Early in the recent MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, a panel moderated by columnist Jackie MacMullan veered into a subject area near and dear to our Insider hearts at ESPN. The general topic was the state of analytics in the NBA, and the living, breathing archetype of an analytical player sat a few seats over from MacMullan: Shane Battier.
A lot of words had been used in discussing why Battier was such a valuable NBA player, belied by his modest box score statistics. He is in his first year of retirement and working as a college basketball analyst for ESPN, so MacMullan turned to the real plus-minus leaderboard for a suggestion on who might be the next Battier.
"I just looked it up," MacMullan said. "I was curious to see who would be leading in real plus-minus. It's the usual suspects for the most part . . . Here's No. 6, and I thought this was worth some conversation. How many people in this room know all about Khris Middleton?"
Well, after covering the Milwaukee Bucks this season, I know all about Middleton. He has since slipped on the RPM leaderboard -- all the way to No. 7. The six players ahead of him are ones who will likely finish Nos. 1 through 6 in the MVP balloting. Middleton won't get MVP votes, but his standing in RPM isn't based entirely on intangibles. He leads the surprising Bucks in wins above replacement (WARP), though his No. 56 ranking by that metric is low for a team leader. In fact, Middleton's RPM rank stands out in stark contrast to his WARP rank among the leaders.
Just what is going on here? Is Middleton really a wizard with an MVP-like impact on games despite a lack of gaudy counting stats?