Monday, April 12, 2004

Mitchell Butler is looking up. It’s part of his routine. Whenever the Washington Wizards guard strips off his warmups and enters a game, he takes a long glance at the scoreboard — then checks it again on his way back to the bench.

Just another prima donna gawking at his stat line? Guess again.

“The score and the time,” Butler says. “That’s the first thing I look at. I haven’t played as many minutes as other guys, but it’s important for me to provide good, positive minutes and know that the team is doing well.”

Small wonder, then, that Butler has the highest rating of any Wizard in Winval, the computerized player evaluation system used by the Dallas Mavericks.

Though the 6-foot-5 reserve puts up modest numbers — 3.4 points and 1.7 rebounds in 13.5 minutes a game — Winval doesn’t consider individual statistics. Instead, the system attempts to quantify a player’s impact on team performance through a weighted version of the plus-minus concept in hockey.

According to Winval, Washington plays 14.2 points per 48 minutes better with Butler on the floor than the Wizards would with an average NBA player in his spot.

“If you’re a good player, when you’re in the game the team should be good,” says Wayne Winston, an Indiana University professor and co-creator of Winval. “And that should be adjusting for who you played with and against.

“This guy, Butler, I have no idea what he does. I’m sure he doesn’t have flashy stats. But when he’s in, the Wizards play great. What’s his first name? Mitchell?”

Butler is used to being overlooked. A career journeyman, he went undrafted out of UCLA in 1993, was out of the league last year and has played for three different teams over eight NBA seasons.

After averaging just 20 minutes and eight points a game in his best pro season, a 1994-95 tour with Washington, Butler quickly acquired a coach-like appreciation for defense, team play and doing the little things well.

“I pride myself on that,” Butler says. “People look at points, rebounds, assists when they grab a box score. They don’t see defending, deflections, how the team plays when you’re on the floor.”

In addition to scouting individual players, the Mavericks use Winval to figure out their most effective player combinations. For Washington, this season’s most-common lineup — Gilbert Arenas, Juan Dixon, Jerry Stackhouse, Kwame Brown and Brendan Haywood, a quintet that had played 151 combined minutes as of two weeks ago — was 4.65 points worse over 48 minutes than the average NBA lineup.

Sub in Jarvis Hayes, Larry Hughes and Christian Laettner to go with Arenas and Brown — a group that has played 97 combined minutes — and the Wizards are 12.72 points better than the league average.

Oddly enough, Hayes and Laettner rank below Dixon and Haywood in terms of individual rankings. The lesson?

“Your five best players may not be your best lineup,” Winston says. “Some guys just can’t play together.”

Conversely, some guys can — and should, at least more often. According to Winston, the Wizards struggle badly when Arenas and Hughes are out.

Not surprised? Now consider this: The team also gets creamed when Brown and Jared Jeffries are both on the bench.

“So when you’re resting these guys, don’t rest them at the same time,” Winston says. “That isn’t so obvious. If the Wizards are playing [New Jersey], we can tell you which lineups did the best job and who on the Nets gave you the most trouble. You want to know this stuff.”

Ratings aren’t always perfect. In a Washington-New Jersey game two weeks ago, Butler checked in with 5:20 remaining and the Wizards leading 88-80.

He made one of his next five shots. The Nets won in overtime.

“There’s a limit to how much you can try to quantify,” says Jeff Sagarin, Winval’s co-creator and the stat guru responsible for USA Today’s computer rankings.

Still, baseball-style statistical analysis is slowly gaining acceptance in the NBA. Toronto, Indiana and Seattle have dabbled with Winval. Miami’s Pat Riley, now the team’s president, famously charts hustle plays, such as charges and deflections. The Mavericks track referee tendencies. The league posts efficiency ratings — essentially, a combination of individual numbers divided by games played — on its Web site.

Sonics assistant general manager Rich Cho even helped his club build a custom evaluation system from scratch.

“When I started in 1995, there wasn’t much out there,” he says. “Now, I think a lot of teams are using more sophisticated stats analysis. We have one that allows you to evaluate players based on about 25 different statistics. Things are going in that direction.”

Butler saw it coming. While playing for Cleveland a few years back, he watched then-Milwaukee coach George Karl unload on Bucks swingman Michael Curry for making a pair of mistakes.

Curry turned to his apoplectic coach. Grinning, he retorted, “Check my plus-minus.”

“That really stuck in my mind,” Butler says. “A guy may fly under the radar, not have much in someone’s scoring report. But if you’re able to come into a game, change the texture and get your team to play well, it can be very advantageous to know that.”

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