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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mostly wins (but a few fumbles)--An interesting look at predicting performance in professional sports
In their book Stumbling On Wins, economists David J. Berri and Martin B. Schmidt show their readers how statistics might be used to help make decisions in professional sports. They highlight situations where an in depth look at the numbers challenges conventional wisdom and show how commonly quoted statistics, such as batting averages and earned run averages, have little...
Published on June 14, 2010 by Jojoleb

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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing: nothing new, a limited unvariate analysis of a multivariate dynamic system
This is disappointing and I don't recommend it, either for sports fans or anyone with an interest in the growing and substantial research on fallibilities in human judgment, decision making and use of information. Its basic point is one that is well established, that conventional measures of performance in professional sports are misleading predictors of future...
Published on June 2, 2010 by Peter G. Keen


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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing: nothing new, a limited unvariate analysis of a multivariate dynamic system, June 2, 2010
This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
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This is disappointing and I don't recommend it, either for sports fans or anyone with an interest in the growing and substantial research on fallibilities in human judgment, decision making and use of information. Its basic point is one that is well established, that conventional measures of performance in professional sports are misleading predictors of future performance; examples are pitchers' ERAs and NBA points per game. It repeats the many-times made observations about how often NFL first round quarterback draft picks are bombs. That's well presented and thoroughly documented but in more detail than the use of the findings warrants. Its main point is that overreliance on the wrong data leads to bad economic decisions by managers who should know better. I don't recall any item in the analysis that has not been covered elsewhere. Examples here are: (1) Field managers and coaches in baseball, football and basketball have little impact on team performance, (2) Statistically, it makes sense to go for it on fourth down, (3) Trading up to get a high draft pick is generally a bad deal, economically and in terms of finding the best talent, (4) NBA draft position is a poor predictor of career performance, (5) The NBA "hot hands" streaks are a myth and (6) Isiah Thomas was a truly, truly lousy general manager of the Knicks. Agreed. Agreed.
The main weakness of the book seems to me that it largely relies on data about individual performance for its core evidence and though it alludes to the context of teams, it is very univariate in its analysis. The authors emphasize this but only in a single footnote. (The regression-based methodology examines only the strength of the linear relationship between two independent variables.) There is no multivariate perspective: the balance of a team's roles within a deliberate defense-offense strategy, career injuries, character burnouts and dysfunctions, owners, franchise history and the many contextual economic factors such as player caps and guaranteed contracts. It's almost all about individual stars only. The selected examples seem casual and arbitrary. In a book that argues that the role of the coach is minimal, for instance, there is no mention of, among others, Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh and Scotty Bowman, as counterexamples or confirmatory ones to be explained through the same methodology of data analysis. None of these are even mentioned once and Isiah Thomas and Alan Inverson are given far too many pages. There is no consideration of what I suspect explains the dynamics of performance, which is the nature of sports teams as a social organization comparable to that of most Fortune 1000 firms and very much driven by short-term career, management and market pressures. Given that the univariate analysis shows that no figure explains more than a fraction of the variance in the linear regression analysis, then there simply must be a multivariate methodology for any conclusions to be drawn about the nature of the decision making process.
Perhaps I am incorrect in my assessment here; I have only limited skills in statistical analysis. The authors have strong resumes and the book thoroughly documents its sources and provides excellent footnotes. It's well presented. But all in all, it seems far too casual in its framing of a complex issue, doesn't add new insights and is overloaded with micro-level data that belabors the case that decision making in pro sports is largely screwed up.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting but not enough for a book, December 27, 2010
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This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
Interesting in parts, but this is obviously a blog converted into a book, rather than content so substantive that it was suited to a book. Most of the inefficiencies discussed are relatively common knowledge by now among statistics-savvy fans, although I did think the analysis on how kickers' value comes more from their kickoffs than field goals was interesting and new.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mostly wins (but a few fumbles)--An interesting look at predicting performance in professional sports, June 14, 2010
This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
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In their book Stumbling On Wins, economists David J. Berri and Martin B. Schmidt show their readers how statistics might be used to help make decisions in professional sports. They highlight situations where an in depth look at the numbers challenges conventional wisdom and show how commonly quoted statistics, such as batting averages and earned run averages, have little to do with a player or team's success. Overall, they do a good job of bringing to light how 'conventional wisdom' in sports leads to bad decision making and are able to do this in layman's terms. They also suggest new metrics that have more validity to replace the old ones. At times, however, they seem to dumb things down just a little too much and simply present series after series of conclusions without much in the way of explanation. But more often than not their conclusions still fly in the face of our expectations and--at least for someone like me who is new to this way of thinking--makes for an interesting read.

