Walking in Memphis Back to the Playoffs

Posted on September 19, 2007 by

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On Sunday I was given an assignment by Shades of Blue:

The conclusion I came to is that international players are more prepared for the long grind that is the NBA regular season than their collegiate counterparts. However, both sets of players require an adjustment to the talent level of the NBA. I’d love for David Berri to tackle this subject in the future just to see what results he comes up with.

So this is the question.  Who adjusts faster to the NBA, international or domestic players? 

Well, that’s definitely an interesting topic.  And if I looked around my laptop I probably have the data to answer this.  Unfortunately, this is probably going to take me longer than the 45 minutes I allocate each night to work on The Wages of Wins Journal.  So I am going to postpone this assignment for a few days (hopefully I can get to this next week). 

For tonight I will tackle a different question that might be of interest to the folks at Shades of Blue.  Specifically, I want to look at what happened to the Grizzlies as well as this team’s prospects for the future.

Going from Winners to Losers

Let’s start with how the Grizzlies went from being a playoff team (albeit, not a very successful one) to being the worst team in the NBA.   

Table One: The Memphis Grizzlies in 2005-06 and 2006-07

The Grizzlies won 49 games in 2005-06, but because they failed to lose in a timely fashion to the LA Clippers towards the end of the regular season, Memphis ended up taking on the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2006 playoffs.  Unlike the Warriors of 2007, Memphis did not come close to pulling off an upset, failing to win even one playoff game.

Although the 2005-06 season did not end well, the Grizzlies were still a good team.  And when we look over the numbers, we can easily see why.  The summation of the team’s Wins Produced came to 50.9 that season.  Of these wins, 42.0 could be traced to Pau Gasol, Mike Miller, Eddie Jones, and Shane Battier.  Again, as noted in the discussion of the Pareto Principle, the majority of wins in the NBA are produced by a minority of players.  Typically most of a team’s wins can be linked to just a handful of players.

As the Grizzlies discovered in 2006-07, when the producers of wins depart, the team’s chances to succeed also leave the building.  In the summer of 2006 the Grizzlies – specifically Jerry West — trade Shane Battier to the Houston Rockets for Rudy Gay and Stromile Swift.  Based on his college numbers, it was highly unlikely that Gay was going to be a productive player last year.  And this expectation was realized.  Swift, based on his NBA numbers, was also not expected to contribute much.  And this expectation was also fulfilled (and Kobe wanted West to fix the Lakers? hmmmm….). 

Compounding the trade of Battier, Gasol was hurt while leading Spain to the World Championship in 2006.  So he was not available at the start of the season.  E. Jones also appeared to be hurt as his performance declined dramatically (only to improve just as dramatically after he was cut from the team and allowed to join the Miami Heat).

Given the loss of Battier, and the injuries to Gasol and E. Jones, the Grizzlies were left with only one truly productive player – Mike Miller – at the start of the season.  And although Gasol returned, the loss of E. Jones meant that half of the quartet that led the team to the playoffs in 2006 was no longer available.  Consequently, no one should have been surprised that this team spent the season dreaming of drafting Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.

Looking to the Future

Unfortunately for this team, the worst record in the league did not produce one of the top two draft choices.  The consolation prize was Mike Conley, the top point guard available from the college ranks in the 2007 draft. 

In addition to Conley, the Grizzlies also added Darko Milicic, Juan Carlos Navarro, Casey Jacobson, and Andre Brown.  These players join Gasol, Miller, Gay, Swift, Hakim Warrick, Damon Stoudamire, Kyle Lowry, Tarence Kinsey, and Brian Cardinal.  When we look over this collection of talent we must ask this question: Which players are likely to be significant producers of wins?

Gasol and Miller have demonstrated an ability to perform in the past.  But the remaining talent is suspect.  Milicic, Jacobson, Gay, Swift, Warrick, Stoudemire, Kinsey, and Cardinal have yet to demonstrate that the can be significantly above average performers.  In very limited minutes, Brown was below average last year while Lowry was well above average.  But again, the minutes of each were very limited.

This leaves us Conley and Navarro.  Navarro only has international experience, and I do not know what his statistics to date tell us about his future in the Association (although if I had stuck to the original question I might have learned something).  As noted, Conley was the most productive point guard taken out of college last year.  Still, he does not project to be significantly above average his rookie season.  Projecting from college to pros is an imperfect science, so it’s possible Conley will come into the NBA and produce from the start.  Of course, it’s possible he won’t also.

Okay, let’s put it all together.  This team has Gasol and Miller, just like it did at the end of last year.  But beyond these players, there are no other players that we have seen produce a significant quantity of wins in the NBA.  That doesn’t mean that the other players on the roster won’t produce in 2007-08.  What it means, though, is that for this team to be successful other players are probably going to have to play better than we should expect.  And typically, if your team can only be successful if players suddenly improve, you should expect your team not to be successful. 

There are two silver linings in this forecast. I do expect this team to be better than 22 wins.  Not much better, but perhaps just a bit.  And I also expect this team to be in a good position to draft another talent in 2008.  So perhaps playoff contention in 2009 is a possibility. Or maybe 2010.  Well, certainly at some point the Grizzlies will have another chance to win its first playoff game.

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say