The Curry Scoring Illusion

The big news in the NBA this week is that Isiah Thomas has passed his test. Observers – such as Jonathan Weiler of the Sports Media Review – wonder about the grading criteria of James Dolan (Isiah’s boss).

Let’s review some basic facts about this team.

  • The payroll, according to SI.com, is currently $117 million, which easily ranks first in the league (Dallas is #2 with a payroll of $91 million).
  • The Knicks have a record of 29-34, which currently ranks 16th in the NBA.
  • Since Thomas took over this team as general manager, the team has won 114 and lost 167 games, for a winning percentage of 0.406. This translates into 33 wins per season.
  • The Knicks won only 23 games last year, so the team is on pace to improve by 15 games this season.
  • With an improbable win over the Wizards on Saturday, the Knicks currently hold the very last playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference.

Given this record, should Thomas have been given an extension?

The Curry Argument

In reading over the coverage of this story, the pro argument has focused on the team’s improvement this season. Much of this story has focused on the improved play of Eddy Curry, who has increased his per game scoring from 13.6 last season to 19.3 in 2006-07. What has not been emphasized is that Curry has also increased his playing time from 26 to 35 minutes per contest. In other words, part of Curry’s increased scoring per game is a function of Thomas just playing Curry more minutes. In fact, although Curry is scoring more per minute in 2006-07, had his minutes not changed his per game scoring average would have only increased to 14.3. Let me emphasize this point. If Thomas had not increased Curry’s minutes, his per game scoring would have only increased by 0.7 points.

Okay, Curry hasn’t really improved as a scorer. What about the rest of his game? A few weeks ago I posted an extensive comment of the “star power” of Eddy Curry. In this comment I offered a summary of Curry’s career productivity. The following table updates this analysis.

Table One: Eddy Curry’s Career

As one can see, relative to 2005-06, Curry is doing worse with respect to rebounds, steals, blocked shots, and turnovers. He is better with respect to scoring and assists, but the overall picture – which Win Score per minute captures – tells us that Curry is actually a worse player this year than he was last year under Brown. And it is important to emphasize, Curry was a below average center last year (a status he has held throughout his career).

In sum, Curry has not actually improved. His improved scoring average – which gives people the illusion that Curry is better — is primarily a function of Thomas playing Curry more minutes.

How the Knicks Improved

The Knicks record does suggest that this team has improved. When we look at the player’ s Wins Produced after 63 games, we can see where the improvement has taken place.

Table Two: The Knicks after 63 games

The key player is David Lee, who has produced 14.0 wins. Lee’s Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) in 2005-06 stood at 0.197. Had he maintained this performance his sophomore season he would have produced only 7.0 wins in 2006-07, and the Knicks would only be on pace to win 27 games. In other words, as I have argued previously, Lee’s improved play explains much of this team’s progress.

Although Lee has taken tremendous strides this year, other players have also contributed. Like Lee, Quentin Richardson has also improved. In addition, Renaldo Balkman – the much maligned first round draft choice of the Knicks in 2006 – has posted a WP48 of 0.215 (average is 0.100). The combination of Lee, Richardson, and Balkman has produced 23.6 wins. These three players are being paid a combined salary that is less than $10 million this year. The remainder of the team, who obviously take up the vast majority of the team’s payroll, have produced less than five victories.

Can the Knicks make the Playoffs?

The loss of Lee would seem to doom any chance the Knicks have of holding on to their playoff invitation. In fact, this might be why Thomas had to get the extension now. Dolan seems to want to keep Thomas. If that is the case, now is the time to give the extension. If Dolan would have waited he would have had to explain why he is extending the contract of a man who was given the league’s largest payroll and couldn’t even make the post-season.

Of course, just because Lee is gone it does not mean this team has no hope. Steve Francis is suddenly healthy (strange how the injury to Crawford made Francis feel better). And Francis is an upgrade over Crawford. Thomas also has an excuse to play Balkman more minutes, which he has done in two of the last three games. If the Knicks get production from Francis and Balkman, the loss of Lee will be somewhat mitigated.

Still, as Chris Sheridan at ESPN.com has noted, the Knicks remaining schedule is difficult. New York still has to play Dallas twice, as well as multiple games against Toronto and Cleveland. The Knicks also play both the Pistons and Bulls on back-to-back nights in April. With such a schedule it seems unlikely, even if Lee had stayed healthy, that the Knicks could make the playoffs.

Of course, Thomas doesn’t have to worry about this anymore. He has been given his extension. And if he can figure out a way to give Curry even more minutes, he can continue with the illusion that he is developing Curry into one of the game’s dominant centers.

- DJ

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