Before I begin, let me just say that this is my kind of book about sports. Having a 'deletion in the sports gene,' I have little patience for sitting through a game of football, baseball, or basketball and have never regularly follow any teams. Having a son, however, changed all of this for me. He grew up loving to play anything that involved a ball or a puck and at the age of 5 would even sit rapt attention watching a golf match on TV. Sports fascinated him. They were part of his inner fabric and as a father I had to adjust and become part of something alien to me. So I tried to latch on to some aspect of the game that seemed to make sense--the numbers. I would look at the stats and try to predict what a player or a team might do or guess at how coaching decisions should be made. Over the years, this has not been a very satisfying hobby as the numbers never completely jibed with the performance on the field. Watching the game was frustrating. Watching the numbers fail to explain the game was even more frustrating. Maybe I just didn't get it.

Enter Stumbling on Wins. Finding out that the often quoted statistics for teams and players are not always the best predictors of performance was eye opening for me. Berri and Schmidt show how the venerable, 'tried and true' statistics of the past--the ones that populate box scores and are quoted by announcers--are simply unreliable. The authors introduce new metrics that better predict player and team performance. And when their more advanced statistics still can't predict performance, they say so.

They also take a look at the pitfalls of assessing players using the usual sports statistics and how organizations, such as the NFL, might change the way they look at a given player (and that player's first year salary) if they used more sound statistical methods when making lists for their annual draft picks. They even go as far as showing how the a lack of understanding the numbers has adversely affected sports halls of fame. Using economic, statistical methods the authors show how some hall of famers in a given sport actually performed less well over time than their lesser known rivals.

The authors also show how teams who think outside the usual box can find success using these methods. The poster children in this respect are the 1997 Oakland As. General manager Billy Beane was able to exploit the fact that the salaries for hitters in MLB did not accurately reflect the actual contribution of an individual player to winning games. By using on-base percentage instead of batting averages, Beane was able to assemble a less expensive but more effective team. Eventually, of course, other teams picked up on Beane's trick, on-base percentage was used to determine how much a hitter was paid, and Beane's advantage was eliminated. Nevertheless, this highlights the fact that finding right metric (before your competition does) may be the key to assembling a successful team.

There are some pitfalls here, however. For example, the authors conclude that coaching in the NBA is not all that relevant. Although they are often credited with wins and losses, the authors suggest that wins and losses have more to do with a given team's players than the choice of a head coach. So should NBA teams run with this, not worry about their coaches, and drop those high-salary, veteran coaches for some cheaper, young ones? I don't think so.

One line of the evidence they use to show that coaching isn't all that relevant is that a players performance statistically doesn't change when they change teams. This may be true, but it doesn't negate the effects of coaching. I think the confounder here is that a player isn't a robot. Players don't forget what they learned while serving on their prior team. If they had good coaching and were taught to play effectively, they likely will bring what they have learned to another team.

Moreover, a head coach in the NBA has a profound effect on assembling a team in the first place. So even if a given coach's ability to win is really the based on the talent of their players, that's okay. These are not independent variables: the coach was responsible for assembling the team in the first place.

In fact, fans and owners alike are happy to admit that good coaching only goes so far. If a team has incredibly sub par talent, it won't do well. If a team has incredible talent, it will probably do well without a coach. But when you have two teams pitted against each other with comparable skills, coaching probably makes a big difference. (For this reason, coaching may be more important in post season games, something that the authors didn't really address.) Coaching decisions, at least by observation, seem to make a big difference. It's hard to imagine, for example, that the Saints would beat the Colts in Superbowl XLIV without some gutsy coaching decisions. On the positive side, Berri and Schmidt admit that some coaches (e.g. Phil Jackson) do seem to enhance the performance of a team. But the authors also admit that they don't have a way of looking at the numbers to understand why this is so.

A minor gripe--there are two appendices in the back of the book that try to explain how to measure wins in the NBA and wins in the NFL. Both of these go into a little more depth concerning the statistics and are more difficult to read. Some terms are not well explained and both sections refer you to the authors' website for clarification. I'm not big on the 'refer to the website' thing. I like books to be complete. If the information is worth sharing, I feel that it should be included in print.

