With the 20th season of the franchise upon us, it's time to get nostalgic about our favourite players. So, this is the perfect excuse to figure out which players had the best individual seasons in Toronto Raptors history and in what year.
Of course, choosing the best individual seasons based on numbers can be a subjective exercise, depending on how you value different statistical categories like points and rebounds. To minimize that bias, let’s look at a one number metric that combines and weighs all the standard categories for us.
There are a wide variety of all-encompassing stats which put a single number value on a player’s season and his overall contribution to his team’s success. John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating ("PER") is one of the most popular, but it has a few notable shortcomings when it comes to grading a player’s season as a whole.
For one, PER rewards achievement on the offensive side of the ball much more than on defense. For that reason, an elite offensive player that plays mediocre defense can generally rank highly, but not vice versa. Also, PER is a per-minute measure. This allows players that are effective in limited playing time to post a very high PER, while those who earn heavier minutes might see their PER drop as a result of facing more chances for natural regression.
In order to assess sustained success over an entire season, we would need a more cumulative statistic. In that vein, Basketball Reference's win shares ("WS") is one of the most widely used advanced metrics for debates of this nature.
So, what is a win share?
A given player’s win share total represents an estimate of how many wins he contributes to his team over a period of time, usually over a full season. The NBA leader in win shares last year was Kevin Durant with 19.2. That suggests that Durant’s individual contributions on the basketball court last season accounted for roughly 19 of the Thunder’s 59 regular season wins. That's a lot.
There's a correlation that can be argued between high win share totals and publicly perceived success, considering that everyone except for one player in the top 20 in win shares last season received at least one All-NBA vote. The one exception was Robin Lopez, whose 9.5 win shares actually placed him second on the Portland Trail Blazers ahead of LaMarcus Aldridge’s 7.5 and only behind Damian Lillard's 9.6.
The fact that Lopez placed higher in win shares than Aldridge and came close to contributing the same amount of wins as Lillard may cause some people to question whether win shares is a perfect equation for determining a player's value to the team. Which is fair, considering that no one stat is perfect. For me, Lopez as an outlier makes me question whether we may have overlooked his contributions to the team in terms of rebounding, defense and shooting efficiency last season.
So, the next question is: how are win shares calculated?
Win shares take into account contributions from both ends of the floor. Basic statistics found on the box score such as points, rebounds, steals and turnovers are manipulated to produce new statistics like points produced, total possessions and defensive stops. These new measurements are then adjusted for pace and overall league tendencies and used to calculate an individual player's win share total. If you want the exact calculation, you can get that here.
As mentioned above, win shares is certainly not a perfect stat. The defensive component of the calculation is heavily team-based, so bad defensive players often get bailed out if they are on good defensive teams. It should also be noted that accurately quantifying individual defensive impact is still a work in progress compared to offense across most metrics.
The biggest problem for win shares is in how the metric is applied. It is often used out of context to make definitive statements about Player X being better than Player Y, while ignoring a lot of the human elements and nuances of the game.
While having one number to assess all basketball players is convenient for lists like the one we're about to explore, it's important to note that the stat is not conclusive. By understanding the pros and cons of win shares as a metric for determining the best individual player seasons in Raptors history, we can use the quantitative information that win shares provides us to see whether it matches up with our own emotional memories about the team.
There is this: quickly glancing at a list of the best win share totals of all time for a single season makes a strong case for it being an effective ranking system. The top 25 includes the best seasons from Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
So now that we've discussed the pros and cons of win shares, it's time to get the series started. Come back next week when we begin our countdown of the top five individual seasons in Raptors history.
Drop me a note in the comments if you want to discuss win shares or anything else at length.