Today’s post is going to start with a quiz. See if you can answer the following questions about the NBA.
1. Who is the leading scorer on each NBA team?
2. Who is the head coach on each NBA team?
3. Who is the general manager on each NBA team?
My sense is most NBA fans can do pretty well on the first two questions. When we think about the success or failure in the NBA, most fans point to the top player (often defined in terms of scoring) and/or the head coach. But when it comes to wins and losses, the third question really matters. And that is because, in the NBA it’s the general manager that picks the players. And to see this point, consider the story of the Larry Harris and the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Larry Harris Story
Last week was the end of an era in Milwaukee. After five seasons, Larry Harris was removed as the team’s general manager. The Harris regime began in 2003. From 2003-04 to 2006-07, the Bucks averaged 35 victories. This season the team has won 24 of its first 69 games and currently resides in last place in the Central Division.
Despite this record, Harris believed the Bucks in 2007-08 were going to be a playoff team. Here is what he said last February:
“Our expectations going into the season were that we thought we were a playoff team,” Bucks general manager Larry Harris said in a telephone interview the other day. “I really felt going into the season that this was the best team that I had had in my five seasons as general manager; I told the team that, I told the community that, I told the fans that.”
“We have experience, we have an inside game, we have an outside game, we have some veterans, we have some toughness. Sometimes it’s played itself out, but there have been times we’ve been in games and had some things transpire and it ends up getting away from us quickly. Those are growing pains that we’ve had and we assumed would take place, but not to the level it has to this point. We’re certainly not happy with our record, but … when you’re in the Eastern Conference, you still feel like you’ve got a chance even as well under .500 as we are.”
Although he was let go by the Bucks, an Associated Press article (by Dinesh Ramde) indicates his confidence in the team he assembled was unchanged:
One day after being fired, Harris said he felt good about the roster decisions he made since he was hired in July 2003.
“I think whoever the new GM is, I think that person can sit here and say the cupboard isn’t bare,” Harris said Thursday.
He mentioned guards Michael Redd and Mo Williams, whom he re-signed, as formidable scorers. He also talked about his recent draft picks-former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut and rookie Yi Jianlian-and said all four players form a core group of young players.
“Hopefully I paved the way for the next guy to come in and not have to change a lot,” said Harris…
In the NBA, coaches devise strategy and substitution patterns. Coaches also directly supervise the players and often offer magical words designed to inspire. But coaches – and this point is important – do not have the final say on the identity of the players being coached. The true power – the power to choose the players — often resides with the team’s general manager.
To understand the importance of the GM in the NBA, we have to think about the nature of NBA player productivity. As noted in The Wages of Wins, player performance in the NBA -relative to what we see in baseball and football – is fairly consistent. In general, what you see tends to be what you get.
Forecasting the Bucks
The Bucks in 2007-08 are doing their best to demonstrate the consistency of player performance in basketball.
Table One offers two projections of the Bucks. The first assumes that what the players did last year on a per-minute basis will be offered again this year. The second projects what we have seen so far to the end of the season.
For most players on this team, what we saw in the past is what we are seeing today. Last year this team was led by Andrew Bogut, Maurice Williams, and Michael Redd. This year the Bucks are led by Bogut, Williams, and Redd. Yes, Desmond Mason has improved (while Bobby Simmons and Charlie Villanueva have declined). But for the most part, the players on this team are not deviating much from what we saw last year.
All of this means that the next general manager of the Bucks cannot follow the advice of Harris. The Bucks currently do not have a single player with a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] above 0.144 (Bogut’s mark). A mark of 0.144 is consistent with a 59 win team, but if you only have one player at this level, your team is going to fall far short of playoff contention.
Now the team could try and become a contender by picking another coach. Larry Krystkowiak’s career winning percentage of 0.333 doesn’t inspire. Of course, Krystkowiak’s entire coaching career has taken place in the past few months in Milwaukee. One suspects that just as an infusion of talent has transformed our perceptions of Doc Rivers in Boston, a similar change in the cast employed by Milwaukee will change our view of Krystkowiak.
Again, coaches get far too much blame (and credit) for the outcomes we observe in the NBA. It’s the general manager – the person picking the players – that ultimately determines the fate of a team. This point needs to be remembered next time you visit fireavery.com or FireGeorgeKarl.com. Firing the coach -without changing the players – is not likely to change much for your favorite NBA team. And if your team’s general manager simply picks better players, you will probably discover that the coach you love to hate really isn’t so bad after all.
Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.