The authors also include some very informative and interesting end notes. Given the sheer amount of information therein, they would have better been placed as footnotes. Once they are relegated to the back of the book, very few readers will actually refer to them.

The authors wanted the book to be understandable to the masses, so they wrote in layman's terms. I'm okay when they describe the gist of mathematical terms in simple language, but there are times where they may have dumbed down things a little too much. This makes it more difficult to understand how they chose and weighted certain player statistics to build a composite number that works as a good predictor of outcomes.

Still, this is a very informative and interesting book that brings to light new insights on evaluating performance in competitive sports. There's a lot of wisdom in this thin book and it is a quick and engaging read. Recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Linke "Freakanomics" for sports fans, August 19, 2010
This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
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"Stumbling On Wins" is a very entertaining book - it essentially takes a statistical, economic approach to sports in an attempt to answer common barroom debates such as which coaches are the best and do things like streaks and hot hands really exist.

This approach to sports isn't new - baseball has been stat-crazy for years, and "Moneyball" took it to the next level by providing (sometimes surprising) statistical value to various aspects of the sport. "Stumbling On Wins" expands the formula to other sports, such as pro basketball and football to answer questions about the real value of coaches and players.

The book is filled with nuggets of interesting data that have the potential to change how you look at sports. For example, in professional football, kickers really do matter (not terribly surprising) but what is surprising is that their skill on kickoffs is actually more valuable to a team then their field goal accuracy. Sound crazy? Well, there's stats to back it up.

Other areas of interest in the book cover things like the relative value of various pro athletes (underpaid and overpaid) which are always fun to debate, and especially for basketball fans, a baseball-level-geekery of analysis which is eye-opening to say the least (hint: rebounds are more important then you think.)

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in pro sports, from the casual fan to the fanatic. It is an enjoyable, fairly quick read and like the best books, it challenges how you think.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Wouldn't You Want to Win?, June 3, 2010
This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
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Stumbling on Wins is an important book.

If almost demands the question, "Why wouldn't someone want the team they have invested 1/4 billion dollars in...to win?"

The authors have done a fantastic job of teasing out just what it is that determines what causes professional sports teams to win or to lose.

For example: Everyone knows that coaching matters in professional sports, but how important is that coaches skill to the team? If you took that NBA coach and moved him to another franchise, does the next franchise perform better or worse? Does the incoming coach do better or worse? It turns out that there is a statistically sound model to determine just how much value a professional coach adds to a team. My read on their analysis is that most coaches are important (without one the team would be in disarray) but most professional coaches are pretty similar in their contribution to a team winning. So go ahead and spend tens of millions but it's not going to cause you to win any more games. Are there exceptions? Yes there is one truly notable, exceptional...exception. There is a clear "greatest coach ever," and after that the reported results show that most of the rest do their job...and no one is all that much better or worse than anyone else. Again, my read on their analysis. I'll let you get the book to find out which coach.

What's even more fascinating is the authors discussion of how valuable certain all time all star players were to a teams winning. It turns out that a lot of current Hall of Famers were not as important to their teams that were big winners as many players were to teams that were losers. When Kareem Abdul Jabbar played basketball he was amazing. But there was another player who was able to help HIS team produce more wins than KAJ and yet he is not in the Hall.

Moving to football the analysis is more difficult because there are only 16 games played in a season, not 82 or 162. Basketball, hockey and baseball all lend themselves to more valuable statistical analysis.

But analyzing the football stats has plenty to teach us about who the most important quarterbacks are...even who the most important kickers are. It turns out that field goals do matter...and it turns out when the kicker goes to get his paycheck his kickoffs should matter more than his field goal kicking ability when it comes to his paycheck...and it doesn't.

Just how good is Ben Roethlisberger? You'll find out in the book.

In baseball, Bill James discovered years ago that "batting average" isn't anywhere near as important as On Base Percentage or Slugging Percentage. You never see those numbers reported in the paper or on ESPN. Why? OBP and OSP are a great deal more important in valuing a player.

Taking a walk, is not exciting. But when Ricky Henderson walked 100 times it turns out that was a *lot* more impressive and important to his team than his other accomplishment of 100 stolen bases.

