Spurs among leaders in international market

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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.):

YearRdPkPlayer
1999257Manu Ginobili
2001128Tony Parker
2001255Robertas Javtokas
2002255Luis Scola
2003128Leandro Barbosa
2004128Beno Udrih
2004257Sergei Karaulov
2005128Ian Mahinmi
2006259Damir Markota
2007128Tiago Splitter
2007258Giorgos Printezis
2008245Goran Dragic
2009253Nando De Colo
2010249Ryan Richards

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:

Franchise1st Rnd2nd RndTotal PicksIntl Player YrsIntl MinsTotal MinsIntl%W%
SAS59145589,739230,07139%70%
DAL0885873,190233,11831%65%
SAC2023960,906230,45626%53%
PHO4264354,767228,44124%60%
UTA4263553,114229,94123%58%
CHI2023547,006229,05421%39%
MIL3253240,906233,48118%47%
GSW3144340,416229,93118%38%
CLE1123639,487230,26817%50%
OKC64103836,041227,91216%47%
TOR1564435,890230,52716%46%
HOU4262634,637230,56415%54%
DEN1343433,707226,32015%50%
MIN2572633,692230,11015%47%
ATL2572633,147230,30714%41%
MEM0112731,579230,45314%37%
ORL1452830,636229,79513%53%
PHI3252324,400230,31611%51%
LAL1452622,406230,36910%65%
POR3472322,336230,61910%54%
NOR0112120,889230,2999%52%
LAC1342318,860230,1208%36%
NJN3582618,188229,6588%46%
CHR1011615,415119,50913%38%
DET2352214,283230,1546%58%
BOS0221412,118231,6985%52%
IND123149,813230,6044%53%
MIA033159,653230,5314%52%
NYK325149,013230,7904%42%
WAS14585,320229,8112%40%

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.

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  • DieHardSpur

    This is fairly in-depth, and I believe I was in over my head for alot of it.

    I think this may be weighted a little in the europeans favor. Besides Manu, Tony, and Nowitzski, there really hasn’t been any super talented all-stars come over in a while…

    The only reason Tony and Manu have three championships is becuase of Timmy, plain and simple.

  • ITGuy

    @DieHardSpur, I’m sure you didn’t mean to exclude Pau Gasol.

    “The only reason Tony and Manu have three championships is becuase of Timmy, plain and simple.”

    I agree with you about the Tony and Timmy connection but Manu is a winner and has the heart to make winning possible on any team.

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • Francesco

    @ DieHardSpur,

    you forget Pau Gasol, who among NBA bigs may be equal, but second to none.
    His brother Marc if he gets lucky like his brother and gets to leave Memphis, may become one of the very top centers in the league.
    Gallinari (only time will prove me right or wrong) seems to be on the right path to become a factor at the highest levels.
    I’m surely forgetting others.

    You are right to say that Manu and Tony have won because of Duncan, but I think Manu, Nowitski and Gasol would have had an illustrious career and be held in high esteem by their peers even without team success or personal accolades.

  • DieHardSpur

    Francesco, ITGuy,

    Sorry – I would venture to say that Gasol has become a star – I just forgot about him… LOL

  • Jim Henderson

    Well, there goes Amundson! To the Warriors for 2 years at 2.35 mil. per year. If Lou could deal with playing 5-10 less mpg. to play for a contender instead of a loser franchise with D. Nelson as coach, we could of had him. We had 2.4 mil. per left on our MLE after signing Splitter. We didn’t need to use it on Neal. WE BLEW IT by not convincing Lou that hooking up with the Spurs was his best career option! Honestly, would he rather play next to Tim Duncan or Andris Biedrins?! Are you kidding me?

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news;_ylt=Al0mEUYbdtdTxtkMSdaahai8vLYF?slug=ys-amundson091310

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Scott Sereday

    To clarify, I am suggesting that foreign players are, on average, better than Americans, not because they have a higher percentage of stars, but because they probably have potential fewer fringe players who are playing in the league. Feel free to let me know if any of this wasn’t explained well enough.

  • Brian S

    Great piece, and very well explained. It is clear that the average foreign player in the League is better than the average American – purely because only the best foreign players enter the NBA. Statistical analysis certainly serves to prove this.

    The gap though is likely to decrease over time as more and more ‘foreign’ players enter through the draft, thereby having the same (or more) inherent risk as young college players. The weighting up until now as stated is in part because of the maturity of those players entering.

    On a side note, and as an Aussie, I would strongly suggest Andrew Bogut be classified in that ‘star’ category… who else in the league high fives themselves after hitting a free throw?

  • SpursfanSteve

    This is excellent, but i NEED a Bonner post. It’s been at least a month since we’ve had one around here. Please?

  • B Burke

    It is reasonable to suppose that Louis Amundson would have developed into a dependable, productive forward for the Spurs, and might yet for another team. It is nonsensical to assert that “WE BLEW IT” by not signing one (older) unproven talent in favor of another.

    It’s not like the FO had never heard of Amundson, after all.

