The New York Knicks at the Quarter Pole

A frequent topic in this forum is the New York Knicks. The reason for the frequent discussion of New York’s favorite team is that the Knicks are perhaps the perfect example of where we think decision-making in the NBA goes astray. Isiah Thomas was given a vast budget in New York and clearly has a desire to win. But he has spent that money primarily on scorers. And although this collection of players is expensive, Thomas has discovered that expensive scorers cannot buy victories.

At the quarter pole in 2006-07 the Knicks saga appears to continue. The Knicks have now played 21 games and posted a record of 7-14. At first glance this team does not look much improved upon what we saw last year. With a winning percentage of 0.333, the team is on pace to win 27 games. If that holds true, the Knicks would have only improved four games over the team led by Larry Brown last season.

If we look a bit deeper at the numbers we do see evidence for a bit more improvement than the record indicates. Per possession this team is scoring 1.02 points, a mark that is just a tad below the league average mark of 1.03. Defense is more of a problem. So far the team is allowing 1.05 points per possession. Still, if we take the team’s marks in offensive and defensive efficiency and project wins, we see a projected winning percentage of 0.413. Over an 82 game season that is 34 wins, or an 11 game improvement over what we saw last year. Yes, this is still a below average team. Still, if we look at the productivity of this team’s players thus far, there are a few positive signs here and there.

Playing Above Average

The most positive sign is the play of David Lee. As noted yesterday, on a per-minute basis Lee was the second most productive rookie last year. In 2006-07 he has improved dramatically, posting a Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) of 0.379. Average is 0.100, so Lee is clearly having an outstanding season. Given this productivity it is odd that Isiah Thomas has suggested Lee should return to the bench in the near future. In general, sitting your most productive player does not help you win games.

Beyond Lee, the team has also received above average performances from Quentin Richardson, Steve Francis, and Renaldo Balkman. The play of Balkman does vindicate Thomas to some extent, since Thomas was much maligned for choosing Balkman in the first round of the 2006 draft.

Playing Out of Position

Thomas does have a problem, though, with how Balkman is used. Generally Balkman is thought of as a small forward. If we look at how minutes are assigned on the Knicks, Balkman must be spending a great deal of time at power forward. And while Balkman is extremely productive for a small forward, he is only average at power forward.

Basically Isiah Thomas has over indulged in guards these last few years. To get all these players on the court he is forced to play guards like Richardson and Crawford at small forward. This forces him to play Balkman at power forward. Perhaps Thomas would be better off returning these players to their natural positions and sitting some of the less productive guards.

Playing Below Average

The list of unproductive guards that he might consider sitting a bit more includes Jamal Crawford and Stephon Marbury. Each of these players has not played particularly well this season. For Marbury, it increasingly appears that his feud with Brown was not the problem.

The two guards are not the only places where production has been less than optimal. In the off-season Thomas pointed to Eddy Curry as the key to the season. Up until three games ago, Curry had let him down. In the first 18 games Curry had posted an above average Win Score per minute exactly twice. In the last three games, though, he has been well above average each time.

For the season, his WP48 is still below zero. Still, if Curry can keep playing as he did against Washington, Memphis, and Toronto, the Knicks might finally get what they are paying so much for. Of course, the schedule says the Knicks don’t get to keep playing teams like Washington, Memphis, and Toronto. So it seems likely that the Curry the Knicks have often seen in the past will once again re-emerge.

Losing Sleep for the Wages of Wins

When scholars write it is hoped that someone, somewhere, will listen. As we note in the Preface to The Wages of Wins, much of what academics write in scholarly journals is never read by anyone. So to have people read what you have to say is certainly welcomed news. To have people like Jonathan Weiler choose to read our book at 3am instead of sleeping is a bit odd, but also very good to hear.

On Wednesday Weiler posted a comment that was more than 2,000 words on Wins Produced. My hope is to go through his words, as well as the comments of Matthew Yglesias and Henry Abbott, and post a few more thoughts next week.

In the meantime I can only say we were pleased that our work has generated so much conversation. Hopefully my comments next week can offer some additional insights into what we are – and are not – saying with Wins Produced. If anything, hopefully the comments will keep the conversation going.

– DJ

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