There has been a lot of talk in these parts about who the Magic should trade for to both keep Dwight and get better overall. While everyone has an opinion, a fascinating paper was presented at the Sloan Sports Analytics conference may provide some counterintuitive insight and may even help explain the Magic's title run in 2009.
The paper in question, Big 2’s and Big 3’s: Analyzing How a Team’s Best Players Complement Each Other, takes a look at complementary duos and trios on all teams since 1977 and attempts to find the most effective combinations based on record and point differential. Rather than grouping players by position, they grouped them into 14 various clusters based on skill sets and did regression analysis on the results of those players' teams.
The group that mostly aligns with Dwight Howard is cluster #12.
Cluster #12: High scoring post players, high rebounds, high blocks: Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson
Dwight is not as high scoring as those guys, but with a similar usage rate I think he'd fit the bill nicely. And that is a pretty good group to be in as it appears in 2 of the 6 statistically significant positive pairings - including the most effective duo combination overall.
So what is that top performing combination? Pair up someone in cluster #12 with someone in cluster #8.
Cluster #8: Multi-faceted, high scoring wings, with high assists for their position and are great 3 point shooters: Paul Pierce, Danny Ainge
Looking at this, it makes a lot of sense that the Magic's fortunes seem to so closely follow Hedo's. While he is not Paul Pierce, he gets a lot of assists for his position (especially in 2009 when playing point forward with Alston on the floor) and he shoots the 3 well. He's not especially multi-faceted, but he can create a shot when he is motivated. When he is playing well, he makes the best possible teammate for a guy like Dwight.
While that is enlightening and seems to follow some conventional wisdom, here is where things get really interesting.
The Magic's scheme has long been predicated on the 1-in/4-out philosophy. Personally, I'm a fan. However, going by the research in this paper, the best possible player to add to this pairing is someone who does not shoot many 3s at all.
Cluster #7: High scoring, high assist, high steals, high turnover point guards, who don’t shoot 3s: Kevin Johnson, Isaiah Thomas
Rafer Alston anyone? OK. He's not exactly high scoring either, but you can see how he fits this model.
Considering that this combination of players (12-8-7) was far and away the most statistically significant winning trio in the NBA since 1977, it's not that much of a surprise the Magic did so well in 2009 after they were accidentally built in its image.
So, what does it all mean? If we take the idea that Hedo could possibly be motivated to work as the #8 in this group, where is our #7?
Is it possible he's sitting at the end of the Magic's bench with the name Smith on the back of his jersey?