Isiah Thomas Discovers Role Players

Posted on July 31, 2006 by

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The New York Knicks last year were the most expensive team in NBA history.  And yet only the Portland Trail Blazers finished with a worse record.

Larry Brown, the since departed head coach, appeared to cast blame on the players. The new head coach, though, believes the current cast the Knicks employ are capable of winning.  Of course, that current head coach is Isiah Thomas, who in his role as general manager picked all those players.

In a previous post I discussed the value of scorers and role players in the NBA.  I argued that an NBA team cannot win with just role players – or non-scorers – like Tyson Chandler and Ben Wallace.  Similarly, a team cannot win with just scorers.

The Knicks last season are a testament to the idea that scorers alone cannot get the job done.  If we define a scorer as a player who gets 0.4 points per minute, or 16 points per 40 minutes played, we see that the Knicks last year had scorers in abundance.  Eddy Curry, Channing Frye, Stephon Marbury, Jalen Rose, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson all offered performances last season that fit the definition of a scorer.  Even the players who did not cross the threshold last year – like Steve Francis, Quentin Richardson, and Maurice Tayler — have typically been scorers in the past.  In fact, of the Knicks who played at least twenty minutes per contest, only Antonio Davis and Qyntel Woods have never been scorers.

Is there a problem if a team has too many scorers?  I have heard it said that scorers shoot better when they shoot less.  Although we have failed to find much evidence supporting this hypothesis, if it were true the Knicks should have been a team of very efficient scorers last year.  Imagine a line-up of Marbury, Francis, J. Rose, Frye, and Curry.  Five scoring options are on the floor.  No one player has to take too many shots. So the efficiency level of all players should skyrocket.   

Actually, though, this did not happen.  It turns out that historically, J. Rose and Curry are not very productive players.  Yes, they can score, but their overall productivity is low.  Frye was also below average last year, as was Marbury and Francis.  When you put five players on the court who are below average in Wins Produced, it turns out you don’t win many games.  And this is apparently the result we observe even when each player takes fewer shots.

The moves made by Isiah Thomas the GM this summer suggest that he understands a team needs more than scorers to win in the NBA.  In the draft the team added Renaldo Balkman.  Balkman drew howls of anger from New York fans when he was selected on draft night because his “numbers” – which for many fans begin and end with scoring – were quite unspectacular in college.  Balkman is clearly not a scorer.  His other numbers, though, indicate that Balkman projects to be one of the better players chosen in the draft.  Of course there are no guarantees.  Still, just looking at what Balkman did in college indicates that Isiah might have found a quality role player.

This past weekend an attempt to add another non-scorer was made when the team signed restricted free agent Jared Jeffries to an offer sheet. Jeffries is also not a scorer.  Jeffries is also an above average role player, though, this is only barely the case.  Last year with the Wizards he produced five wins and had a Wins Produced per 48 minutes of 0.122 (average is 0.100).  

The fact that Isiah’s two biggest moves this summer have involved non-scorers suggests he is learning from his mistakes.  Unfortunately, it may be too little too late.  Two role players will help, but this is still a team with an abundance of high-priced scorers who have not recently delivered many wins.  Unless these scorers can hit their shots with some efficiency and avoid leading the league again in turnovers, Isiah may still end up losing two jobs next summers.  If that happens, will Isiah the coach follow the example of Larry Brown and blame Isiah the general manager?

– DJ

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