Larry Brown or Isiah Thomas?

Posted on June 23, 2006 by


The Knicks yesterday bid good-bye to Larry Brown.  After a season where the Knicks spent more than any other team, and lost more than all but the Portland Trailblazers, it is expected that New York would make changes.  But did they make the right change?

There are two actors in this drama.  Brown was hired to coach the talent.  Isiah Thomas was hired to pick the talent.  Now did the Knicks lose because Brown couldn’t coach the players or because Thomas couldn’t choose the players?

Let’s start with evaluating what the Knicks did in 2004-05 and 2005-06.  If you go here you can see the Wins Produced for each player the team employed in the past two seasons.  There were seven players who played both seasons for New York.  One of these players, Stephon Marbury, clearly played worse under Larry Brown.

Had Marbury played the same number of minutes in both seasons — and maintained his Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) observed in 2004-05 — the Knicks would have posted virtually the same number of wins this past season as they did in 2004-05.  So one could make the argument that the Marbury-Brown feud cost the Knicks wins.  Of course, going from 23 wins to 33 wins is nice, but the Knicks would have simply matched the Celtics in the standings.  In other words, New York would have still missed the playoffs.

And focusing on Marbury does not tell the entire story.  Other players – like Jamal Crawford, David Lee, Qyntel Woods, and Eddy Curry – played better with Larry Brown than one would expect give their past performance (of course Curry was still below average, just not as far below as we detail in the book). If we look at every player the Knicks employed in 2005-06, and forecast what we would expect the player to do given their past performance, one would have expected the Knicks to win about the same number that they did in 2005-06.  In sum, despite the problems with Marbury, Brown got as many wins from this team as one would have forecasted.

In the end, the problem doesn't seem to be with Brown’s coaching but with the player’s Isiah hired.  Consider one statistic – turnovers.  The Knicks led the league in turnovers.  How do you address that problem? The one major move Isiah made during the season was the acquisition of Steve Francis.  Francis is much like Isiah was as a player.  Francis is a scoring guard who tends to commit turnovers.  At the time Francis was acquired the Knicks led the league in turnovers per game, so Isiah had to know this was a problem.  Given this weakness, why would you acquire a player who averages nearly four turnovers per game for his career when your team problem is turnovers?

In the Wages of Wins we detail how the primary factor that determines player salary is scoring.  Turnovers and shooting efficiency are not found to impact how much a player is paid.  The Knicks are the best illustration of this tendency.  The team is led by a collection of high-priced scoring guards – Marbury, Francis, Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford – who achieve high scoring totals without shooting efficiently.  And these players tend to couple inefficient shooting with high turnovers.  So often a Knick possession consisted of the ball going to one of these scoring guards and then – after a turnover or a missed shot – the next player with the ball tended to be someone not recently hired by Isiah.   And this is why the Knicks finished towards the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency.  Coupled with the team’s woeful defensive efficiency, it is not a surprise the Knicks ended up with a worse record than the league's recent addition, the Charlotte Bobcats.

Perhaps Larry Brown should have said some magic words to stop this behavior.  But for many of these players, the problems seen in their performance in 2005-06 have been exhibited throughout the player’s careers.  Given the cast he was given, Brown would have had to be immensely magical to convert a team of frogs into a prince of a franchise.

Now Isiah has been given the job of coaching this collection.  Given that the primary determinant of current performance is past performance, it seems unlikely that Isiah is going to achieve dramatically different results.  Of course, if someone else could pick different talent, maybe Isiah could become the coach in New York that Brown now wishes he could have been.

– DJ