Two From the Sun on the Knicks

This past weekend I was in New Orleans attending what economists refer to as The Meetings.  Specifically, I was attending the American Economic Association meetings, which is the main academic gathering in our discipline.  In essence, about 18,000 economists descended on New Orleans, much to the chagrin of the fun-loving people of the Big Easy.  Fortunately for the city, fans of LSU and Ohio State arrived soon after the AEA meetings began, and when I checked out of my hotel Sunday morning at 4am the party was in full-swing.

Before I left Bakersfield I posted “Sort of Defending Isiah Thomas.”  With this column, I had offered at least one posting for 41 consecutive days.  Virtually all of these columns have been as least 1,000 words in length; which works out to more than 40,000 words in a little more than a month.  To put that number in perspective, The Wages of Wins was only about 119,000 words (including the Table of Contents, Index, and over 40 pages of end notes).  So basically I wrote about 33% of a book in about six weeks.

After this quantity of writing, I think I needed a break.  So I deliberately left my laptop at home when I went to New Orleans.  This meant I did not check in on the Wages of Wins Journal for about 60 hours, an all-time record I think. :)

Martin Johnson’s Perspective on the Knicks

When I returned to the forum I saw the following comment from someone named MJ:

Must be something in the air this week. I weighed in on several of these topics in my NY Sun column on Thursday.
Pardon the self-promotion but I think y’all will enjoy this article.

MJ is Martin Johnson, a writer with the New York Sun.  Johnson’s column was entitled Poor Risk Assessment Isiah’s Downfall. In this column, Johnson makes the following observations:

After watching this administration for four years, I have to staunchly disagree with the folks who say there wasn’t a plan. There was a plan. It involved remaking the roster by capitalizing on low first-round draft picks (a typically undervalued commodity), and by going aggressively after high-risk players who lacked other options in the free-agent market.

If forwards David Lee and Renaldo Balkman are any indication, then the draft strategy part of the plan is a success (though why Wilson Chandler doesn’t receive more burn is a mystery to me).

…The free agent part of the plan has been an unmitigated disaster to such a degree that not even Dino De Laurentiis or any other Hollywood disaster flick specialist could create anything paralleling the magnitude of what went wrong. Thomas’s free agent signings include centers Jerome James and Eddy Curry, guard Jamal Crawford, and swingman Jared Jeffries, and it illustrates the entirety of the problem with this regime. There’s no attention paid to risk assessment. Each of these players had a considerable downside – a smart GM would have offered each a contract no longer than three years. Three-year deals work well for both sides. For the team, it limits their liability. For a player – if he develops star-level talent – then he’s three years away from a possible nine-figure deal.

If Thomas had signed James to a three-year deal, then he could offer James in trade this season as an expiring contract. He didn’t (James is in year three of a six-year deal), and that illustrates the problem with hiring elite athletes to executive positions: Thomas was a Hall-of-Fame guard in his playing days, and he was accustomed to overcoming long odds every time he drove the lane against bigger opponents. His success on the court gave him a skewed perception of acceptable levels of risk. Thomas essentially bid against himself for Curry, a player with a health issues that prevent his contract from being insured. Crawford and Jeffries also have key weaknesses in their games. Committing to each for six years, as well as trading unprotected lottery picks for Curry was a strategy with a probability of success that was less than one in four. But Thomas, as a player, was used to beating those odds every time he took the court.

In essence, Johnson is making a somewhat similar argument to what I offered.  Thomas indeed has a plan.  But his past experience causes him to make mistakes. And it’s important to emphasize the word “mistakes.” 

Crawford, Curry, and James were all mistakes.  I would argue, though, that these were mistakes Thomas could have avoided had he looked past scoring.  None of these players had ever been very productive before coming to New York, and it seemed unlikely any of these would become productive in the Big Apple.

Hollinger’s Perspective

I think it’s important to contrast what Johnson and I are saying with another New York Sun columnist, John Hollinger. On the 4th, the day after Johnson’s column appeared, Hollinger wrote the following:

Wednesday night, we saw one of the biggest talent mismatches you’ll ever see in an NBA basketball game.

And the team with all the talent had no chance.

At Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, the Knicks arguably had the seven most talented players in the building in their game against the Sacramento Kings. But they still lost, 107-97, and this result was far, far worse than the final score indicated. First, because the team trailed by 24 points late in the third quarter before some cosmetic scoring closed the deficit, but mostly because of the staggering talent disparity between the two sides.

No offense to the Kings, but the Knicks should have won this game by 40 points, and if they weren’t so preoccupied with mailing in the season, they would have.  

In Hollinger’s view, the Knicks have talent.  This team, though, simply has quit on Thomas.  Although it may or may not be true that the Knicks are not trying as hard as they could, I don’t think the Knicks would be a very good team even if this team tried very hard.  As I noted in my column, other than David Lee and Renaldo Balkman, none of the Knicks players has historically been very productive.

Let me review my argument.  If you focus on scoring, many of the Knicks do appear to be productive players.  But if you consider the propensity to waste possessions – by missing shots and/or committing turnovers – many of the players on the Knicks have not contributed much to wins in the past.  And this, I think, is ultimately why this team does not compete in the Eastern Conference today.

Promises Made in New Orleans

While in New Orleans I had a chance to meet up with several co-authors, fellow economists, and fellow sports economists.  The list included Jennifer Van Gilder, Martin Schmidt, Joe Price, Justin Wolfers, Dennis Coates, John Solow, Peter von Allmen, Brad Humphreys, and Victor Matheson.

I would note that since Martin left Colorado State in 1994, Marty and I have rarely been in the same physical location.  The last time I had actually seen Marty in person was 2002.  As we both observed, for two people who never see each other, we work well together. Perhaps this is because we never see each other? :)

While talking to Marty (as well as my other co-authors) I frequently made the following promise:  In 2008 I will work less on the Wages of Wins Journal and more on my research.  This means I need to focus on the sequel to The Wages of Wins (which Marty and I discussed at length), as well as separate projects I am working on with Jennifer and Joe (as well as with other people). 

Given this promise, I am going to try and stop posting a column here each and every night.  That being said, as long as I make progress on my research program (at least enough to satisfy my co-authors), I think I will be able to offer two or three columns per week.

Perhaps as the quantity dips, the quality can actually increase making this forum even better (or is this just an example of that damn usage argument again?). Of course, this column – that I mostly took from Johnson and Hollinger – hardly represents an increase in quality (at least, not on my part).  Still, I hope my future columns are at least worth a read.

Let me close by once again thanking everyone who stops by and reads this blog each day.  It’s amazing that nearly 1,000 people seem to make this forum a part of their daily routine. Hopefully, once book II is finished in a few months, I can get back to more regular posting.

– DJ

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