Riley the GM vs. Riley the Coach

The Miami Heat won the NBA title in June of 2006.  Flash forward a mere 18 months and this team is among the NBA’s worst.  So what happened to the Heat?

With school back in session at Cal-State Bakersfield, I thought it would be a good idea to begin with a standard multiple choice question.

What has caused the Miami Heat to descend from the ranks of the NBA’s best to the ranks of the NBA’s worst?

a. Pat Riley, the team’s general manager, has picked the wrong players.

b. Pat Riley, the team’s head coach, has coached the team’s players poorly.

c. Something beyond the control of Riley has caused this team to decline.

Riley Answers

Tom D’Angelo and Chris Perkins of the Palm Beach Post published the following article on Thursday. 

One big fat F for Riley

In this article is an answer to the multiple choice question from Pat Riley:

Riley, whose club has the worst record in the Eastern Conference, was asked recently to grade his work as an executive.

“One big fat F for Riley,” he said, conceding that he didn’t find adequate replacements for players who departed in the off-season.

But Wednesday, he said he has been worse as a coach.

“Probably my coaching decisions have been worse than my personnel decisions, because they happen all the time every night, 100 games a year,” Riley said.

So Riley thinks it’s (a) and (b).  Typically you only get to pick one answer on a multiple choice test.  So Riley may be a poor general manager, poor coach, and poor test taker all at once.

Of course, he might also be right.  Maybe he has done everything wrong.  Or then again, maybe not.

The Initial Decline

To see who is to blame, let’s go back to what happened between 2005-06 and 2006-07.   Table One reports that the Heat’s Wins Produced stood at 51.2 wins the year this team took the title.  The next season it fell to 38.6.

Table One: The Miami Heat in 05-06 and 06-07

This table was originally posted last August (in Miami Parties Like Its 1999), and at the time I noted the following:

In 2005-06 the Heat received 18.9 wins from Shaq, Alonzo, Gary Payton, and Antoine Walker. These four players combined to post a 0.119 WP48.

Last year, like Wade, Shaq was hurt. But even when he played he was a but a shadow of himself. Still, unlike the other three senior citizens on the squad the entire season, O’Neal was still above average. Mourning, Payton, and Walker were each below average. And when we look at the combined output of these four ancient players we see only 0.7 wins and a WP48 of 0.006.

Now typically player performance does not change much from year to year. There is one big exception to this general rule. If the player’s physical skills change – due to injury and/or age – we can expect performance to be different.

To summarize, the aging of the Heat’s core players caused this team to decline.

The Latest Decline

When we look at this year’s team, though, we see another significant decline.

Table Two: The Miami Heat in 2007-08 after 36 games

Table Two provides two projections for this team.  The first presumes that every player will play as well as he did last season.  The second projects what will happen if each player continues to play as well as he has in 2007-08. 

If every Heat player (except the rookies and Anfernee Hardaway) played as well as they did last year, the Heat would be on pace to win 39 games this season.  In other words, the Heat would be the same as they were in 2006-07.  This suggests that Riley the general manager provided Riley the coach the same level of talent he employed last season.

Of course, Miami is not the same.  The Heat are currently on pace to win only 26 games.  So is Riley the coach to blame?

Pointing a Finger

When we look at the productivity of the individual players we can point our finger at three players: Dwyane Wade, Ricky Davis, and Mark Blount. 

Wade posted a 0.291 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] in 2006-07.   Of all shooting guards, only Manu Ginobili was better on a per-minute basis.  This year Wade’s WP48 is 0.168.  This is still quite good (average is 0.100), but if it holds up until the end of the year this will be Wade’s worst performance since his rookie campaign. 

Now the reason for this decline is not hard to see.  Wade was hurt last season and the injury has impacted his performance this year.  One lesson the Wages of Wins analysis teaches is that players are generally what they are until they’re not.  In other words, if a basketball player is physically the same, you can expect a similar level of productivity.  But if a player is hurt, or gets old, then performance will change.  And the fact injuries impact performance is something a coach cannot alter.

Wade’s regression from NBA elite to NBA very good – again, if it holds up – will cost the Heat about six wins.  Such a mark is significant, but only about half the decline we see in projected wins.

For the other half we turn to the play of Davis and Blount.  These two players were acquired by Riley during the pre-season from Minnesota. One might suspect that these players have not taken to Riley’s coaching. Although this is one explanation, one also has to note that these players were starters in Minnesota.  With Miami, Blount didn’t play much initially.  Now with Shaq out he has entered the starting line-up.  Davis started initially, then went to the bench, and is now back in the starting line-up.  In sum, each of these players has seen their minutes change and that can impact productivity.

Of course, if you paid attention to what you just read you will notice that in discussing Wade I said that players are generally what they are.  And then in discussing Blount and Davis I argued that changing minutes can make a difference. 

The key word is “generally.”  The primary determinant of what a player does this year is what he did in the past.  But injuries, coaching, productivity of teammates, and changing minutes per game can all make a difference. 

My Answer

Although Davis and Blount have not helped much, it was not expected that either player would produce many wins this season.  In his first seven years Blount only produced 2.0 wins.  And Davis has had only one season where he played more than 1,000 minutes and posted a WP48 that was above average.  So neither player was expected to help Miami get back to an NBA title.

When we look back at the title team we see that Miami was led by a healthy Wade, a healthy Shaq, a healthy Alonzo Mourning, Udonis Haslem, and Jason Williams.  This year Wade and Shaq ain’t healthy. Mourning looks like he’s done (and I need a post on his career).  And Haslem and J. Williams have declined just a bit.

Ideally the general manager – Pat Riley again – would have found some talent to overcome the injuries and aging that impacted this roster.  But we have to remember, it has only been 18 months since this team was on top.  Expecting a team to replace all the talent that got old and declined in such a short period of time might be a bit too much to ask.

So who is to blame for the disaster that is the Miami Heat? I am not sure this is Riley’s fault at all.  He assembled an aging team to win a title.  And this happened. We should expect that such a team would decline soon afterward.  And it did. 

Going forward this team is going to need more talent to complement Wade.  The draft lottery beckons this spring, and that could help (or not).  Unfortunately, the $40 million in salary owed to Shaq over the next two years is going to somewhat hinder any re-building plans.  So it might be awhile before a return to glory in Miami.  

In the meantime, Heat fans should keep in mind that nearly half of all NBA teams have never won a title.  So just keep thinking about 2006 and enjoy the play of Wade.  Perhaps before Flash turns into an NBA senior citizen the Heat can re-build.  Of course, unless that happens in the next couple of years, we probably won’t be crediting Pat Riley (who is an actual senior citizen) for a return to playoff glory on South Beach.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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