The Third Way of Bryan Colangelo

Traditionally there are two ways to build an NBA playoff contender.  You can acquire new NBA talent in the draft.  Or you can acquire existing NBA talent via free agency and trades. 

Colangelo’s Third Way

Apparently, tradition only applies to teams located in the United States.  The lone team north of the border -led by general manager Bryan Colangelo — has found a third way. 

Table One: The Toronto Raptors at the Midpoint of the 2007-08 Season

Table One reveals the Wins Produced by each member of the Toronto Raptors at the midpoint of the 2007-08.  The top five players are Jose Calderon, Chris Bosh, Carlos Delfino, Anthony Parker, and Jamario Moon. 

One of these players is unlike the other four.  Chris Bosh was acquired by the Raptors in the 2003 NBA draft lottery, and has proven to be a productive player who could score.  The other four players, though, are below average scorers who were not highly sought after talents.  Calderon and Moon were never drafted by an NBA team.  Parker was drafted in 1997, but played several years in Israel and Italy before Colangelo signed him in the summer of 2006.  And Delfino was a back-up for the Pistons, acquired for just two second round draft choices in 2007. 

Of the team’s 23.3 Wins Produced at the midpoint of the 2007-08 season, 18.6 come from these four players.  And not only are these four productive, they are also relative cheap (by NBA standards).  For the 2007-08 season these four are paid a combined $9.1 million.

The play of these four contradicts the conventional wisdom offered by teams located at the bottom of the NBA.  These teams often claim that they lose because either a) they have been unlucky in the draft or b) the salary cap prevents the team from acquiring major talent.  Colangelo and the Raptors have shown that these excuses are a sham.  Without using high draft choices or spending much money, Colangelo has assembled the fourth best team in the Eastern Conference.  

Let me amend that statement.  Colangelo has used high draft choices and spent a bit of money.  But the draft and money didn’t help. In fact, one could argue that Colangelo might have turned to this third way because he failed at the first two options. 

Another View of Colangelo 

Consider the draft. In 2006 the Raptors had the first overall pick in the NBA draft.  With this choice the Raptors selected Andrea Bargnani.  So far this pick hasn’t worked out so well.  Bargnani produced -1.2 wins his rookie season with a -0.037 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  At the mid-point of the 2007-08 season Bargnani has actually gotten worse.  His WP48 stands at -0.204 while he has produced -3.5 wins. If you look at the individual stats – reported in Table Two below — you see that Bargnani this season is below average with respect to shooting efficiency, scoring, rebounds, steals, blocked shots, assists, and personal fouls.  He is above average with respect to field goal attempts, but if you can’t make your shots, that doesn’t actually help.

The Raptors couldn’t repeat a Bargnani-like choice in the 2007 draft because the team didn’t have a pick.  Consequently the Raptors went into the free agent market and signed Jason Kapono.  Unlike Bargnani, Kapono can hit his shots. Unfortunately – as Table Two reveals — he can’t do much else. He is well below average on the boards.  He also produces less than the average small forward with respect to steals, blocked shots, assists, and personal fouls.  When you turn to Wins Produced, you see that Kapono’s deficiencies overwhelm his one positive.  At the midpoint of 2007-08 his WP48 stands at -0.017.  Last year his mark was 0.064, so Kapono has descended from below average to very bad. 

Table Two: Evaluating Andrea Bargnani and Jason Kapono in 2007-08

Had Kapono and Bargnani maintained the meager production offered last season, the Raptors would currently have 26.7 Wins Produced.  In other words, this team would be less than three games behind the Pistons and clearly among the NBA elite.

When we look at Bargnani and Kapano we see that the major draft choice and free agent acquisition in the Colangelo era are actually holding this team back.  Furthermore, these two players cost the Raptors $10.2 million, or nearly one million more than the four lesser known players cited earlier.

Evaluating Colangelo

So how do we evaluate Colangelo, the 2005 and 2007 NBA Executive of the Year?  Colangelo inherited Bosh and Calderon.  And he acquired Bargnani and Kapono.  But he also traded Charlie Villanuenva – Toronto’s 2005 lottery pick – to the Milwaukee Bucks for T.J. Ford. Ford is another above average player, and this trade erases a bad choice from Colangelo’s predecessor.

On top of the Ford acquisition, Colangelo also found Parker, Delfino, and Moon.  And it’s these moves that set him apart from most other general managers.   

Again, teams often claim that building a winning team is difficult in the salary cap era.  Colangelo has shown that if you look beyond the usual spots, productive players can be found.  So despite the Bargnani and Kapono choices, we have to consider Colangelo an exceptional general manager.   He certainly has shown that winning basketball doesn’t have to be expensive basketball.

The Role of WoW

Regular readers of the WoW Journal might remember that there is evidence that Colangelo has read The Wages of Wins. At least, his owner – Richard Peddie — told a Canadian magazine (PROFIT) that he asked his general manager to read our book.

Did Colangelo actually read our book?  And has this influenced his decision-making?  I think the answer to these questions is – No and Really, No. 

Yes, the WoW metrics do highlight the importance of non-scorers, and the players I cited above do contribute without scoring much. But Colangelo is an NBA-lifer who had already been named Executive of the Year before he ever came to Toronto.  I just can’t believe that a person with such a record would actually take seriously a book suggested by the team’s owner.

So when we see Colangelo find gems outside of the NBA’s usual talent pools, it’s probably because he knows something.  Of course, this means that when he signs a player like Kapono, that’s also his fault.  At least, you can’t blame that move on WoW (I think).

– 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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