Luck – not the Lottery – Helps Out Memphis

Dave Berri is the General Manager of the Wages of Wins Network.         He is a Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University, lead       author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins, and (thankfully)   now a past president of the North American Association of Sports   Economists. 

Lately much of this forum has been dominated by talk of the lockout.  Certainly for NBA fans, this is the big news of the day. Although the lockout is important, for most fans – we suspect – the lockout isn’t interesting.  So let’s take a break from this talk and briefly discuss an actual NBA team.

Draft Picks vs. Luck

This discussion is going to begin with the NBA draft.  On draft night NBA teams tend to argue that the players they have added are definitely going to help.  And on draft night, fans tend to believe that (or at least, want to believe).  But as the summer games begin, doubt starts to appear.  This doubt tends to grow when the actual games start to play in the fall.

With the NBA lockout, though, it is likely that few fans doubt the future success of the players selected in the 2011 draft.  This is especially true for teams choosing players in the lottery.  Each player selected is probably still seen as the future savior of their respective team.

But is that expectation likely to be realized?  Consider the case of the Memphis Grizzlies.  From 2006 to 2010, Memphis had five picks in the lottery. And this year, after missing the playoffs the previous four seasons, Memphis not only made the playoffs; the Grizzlies also advanced to the second round for the first time in franchise history.  Clearly the draft works.

Or does it?  If we review the recent history of Memphis in the lottery, a different story seems to emerge.  Our review begins back in 2005-06.  That season the Grizzlies won 49 games.   Of these wins, 42.0 could be traced to the productivity of Pau Gasol, Mike Miller, Eddie Jones, and Shane Battier.

Table 1: 2006 Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis Wins Produced per 48 Minutes Wins Produced
Pau Gasol 0.217 14.1
Mike Miller 0.230 10.9
Shane Battier 0.147 8.7
Eddie Jones 0.164 8.3
Jake Tsakalidis 0.225 3.4
Bobby Jackson 0.084 3.1
Lorenzen Wright 0.074 2.6
Damon Stoudamire 0.102 1.8
Chucky Atkins 0.039 1.0
Lawrence Roberts 0.096 0.4
Anthony Roberson 0.019 0.0
John Thomas -0.253 -0.1
Dahntay Jones -0.024 -0.5
Brian Cardinal -0.071 -0.6
Hakim Warrick -0.072 -1.1
Antonio Burks -0.097 -1.2
Sum Wins Produced 50.9
Actual Team Wins 49

In the summer of 2006, Jerry West – the president of the Grizzlies – sent Battier to the Houston Rockets for Rudy Gay (a lottery pick in the 2006 draft) and Stromile Swift.   In addition to the loss of Battier, Pau Gasol started the 2006-07 season hurt (he was hurt during the 2006 World Championship). Eddie Jones was also supposedly hurt (and eventually removed from the team).  Although Pau Gasol did eventually return, without the production the team received from Battier and Jones, the Grizzlies found themselves in the lottery in 2007.

And with that pick, the Grizzlies selected Mike Conley.  During the 2007-08 season, though, Pau Gasol was sent to the LA Lakers (for his brother Mark Gasol).  Without Pau Gasol the Grizzlies again returned to the lottery in 2008.

Funny Story

This time Memphis selected Kevin Love, one of the most productive players in the game today.  Unfortunately, none of that production was received by Memphis.  Love was traded – along with Mike Miller (the last remaining member of the 2005-06 quartet) – for O.J. Mayo.   Consequently, Memphis returned to the lottery again in 2009.

With the 2nd pick in the 2009 draft, Memphis selected Hasheem Thabeet.  He proceeded to do very little.  And ultimately he was sent to the Houston Rockets during the 2010-11 season for…. yes, Shane Battier.  Yes, the player traded away for a lottery pick in 2006 – the trade that began the destruction of the 2006 playoff team – was brought back in exchange for the Grizzlies 2009 lottery pick.

Before Thabeet left town, though, Memphis found itself back in the lottery in 2010.  With that 12th pick in the 2010 draft, Memphis selected Xavier Henry.  Henry was the 5th lottery pick by the Grizzlies in five years.  And here is what those five lottery picks did for Memphis from 2006-07 to 2010-11:

  • Rudy Gay: 17.0 Wins Produced, 0.061 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]
  • Mike Conley: 18.5 Wins Produced, 0.095 WP48
  • O.J. Mayo: 9.7 Wins Produced, 0.058 WP48
  • Hasheem Thabeet: 0.6 Wins Produced, 0.021 WP48
  • Xavier Henry: -1.1 Wins Produced, -0.103 WP48
  • All Five Lottery Picks: 44.7 Wins Produced, 0.066 WP48

An average player posts a WP48 of 0.100.  As one can see, none of these lottery picks has been above average across their entire career with the Grizzlies.  So how did the Memphis Grizzlies get back to the playoffs in 2010-11? To answer that question, let’s look at production of the 2010-11 team.

