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Ben Simmons Pareto Watch

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

A recent article in 538 proposed the name “Pareto Game” for the situation where a player puts up a stat line that no one in NBA history has exceeded in each category. The name comes from the great Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who developed the concept of “Pareto optimality.” A distribution of goods is Pareto optimal if it is impossible to give one person more without giving someone else less. In a two-player, zero-sum game, all distributions are Pareto optimal, helping one person always hurts the other. But most economic situations are not zero-sum.

A nice way to see the difference between “optimal” and “Pareto optimal” is to imagine two hermits on desert islands. You pass through the region briefly and have an opportunity to make changes — you are what economists call the “social planner.” Let’s say Island 1 has 1 coconut tree, which delivers barely enough food for the hermit’s survival. Island 3 has three trees; 90% of the time two trees deliver enough coconuts that the hermit living there doesn’t eat anything from the third tree (the coconuts just rot on the ground), but occasionally the third tree brings him some pleasure as he’s in the mood to gorge himself that day. (the coconuts are the only food source on these islands in my silly made-up example).

Now, if you were to uproot a tree from Island 3 and move it successfully to Island 1, under many definitions of optimality you would be making things more optimal — you’d be taking one person from the brink of starvation to a satisfying situation, while only harming the other a small amount. Of course the ethics of such social planning are hotly contested, but we don’t need to get into that here. We can just recognize that under certain rules of optimality — say, one where we simply add up the “utility” of the two islanders — and given some other assumptions about how utility works and how adding works, we can say that moving a tree takes us from suboptimal to optimal. But — and this is the key point — we haven’t accomplished ANYTHING in terms of Pareto optimality. The 1-3 distribution was already Pareto optimal, as is 2-2 — there’s no way to help one person without hurting the other.

Now imagine one island has big piles of rice and the other has big piles of beans. Well, rice and beans is a tasty combination that makes a complete protein, whereas rice or beans alone make a dull and unhealthy diet. So the distribution where each has only one is probably NOT Pareto optimal. It’s possible to make a trade that makes both sides better off, let’s say for example that perhaps a swap of 5 bushels of rice for 3 bushels of beans makes both islanders happier, and there’s no subsequent swap that would improve the welfare of both. Then the situation before the 3-for-5 swap was not Pareto optimal, and the situation after the swap is Pareto optimal. Of course in such a case they would do the swap voluntarily if they could. But again, we’re not debating the ethics of forced versus voluntary transactions, each of us can believe whatever we wish about right and wrong. All Pareto says is that in the rice-beans case there’s a way of moving stuff around that makes everyone better off, and in the coconuts case there isn’t.

OK, back to basketball. Hopefully now everyone sees why 538 names this hoops concept after Pareto; the idea is to highlight games where no one ever did more in every category, i.e. cases in which, by looking at a different game played by someone else, you may increase numbers in one area but you’ll do worse in something else.

538 focused only on points, rebounds, and assists in their Pareto discussion. So, for example, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game is of course Pareto, because no one ever had more than 100 points, and for a game to not be Pareto someone has to have matched or outperformed it on all three counts, and beaten it on at least one. Scott Skiles record assists game (30) is Pareto, which is obvious, but what’s not obvious is that the game Rajon Rondo had where he delivered 25 assists with 7 rebounds and only 2 points was also Pareto. Skiles had more assists in his big game, and also managed more than 2 points, but he didn’t have 7 rebounds that night. And, checking Basketball Reference, we see that out of the approximately 800,000 player-games since 1984-85 when the player-game data starts, NO ONE ever managed 25 assists with 7 rebounds or more. Thus Rondo’s is among the 125 or so Pareto games when we employ only those three categories.

Of course if we add more categories, we will find more Pareto games. Suppose Rondo had 2 steals in the 2-7-25 game, then a player with a 2-6-25 game and 3 steals would not be 3-category Pareto (Rondo’s game dominates it), but would almost certainly be 4-category Pareto, since it’s unlikely anyone did 25 and 6 and also had three steals.