    It’s interesting that most of the teams at the higher end of international player minutes are perenially successful. I’m sure that the resulting later draft picks encourage looking abroad to less certain prospects (with respect to both talent and ‘signability’). Unless they were able to swing a trade with the Knicks, the more thoroughly scouted and easily projected NCAA talent is off the board by the time these teams get to pick.

    It would depend a lot on the talent in a given year, but I wonder if there’s a particular point in the draft when teams are much more likely to start taking foreign players rather than NCAA talent.

  • http://www.yahoo.com TITO

    Don’t underestimate Gary Neal!! That guy can play and shoot the ball very well; he was right under keven durant as a pure scorer when both were in college. I cant wait for the season to start and I can’t wait to hear awsome comments about gary Neal because its coming soon that guy is gifted he went undrafted because he was accused of rape but he is now mature and expierenced. Go Spurs GO!!!!!!!!! If it werent for his bad reptuation in college I believe he would have been drafted top ten in the first round. and when he played in Europe he became a star; and now his turn to shine with the spurs is coming soon . ;)

  • McShane

    @Scott Sereday
    You were perfectly explicit.
    “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%).”

    @Jim Henderson
    Amundson is/was Blair pt. II, and Blair might not even get enough minutes this season. It would have been the story of Theo Ratliff last season all over again.

  • Jim Henderson

    B Burke
    September 13th, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    “It is nonsensical to assert that “WE BLEW IT” by not signing one (older) unproven talent in favor of another.”

    Nonsensical? Really? Amundson, unproven? What planet are you on? Amundson is a PERFECT fit for the Spurs front line, and he plays DEFENSE with great energy (including shot-blocking – something we really need). The only thing “nonsensical” is the statement quoted above.

    “It’s not like the FO had never heard of Amundson, after all.”

    No kidding. The point is in my view the FO made a BIG mistake by not aggressively going after this guy.

    TITO
    September 13th, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    “Don’t underestimate Gary Neal!!”

    Did I say that I didn’t like Neal?! No, I didn’t. The fact is he hasn’t played a minute in the NBA, he’s a guard — not a particular weakness of ours, and thus we should have offered him a two year deal using the LLE. Giving Neal a 3-year deal using the MLE over signing Amundson is plain DUMB, even if Neal exceeds expectations!

  • ThatBigGuy

    @ All

    Scott is saying that the average foreign player in the NBA is better than the average domestic player in the NBA. I myself had to read the post twice and then Scott’s reply 3 times to catch that. It really does make sense, because why would Euro #1 want to be the 11th man for the Clippers for a partially guaranteed $200K contract when he can be playing much closer to home for twice the amount. Plus, if he’s good enough to make an NBA roster, he’s probably good enough to start in most Euro leagues.

    So basically, in the NBA, there are star foreign players (Gasol, Manu, Tony, Dirk, Yao), there are starters (Turkeyglue, Gallinari, Gasol Jr) and there are quality back-ups (Dragic, Vujacic, Barbosa). What you don’t see are many foreign Gary Neals or Alonzo Gees riding pine in the NBA. Scott’s saying that these end of the bench guys, who are overwhelmingly domestic, actually pull the domestic talent average down below the foreign average.

    In a test tube, that last sentence might seem wrong, but when you factor in the no foreign fringe guys, it makes sense.

    USA still makes the best ballers in the world, don’t forget. We have the hardware to show for it.

  • Badger

    ThatBigGuy,

    “Turkeyglue”….I’m laughing. I sure hope Neal really can light it up like some are saying! There have been way too many times in recent history where the Spurs struggled to get an easy bucket for long stretches. Maybe Neal can be like Ben Gordon was on the Bulls. That would be fun!

  • andy

    got it. the average int’l is better than the average homegrown because there’s less int’l dregs in the league.

    this begs the questions B Burke asked then. why don’t more teams swing on international players? my guess is the cultural adaptation and the unknown of plugging in a guy from a different system/style into the nba game. you can’t project it as easily (not that it’s easy) as someone from the ncaa, so you err on the side of caution. credit the spurs for being on the cutting edge.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com/2010/09/02/death-of-tradition anonymous

    What’s Hell is trying to understand these stats. I think are understandable if studied, long enough. Anyway they’re saying the Spurs did good and I believe that.

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  • Jim Henderson

    McShane
    September 13th, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    “Amundson is/was Blair pt. II, and Blair might not even get enough minutes this season. It would have been the story of Theo Ratliff last season all over again.”

    You don’t seem to understand how good Amundson is, or how much of a perfect fit he is for our front line. We need youth, athleticism, length, energy, and shot-blocking on our front line to have ANY chance to get back closer to “Spur Basketball”, exhibiting the defense that has won us four titles.

    The minute problem is not the biggest concern. It’s fielding the best front line that we can, particularly from a defensive standpoint. Amundson would have allowed us to do that. With Amundson, we could have reduced Bonner and McDyess to more “situational” bigs (meaning they wouldn’t play every game).

    TD = 28 mpg.
    Blair = 24
    Splitter = 24
    Amundson = 12-18

    McDyess = 5-10
    Bonner = 5-10

    High range minutes add up to more than 96 because TD would get more rest games off (including almost all back-to-backs), and McDyess and Bonner would not play in probably 20-30 games each.