Table 2: 2010-2011 Memphis Grizzlies vs. 2009-2010 Numbers

Grizzlies Pos MP WP48**
2010
WP
2010
WP48
2011
WP
2011
Change
in
WP
Zach Randolph 4.31 2724 0.212 12.0 0.290 16.4 4.4
Mike Conley 1.00 2872 0.049 2.9 0.124 7.4 4.5
Rudy Gay 3.16 2152 0.073 3.3 0.144 6.4 3.2
Marc Gasol 5.00 2586 0.189 10.2 0.117 6.3 -3.9
Tony Allen 1.48 1494 0.150 4.7 0.194 6.0 1.4
Sam Young 3.00 1577 -0.002 -0.1 0.055 1.8 1.9
Shane Battier 3.00 557 0.143 1.7 0.153 1.8 0.1
O.J. Mayo 2.00 1869 0.083 3.2 0.032 1.3 -2.0
Darrell Arthur 4.00 1609 -0.023 -0.8 0.034 1.1 1.9
Hamed Haddadi 5.00 168 -0.091 -0.3 0.274 1.0 1.3
Greivis Vasquez* 2.00 860 0.033 0.6 0.033 0.6 0.0
DeMarre Carroll 3.00 39 0.009 0.0 0.190 0.2 0.1
Jason Williams 1.00 124 0.119 0.3 0.019 0.0 -0.3
Rodney Carney 3.00 5 0.076 0.0 0.144 0.0 0.0
Leon Powe 4.00 141 0.166 0.5 -0.050 -0.1 -0.6
Acie Law 1.00 94 0.061 0.1 -0.194 -0.4 -0.5
Ishmael Smith 1.00 113 -0.212 -0.5 -0.212 -0.5 0.0
Hasheem Thabeet 5.00 369 0.095 0.7 -0.128 -1.0 -1.7
Xavier Henry* 2.00 527 -0.103 -1.1 -0.103 -1.1 0.0
TOTAL 37.4 47.2 9.8

* – Rookie in 2010-11 (or player with very little prior NBA experience), so numbers from 2009-10 are the same as what we see in 2010-11

**-WP48 in 2009-10 is calculated with ADJ P48 in 2009-10 and position played in 2010-11

The Grizzlies won 46 games in 2010-11.  The team’s efficiency differential and Wins Produced is consistent with a team that would win about 47 games.  When we look at the five aforementioned lottery picks, we see that this quintet produced 13.0 of these victories.  And that means, 34 of the team’s Wins Produced came from players who were not selected by the Grizzlies in the lottery.

Now it is the case that Conley and Gay were finally above average this past season (the only two lottery picks that managed to be this productive).  But the Grizzlies would not have been successful without Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Tony Allen.  And where did these players come from?  As noted, Gasol came in the trade for his brother in 2008.

The next year, the Grizzlies acquired Zach Randolph via a trade with the LA Clipppers.  And last summer, Tony Allen was signed as a free agent.

Prior to coming to Memphis, both Randolph and Allen were above average players.  And each has been above average with the Grizzlies.  But both Randolph and Allen have never played as well as they have for Memphis.  In other words, their level of production – given what we saw in the past – has been somewhat surprising.

And these were not the only surprises.  Given what the veterans employed by Memphis did in 2009-10, the Grizzlies should have won about 37 games in 2010-11.  The ten-game improvement can be linked to improved play from Randolph, Conley, and Gay (as noted, Conley and Gay are now above average).

In sum, it doesn’t appear that Memphis has been helped by the lottery.  The players who primarily produced the results we saw this year were not acquired in the draft.   And the leap we see in the performance of some players… well, maybe that is just “luck”.   Consider the following from an interview with Mike Heisley, the team’s owner.

“I’ve been wrong about a lot of things,” said owner Mike Heisley. “I was wrong about Allen Iverson and we were wrong about [Hasheem] Thabeet. I said this when we were bad so I have to say it now, too. A lot of this is pure luck.”

Yes, the owner of the Grizzlies clearly didn’t see all of this coming.

We like to think successful teams had a plan.  And one plan teams in the NBA say they follow is “we are building through the draft”.  For the Grizzlies, though, that plan didn’t work so well.  And so they appear to have turned to Plan B: “Let’s hope we get lucky”.

Let me close by noting that this really is not “pure luck”.  The Grizzlies did acquire some talent (i.e. Gasol, Randolph, and Allen), that helped the team achieve success in 2010-11.  Although Randolph and Allen have played better in Memphis, both were above average before they got to Memphis.  So their above average play in Memphis could have been predicted.  And the same could be said for Battier.

All of that suggests that although some of this may be “pure luck” (i.e. the improvement in players might be “luck”… or maybe evidence of good coaching), much of what happens in the NBA is predictable.  At least, much of what happens for NBA veterans is predictable.  When it comes to the draft… well, maybe one shouldn’t hope — as the Memphis story illustrates — that lottery picks are really going to make a difference.

- DJ

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