The MVP of Meeting MVPs

My last post, on the employment connections between Presidents, put me in mind of some network diagrams I once put together on the other major topic in American history: the NBA. Specifically, I was interested in MVPs who have played together on the same team in the same season. I didn’t care what stage of the career either guy was in; as long as both of them were ever on a team together and won the MVP sometime—even far in the past or future from the season they shared—they were still connected. Here’s the result:

NBA_MVP.png

The colors of the edges are based on the shared team (I approximated team colors, which I guess I’ll list in the footnote to this sentence), and their weight (line thickness) is based on how many years the two connected guys played together.1  The nodes are sized based on betweenness centrality. As you can see, by this one metric no one in NBA history has ever been as important as Bob McAdoo. A little more on him in a second.

The headline, I suppose, is that MVPs are fairly highly interconnected, even by this narrow criterion. In the NBA, if you get past first-order connections, you pretty quickly get to a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon situation, as you can see for yourself using this tool from Slate.  For instance, you can get from Kyrie Irving to George Mikan in six teammates—impressive when you consider that Mikan’s career predates the NBA.2  But direct connections like you see here are much tougher; Kyrie will never play with most of the people in the league today, much less retirees. MVPs tend to have long careers—they’re generally highly employable—so that ups their odds of playing together, but they also often stick with a team (the Lakers weren’t about to trade Kobe Bryant), and their contracts are usually expensive, so I was a bit surprised to see how many had played together at least once. All told, of the 31 guys who have been MVP, only 9 never shared a roster with someone.

That said, some of these connections are ridiculous. Here are a few of the more absurd ones, in order of ascending tenuousness:

  • Steve Nash is only connected to Kobe because of the time he and Dwight Howard tried to form a super-team in LA. Nash was already 38 and in his 17th season, and he spent the most of the time injured. Dwight left the next year. The team was not super.3 
  • Karl Malone is only connected to anyone because of the time he and Gary Payton tried to form a super-team in LA. He was 40, and in his 19th season, and missed half the games because of injuries. And then the Pistons won the Finals anyway.
  •  Shaquille O’Neal concluded his career—largely spent on a super-team in LA—by roaming from team to team like a gigantic, increasingly ineffective samurai. He joined Steve Nash on the Phoenix Suns, where, according to distraught Wikipedia phrasing, he “all but ended their fast-paced offense which had brought them on the cusp of a Finals appearance”. Then he moved on to LeBron James’s Cavs, and helped them get slightly less far in the playoffs than they had the year before. Finally, he journeyed to the Celtics, where Kevin Garnett’s recently-built super-team was coming off a Finals appearance; they have not been back since.
  • Moses Malone similarly refused to retire. His connection to David Robinson stems from his 21st season, when he was 39. This was 1995, and he was the last active player from the ABA, which folded in 1976. He managed to play just 17 games, averaging about 9 minutes a game. But in his last game he hit an 80-foot buzzer-beating three, so it was probably worth it for everyone involved.
  • Bob Cousy did retire, but then he unretired, which was probably worth it for no one. In 1970 he was coach of the Cincinnati Royals, and decided to play himself to boost ticket sales. This happened even though: A) He had last played a game in 1963—long enough ago that his absence effectively coincides with the entire existence of the Beatles; B) He was 41, C) He was a point guard, and this team featured Oscar Robertson. In the 7 games he played, Cousy amassed 34 minutes and 5 points—not on average, but in total. And yet, this is still a more meaningful connection than:
  • That between Moses and Bob McAdoo on the 1977 Buffalo Braves. They were together for two games, during which Moses played 6 total minutes. His stat line: 0/1/0/0/0 with 1 foul. But there’s one thing you can’t deny: They were technically on the same team in the same season.

That’s the perfect transition back to McAdoo. What’s his deal? If you’re like me you know him mainly as a trivia answer, a guy who led the league in scoring and won an MVP in the mid-70’s for… some team (turns out it was the Braves). He was a great player, but I get the sense that he’s generally considered one of the weaker MVPs. In any case, he definitely moved around a lot after that successful early period in Buffalo. From there he went to New York for a while, then stopped by Boston for 20 games in 1979, just long enough to get a connection with Dave Cowens. After stints in Detroit and New Jersey, he actually stuck around with the Lakers for four years, so his connections to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are pretty substantial. And then he retired like he worked: By first playing 29 games in Philadelphia with Charles Barkley and Dr. J. The network above doesn’t quite show it, but Moses was there too—coming full circle after their 6-minute connection on the Braves. Those two were real journeymen, but the crazy thing with McAdoo is that he was only 34 when he retired; he played just 14 seasons, but still got to 7 different teams.