OK, got it? I put Ben Simmons in the headline, so i owe you some Ben! Last night, in the biggest game of the year, Ben Simmons put up a remarkable stat line of:

27 points

15 rebounds

13 assists

4 steals

He also had 1 block and a quite-modest-under-the-circumstances 3 turnovers (for comparison LeBron James, who put up similarly-massive counting stats, turned it over 8 times).

This game was not Pareto for the three core categories, points-assists-rebounds, but it was in the ballpark! Here are the only players in recorded history (1984 to present) to manage a 27-15-13 or better game:

Ben Simmons

LeBron James

James Harden

Russell Westbrook

Draymond Green

Larry Bird

Nikola Jokic

Grant Hill

As Homer Simpson once said, yeah, it’s a good group!

Ben’s game IS 4-category Pareto; if you add in steals no one has ever exceeded those numbers, and one player has exactly matched them — Draymond Green also had a 27-15-13-4 game, so it’s a tie and both those games are four-category Pareto. I’ve actually been thinking lately that, despite the different positions they play, Draymond may be one of the most comparable players to Ben right now. Great defense, great passing, great rebounding, questionable shooting. Draymond is a fantastic and underrated player so I do not view this as a negative comp. It might be right to say something at this point like. “assuming good health and normal development, if Ben never learns to shoot, he’ll be about as good as Draymond Green, i.e. borderline top-10 in the league; if he becomes an OK shooter he could be somewhere between Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson, i.e. all-time great, and if he becomes a GOOD outside shooter, he could be top-10 all-time or even perhaps push into the GOAT conversation if the stars align. It’s pretty exciting!

This might be a good place to remind everyone that Ben Simmons is a 21-year-old rookie. And that last night he was playing against the best player in the sport in a game the King was quite clearly desperate to win. This youngster is doing things that only all-time greats and likely-to-end-up-as-all-time-greats like Green and Jokic, have ever done.

If we expand the boundaries a bit to include players who were up to around 20% less in each category (e.g. a 25-14-13-4 or 33-15-11-3 game), you pick up another half-dozen guys, mostly basketball gods like Magic, Jordan, Kidd, and Barkley. A few of these folks managed the coveted 15-15-15, which I dub the “sesqui-triple-double.” Ben flirted with that accomplishment last night and might well have had it a couple times earlier this year had he not been pulled because we were winning by so much.

I’ll make an effort to note whenever one of our young stars puts up a game that is unprecedented in recorded NBA history, or close to it. So let me take a moment here to memorialize Joel’s monster game earlier this season against the Lakers.

46 points

15 rebounds

7 assists

7 blocks

This was a four-category Pareto game, no one had ever done that before. Actually it was also three-category Pareto, as Joe is the only player ever with 46 points, 7 assists and 7 blocks, regardless of the number of rebounds. I thought it might be two-category Pareto, almost but not quite — David Robinson is the only other player with 46 points and 7 blocks in a game, and he scored 52 that night, for a rare 2-category Pareto game that locks Joel out.

On a lark I checked one other thing: could it be that Joel is the only player ever to manage 7 assists and 7 blocks in a game? After all, assisters and blockers are not usually the same people! Alas, it’s not the case, though this has been done only 33 times since 1984-85. (It’s always important to note that date restriction; no doubt Wilt did lots of this sort of thing, after all he led the league in assists one year! But they weren’t counting blocked shots in Wilt’s day.) The list is mostly the natural suspects — all-time greats like Robinson and Hakeem and Barkley and KG, along with terrific players whose skills are especially well-suited to the list, like Andrei Kirilenko and Friend of the Process Vlade Divac. But there is one relatively-recent Sixer on the list other than Joel. Care to guess who did it? I’ll put the answer in comments after the first dozen or so comments go up!

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