In the waning seconds of Saturday night’s Texas Tech-Oklahoma State game, a Texas Tech fan said something to arouse the ire of Marcus Smart, and Smart confronted and shoved him. Smart’s side of the story is that the Texas Tech super fan dropped a racial slur on him. It was costly for Smart’s team, as they had an outside shot of winning the game down 2 with 6 seconds left and Texas Tech heading to the line for two free throws. And the brunt of the incident will be the 3 game suspension he received with his team’s tourney hopes suddenly looking uncertain. Various people will have various takes on what this says about Smart’s character, and none of them will be particularly illuminating. He erred, a price will be paid, people will get over it as time passes, and discussing it any further is both uninteresting and uncomfortable. After all, my goal is to perceive his value as a future NBA player rather than judge his morality as a human being. So the question of the day is: should we adjust the consensus opinion that Smart has elite intangibles and downgrade his draft stock in light of this incident?
First, let’s look at the NBA incident that most closely parallels this: the Malice at the Palace. While a quick shove pales in comparison to Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson going into the stands to fight fans, and Jermaine O’Neal punching a fan in the jaw after a running start, it’s what we have to work with for the line between players and fans being crossed. So let’s take a look at each player’s draft slot, their career win shares, and where they rank all time for win shares at their draft slot:
|Pick||Win Shares||Slot Rank|
There have been 60 selections at 16th or 17th overall and 59 at 42nd in NBA history. In spite of being crazy enough to physically fight fans and draw enormous suspensions, these 3 players were among the all-time best values for their slot. There is some selection bias at work, as this analysis isn’t completely fair to the draft busts who couldn’t stay on an NBA roster long enough to have the opportunity to storm into the stands and beat up Detroit area residents. But the fact remains that being crazy enough to fight fans does not equate to being too crazy to develop into a better NBA player than expected.
There are not many similar incidents to draw from for a thorough analysis. The next most similar incident that comes to mind is Dennis Rodman kicking the camera man, and he has the most career win shares for 27th overall draft picks. So to assess a broader range of players, I resorted to the universal measure of NBA player volatility: technical fouls! Rasheed Wallace is the poster boy for technicals, as he holds the record both single season (41) and career (317) technicals, and he proved to be good value at 4th overall with the 5th most career win shares for the slot all-time. In any season the technical foul leaderboard it is littered with players who were good draft values. But again there are selection bias issues, as players need to spend time on the floor to rack up technicals, which prevents bench players and flame-outs from standing out in this regard.
To give the busts and their outbursts fair consideration, I analyzed the correlation between technical frequency and various advanced statistics. I used season long samples from 2002-2003, 2007-2008, and 2012-2013. For each season, I calculated the correlation coefficient between technical fouls per minute and RAPM, PER, and Win Shares. I split RAPM and Win Shares into offense and defense, and I also included Win Shares per 48 minutes. Here are the correlations:
There is a positive correlation across the board between a density of technical fouls and on court production. This intuitively makes sense, as it is often the most fiery competitors who pick up the most technicals. The defensive correlation is much stronger than the offensive one, which again makes sense due to defensive value having a greater correlation with effort. There have been plenty of successful players who don’t get an insane amount of technicals, so I’m not advocating to draft all hotheads and pass up the players who contain their emotions. But the numbers clearly suggest that volatile players on average contribute more value than the complacent ones.
I do not mean to spin Smart’s outburst as a positive- his competitive spirit was already priced into his draft stock and it would have been preferable if he hadn’t crossed the boundary that he did. But since we live in a society where following the rules is regarded as important, this may be incorrectly magnified into a notable red flag. It parallels to Chris Paul’s elite intangibles being questioned when he punched Julius Hodge below the belt in ACC play, and this concern has proven to be misplaced as he became an excellent leader and star player in the NBA.
People are welcome to judge exactly how wrong Smart was to their heart’s content, but they are flat out wrong if they think this adversely affects his ability to contribute value to an NBA team. By all accounts he is a great leader and teammate, and even if you want to now downgrade those assessments (I do not) he is not a bad teammate by any stretch. If GMs picking in the middle of the lottery have an inclination to pass him up because of this, I would expect Smart to reward the first team with the good sense to look past the ESPN narrative and realize this is nothing more than a small price to pay for an elite competitor.