One of the initial motivations behind this project was to show that the situation we’ve got on the Warriors next year—Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, two very recent MVPs, still in their prime—isn’t that unusual. But in spite of its fairly high connectivity, I think you really see just the opposite here. Only a few of these guys played together at our near their peak: Definitely Kareem/Magic and Shaq/Kobe, probably Cousy/Russell, and it’s reasonably close for Oscar/Kareem, Dr. J/Moses, and Duncan/Robinson. Everyone else is off somehow; in some cases both parties are past their prime. So that line between Durant and Curry should be pretty unique.

Still, I like all these tenuous connections. It’s the reason the two clusters are so connective, the top one connecting the 2000’s from Karl Malone to LeBron, and the bottom one stretching (thanks to Cousy’s marketing tactics and McAdoos’ travels) all the way from the 1950’s to Tim Duncan, hitting every major period in between.

Now that Duncan has retired, though, that cluster may be done. The last hope is probably Kawhi Leonard, who stands a decent chance of winning MVP sometime in the next few years. But then he or someone else will also need to migrate. Derrick Rose could be a key player here; often these guys start moving around when they’re a little worse, either because of age or, as with Rose, injury. Bill Walton is the best analogy there—a dominant force in 1977, he could’t stay healthy enough to keep going, missing multiple entire seasons. That’s probably the only reason he wound up on the Celtics, where, unlike the examples above, he was a major contributor to a title team while creating his connection to another MVP in Larry Bird. And finally, these connections often back-form; look at Moses and Robinson, or Cousy and Oscar. There’s still time for LeBron to have a late-career Shaqesque spirit journey.

One last thought: These sorts of networks get more connected very quickly if you add either a few extra nodes (more players = better odds that any one player has a teammate out there somewhere) or another principle of connection. I thought about using family members. Dell Curry, for instance, played with both Karl Malone (Jazz, ’86) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Raptors, ’02), connecting the two big clusters, and he’s the father of Steph Curry, connecting everyone to him and Durant. And the Warriors have also forged a connection to the most important man in the MVP network: In July, they re-signed back-up forward James Michael McAdoo, second cousin to Bob.

 


Notes

1. Celtic green = Celtics; Dark green = Bucks; Yellow = Lakers; Dark blue = 76ers; Red = Rockets; Gray = Spurs; Light blue = Mavericks; Pinkish purple = Suns. A few are easier to describe based on the connection: Cousy<->Robertson = Cincinnati Royals; Shaq<->James = Cavaliers; Moses<->McAdoo = Buffalo Braves. 

2. Kyrie played with Anthony Parker, who played with Rick Mahorn, who played with Wes Unseld, who played with Bob Ferry, who played with Slater Martin, who played with George Mikan. One cool thing about the Slate tool is that it incorporates other sports at the same time; for instance, LeBron James is evidently 4 degrees of separation from Mike Trout (via Damon Jones, Mark Hendrickson (who played in the NBA and MLB), and Scott Kazmir). One caveat, though, is that their data only goes to 2013.

3. This experiment and Shaq’s late-career wandering (see below) are the only reasons Dirk Nowitzki is connected to a larger network, instead of just to Nash. There’s a certain dignity to isolation in this network, I guess.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

One of the oldest battles in American political rhetoric is the one that pits bold outsiders against experienced statesmen. This election has taken that to such a ludicrous extreme that it put me in mind of a project I did back when I was first learning how to build network diagrams.1  The idea was to see Presidential employment relationships: Which Presidents held major jobs under other Presidents? Who employed the most other Presidents? The results tell us a little about the outsider/insider battle at the highest level of insiderness.

When you start to dig into this stuff, a lot of ambiguous situations arise. For instance, Ulysses S. Grant was Commanding General of the United States Army under both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, but Johnson, characteristic of his usual interest in skilled governance, national unity, and racial progress, hated him and constantly tried to get him fired.2 Should that count? What about William McKinley, who was a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War? Technically that means he worked for Lincoln and Grant—should that count? In the end I settled on an imperfect but easy compromise: I took any job that got its own category in the sidebar of the President’s Wikipedia page. Grant’s has his Commanding General post; McKinley’s major post doesn’t make the cut.

Here are the results:

PresidentialEmploymentSimpler

The nodes here are colored by political party and sized by betweenness centrality.3 I’ve arranged everything here to show the major clusters. What immediately stands out is that the early guys are incredibly interconnected. John Quincy Adams worked for four different Presidents (ambassador for Washington, Adams with no Q, and Madison, and Secretary of State for Monroe) and hired another, Harrison, who had also worked for his dad. Recently a lot of people, including Barack Obama, have said that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person ever to run for President, and while I think the basic gist of this is true (she’s as qualified as anyone in the last hundred years), you just can’t beat those early guys. They just insisted on hiring each other to do everything (and that’s before you factor in things like writing the Constitution).

