The Iverson Gap: Why Valuing Players Is Even Harder Than You Think

By David Roher

Why is Iverson more valuable when he’s not wearing Nuggets powder blue?

Note: This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

The value of Allen Iverson is one of the most contentious topics in the world of basketball statistics. HuffPost’s own Dave Berri is well known for thinking that Iverson is heavily overrated, and is decidedly unenthusiastic about his return to the Philadelphia 76ers. Other statisticians have publicly disagreed. There’s some great back-and-forth about this issue, and reading more about Iverson’s case provides a solid introduction into advanced basketball metrics.

But as complicated as Iverson’s value already was, his return to Philly adds yet another dimension to the debate.

Iverson’s court presence during his debut wasn’t bad, but it was hardly dominating — he scored 11 points on 4-11 shooting and dished out six assists. But the most important number was 20,664 — the sellout crowd that watched him Monday night. Philly’s average home attendance before Monday’s game was 11,966. That difference is over 40% of the stadium’s seats. If those seats averaged the same price as the Wachovia Center’s overall average, then Philly made around $350,000 more than average from ticket prices alone — in a single night.

Granted, it’s unlikely that Iverson’s presence will result in a continued attendance spike unless the 76ers start to win again (they haven’t, and it hasn’t). Berri’s prediction of his production is turning out to be correct. But Iverson has a non-guaranteed contract at the veteran’s minimum, and the 76ers paid for 35% of it from just ticket sales in one night. It’s possible that when we figure in additional merchandise sales and in-game purchases, Philly has already paid for his deal in under a week. They’ve capitalized on the fact that Iverson was far more valuable to them than he would have been to any other organization.

You might notice that I left Iverson’s actual basketball value as an afterthought. That’s because it is. As of this writing, John Hollinger is giving the 6-18 Sixers a 10.2% chance of making the playoffs. I don’t like those odds.

The truth is that the traditional currency of a player’s value, the win, is fairly unimportant in a situation like this. If Iverson is interfering with the development of future players, that’s one thing. But do you think fans care about the difference between a 23-win team and a 25-win team? Wins matter to the bottom line primarily when playoff contention and seed is at stake. And we can’t forget the possibility that 76ers brass could reinvest all this cash flow into meaningfully good players.

This isn’t an issue that ends with Iverson. The gap between a player’s perceived value and his “actual” value has real consequences. Here’s an example from another sport: Derek Jeter’s fielding, a topic even more contentious than Iverson’s value. Scouts tend to rate Jeter’s fielding as above average, while statisticians usually put it near the bottom of the barrel (except for 2009, where he was universally considered above average). At its largest point, the gap between these two views could be as many as three or four wins — roughly $15-20 million in free agent dollars, according to Fangraphs‘ system.

The reality is that this issue isn’t really that important when we only talk about revenue. Jeter is the most marketable player in the game of baseball, and his signature jump-and-throw is an indelible part of his image. And that’s just it — the image of his fielding is what drives revenue in addition to its quality. Sure, if Jeter’s fielding is actually terrible, the Yankees will lose a few more games and lose out on some revenue (although the overwhelming majority of those fans won’t associate those losses with Jeter). But the idea that Jeter’s fielding is worth $15-20 million less is a big stretch.

All this is to say that considering a player’s marketability hand-in-hand with his production is going to be a big step in sports analysis. I’m sure that teams are doing it, but the media and the statistical community tend to keep business and production separate. By combining the two, we can close the Iverson Gap and create a comprehensive figure for a player’s value — far from including every intangible, sure, but a huge step nonetheless.

Note: I don’t want to give the impression that I think this deal is going to save the 76ers or anything; it’s minor regardless of how we view it. I’m also not trying to diminish the importance of wins from a pure sports perspective. And most importantly, I don’t want to denigrate the enormous amount of work that’s been done on sports business by Berri and countless others. I just want to see player evaluation synthesize these two components more smoothly.

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  • I don’t think Iverson is overrated, I simply think he needs to be better to be valuable.

    In other words, Advanced Basketball statistics show his career is in the same range as Steve Nash’s (a player I think is overrated mostly because everyone seems to think hes the greatest thing ever), but my contention is that he needs to be in the Lebron/Kobe/Jordan (Well Jordan is way off the charts) range of effectiveness to be worthwhile to a team. He is a good player, and COULD be a great asset to any team, but he simply cannot play like an asset and be as effective as other players who play at his level.

    Its no knock on Iverson persay, simply he needs to be great to be an asset, and he is not great anymore.

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