Maybe Players Are What They Are

Yesterday the Milwaukee Bucks fired their head coach, Terry Stotts. Little explanation was given initially for a move that appears on the surface to be pointless. With only 18 games left in the regular season, changing coaches would seem to have no impact on the final outcome this team will achieve in 2006-07. And although this team has probably not played as well as Milwaukee fans would like, should we be blaming the coach for this team’s failures? Or, to put it another way, did this team simply fail because of too many injuries and too little talent (two issues beyond the control of the coach)?

Consider what these players have done so far this season. The summation of Wins Produced for these players stands at 25 after 64 games.

Table One: The Milwaukee Bucks after 64 games

Now let’s ask what would have happened if the veteran players on this team (we will assume rookies are what they are) played the same minutes, but their Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] was the same as it was in 2005-06? If we calculate Wins Produced based on last year’s productivity numbers, we see that Wins Produced for this team now sums to 24.9. In other words, this team is right where we would expect given how good these players have played in the past and how many minutes these players played this season.

Now it’s not the case the productivity for every player didn’t change. Ruben Patterson and Maurice Williams have improved. Charlie Bell has regressed (although that might be – as SI.com suggests – Bell has been spending some time playing out of position at small forward). The net impact of these changes, though, is virtually zero.

From what I understand Stotts didn’t pick these players or cause their injuries. So blaming him for the outcome achieved seems a bit unfair.

Now the team is in the hands of Larry Krystkowiak (who may have been given the job to prevent him from taking the University of Utah position). Is he going to be able to prevent injuries? Can he make these players play substantially different from what we saw in the past?

Although he might be able to alter performance, I am not sure that is likely to happen. My research with Mike Leeds and Mike Mondello suggests that many coaches do not impact player performance.

Now the team will add a lottery pick this year that might help. It might also add or subtract other players. As the roster changes, we can expect the results might also change. Krystkowiak will get credit if this roster improves and the team wins. He will also be fired if that doesn’t happen. I am not clear, though, if he has the power to make either result happen.

A Comment on an Iverson Story

The Bucks story points to a bigger picture, but before I get to that I am going to note a story about Allen Iverson that is related. And let me start by apologizing. Readers in this forum have to be tired of hearing about Iverson. I am certainly getting tired of talking about him (Marty is getting really tired hearing me talk about him).

Still, Ian Thomsen wrote a column yesterday at Sports Illustrated.com that begs for a comment (and it is related to the story I am telling here).

Thomsen has noted that the 76ers have improved since Iverson departed. But rather than draw the obvious conclusion (Iverson may not be as good as people originally believed), he has managed to construct a story that credits Iverson for the 76ers improvement. Yes, the team was only 5-10 with Iverson and 5-19 when he was traded. Since the trade the team has gone 20-21. Iverson, though, according to Thomsen, taught these players “how to play.” Therefore, it is Iverson who is ultimately responsible for this improvement.

I have to admit, that’s an original story. Team plays badly with player then improves when he departs. Still, the departing player is the reason for the improvement.

Let me note that the key players on this team are Andre Iguodala, Samuel Dalembert, and Andre Miller. Coming into this season these three players had a combined 13 years of NBA experience. In 12 of these years, these players were above average players. In other words, all three have an established history of being “good” players.

When we look at the trade we see that these players were above average before the trade. And they were above average after the trade. What can we conclude from this data? I think the simple story is that Iguodala, Dalembert, and Miller are all above average performers.

Thomsen’s argument ignores the simple story. Rather than simply say “the 76ers play better with Miller because Miller is more productive than Iverson”, Thomsen feels compelled to argue that it is the teaching from Iverson that have finally paid off (although why his teachings never paid off for ten plus season is not explained).

And the Big Picture…

It has been noted in this forum that player performance is impacted by injury, his level of experience, the productivity of teammates, the stability of a team’s roster, and coaching. All of these factors can have an impact — that is statistically significant — on player performance. In other words, getting back to Milwaukee, the Bucks could improve as Andrew Bogut gains experience. Or maybe Krystkowiak is one of those coaches who can alter performance. Or maybe if the team just stays together it will improve.

All of this is possible, but counting on this ignores that what a player does in the past is the primary determinant of what that player will do in the future. In other words, for the most part, players are what they are. Changing coaches is not what generally changes results. And working with inspiring teammates does not often change results.

What does change results – and I think the 76ers have found this to be true – is changing the players who wear your uniform. And when the Milwaukee Bucks learn from this lesson, they too will see the team finally make progress in the standings (assuming they have more productive players wear their uniform).

In Other News…

By the way, Jon Burkett at MVN.com, has been commenting on the 76ers all season. Burkett is also a reader of The Wages of Wins. Today he posted a comment of mine (from the comment section in this forum), which is my explanation for why playing Steven Hunter has an apparent positive impact on the 76ers ability to win.

– DJ

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