    And by the way, Amundson is a totally different player than Blair, and is TEN years younger than Ratliff. Amundson has nothing to do with Blair playing less (notice, I project Blair’s minutes would still go up 6 mpg.), or not playing because Ratliff didn’t play. And Amundson is a younger and more productive all-around player than both McDyess and Bonner, so it would only make sense that he would eat into their minutes. Plus, he’s simply a better “fit” for what we need on our front line than is either Bonner or McDyess

  • “THE ZILLA”

    What’s up with that dude Ryan Richards and i see Eric Dampier got waived today the spurs should go after him need as many big men in the middle as possible to compete with L.A,HOUSTON,CELTICS.I know they need a small forward which i know the spurs will get but i believe they should go after another big as well does anyone else agree.

  • “THE ZILLA”

    What’s up with that dude Ryan Richards? and i see Eric Dampier got waived today the spurs should go after him need as many big men in the middle to compete with L.A.,HOUSTON,CELTICS and help out on defense to protect the rim Tim and Tiago will be a good duo but can’t expect them to to it all.I know the spurs need a backup small forward but i believe they need another big as well does anyone agree?

  • SpursfanSteve

    Need another big? Maybe, maybe even probably. Need Dampier? The day the spurs need Dampier is the day i stop watching basketball. We’d be just as well off getting Kwame Brown.

  • Tyler

    I’d take Kwame in a heartbeat…..

  • McShane

    @Jim Henderson

    I’m sorry I was a little brief on my comment. I think that Blair and Splitter need to get as much game time as they can this season – TDs NBA lifespan is coming to an end and someone needs to be able to step up in the near future. Amundson is an undersized big, just like Blair. The teams that have been successful recently have a great amount of size – Lakers, Celtics, Magic, etc. As someone else pointed out, the Spurs should be going for players like Dampier who are true big men. As for Theo Ratliff… I think he made some positive contributions last year, but the Spurs sent him away for a 2014 2nd round draft pick. The Spurs FO knows the Spurs don’t need an extra big unless he’s an improvement over what the Spurs have now. I don’t think Amundson is better than any of the Spurs’ 4s or 5s.

  • Jim Henderson

    “Amundson is an undersized big, just like Blair.”

    Amundson is not undersized. He’s about average, at 6’9″, 240 lbs., plus he plays bigger because of his length, toughness, & leaping ability. Amundson is about three inches taller than Blair, which is not insignificant, and they have completely different yet complimentary games.

    “The teams that have been successful recently have a great amount of size – Lakers, Celtics, Magic, etc. As someone else pointed out, the Spurs should be going for players like Dampier who are true big men.”

    That is another way to go, but Dampier’s 35 and Amundson’s 27. A big difference. We need to be thinking BOTH short & long-term right now. In addition, “weight” in and of itself is not always the best way to go on the front line. In fact the Spurs “D” on the front line has always been more predicated on mobility & “rim protection” than girth. And Amundson is much quicker and a better shot-blocker than Dampier, particularly at this stage of “damps” career.

    “The Spurs FO knows the Spurs don’t need an extra big unless he’s an improvement over what the Spurs have now. I don’t think Amundson is better than any of the Spurs’ 4s or 5s.”

    The Spurs know that they’d prefer to avoid anymore “old” bigs (e.g., Ratliff, Dampier) if possible. And Amundson does the combination of things that we need right now (youth, energy, defense, rebounding, shot-blocking) better than both McDyess & Bonner. If we could have gotten him, it would be an easy decision to have Lou cut into their minutes.

    Read more: http://www.48minutesofhell.com/2010/09/13/spurs-stats-fiba-interational-market/#comments#ixzz0zlLQtyBU

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  • dhein

    I think it is a great idea to start earlier, but I don’t think the NBADL needs to add games. If they start earlier, then they should end earlier. They always have trouble at the end of the year losing players to call up during or right before the NBADL playoffs. Ending earlier could help solve this problem for the DL as most NBA teams would have had their chance to call players up. Although the NBA would probably want those players available during the NBA season. Therefore, the NBA would really have to ask itself what it would rather have 1) an earlier start of the NBADL so they can get an earlier look at prospects while losing time to assign and call up players, or 2) keep things the same as they are which allows for more assignments and call ups, but does not give that early look. I feel as more teams start to utilize the NBADL that the talent will get better and more people will go to games resulting in a greater ability to start earlier without losing games at the end.
    We have already seen the Nets and Mavs make moves to greater utilize the NBADL this year. Next year the Lakers are set to bring back the D-Fenders and the Celtics and Red Claws are thick as thieves so I wouldn’t be surprised if they went the same route as the Nets to solely affiliate without ownership of the NBADL team.
    If the NBADL did start earlier some Euro players could come and play much like the WNBA players go over there to play. Although, the WNBA players go over there for more money and NBADL players make less than 30k so if a Euro player were to only come over for two month they wouldn’t make that much just to be show cased in a way to NBA teams.

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