Beyond that, you see a couple of other groups: The Lincoln Republicans, a group I call the Immigration Era Republicans,4  and then the American Empire guys—the WWI and WWII Presidents, followed by the Republican group that dominated the rest of the 20th century. It’s obvious that some things are off here; W. is clearly in the same political club as Nixon (who contributed a lot of his staffers) and George H.W. Bush (who contributed a lot of his DNA, education, baseball teams, etc.). And there are other, slightly more tenuous connections as well: The Harrisons are related, albeit separated by a generation; JFK’s dad worked for FDR; Taylor prosecuted the Mexican-American War for Polk.

Here’s another issue with this data: You may have noticed that the edges in that network are multicolored. That’s to show the nature of the job held, as detailed in this key:

EdgeKey

Most of these are probably fine (and note that “governor” only refers to appointed governorships, like when McKinley made Taft Governor-General of the Philippines), but ambassadorships are doing a ton of work here.5  Buchanan, for instance, was the ambassador to Russia under Jackson at the early stage of his bafflingly long (considering how it ended) career in national politics, which is the only reason the President in the late 1850’s is connected to George Washington. Arguably these aren’t substantial enough roles to be included in this kind of graph; that’s what happens when you let Wikipedia make the decisions for you. Still, in broad strokes, I think this really shows you something about the internecine operations of power at our highest level, and its capacity to reset every so often.

One last image: Here’s everything laid out chronologically. This time the edges are directed, so you can see, based on the arrows, who hired whom.

PresidentialEmploymentOrdered

Here the unending nature of that first group really becomes clear. If you worked for George Washington, you stood a surprisingly good chance of being in the same org chart as the guy who would one day lose seven states to secession at the start of the Civil War. You also see that the groups overlap chronologically, with Wilson and FDR crossing the 1920’s Republicans, and the Taylor/Fillmore pair interrupting the Founders’ lovefest. You also get the weird anomaly of Hoover hiring a guy who had already been the President; when he needed a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who better to choose than the man appointed governor of a territory by the man whose Vice President later appointed that same man governor of a territory? (Taft was also a judge and solicitor general under Ben Harrison—you just couldn’t keep Presidents from hiring him, even decades after he was done being President.)

The possibilities for describing these employer-employee chains are pretty fun. For instance, Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy’s Vice President’s general’s Vice President’s Vice President’s CIA Director’s running mate was Ronald Reagan (that’s Wilson-FDR-Truman-Eisenhower-Nixon-Ford-Bush-Reagan). Or, much weirder, Polk’s Secretary of State’s former boss’s former boss’s former boss’s Secretary of State’s UK ambassador’s former boss’s Vice President’s appointed governor’s Vice President was John Tyler, aka the guy Polk replaced. (That one goes Polk-Buchanan-Jackson-Monroe-Jefferson-Madison-JQA-Washington-Adams-Harrison-Tyler.)

In the recent past, we’ve had a lot more isolates than before, although, as noted, there’s a strong argument for connecting W. to the other American Empire guys. But if Clinton wins, we’ll have connections to Obama (who hired her as Secretary of State) and arguably Bill Clinton (it’s pretty odd to think of that as an employment relationship, but First Lady makes the Wikipedia sidebar—nothing I can do!). And if you’re willing to go along with all that, the only guy who would be left out of the loops in the past 120 years is Jimmy Carter, a mediocre President but arguably in the top three in terms of being a decent human being. It’s a little sad to think of him out there by himself; I think Clinton should appoint him Ambassador to Cuba for a couple days.6  It’s what the Founders would have wanted.

 

 


Notes

1. I did all of this with Gephi.

2. One strategy was to try and promote William T. Sherman ahead of Grant to dilute his power. For some reason Sherman preferred to side with Grant, which led to the odd situation of Sherman calling in political favors to battle his own promotion on the Senate floor. See Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, 452. 

3. Betweenness centrality basically measures how important a node is for connecting other groups of nodes to each other; so Jackson is big because he connects all those dark blues to the Founders. The parties here include Democrat (dark blue), Republican (red), Democratic-Republican (light blue), Federalist (yellow), Whig (green), and none (white).

4. Two reasons: 1. There’s not another good name for the period from the 1880’s-1930’s; it’s post-Reconstruction, much longer than the Gilded Age or Progressive Era, and doesn’t align well with any wars. But, 2. Tons of people immigrated to the U.S. over this period. The numbers really explode starting in the 1880’s (they double the 1870’s in the source in that link) and stay strong until the mid-1930’s.

5. In the old days they seemed to call ambassadors “ministers” (e.g., Buchanan was United States Minister to Russia). I’m assuming these jobs are close enough to the same thing for my purposes, though I’d be interested to hear if I’m wrong about that. 

6. First Provisional Governor of Cuba for the U.S.: William Howard Taft. Of course. And by the way, to answer the two questions I asked in the first paragraph and then forgot about: 25 Presidents worked for some other President; JQA and Taft each worked for 4 different Presidents, tying for first on that metric. Three Presidents hired other Presidents 4 times: Jackson hired Buchanan, and then Van Buren for three different things. Madison hired JQA and Monroe for two things apiece. And Washington hired Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and JQA, one time apiece.