Sort of Defending Isiah Thomas

Posted on January 4, 2008 by


A very odd headline appeared in the New York Daily News on Wednesday.  In an article authored by Frank Isola we learned that Isiah Thomas Predicts a Title.  Here are some excerpts from Isola’s story:

“My belief and what I see and where I believe we can go as a team and an organization, I believe one day that we will win a championship here and I believe a couple of these guys will be a part of that,” Thomas said before the Knicks were walloped at the Garden by the depleted Sacramento Kings, 107-97. “I believe I’ll be a part of that.”

Thomas admitted that his comments, which border on the absurd, leave him open for ridicule.

“As I sit here and I say it today, I know people will laugh even more at me, but I’m hell-bent on getting this accomplished and making sure that we get it done. And I’m not leaving until we get it done.”

….The Knicks are now 8-22. The franchise has yet to win a playoff game since 2001 and its record with Thomas as coach is 41-71.

Also, many of his player transactions have backfired, especially deals for Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury. Coincidentally, when Thomas talked about the team’s strong nucleus he failed to include Marbury and David Lee.

“I believe we’re on the right path and I believe we have the right players,” he said. “Our record doesn’t show that, but I’m not ready to give up on these players.

“We have good talent. We have good players. We have young players … and we have a good nucleus. We just need to get them to play well together. It’s not about breaking them up or tearing them down, it’s about getting them to play better as a team because individually I believe they’re pretty good.”

The Knicks in 2007-08

When we look at what the Knicks have done this year – reported in Table One – we see only three players – David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, and Randolph Morris —  who are above average with respect to WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]. And Morris has only played five minutes this year.  The other eleven players on the roster have been below average.  With such performances, the team’s won-loss record is not a surprise.

Table One: The New York Knicks in 2007-08

So is Thomas just confused?  Should he be ridiculed? The answer is yes if you read Frank Isola’s blog entry from Thursday.  But I have a different take on what has happened to the Knicks.

Defending Isiah

About seven months ago I published an article in the Yale Economic Review examining Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks (I noted this article in this forum last May).  Unfortunately, I can’t find this article on-line.  So let me briefly explain the gist of this piece.

When we look at the determinants of free agent salaries in the NBA we see that scoring dominates the story. Although blocked shots, rebounds, and maybe assists impact salary, it’s scoring that’s most important. What’s interesting (at least to me) is that shooting efficiency and turnovers are not found to statistically impact player pay.  In sum, players can waste possessions and not suffer any penalty.  And this tendency to ignore inefficient shooting and turnovers appears to be at the heart of the Knicks problems.

A few weeks ago I posted the following comments on Stephon Marbury.  These comments argue that Marbury — a player who tends to be an inefficient scorer who is also prone to turnovers — has generally been overpaid in an NBA market focused on scoring.

The Wages of Wins is Factorial

Starbury Loses His Star

A similar story could probably be told about Isiah Thomas the player.  Thomas certainly had the ability to score and get assists. But Isiah’s adjusted field goal percentage was 0.465 for his career, a mark that was below average. Plus he was prone to turnovers.  In sum, Thomas tended to waste possessions. Given these weaknesses, his career WP48 of 0.132 was above average (average is 0.100), but perhaps not as far above average as his Hall-of-Fame credentials would suggest.

Although Isiah had shortcomings as a player, he was always regarded as the leader of the Pistons.  And with Isiah, the Pistons did win two championships.  Given these titles, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that Isiah believes he was the primary reason his team was successful on the court (although as I noted last June, Isiah did not lead the championship teams in Wins Produced).

Given this belief, Isiah has gone out and acquired players in his own image. His roster is stocked with scorers who are not efficient shooters and/or prone to turnovers.  The common starting line-up of Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Quintin Richardson, Zach Randolph, and Eddy Curry consists of five players who can score.  With the exception of Curry, though, these players are below average with respect to shooting efficiency. Curry is efficient, but he’s prone to turnovers (and can’t rebound very well).

If scoring is all that mattered in basketball, the Knicks with these five players on the court would be a dominant team.  All five players are capable of a per-game scoring mark in double digits.  With such talent on the court, opposing defenses should be overwhelmed.  Furthermore, the shooting efficiency of these players should rise as opposing defenses cannot decide who should be guarded. 

It’s my sense that Isiah believes the story I just told.  And furthermore, and this is the point I would strongly emphasize, I would argue he’s not alone.  As I argued in the Yale Economic Review, I think if most general managers had the money given to Isiah, they would also go out and buy every scorer they could lay their hands upon. And when that team of scorers didn’t win, they would make the same arguments you hear from Isiah.  The problem is not a lack of productive talent, the problem is team chemistry and effort.

The Lack of Productive Talent

If we look at the Wages of Wins measures, though, we see that chemistry isn’t the real problem with the Knicks.  The real problem is a lack of productive talent. In sum, many of these players are simply not that good.

Table Two reports the career productivity – entering the 2007-08 season – of each player on the Knicks roster who is currently playing at least 12 minutes per contest.

Table Two: Career Performance of the New York Knicks

From Table Two we see that only two players on the Knicks – Lee and Balkman – have a career WP48 that is substantially above average.  And neither of these players has started the majority of New York’s games (Balkman only plays twelve minutes a game).

Looking at the other players on the roster we see that Richardson, Marbury, Randolph, and Malik Rose hover around the average mark (although Rose has declined considerably late in his career).  And the remaining five players are substantially below average.

In addition to reporting the career averages, Table Two also notes how often each player finished a season with a WP48 in excess of 0.100.  As you can see, of the 63 player seasons played, only 24 of these were above average.  Furthermore, Curry and Crawford, two starters on the Knicks, have combined to offer only one above average season in their careers.  In sum, most of these players have been below average most of the time.

The PER Story

Again, though, the perception is that these players are generally “good.” And when we turn to John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER), that’s a story we hear.  PER tells us that five of these players – Lee, Balkman, Marbury, Randolph, and Curry – have been above average for their career.  Crawford, with a career mark just below average, has been above average five out of the seven seasons he has played.  When we look at all players on the Knicks, this team has posted above average PER marks in 36 of the 63 seasons played.

The PER measure emphasizes player scoring.  Hence, I think it’s consistent with what Thomas seems to be saying.  If we focus on scoring then we have to conclude the Knicks are an above average team.  Unfortunately, year after year, the team’s won-loss record tells a very different story.  And it’s that story that has made New York fans so angry with Isiah Thomas. 

But I would argue again that this is not his fault.  He seems to believe, like so many others, that scoring is the most important thing to look at in evaluating a player.  And I would argue, it’s not Isiah’s fault that he was given enough money to show that the team with the most scorers is not always the team with the most points when the game is over.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also 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

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.