Spurs among leaders in international market
With the World Championships at the forefront of the basketball world, now is as good a time as any to evaluate where the Spurs stand in terms of acquiring international players. It should come as no surprise that, using most measurements, the Spurs sit atop the list of teams who have best utilized the international player pool.
Spurs international history
Manu Ginobili was drafted with the 28th pick of the 2nd round in the 1999 NBA draft. The Argentinean was stashed abroad until his arrival in the 2002-03 season. Since then he contributed approximately 129 wins more than a replacement player and has 1.2 mean expected championships added. Tony Parker was the 28th overall pick in 2001 and, as a 1st round pick, contributed immediately to the Spurs. In addition to his exploits with the French national team, I estimate he has accumulated 76 wins and 0.4 mean expected championships.
(Note that wins and expected championships added do not account for playoff performance and do not need to add up to any specific number, unlike Win Shares. This is because of the effect of Pythagorean expectation. If player A increases his team’s value by twice as many points as player B, the increase in wins for Player A’s team is typically less than twice the effect of Player B.)
Both Ginobili and Parker had significant roles in 3 actual championships. Other significant international players include Rasho Nesterovic (signed in 2004), Beno Udrich (drafted in 2004), Francisco Elson (trade in 2008), Hedo Turkoglu (trade in 2003) and Fabricio Oberto (signed in 2005). Tim Duncan is also officially considered an international player by the NBA.
Here is a list of all players drafted by the Spurs internationally, courtesy of basketball-reference.com‘s draft finder play-index. (These players were not drafted out of a US college or high school; Javtokas played for the University of Arizona followed by some time with Lietuvos Rytas before being drafted in 2001 and is therefore included on this list.):
|2009||2||53||Nando De Colo|
It’s interesting that Luis Scola, Leandro Barbosa and Goran Dragic all appear on this list. They were three players with promise who added to the Spurs drafting prowess, but in the end, didn’t contribute to the Spurs. Though the Spurs were able to acquire DeJuan Blair for Dragic, the other two players were used in trades that didn’t pan out for San Antonio.
NBA international summary – 1998/99 to 2009/10
The following list details the number of 1st and 2nd round picks for each NBA franchise (using the aforementioned criteria), in addition to the number of international player/seasons (according to NBA Biographical Database on apbr.org), minutes played by these international players, and total team minutes and winning percentage over the last 12 years:
|Franchise||1st Rnd||2nd Rnd||Total Picks||Intl Player Yrs||Intl Mins||Total Mins||Intl%||W%|
Note that this list doesn’t include Felipe Lopez or Tim Duncan on the number of international draft picks, but does include Duncan under the player seasons and international minutes. If Duncan’s minutes are removed, the Spurs drop to 4th on the list of minutes played by international players (Intl Mins). Although Lopez and Duncan aren’t included on the list of international picks, the Spurs still have an ample lead in total international draft picks, drafting four more than the next highest franchise.
Additionally, it is somewhat surprising that the top five teams in terms of Intl Mins all had significant success during this span. Teams with the fewest international minutes seem to have less success than average, but this pattern is not as clear as it is at the top. This may be because we are dealing with smaller numbers (of sample players) at the bottom of this list.
Analysis – Do international-heavy teams win?
On first observation, it does appear that there might be a relationship between using international players and success. In order to test the plausibility, I used simple linear regression analysis to fit winning percentage using Intl% (the percentage of minutes played by international players) for all team/seasons from 1998-99 to 2009-10. Regression analysis uses the data to determine the formula that produces the lowest total (squared) error for all observations.
The resulting slope is 0.30, with a p-value of 0.000001. The intercept of this model, or expected winning percentage when a team has no international minutes, is equal to 0.46. The low p-value associated with the slope indicates that there is a high probability that international minutes are a meaningful factor in predicting winning percentage (within the observed range).
The slope of 0.30 indicates that we would expect winning percentage to change by 30% of the observed change in Intl Min%. Applying the Spurs data over the past 12 years to this model, we would expect them to have a winning percentage of 0.46 + 0.39*0.30 = 58%. This falls well short of their actual winning percentage of 70%, but exceeds all other teams.
The preceding chart plots each franchise’s cumulative winning percentage (as listed in the second table) against their expected winning percentage using the aforementioned slope of 0.30 and the intercept of 0.46. Note that I did not use individual season data to perform my test, but cumulative totals for easy viewing. Each team is listed left to right from lowest to highest expected winning percentage, which corresponds with lowest to highest Intl%. All applicable winning percentages can be observed to the left of the graph.
As an example, San Antonio’s vertical position on the graph represents their actual winning percentage of 70%. The horizontal position shared by the Spurs and the line representing eW% indicates the Spurs’ expected winning percentage is 58%. This can be found by tracing down from San Antonio’s point to the trend line and left to the corresponding winning percentage of 58%. Teams above this line outperformed the model’s expectation and teams below this line underperformed this expectation.
If there is truly a positive relationship between winning percentage and usage of international players, this would mean that most teams would benefit from playing international players more than they actually did in the past 12 years. However, there are a few other factors that might explain the relationship between the two. For one, the large number of international minutes could mean that the same one or two players played significant minutes for several years. These players, foreign or not, tend to be better and make their teams better. For the Spurs, this means Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. For the Mavs, Nowitzki is a very substantial portion of the international minutes. Even a few players could skew the results.
Conclusion – Should Spurs adjust or continue international focus?
Before looking at the numbers, I expected the average international player to be better than the average American player (but I didn’t expect this factor to be as apparent in the data above). I expected this because there is increased incentive for fringe NBA players to take the safer, higher paying, decidedly comfortable, and more adulating position that comes from playing for a team closer to home. If there are 390 US players capable of an NBA career, perhaps 360 would choose to play by any means possible (92%) and 30 choose an alternative, but if 150 international players could crack an NBA roster, I might expect only 90 to actually join the league (60%).
The players who stay overseas constitute a large portion of the bottom 40% of NBA level international players. Therefore, in evaluating the international players who do play in the NBA, we would find a higher average value than those who are capable of playing in the NBA, and a value that should be higher than that of the average American player. This produces a bias in the data selection.
Another factor could be that foreign players are often older and more developed than Americans by the time they join an NBA team (think Scola and Oberto). Although teams with more international players tend to perform better based on the above graph, teams who pursue international players must also deal with the possibility of players waiting several years before joining the NBA, or not arriving at all.
Regardless of whether or not most teams benefit from acquiring more international players over the next decade, the Spurs should continue to utilize their reputation as being a franchise with a culture that is very appealing to international players. Many have speculated, as one example, that this is an important factor for Yiannis Bouroussis, the top ranked overseas free agent according to draftexpress.com.
International appeal was also considered a reason that helped the Raptors land Hedo Turkoglu last year (Ok, so maybe helped isn’t the right term in this case, but my point remains.). Although San Antonio may not be able to keep up with a couple of the sexier franchises in signing high profile free agents, a bias in acquiring foreign talent could help them remain a significant contender even as Duncan, Ginobili and Parker begin to show signs of age. It did, after all, allow them to adapt to David Robinson’s decline and retirement with considerable success.