Josh Childress, Picking Machine, and the Introduction of Hatteberg’s Elbow

In the book and the movie Moneyball, Scott Hatteberg is a catcher who is cast aside because he has permanent nerve damage in his elbow, rendering him unable to ever catch again.  However, the Oakland A’s recognize his ability to get on base, convert him to first base, and he plays for seven more seasons at about an average level, making roughly $11.5 million in the process.  Hatteberg is probably the most recognizable, analytically driven part of Beane’s early years of success; his role in the story turned an otherwise forgettable player into a legend.

Hatteberg was cast aside for two reasons: his inability to play his position and the fact that one of his greatest skills, reaching base, was not regarded as important by baseball’s decision-makers at the time.  In the NBA today, Josh Childress is a lot like Scott Hatteberg.  Teams do not value him, and, as a result, he has playing for Brooklyn while being paid the veteran’s minimum for his NBA-service time: $854,839.  At the league-average win value of about $1.7 million, the season where he had the lowest net production was worth $3,740,000.  That was last season, when he only played in 491 minutes.  His most valuable was in 2007-08, when he played in 2,274 minutes for Atlanta and produced wins worth $23,630,000 at the league-average win value.  That year, only 10 players produced more wins than he did, and all 10 of them played more minutes.  That is also more than the maximum player salary.  Full stop.

So what happened?  Why isn’t Josh Childress a household name on the level of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, the latter of whom produced .2 fewer wins in 918 fewer minutes in 2007-08 and was one rung lower on the total wins ladder.  His play has regressed, but it’s still well above a star level; give him those 2,274 minutes last year, and he would have produced over $17.5 million worth of wins.  I have two hypotheses:

  1. Hatteberg’s Skill: Childress’s greatest assets-smart shot choices, high rebounding numbers for a swingman, and a low turnover rate-are all undervalued assets, at least the way he does them.  (That is, not in a flashy way like Durant, who has the first two skills.)
  2. Hatteberg’s Elbow: Now, unlike Hatte, Childress did not suffer a catastrophic injury.  Instead, he dared to challenge the system, but the system beat him.

First, Hatteberg’s Skill.  Childress is an incredibly smart guy.  First of all, he played his college ball at Stanford, which is no dummy school.  Second of all, look at his shot chart from last year.  (Note. I will be using data available on Childress’s www.basketball-reference.com page.  Unlike the Wins Produced data, this includes play-off information.)  In that aforementioned 2007-08 season, Mr. Childress took 615 shots.  Of these, a whopping 451 (73.3%) were at the rim, from where he shot 64.7%, and 62 (10%) from behind the arc, from where he shot a solid 35.5%.  These are the most efficient shots in the game because of the increased rate of success and extra point garnered, respectively.  Lay-ups also lead to free throws, and Childress shot 275 times from the charity strip at an 80.7% rate.  As a shooting guard with his playing time, these rates are fairly average.  On the other side of the coin, he only took 29 shots (4.7%) from 16-23 feet.  These are the least efficient shots in the game because of both the distance from the rim and the fact that they’re worth the same number of points as a lay-up.  In contrast with his current brand of basketball, his Usage Rate (percentage of team’s possessions used) was 15.8%; the average player’s usage rate is, by nature, 20%.  He averaged 1.57 Points Per Shot, which is a whopping 30.8% higher than the average player at the 2-guard spot over the course of his career.  Meanwhile, only Amare Stoudemire had a higher True Shooting Percentage than Childress.  True Shooting Percentage is essentially field goal percentage, but it takes into account both free throws and a 3-pointer’s added value.  The rest of the top 10?  Amare, Steve Nash, infamously low-Usage centers Andris Biedrins and Tyson Chandler, 3-point shooter Mike Miller, Dwight Howard, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Martin, and the immortal big man Mikki Moore.  It goes without saying that any shooting metric is likely to overvalue big men because of their closer proximity to the basket.  I have yet to mention his phenomenal offensive rebounding-3.7 boards per 48, more than 3 times that of the average shooting guard-or his turnovers, which were only 77.8% that of the average shooting guard.