My first inclination is that to watch your team score runs because of bases on balls is nowhere near as exciting as watching stolen bases which is not as dramatic as the home run.

How often have the Chicago Cubs signed the big name only to find out that Home Runs just don't convert to wins and losses. (This wasn't covered in the book...it's my assessment of being a Cubs fan for too many years...)

The fact is that players are getting paid quite well in general but some players are far overpaid IF WINNING MATTERS. And a LOT of players are FAR UNDERPAID if winning matters. But is that what matters?

The data collected in the book is so clear cut that there is no justification in Hockey, for one goalie, say, to get paid much more than another goalie. The best goalie of the current era is heralded as just that. But there are others who are just as good and earning nowhere near the money. Why?

There's no question that players know that scoring more points in basketball comes from taking more shots. Taking more shots demands a more selfish approach to the game and those coaches who allow that to permeate will have teams that win fewer games. Players that are "exciting to watch" don't always make for the best players for a team to have if winning is what matters.

I found the analyses in the book to be insightful and it reignites my personal passion, as a fan who prefers to see his team win than to see the star player hit a home run.

An endless array of notes cite and acknowledge contributors not only in sports but those who have studied what matters. I was pleased to see they mention Brian Burke who does such an excellent job of analyzing sports in general but football in particular.

This book is a must have for the sports enthusiast...and for the guy who goes up to the window and plops his $100 down on the Patriots while in Las Vegas....
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Skip it, December 17, 2013
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This book struggles to find its depth. One paragraph presumes you've got a well-rounded understanding of statistics, then the next gets completely hand-wavey with the numbers and equations. For example, there are multiple "tables" of which factors are relevant to success in a particular field, but they're merely divided into "significant" and "insignificant"--no figures to speak of, excepting the one or two that inadvertently sneak into the surrounding text.

The major points of the book are superficial. They spend a chapter regurgitating the Moneyball thesis. Then they argue that in basketball shooting efficiency is more important than points scored, even though the latter tends to get guys paid. Well-trod ground. The authors spill a lot of ink pretending their thesis is whether or not the people running sports franchises make good decisions or not, but apart from Moneyball (which no longer works because the inefficiency has been eliminated) and Isaiah Thomas (nuff said) they fail to even attempt an argument either way.

There's an appendix devoted to explaining why the NFL Quarterback Rating is a flawed measure of a quarterback, because it only measures passing. Yeah, that's because it's actually called the PASSER RATING. Understanding things like this should be a requirement for calling into a talk radio program, let alone writing a book about sports analysis.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Decent Dry Analysis but Nothing Groundbreaking, June 11, 2010
This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
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Ever since Moneyball came out in 2003, there's been a boom in quantitative research into sports. Much of this comes from the field of economics, which makes sense, since economists are comfortable with statistical modeling, regression analysis, issues of inefficient markets, rational decision-making, commodity values, etc. -- all of which can be readily applied to professional sports. After all, it's pretty clear that despite the huge amounts of data available, decision-makers in sports (from GMs to coaches) make poor choices all the time. This somewhat dry book draws upon this vastly-expanding field of research to present some recent findings as to why these kinds of mistakes are made, in terms the average reader can understand (although, that understanding will be greatly enhanced the more versed you are in statistical analysis tools and methodology).

If you're interested in this kind of stuff, much of the discussion and many of the conclusions won't feel very fresh. For example, it's been pretty well-established in such circles that the NBA teams overpay for scoring, and don't value scoring efficiency nearly as much as they should be. This holds true for drafting, all-star selections, trades, contacts, etc. so the parts of the book that discuss that aren't breaking new ground (although perhaps the authors are providing sounder evidence). The same can be said for much of the analysis of the NFL, for example, that teams punt on 4th down too readily, that kickers are paid based on field goal kicking even though the value of their kickoffs (in terms of field position) is generally worth more, that the evaluation of quarterback potential and performance is hugely ineffective and riddled with errors. I'm only a very casual football fan at this point in my life, but these are all areas of conventional football wisdom that have been questioned for years.

