Walking in Memphis

Posted on April 5, 2007 by


Billy Donovan has led the Florida Gators to consecutive NCAA national championships. For awhile this week he was “the candidate” for coaching jobs at both the college and pro ranks. According to the Boston Globe, his leading suitor at the NBA level was rumored to be the Memphis Grizzlies, who went from 49 wins last year to being the worst team in the Association in 2006-07. Although it appears Donovan is not taking this job, we still might wonder if he would have made a difference in Memphis. And to address Donovan’s impact, we first must ask: What the hell happened to Memphis? Let’s take a walk through the data and see if it has any answers.

At first glance, we might suspect the injury to Pau Gasol. Gasol led Spain to the World Championship last year, but was hurt along the way. Consequently he did not play at the start of the 2006-07 season. Still, after 75 games, Gasol had appeared in 52 contests. And his performance – measured via Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] – was unchanged. Gasol offered a WP48 of 0.217 last season. This year his WP48 is 0.217. Yep, Gasol is exactly the same player on a per-minute basis. Gasol’s absence in 23 games, though, did cost the Grizzlies about five wins. In other words, the injury should have left the Grizzlies on pace to win about 44 games. And this year, that would be good enough to land this team in the playoffs.

Instead, the team is right now in the best position to land the top pick in a very good draft. Clearly there is more to this story than the injury to Gasol.

In The Wages of Wins we looked at back-to-back performances by individual teams. By taking that approach with the Grizzlies, we should be able to isolate why this team suddenly declined.

Table One: The Memphis Grizzlies in 2005-06 and after 75 games this season

As the above table indicates, the Grizzlies returned ten players from last season. Of these ten, Eddie Jones has declined the most. In 2005-06, E. Jones produced 8.3 wins and posted a 0.164 WP48. At the start of this season he was hurt. Consequently his performance declined dramatically and eventually he was cut from the team. Given what he has done in Miami, though, it appears that his demise was greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, the decline and eventual loss of E. Jones cost the Grizzlies about eight wins.

Of the remaining leftovers from 2005-06, a few players got better (Brian Cardinal, Chucky Atkins) and a few got worse (Mike Miller, Jake Tsakalidis). But the net change of the returning players – once we get past Gasol and E.Jones — is virtually zero.

If we consider only the changes in Gasol and E. Jones, this team should be on pace to win about 36 games. Perhaps not good enough for the playoffs, but still not the worst team in the league. The key to understanding the rest of the decline is to examine what players left this team and which players Jerry West – the team’s president – added.

The biggest move made by the Grizzlies was the trade of Shane Battier to the Houston Rockets for Rudy Gay and Stromile Swift. Battier produced 8.7 wins last year and posted a 0.147 WP48. This year Gay and Swift are giving the Grizzlies -0.7 wins. Yes, the loss of Bobby Jackson and Lorenzen Wright also hurt. But the Battier trade alone cost the Grizzlies more than nine wins.

When we add together the injury to Gasol, the loss of E. Jones, and the trade of Battier, we see that the Grizzlies have lost 23.4 wins from last year’s team. And after 75 games, the Grizzlies were 22.3 wins off of last year’s pace.

So I think we see the story, and it seems pretty simple. Jerry West made one trade that so far has not worked out. Gasol and E.Jones got hurt. And the combination of these three events has caused this team to go from a playoff contender to the worst team in the league.

Going forward, what can the Grizzlies do? Currently this team is Gasol, Mike Miller, and not much else. As the analysis of the Spurs, Mavericks, and Suns revealed, you need more than two players to be a good team. You don’t need much more – four really good players can take you far – but you need more than just two.

If the lottery balls bounce their way, Memphis might be able to land a talent like Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. If these guys are as good as advertized, then the Grizzlies might have that third talent needed to launch back into the playoff race by 2007-08.

If the lottery balls are not nice, or Oden and Durant do the “wrong” thing and stay in school (and it would be the “wrong” thing, a topic I will comment on in more detail later on), then the Grizzlies are going to have a more difficult time replacing what they lost from E. Jones and Battier.

Would Donovan have helped? I am not convinced that the problem with Memphis is coaching (or team chemistry, player attitudes, etc…). Mike Fratello did not injure Gasol or E. Jones. He did not trade away Battier. And if those three events didn’t happen, I think Memphis would have been about the same this year.

Although Donovan is not going, one does wonder if he could have helped the Grizzlies. Yes, it’s true that Donovan has experience coaching NBA players. But at Florida, his future NBA stars often got to play against non-NBA talent. If he had gone to Memphis, his NBA guys would have oftened faced better NBA guys. And when that happened, Donovan would have discovered – as college coaches have discovered before him – that winning when your players are better is not much of a trick. And consistently winning when your players are worse is not a trick that happens very often in the NBA.

– DJ