Childress’s play has not fallen off in the past two years, but his play time has.  In the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, Childress played a grand total of 1,386 minutes.  However, he has played exceptionally well, and he continues to make good decisions.  In those two seasons, he has taken 312 shots; 210 of them (67.3%) were at the rim, and he made 68.6% of those.   He was only 5-40 (12.5%) from beyond the arc, but he only took 10 shots from between 10 and 23 feet, converting on 3 of them.  His rebounding rates were as good as ever, and his turnovers per 48 minutes were a third that of the average shooting guard last year.  Differences that drastic just don’t happen.  However, Childress has been shooting less efficiently, and his Points Per Shot decreased to being only 84.1% that of the average shooting guard.  However, Childress’s troubles were entirely caused by lack of skill; last year, he only attempted two free throws, missing them both.  How a player shoot 40 lay-ups and a total of 58 shots at the rim while only shooting TWO FREE THROWS is beyond me, but it wastes Childress’s efficient free throw shooting and has to be the result of some inadvertent bias on the part of the referees.  The previous year, the difference wasn’t nearly as abysmal, but it was still far from his previous levels.  His Usage Rate also dropped to 10.1% last year from 14.2% the year before, yet his shot totals at the rim were not entirely out of whack with what his career level was.  I blame small sample size.

Now, it might seem interesting that I entirely skipped Childress’s 2008-09 and 2009-10 campaigns.  For the vast majority of ballplayers worthy enough to receive this sort of breakdown, this could be just a comparison between his best and then most recent seasons and nothing more.  While the first part is true with Childress as well, the second part is far from fact.  The reason I left out those two seasons thus far is that Childress spent those seasons playing in Greece.

I mentioned that Childress went to Stanford, meaning that he has to be a smart guy.  Well, after his eye-popping 2007-08 season, Childress was eligible for Restricted Free Agency.  This means that he could sign an offer sheet with any other NBA team, but his current team, the Hawks, had three days to match whatever he agreed to, or not.  However, the Hawks do not have the ability to match a contract the player signs with a foreign team.

That’s where Greek club Olympiacos Piraeus.  They offered him a three year, $20 million after taxes deal with opt-out clauses after each season.  This is the biggest contract a European team has ever tabled.  According to Childress’s Wikipedia page (sketchy, I know, but still), this worth the same as a 3 year, $32 million NBA contract.  Furthermore, he got a house and a car, and he automatically got a Nike shoe contract as a result of the team’s agreement with the company.  Childress had been offered a 5-year, $33 million contract before taxes with the Hawks, but this deal was obviously more lucrative.  Naturally, he took Olympiacos’s offer.

Childress spent two years in Greece.  According to www.draftexpress.com, Childress’s Win Score (a simplified version of Wins Produced) in the Greek league was roughly 1.5 times that of his in the NBA, but his Euroleague numbers were slightly worse.  His shooting numbers remained high in the Greek League but were lower in the Euroleague, basketball’s version of the UEFA Champions League.  However, his shot attempt rate was higher in the Greek League.  On the whole, Childress played more of a scorer’s role for Olympiacos Piraeus, and his numbers remained fairly consistent with what he had done (Greece) and what he would do when he returned to America (EuroLeague).  Either way, pretty good.  Disenfranchised with the experience, Childress opted out after his second year and did not play overseas during the next season’s lock-out.  According to Wikipedia again, “He cited concerns with reliability of getting paid, differences with coaching styles, and lower standards of business travel compared to the NBA.”

However, the NBA has not looked at him kindly since he returned.  As soon as he arrived back in the States, he was sent to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade for a second-round-pick and a large trade exception (which allowed Atlanta to take on added salary equal to Childress’s for one time only for a period of up to one year).  Two years and greatly reduced minutes later, Phoenix released him using the amnesty clause, a one-time-only allowance that gave teams the right to release one player without taking his salary as a cap hit but still having to pay his salary.  In other words, Phoenix is paying him roughly $6 million not to play for them.  He was a free agent until mid-September, when Brooklyn picked him up to be bench filler for the previously listed minimum salary.

I have a feeling that Childress is being indirectly punished for spurning the system, but he’s not paying the price.  He’s being a lot of money from his amnesty deal, and he’s still in the NBA.  On the contrary, all the teams not servicing him are suffering.  This is what I am now going to call Hatteberg’s Elbow; teams are overlooking a perfectly good player for reasons he cannot entirely control, thus frustrating everyone who knows of his true value because their teams won’t sign him  This is not the first time I’ve compared Josh Childress to Scott Hatteberg (see my Lakers Free Agents article from late August), and I don’t think it will be the last.  Thank you for reading, please comment, and please come back.  

P.S. For those who have not read or seen Moneyball, or do not remember this specific instance, the “Picking Machine” nod in the title is a reference to Hatteberg’s shaking confidence when adapting to the first base position.  He was so nervous that the team had to resort to overly sappy boosts of praise in order to keep the experiment going.  Maybe I’m trying too hard, but I thought it would be more interesting title than “Josh Childress Is Scott Hatteberg,” and it might give someone an incentive to read to the bottom of the page.

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