Rewarding David Lee

On draft night the New York Knicks sent Channing Frye and Steve Francis to the Portland Trail Blazers for Zach Randolph, Fred Jones, and Dan Dickau.

This trade is generally characterized as the Trail Blazers seeking to reshape the image of their team and the Knicks acquiring yet another high priced scorer. But I think there is more to this story than what has been typically reported.

The Backcourt Story

Let’s start with the guards. The Knicks are exchanging Francis for two backcourt players – Jones and Dickau. Although both Jones and Dickau have played regular minutes in their careers at some point, it is hard seeing either player getting significant minutes in the Knicks crowded guard rotation. The Knicks still have on the roster Stephon Marbury and Nate Robinson at point guard. At shooting guard the Knicks have Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson. Richardson actually played small forward for the Knicks last season, but typically has been a shooting guard in his career. Assuming neither Jones nor Dickau command significant minutes, the loss of Francis might allow the Knicks to move Richardson back into the backcourt (which is a potential development that begs more of a comment, but this is not the focus of this column).

As for Francis, he is now a 30 years of age. His time in New York was not entirely successful. As a Knick he only played 1,896 minutes and produced 4.5 wins. His WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) was only 0.112 in New York, just above the average mark of 0.100.

When we look at his career, though, we see a player who has typically been above average.

Table One: The Career of Steve Francis

Francis has produced 71.7 wins in his eight year career with a 0.161 WP48. Virtually every season he has been above average. In fact, Francis has typically been more productive than Marbury, Crawford, or Robinson. Still, Francis was paid more than $15 million last season, so it’s not hard to see why the Knicks would let him go elsewhere.

Acquiring Randolph

If cost is a reason to rid yourself of Francis, then it is hard to see why you would then acquire Randolph. Randolph has four years remaining on a six year deal that will pay him $84 million. When we look at Randolph’s career to date it’s hard to see how he is worth this contract.

Table Two: The Career of Zach Randolph

Thus far Randolph has only played more than 75 games in a season twice. Although he was above average last season, his career mark is closer to the league average.

Of course we could imagine a scenario where Randolph might be almost worth this money. Let’s imagine that Randolph plays 82 games in each of the next four seasons. And let’s say he manages to continue to post the 0.147 WP48 he offered last season (as opposed to the -0.003 he offered in 2005-06). If he averages 36 minutes per game he will produce about nine wins in each of the next four campaigns. For this he will be paid about $61 million, or about $1.7 million per victory. Last year the NBA paid out close to $2 billion in player salaries. Given that players produced 1,230 wins regular season wins, this works out to about $1.6 million per victory. So if we are optimistic about Randolph, he might be worth this contract.

Actually, though, there is another issue we are not considering. If all we focus upon is this trade we see that in the frontcourt the Knicks are exchanging Channing Frye for Randolph. Frye went from a 0.069 WP48 his rookie campaign to a -.0.079 WP48 last season. In 2006-07 Frye combined poor rebounding with a very low level of shooting efficiency. This combination resulted in a negative quantity of wins. So if all we focus on is Randolph for Frye, the Knicks come out ahead on this trade.

Unfortunately there is more to this move than just the pieces that have changed addresses. Randolph played 36 minutes a game in 2006-07. Eddy Curry, the New York Knicks center, played 35 minutes per contest. If we assume that Isiah will maintain these minutes in 2007-08, this leaves 25 minutes per contest at the power forward and center positions.

The Importance of David Lee

And hence we have a problem. The most productive player on the Knicks last season was David Lee. Because of injury, Lee only played 58 games last season. But in these games he produced 13.6 wins with a WP48 of 0.378. When we look at the Knicks in 2005-06 and 2006-07 we see that the emergence of Lee had much to do with the Knicks improvement.

Table Three: The Knicks in 2006-07 and 2005-06

In 2005-06 the Knicks led the NBA in payroll and only won 23 games. As a result, Isiah Thomas was given an ultimatum. The team must improve or he was to be fired. On March 12th the Knicks were 29-34 and in contention to make the playoffs. At this point Isiah received an extension. The record of the team after this point was 4-15.

About two weeks before the extension the Knicks lost Lee to an injury. Although the Knicks did manage to go 4-3 immediately after Lee left the line-up, the team’s record when Lee did not play significant minutes in 2006-07 indicates his value (in case Wins Produced was not convincing enough). When Lee played at least half the contest (24 minutes per game) the Knicks were 21-22. When he played less than this amount, or not at all, the team was 12-27. In sum, Lee was a major reason why the Knicks improved and Isiah Thomas managed to keep his job.

So how is Lee rewarded? The Knicks have acquired Randolph, another high-priced scorer. Yes, relative to an average power forward or Channing Frye, Randolph is an improvement. But relative to Lee, Randolph is a significant step down. In fact, had Randolph replaced Lee in the line-up for the Knicks in 2006-07 and maintained the productivity we saw in Portland, the Knicks would have won eight fewer games. And of course, Thomas would probably be looking for work.

Back to the Position Adjustment

The story of Randolph highlights the issue of the position adjustment. In economics we often talk about opportunity costs. Opportunity costs are the benefits you give up by making a specific choice. When looking at the value of a specific power forward to a team, the opportunity cost can be thought of as the value of an average player at that position. The same story can be told about point guards or any other position. To understand a player’s contribution to a team you must consider the opportunity cost of employing that talent. And in calculating Wins Produced, that opportunity cost is the average player at the player’s position.

Opportunity costs — or the position adjustment — are important in basketball because we see different numbers from different positions. Centers and power forwards are quite similar. Each position tends to rebound at a high rate and commit few turnovers. When we look at small forwards we see fewer rebounds and more turnovers. And for guards, we see even fewer rebounds and even more turnovers. Given the differences in what we see at each position, it makes sense to evaluate a player relative to what we should expect from another NBA player who would take the player’s minutes on the court. In other words, centers should be compared to centers and point guards to other point guards.

When we take this step we see that Randolph is better than the average power forward. Channing Fry is much worse.

But the analysis becomes more complicated when we shift our focus from the average player at a position to a specific player on a roster whose minutes might be replaced. Specifically, the opportunity cost of the Knicks employing Zach Randolph is not the average power forward the team could employ. It’s not even the value of Channing Frye. No, for Randolph to get his minutes at power forward, it looks like the Knicks are going to have to play David Lee less.

And if this is the outcome of this trade, then this move is not a winner for the Knicks on the court. Not only have they lost one of the best backcourt performers in Steve Francis but the team also has diminished the productivity of its frontcourt.

Okay, I better stop here for today. There is more I want to say on the subject of the Knicks. Specifically I want to comment on the Knicks drafting Wilson Chandler. Beyond offering more thoughts on the Knicks I also wish to offer a response to the latest comment on position adjustments from Matthew Yglesias. That, though, is going to have to wait until tomorrow (at the earliest).

- DJ

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