryant is in the second tier, but I needed another guard.)  And in the minds of many I am sure that I have completely invalidated my methodology by placing Andrei Kirilenko over Tim Duncan.  I really didn’t need to do so, because the data suggests the two are practically identical.  But Tim Duncan was hurt a lot this year and has a tendency to start season the season off very slowly.  Kirilenko was a more consistent performer this season.  Would I trade Duncan for Kirilenko?  No, but the main reason I wouldn’t is Duncan’s playoff performances, which is not factored into All-NBA selections.  And at the end of the day, I am not really slighting Duncan as he essentially is tied for second in this system.

And yes, a difference-maker can play on the last place Magic.  In my system, the Magic lost by nearly 15.6 points per 48 minutes when McGrady was not on the floor, but that margin dropped to just 1.4 points when he was on the floor.  (And remember this is accounting for who shared the floor with McGrady, unlike unadjusted plus/minus statistics.  Also, note that McGrady gets a little benefit here for the low quality of the teammate who would substitute in for him.)

Second Team





Brad Miller



Tim Duncan



Dirk Nowitski



Baron Davis



Ray Allen


I had to dig pretty deep to find a center to put on the second-team, but I found one in Brad Miller.  I debated putting Ray Allen on the second-team, because he only played in 56 games this season, but many of his close competitors also missed a number of games. 

Third Team





Ben Wallace



Elton Brand



Peja Stojakovic



Vince Carter



Jason Kidd


Seeing Vince Carter on the third-team will surprise a lot of people, but the Raptors were an average team in the NBA (-0.1 points per 48 minutes) when he was on the floor, but fell apart when he was off the floor (-9.1 points per 48 minutes).  I also selected Peja Stojakovic over the higher-rated Rasheed Wallace, because Stojakovic played 874 more minutes than Wallace.  And as a Bulls fan, I was half-temped to put a third ex-Bull in Ron Artest on this third-team, but he didn’t quite deserve it.

Honorable Mention



Rasheed Wallace


Shawn Marion


Ron Artest


Paul Pierce


James Posey


Pau Gasol


The honorable mentions round out my top twenty with them all being forwards or shooting guards.  The data suggest that “versatile” players who are good at everything (scoring, rebounding, and passing) are more valuable than players who are great in just one or two areas.

So who are the notable omissions from my top twenty and All-NBA teams?  

Notable Omissions



Jermaine O’Neal


Steve Francis


LeBron James


Yao Ming


Antawn Jamison


Steve Nash


Michael Redd


Carmelo Anthony


Amare Stoudemire


Zach Randolph


According to the data, Jermaine O’Neal is no MVP candidate as the Pacers do just fine when he is not on the floor.  They are +6.1 points per 48 minutes with him on the floor, versus +2.1 with him off the floor.  As the Pacers’ leading scorer and a solid defender and rebounder, the conventional wisdom is to give him credit for the Pacers’ success.  However, the other four starters for the Pacers (Ron Artest, Jeff Foster, Reggie Miller, and Jamaal Tinsley) all have been very effective and it has been the effectiveness of all five starters (and not just O’Neal) is the reason for the Pacers’ success this season.  And remember I have a difference-maker observing disability, so when I don’t see it in the data, I just don’t see it.

At this time in their careers LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony simply are not All-NBA players, perhaps because they are yet to learn how to make those contributions that don’t get picked up in game statistics.  In fact, it appears that Denver may be winning despite Anthony rather than because of him.  They are +1.9 per 48 minutes with Anthony off the floor and +1.1 with him on it.  Their dramatic improvement is mostly due to the improvement of Nenê, the increased minutes of Marcus Camby, and the addition of Andre Miller, Earl Boykins, and Voshon Lenard.

The Mavericks and Bucks just don’t play well when Steve Nash and Michael Redd are on the floor.  The Mavericks go from +3.2 to +3.9 points per 48 minutes when Nash is in the game, and the Bucks go from -0.7 to +0.1 points per 48 minutes when Redd is in the game.  (Remember that Nash has better teammates to replace him.)

On Michael Redd, one of my favorite sportswriters who saw an early draft of this piece said the following.  “Saying the Bucks don’t play well with Michael Redd on the floor invalidates the whole thing, since in my mind Redd is the player who carried them this year. Why do the stats say something that everyday watchers don’t see?  People overestimated how much Sam Cassell and Gary Payton meant to the Bucks and thus have overestimated the value that of Redd’s “carrying of the team.”  Also, like the Pacers, this is a team that gets solid play from a number of players, albeit not quite at the level of the Pacers.  Joe Smith has been very good for them this season (especially relative to Anthony Mason and Jason Caffey last season) and with the increased minutes of Toni Kukoc, the Bucks have gotten much better play out of their big players this season.  Basically, this is an average team stocked with a disproportionate number of average performing players.  Redd’s role is to score, but he doesn’t do much other than that, which makes him close to average like many of his teammates. 

And Amare Stoudemire and Zach Randolph do not seem to help their teams as conventional wisdom would have it.  The Suns go from -2.0 to -3.1 points per 48 minutes when Stoudemire is in the game, and the Blazers go from +1.9 to -0.6 points per 48 minutes when Randolph is in the game.  I suspect that these two players are giving up more on the defensive end than what they are contributing on the offensive end.

Also, notice that this list and the next one are both dominated by young players.  Young players may often have nice stats, but it appears that they need some time before they learn how to make a difference for their teams.

And this article just would not be complete without listing those players who occupy the bottom ten rankings among the 128 players playing 2,000 or more minutes this season.  Click here for the full list of 128 players.

Bottom 10



Caron Butler


Antonio Davis


Jamaal Magloire


Brian Grant


Jalen Rose


Eddy Curry


Maurice Taylor


Drew Gooden


Jarvis Hayes


DeShawn Stevenson


My poor Bulls.  Just this week Jerry Reinsdorf made a public commitment to Eddy Curry as one of the cornerstones of the Bulls’ franchise – the same Eddy Curry who was the 6th worst player in the NBA among those playing 2,000 or more minutes.  Ouch!

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