In the April 6 edition of New York Magazine (on newsstands Monday) is the following article by Jeff Coplon:
This is a lengthy article (more than 6,000 words) that I know took quite some time to write. Jeff first contacted me about the story last January. And his interviews with me were just a small part of the research that went into the story.
In essence, Jeff seeks to explain the train-wreck that is the New York Knicks under Isiah Thomas. The explanation ranges from the problems with ownership, the managerial ability and style of Isiah Thomas, and the attitudes and abilities of the talent Isiah has assembled.
Here is an excerpt (and yes, I always choose to excerpt the part of an article where I am quoted):
Like most man-made disasters, the latter-day Knicks were a complex compound of error and hubris, tradition and pathology. It began with Dolan, the volatile owner who admitted to having “no basketball skills, physically or mentally.” In theory, his one good quality was his open checkbook, courtesy of Cablevision’s shareholders. In actuality, his heedless spending set off the chain reaction that would do the Knicks in. Freed from fiscal constraints, Thomas bet the farm just two weeks into his tenure on native son Stephon Marbury (a.k.a. Starbury), a player in his own image. As pointed out by David Berri, an economist at Cal State-Bakersfield and preeminent basketball-stat geek, both Isiah and Marbury were supremely skilled point guards-and also turnover-prone, low-percentage, high-volume shooters. But where “Zeke” Thomas once ruled the court with heart and guts (plus a cadre of superior role players), Marbury was all gall and spleen. Through a seven-year NBA career, he’d estranged teammates in three time zones and had yet to win a playoff series. Isiah sank $80 million (and counting) into a lead guard who could not lead. Marbury was his fatal attraction.
And so the die was struck. If Thomas inherited an aging, overpaid roster, he parlayed it into a younger, faster disaster flick, a Kurtzian horror of bloated contracts and hyped ne’er-do-wells. He kept binging on overvalued gunners with cap-killing contracts, splashy names with no postseason bona fides: Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry, Steve Francis, Zach Randolph. There’s a caustic phrase in the NBA for players of this ilk: Just good enough to lose with. Before injury and melodrama intervened, the Knicks were starting five stone scorers this season-five players who saw each shot as rightfully their own. The result, Berri noted, was that you had “four guys pissed off on every possession” and disinclined to do the little things-like setting a good screen or moving without the ball-that help an offense flow. In jock argot, this is known as lousy chemistry.
Not surprisingly, the current edition leads the league in forced shots, blown assignments, sideline spats, mini-mutinies, and wholesale mockery. Old nemesis Reggie Miller, now on TNT, called the Knicks “a leaguewide joke.” The Phoenix Suns’ Leandro Barbosa was distraught when a prankster said they had traded for him. “My heart was hurting,” the Brazilian said. “I went a little crazy.” The Knicks knew they were in hell when Mike Dunleavy-head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, once the NBA’s poster child for utter fecklessness-pitched a plea for sanity in long-term contracts. “Anything else,” he said, “and you become the New York Knicks.”
More Information on the Knicks
In the fourth paragraph of the Coplon article he makes the following observation:
It’s now hard to remember, but this season began with some promise. After adding the potent Zach Randolph, the Knicks were pegged for 35 or so victories and a shot at the playoffs in a weak-sister Eastern Conference. At the Church of Lowered Expectations, where Knicks fans have worshipped ever since Cablevision CEO James Dolan donned the cardinal’s hat, mediocrity would have spelled progress, even vindication.
When we look at the data, we see why there was reason to think the Knicks could rise to the level of mediocrity this season.
The Knicks employed four players who posted WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] marks that were above average (average is 0.100) in 2006-07: David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, Quentin Richardson, and Zach Randolph. Given the 2006-07 performance of each player, and the minutes allocated in 2007-08, the Knicks should have expected this quartet to have produced 36.2 wins this year (after 76 games). Instead this quartet has only offered 21.6 Wins Produced. Yes, as Coplon details, the Knicks employ a number of high priced-low productivity players. But this quartet – consisting of the only above average talent the team employs – should have been enough to get this team into the playoffs. Unfortunately, although three of these four players were above average in 2007-08, their production was not high enough for this team to avoid the l0ttery.
When we look at each player individually we see that Zach Randolph’s performance was virtually unchanged from last season. The other three, though, declined dramatically.
Richardson’s decline is probably due to injury. As for Lee and Balkman… beyond the issue of team defense (and general lack of effort cited by Coplon), I think the fact Isiah is giving each player fewer minutes per game has also impacted each player’s over-all performance (I find reducing minutes tends to reduce per-minute performance). In essence, Isiah the coach might have undermined Isiah the GM (and as noted by Coplon, Isiah the GM isn’t that good to begin with).
All that being said, even if Richardson was healthy and both Lee and Balkman returned to their 2006-07 form; this team is not nearly as good as its payroll would suggest. As Coplon notes (and as is noted often in this forum), the Knicks employ a collection of high priced scorers (i.e. Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph), whose production of wins is inconsistent with their wages.
So is there any hope in New York? The team does have some nice building blocks. David Lee and Renaldo Balkman are each capable of producing wins from the forward spots. And Quentin Richardson – when healthy – can be productive at the shooting guard-small forward spot. Nate Robinson is also not a terrible back-up point guard. And…. okay, that might be it on this team. The Knicks need to find someone besides Curry to play center. And they need depth everywhere.
The potential good news is that the Knicks do have a lottery pick. Although it’s too early for a mock draft (since we don’t know the lottery order), it may not be a good sign that both NBA Draft.Net and Draft Express have the Knicks taking O.J. Mayo in their mock drafts. As I noted last month, Mayo did not post great numbers this past year at USC. Although it’s too early to guess who the Knicks will pick, it’s not too early to note that a lottery pick will not always improve a team. Of course it can. But obviously if you select the wrong player, you are just going to increase your chances of returning to the lottery again the next season.
I want to close with a brief observation about journalism and reporting. As noted, Jeff Coplon began working on this story a few months ago. He and I exchanged several e-mails (and I think a phone call). And of course he talked to many other people. In sum, his 6,000 word article required many hours to research and write.
I sense that people – especially those with blogs – tend to discount the difficulty level of professional journalism. After all, it really isn’t that hard to knock out 1,000 words (for example, this entry for the Wages of Wins Journal is over a 1,000 words and only took me about an hour to compose).
But 1,000 blog words are not quite the same as 1,000 words in New York Magazine. Professional writers can’t just talk off the top of their heads. They have to spend many hours doing research. And for a piece like the Coplon article, many, many people need to be interviewed. In sum, there is a great deal of effort that goes into articles like these and I am not sure just anyone can do such work (by the way, I should note that JC Bradbury at Sabernomics – in a clever story – made a similar point about academic research just a few days ago).
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.