It took awhile, but I have finally unpacked most of my books in my new office at Southern Utah. Although most of my library consists of books on the topic of economics (not a surprise), I do have a couple of shelves devoted to sports (also not a surprise). And on these shelves is The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players. The author of this book – published in the early 1990s – is Pat Riley.
Riley argues in this book that winning is primarily about teamwork. When we look at Riley’s coaching record prior to the 21st century, it would have been hard (not impossible, but not easy) to dispute Riley’s status as a coaching guru. In 19 seasons with three different teams, Riley’s team never had a losing record and his team’s won 69.2% of regular season games played. This works out to an average of nearly 57 wins per season. Throw in the fact his teams won eight conference titles and four NBA championships and one can understand why Riley is considered an expert on winning.
And then we got to the 21st century. The Miami Heat – under the direction of Riley – posted a 50-32 record in 2000-01. For most teams this would be considered a “good” season, but for Riley it was a below average mark. Unfortunately for the Heat, this below average mark of 50 coaching victories in a single season bests anything else Riley has done in the 21st century.
2001-02: 36 wins – 46 losses (0.439 winning percentage)
2002-03: 25 wins – 57 losses (0.305 winning percentage)
2005-06: 41 wins – 20 losses (0.672 winning percentage)
2006-07: 44 wins – 38 losses (0.537 winning percentage)
2007-08: 15 wins – 67 losses (0.183 winning percentage)
If we add it all together, since the 2000-01 season ended, the Heat under Riley have only won 41.4% of their games.
So what has changed?
With the Lakers Riley was coaching Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Patrick Ewing anchored Riley’s teams in New York. And when he got to Miami, Alonzo Mourning was on the roster.
Once Mourning departed after the 2001-02 season, though, the Heat’s fortunes declined. And the decline initially drove Riley out of coaching after the 2002-03 campaign.
Riley’s departure, though, was not permanent. Shaquille O’Neal joined the Heat for the 2004-05 season. And in the midst of the 2005-06 campaign, Riley took the helm of Shaq and company. And together, the Heat won the title in 2006 (although Riley’s winning percentage in 2005-06 was still below what he did in the 20th century).
But after winning the championship in 2006, the Heat once again – as the following posts note — declined.
So why did the Heat stop winning? Perhaps Riley forgot how to coach. Although this is possible (okay, not really), a more plausible explanation is that the quality of players employed changed. And these changes can be tied to two factors that generally alter player performance: age and injury.
As I noted about a year ago, the Heat in 2005-06 was led in Wins Produced by Dwyane Wade and Shaq. Miami also received contributions from Udonis Haslem, Alonzo Mourning, James Posey, and Jason Williams.
In 2006-07, though, Flash was hurt and Shaq and Alonzo got old. With the talent on the team now offering less, the wins became less frequent.
And then in 2007-08, “less frequent” became close to non-existent.
When the last season ended, Miami had only won 15 games. Given what this roster did in 2006-07 [and the minutes played in 2007-08], the Heat should have only expected about 22 wins. The further decline can be tied almost entirely to Wade’s poor health. But even if Wade had been perfectly healthy, and performed as he did on a per-minute basis in 2005-06 and 2006-07, Miami would probably not have won 30 games. In other words, even if Flash performed like the superstar that he is (when healthy), the rest of this roster is so poor that the Heat would still have been in the lottery.
So what lesson do we learn from this story? Teamwork might help a team win games. But ultimately, all the teamwork in the world is not going to overcome a lack of productive talent. In other words, when Chris Quinn is one of your top producers of wins, all the teamwork in the world is not going to lead to many victories.
Fortunately for Heat fans, it looks like Miami is learning this lesson. In mid-season an aging Shaq was traded for Shawn Marion. Marion only played 16 games for the Heat in 2007-08, but given what he has done in his career (and what he did last year in Miami), Marion is an upgrade over an aging Shaq.
Joining The Matrix will be a healthy Dwyane Wade and the top talent in the 2008 draft, Michael Beasley.
What can this trio do for the Heat? Let’s play a game of what-if. Let’s imagine that Marion plays 3,010 minutes (what he did in 2006-07) with a 0.281 WP48 [what he did last year]. And let’s imagine Wade does what he did in 2005-06 [2,897 minutes and 0.301 WP48] and Beasley matches Al Horford (and no, I am not saying Beasley is the same kind of player as Horford, I am just imagining the same level of productivity) in 2007-08 [2.540 minutes and 0.170 WP48]. When you put it all together, the Heat get 44.7 wins from this trio. And such a mark – as I noted a few days ago – would result in one of the best threesomes in 2007-08.
Of course, that’s a lot of imagining. And it’s important to note that after Wade, Marion, and Beasley, the Heat don’t have much proven productive talent.
Still, it looks like the Heat – assuming everyone is healthy – should have a winning record in 2008-09. When that happens, we can expect people to talk about the wonders of teamwork and the coaching of Erik Spoelstra (who takes over for Riley). But I think the key to this team’s resurgence is really the change in the ability of the team’s players to win out on the court, not a change in Miami’s winner within.
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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.