Which is not to suggest the book is wholly yesterday's news. There's a nice section on whether or not coaches really "matter" in the NBA, which suggests that they generally don't, but that a few do, and who they are may be surprising. There's also a nice bit on hockey goaltenders, and whether there's much difference between them. However, the book focuses primarily on professional basketball and football -- so it's probably best suited to NBA and NFL fans with a taste for this kind of analysis. Unlike, say, Moneyball, there's no running storyline of any kind, and thus the book feels more like a series of assembled articles than a cohesive statement about anything. In an effort to keep the book readable, a lot of important data and explanations are buried in the endnotes, and potential readers are advised to take the time to refer to them. All in all, not a bad book, but not a groundbreaking one either.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Probably not a good choice for hard core fans..., June 9, 2010
This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
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..of either sports OR statistics.

Confession: It took me two years to finish my first year of high school algebra...and I wasn't allowed to return for my sophomore year of college until finishing a second year of high school algebra in a summer session.

I avoided statistics in later studies until my curriculum left no choice. While I did far better than any of my algebra teachers might have predicted, I have no illusions about my ability to DO statistics today. I can however appreciate meaningful statistics, and I learned enough to understand when data is being parsed in a worthwhile way.

To the extent that David Berri and Martin Schmidt provide vignettes of selected sports statistics (from the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL) this book is interesting enough. Yet the complexity of modern professional sports offers so many potential variables for analysis (not to mention those ever-present intangibles, such as weather or officiating or the utter unpredictability of team performance from one game to the next) left me to wonder:
did they pick the right stuff to analyze? I can't answer that question, but I sure keep asking it over and over. Hard core statistics and spreadsheet geeks might find themselves asking the same question. In fairness, the closing pages of this book concede the fundamental flaw in trying to force individual performance metrics (such as a pitcher's win-loss record) into a team context.

Sports fans looking for riveting prose blending sporting achievement with quantitative analysis will find meticulously documented statistical data and processes, but mostly about settled sporting business that the analysis doesn't bring to life in any novel way. If, however you've studied stats or quantitative analysis in the social sciences, you'll find yourself in familiar territory as the authors present tabular data and review their methodology. In doing so, they remove much of the possible joy for those seeking a few minutes of escape from worrisome world might expect in a "sports" book.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stumbling on Value, April 9, 2010
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This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
Reading the previous offering from these two authors, The Wages of Wins, had a profound impact on me. As a Knicks fans and a lifelong lover of basketball, I was perhaps uniquely primed for their message, but it was nevertheless a real revelation to see the empirical case made that scoring is overvalued in the NBA and that decision makers make systematic errors rather than incorporating all the information available to them. Watching Isiah Thomas operate after reading the book was as fascinating as it was painful and sparked me to take a serious and very rewarding interest in the use of advanced statistics in basketball and other sports as well.

Needless to say, I have been excited for a long time about the arrival of their second book. Stumbling on Wins definitely didn't disappoint. I picked it up and didn't put it down before finishing it. It is immensely readable and very entertaining, full of the kind of sports stories that make it very clear there is ample room for improvement at the top or your favorite franchise and plenty of insight into human behavior to be garnered from a study of sports. It really builds and improves on their first book by focusing on the core insight about irrationality in human decisionmaking and by drawing on many different sports to illustrate the point.

For both casual and serious sports fans, I think this will be a very enjoyable read which should deepen your understanding and enjoyment of sports for the long term. I guarantee you won't look at any of the decisions made by your local sports franchises in quite the same way again. Highly recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Great look at the numbers, June 19, 2010
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owookiee "owookiee" (Winston-Salem, NC USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports (Hardcover)
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The book isn't quite so long as it appears. There is a large reference section, as well as 30 pages of appendix showing you how the regression analysis was done. If you're looking for a quick check in a bookstore to see if the book would interest you, turn to the very last few pages of chapter 9, it summarizes all the points the authors make in the rest of the book. Then if you see something that intrigues you, you can go read the chapter where that is discussed.

The basic gist of the entire book is that players aren't evaluated accurately most of the time. The authors show which factors are statistically significant, and which aren't as important as common wisdom suggests. They do this for players and coaches in the NBA, NFL, and MLB. They even give an analysis of what certain superstars SHOULD be paid, compared to what they are actually paid. It's interesting to see the disparity between two players that are statistically equal contributors.

Big support for the Demon Deacons in this one - Chris Paul was the top win-producing player in the NBA in 2008-09. Tim Duncan comes in 13th. Tim Duncan is the fifth most-productive #1 draft pick between '77-'04.
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