The Knicks and Team Chemistry

Last season the Knicks set an NBA record for payroll and finished with the fewest wins in the Eastern Conference.  Yesterday in The New York Times Isiah Thomas offered an explanation.

“I spent a lot of time this summer talking to different people about chemistry,” Thomas said, “because one of the things that was written and said and that’s true about us is the chemistry wasn’t right.

According to Thomas, the problem wasn’t a lack of “talent” but an inability of that talent to work together to produce wins.

Is this a believable explanation?

In The Wages of Wins we make the following observations:

1. Team payroll is not highly correlated with wins in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association.

2. In baseball and the NFL, player performance is inconsistent across time.  Consequently it is not surprising when teams appear to make “mistakes” on players.  It is not necessarily that these are mistakes.  Rather, player performance is just difficult to predict.  This is especially true in football.

3. In basketball, though, player performance is much more consistent across time.  So we need another explanation.  What we argue is that the reason payroll and wins are not highly correlated in the NBA is that decision-makers in the NBA over-value scorers and under-value the contributions of non-scorers.  Consequently, teams are not necessarily paying players according to their contribution to wins.

Although we present a variety of empirical tests of our hypothesis, the best anecdotal evidence is the New York Knicks. 

Now I need to be very clear on this point.  I grew up in Detroit as a fan of the Pistons and Isiah Thomas.  Although people in the media have attacked Isiah’s decision-making, I doubt that other people in basketball know more about the game than Isiah.  No, I think he has simply been given an extremely large budget, and with this money has gone out and bought the best “talent” available.  And what do people mean by “talent” in basketball?  Talent often means scorers.

Think about the Knicks roster last year.  We know the Knicks didn’t win last year. But which players should Isiah not have employed?  Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis are former All-Stars.  Jalen Rose has three times averaged more than twenty points per game.  Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson, Maurice Taylor, and Eddy Curry have all averaged more than sixteen points per game at some time in their careers.  Even rookies Channing Frye and Nate Robinson have proven, on a per-minute basis, that each can score.  If talent equals scoring, then the Knicks have talent.  So how can the Knicks be losing?

Isiah can either admit the team does not have much “talent” or he can turn to the answer people often look to when something happens in sports that can’t be explained.  In other words, it must be team chemistry.

In some sense, Isiah is correct.  In a recent post I have talked about scorers and role players. One lesson our Wins Produced model teaches is that players like Michael Jordan or LeBron James – who do many things well – are extremely productive players.  Of course, people do not need a model to know that.  Another lesson, though, is not so obvious.  Players who do not score can also offer above average levels of productivity.  In other words, non-scorers or role players can truly make a difference.

And Isiah is beginning to see this point.  His one major free agent signing this summer was Jared Jeffries, a role player formerly employed by the Wizards.  Again from the New York Times we hear Isiah:

“…what Jared brings to us, more so than talent, he brings chemistry. I think he balances your locker room. He balances the plane ride. Relationshipwise, in a group setting, he’s the chemical piece that makes everything kind of work, in a strange kind of way.”

If team chemistry means a team must be able to elicit production from both its scorers and its role players to be successful, then Jeffries moves the Knicks closer to solving the “chemistry” problem.

But he cannot solve the problem alone. Jeffries is only one non-scorer.  And for him to see the court, Isiah Thomas the coach is going to have to sit a scorer.  Plus, Isiah still has an abundance of players at other positions who primarily see themselves as scorers.  Since there is only one ball, some of these players are going to have to learn to contribute to the team without shooting as much as they might like.  Hence, “team chemistry” might still be a problem in the Big Apple.

How big of a problem does Isiah have in 2006-07? Given the New York Times story, it appears that Isiah will allocate players as follows:

Center: Eddy Curry and Jerome James

Power Forward: Channing Frye, David Lee

Small Forward: Jared Jeffries, Jalen Rose

Shooting Guard: Steve Francis, Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford

Point Guard: Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson

If all these players perform as they did last year – even with Jeffries starting at small forward — the Knicks will win fewer than thirty games and Isiah will likely be fired.  Now if Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury play as well as they did two seasons ago, the Knicks could approach forty wins.  Is that likely to happen?  And will that be enough to save Isiah? 

Although improvement might be seen in Marbury, Francis, or even some other player or players, it seems unlikely that a team that has so few non-scorers will win consistently.  A problem is the incentives each player faces.  A player on this team might suspect that shots on a give night will go to those who score early and often.  If that is the case, then the best policy each player will have is to shoot first and ask questions later.  And when that happens, one can expect Isiah to once again wonder about the importance of team chemistry. 

– DJ

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