But You Are Consistent

Before I get to my Monday post, let me just note that Henry Abbott and TrueHoop have officially joined ESPN.com. You can see the new TrueHoop (which Henry promises will be the same as the old, just better) by looking HERE. For those not familiar with TrueHoop, it is the creation of sportswriter Henry Abbott that attempts to collect all the interesting stuff on the NBA floating around the Internet. In sum, it is a really neat resource that ESPN has promised to host but not change (for the worse). Good luck to Henry in his new home.

Okay, on to my comment for Monday. It seems like I am always talking about Allen Iverson or the Knicks. And if it’s not these two subjects, it’s today’s topic, Kevin Garnett. For those wishing me to talk about something entirely new, I apologize. Nevertheless, Kevin Garnett made a statement this weekend that just begs for a comment. Plus I want to comment on the notion that Kevin McHale is the greatest General Manager in professional team sports.

KG Gets What He Wants

Kevin Garnett has told us what he wants, and what he wants is for his team to be consistent. At least that is what he is telling Jamey Eisenberg at CBSSportsline. If that is KG’s wish, I have bad news. His team is already consistent. And that is the problem.

Let me explain. Garnett and the Timberwolves have noticed that sometimes their team wins and sometimes their team loses. If the team could just always play like it does when it wins, then perhaps it would win much more frequently. Unfortunately, for this to team to win with more frequency, KG’s teammates would have to become less consistent from what they have done in the past. The numbers tell us that in the past, these players have been consistently unproductive.

Consistency in Minnesota

When we look at what these Timberwolves have done in the past, and what they are doing this year, what we see is a great deal of consistency. Consider two pieces of information. First let’s look at the Wins Produced per 48 minutes [Wp48] this season of the veteran players on pace to play at least 1,000 minutes in 2006-07. And then let’s consider how many years each player has been above average – in terms of WP48 – across their respective careers (only years where the player played at least 1,000 minutes will be considered).

  • Kevin Garnett [0.353 WP48]: 11 above average years out of 11 played
  • Ricky Davis [0.085 WP48]: 1 above average year out of 5 played
  • Mark Blount [-0.045 WP48]: 1 above average year out of 5 played
  • Trenton Hassell [0.084 WP48] 0 above average years out of 5 played
  • Mike James [0.023 WP48]: 3 above average years out of 4 played
  • Marko Jaric [0.059 WP48]: 2 above years out of 4 played

An average player posts a 0.100 WP48. The veteran players not named Garnett have had significant experience in 23 NBA seasons. Only seven times was an above average WP48 offered, and the best of these was a 0.151 mark posted by Mike James in 2003-04. In other words, although these players have managed to be above average 30% of the time, none have been truly outstanding.

And if we look at the Timberwolves this year we see that once you get past Garnett, rookie Craig Smith is the only above average player receiving significant minutes on the roster.

Table: Minnesota Timberwolves after 65 games

To highlight how poor this roster is, the average WP48 of all players besides KG is only 0.033. If this team just had average players (a WP48 of 0.100) along side Garnett, the team would be on pace to win 60 games.

In sum, the Timberwolves, despite having one of the game’s best players, are not a very good team. Even though the Timberwolves are not very good, occasionally this team will beat a good team. And when that happens, the Timberwolves are tempted to say “if only we could play like that every night.” But given what these players have done across time, expecting above average performances every night is unrealistic.

If ever the term “regression to the mean” ever applied, it applies in the NBA. Basketball players – relative to their counterparts in baseball and football – tend to be fairly consistent. On a given night or across a few games, a player can play well above or below their long-run average. But for most players, regression back to their norm is the normal outcome.

It’s All on McHale

Given this reality, what can the Timberwolves do? The answer is simple, get more productive players. The team already discovered Craig Smith on draft night in 2006. A few more productive players and this team could be transformed into a “good” team.

Unfortunately, although Kevin McHale – the team’s general manager – drafted both Kevin Garnett and Craig Smith, most of the decisions between these two choices have not worked out. McHale, as I noted a few weeks ago, seems to believe that if this team simply tried a little harder, or wanted to win just a bit more, it would all work out. After all, that is how the Boston Celtics did it when McHale played. By simply trying harder than their opponents the Celtics were able to win three NBA titles in the 1980s.

Of course, trying harder was not really the key to Boston’s success. It helped tremendously that the Celtics had Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and other productive players (and their opponents did not).

A few weeks ago Forbes magazine named Kevin McHale the top general manager in all of sports. The results were met with some skepticism. Initially people argued that the rankings must be wrong because McHale can’t be the best general manager in all of sports. This critique, though, is incorrect. Analysis is not wrong because it gives results that contradict what you believed. In fact, if all we did was measure analysis relative to our beliefs, we might as well stop doing analysis. We can simplify our lives by just asking people what they believe and then call the results of that poll our analysis.

A few people went beyond the “it just isn’t right” response and began to see the problem with the rankings. General Managers were evaluated by Forbes relative to their predecessor. Hence, if you inherited a bad team, you had a good chance of looking good. The Timberwolves before McHale arrived were bad. McHale then took Kevin Garnett in the 1995 draft, and with one of the game’s best players on his side, managed to field a team that has tended to be above average. Of course that isn’t saying much. Garnett posted a WP48 of 0.430 last year. To win 41 games, the other T-Wolves just had to average a WP48 of 0.041. Of course, they only offered 0.027, and hence the team missed the playoffs.

In sum, given the talent that is Garnett, building a winner in Minnesota is not a huge challenge. And the results from the past few years tell us that McHale has not been up to this relatively easy task.

Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, the inevitable decline in Garnett’s performance may be setting in. KG is now 31 years old. His WP48 for the past four seasons has been above the 0.400 level. This year he has dipped to 0.353. Yes he is still outstanding. But age (and losing) might be taking its toll. Certainly the window on Garnett is closing.

Can McHale find better players? The track record doesn’t leave one optimistic. McHale is the one who built the current roster of talent. It is McHale who has brought in a collection of veterans who were generally below average in the past, and have continued to be below average in Minnesota.

Certainly one can hope and pray that players who were consistently poor in the past will suddenly become different (and by that I mean good). But hoping and praying has never been an effective managerial strategy. And it’s unlikely to bring a winner to Minnesota.

– DJ

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