The last time the Philadelphia 76ers won an NBA championship the team’s point guard was Maurice Cheeks. And as I noted a few months ago (see What Ever Happened to “Fo’-Fi’-Fo'”?) only Moses Malone produced more wins for the Sixers during that championship season.
Cheeks left Philadelphia as a player in 1989 and ended his career in 1993. Twelve years later – after three and a half seasons coaching in Portland – Cheeks was named head coach of the 76ers.
Philadelphia only won 38 games in the first season with Cheeks leading the team. The next season the team started 5-19, but after Allen Iverson was traded for Andre Miller and Joe Smith, the Sixers managed to win thirty of their remaining 58 games (an outcome that was somewhat expected).
Last season, most pundits didn’t expect the Sixers to be competitive. When the season ended, though, the Sixers had won 40 games (a mark that was quite consistent with the past performance of the team’s players). This record, although below 0.500, was good enough for the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
In the off-season the Sixers added All-Star Elton Brand. Brand produced 13.6 wins for the LA Clippers in 2006-07, so it was expected that Brand would transform the Sixers into an Eastern Conference power. But after 24 games in 2008-09 Philadelphia again had a losing record. And now Cheeks has learned that being a legendary player isn’t enough. Consistent with his Portland experience, after a bit more than three seasons Cheeks is now out of a job.
The Chicago Problem
So what exactly happened? The pundits thought the Sixers with Brand would be good. And this time, Wins Produced told the same story. Philadelphia, though, has underperformed. Fortunately, if we look at the numbers, we can quickly see the problem.
Table One reports what the players on Philadelphia are doing this year. It also reports what the team could have expected given what this team’s players did last season. As one can see, given the past performance of the players the team should currently be 14-10, or on pace to win 48 games. Given the team’s Wins Produced this season, though, the team should only expect to be 11-13, or on pace to win 38 games. If we look at the individual players we see that most players are pretty much what they were last year. The two exceptions are Thaddeous Young and Louis Williams. For Young the decline is tied to rebounds, steals, and shooting efficiency. A decline in shooting efficiency is also the primary issue for Williams. So if Young and Williams – two players who were not counted on to produce many wins this year – simply hit their shots, Cheeks might still be employed today.
One might note one issue with this analysis. Brand’s WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] is 0.075 this season. And last season it was only 0.058. Both marks are below average and not exactly consistent with the $80 million contract Brand received this summer. Of course the Sixers didn’t think they were signing a below average Brand. In 2006-07 Brand’s WP48 was 0.213, and it was this player the Sixers hoped to have (and it was this player people thought about in forecasting the performance of this team). If this was the Brand the team was playing, the Sixers would currently be on pace to win 45 games. And again, Cheeks would still be employed.
So what happened to Brand?
As Table Two notes, two years ago Brand was above average with respect to most statistical categories. Brand was hurt for most of last season and when he did play, he was below average with respect to shooting efficiency and rebounds. This performance, though, was much different from what he had done throughout his career. So in forecasting the Sixers this year, what we saw last year from Brand was ignored.
Unfortunately, what we saw last year has somewhat continued. The rebounding has recovered. But Brand is still having significant problems hitting his shots. Consequently, Brand’s overall productivity has been below average this season (and Cheeks is out of a job).
So is there anything Cheeks could have done to change the shooting efficiency of Brand (as well as Young, Williams, and a few other players)? Well, last year we saw a similar problem in Chicago. And like Philadelphia, Chicago also tried to changing coaches. But the problem in Chicago was never solved.
It’s important to note that most aspects of performance in basketball are amazingly consistent. When it comes to rebounds, steals, turnovers, blocked shots, assists, personal fouls, and free throw percentage; what you have seen in the past (on a per-minute basis) is pretty much what you will see in the future. So although people talk about the importance of coaching, team chemistry, diminishing returns, etc…, in general, what you see in basketball is what you are going to get. The lone exception is shooting efficiency. Although shooting efficiency in basketball is more predictable than almost anything you see in football (and also what you see with respect to earned run average and batting average in baseball), it’s the least predictable basketball statistic.
What Scott Skiles learned last season, and Cheeks has learned this year, when the shots stop falling you can lose your job. What’s not clear is what a coach can do to restore shooting efficiency. After all, if coaches could change the rate at which shots find the net, we would see more consistency with respect to this aspect of basketball.
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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.