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Posted on March 8, 2008 by


Earlier in the week I commented on the website FireGeorgeKarl, created by Andrew Feinstein. Feinstein argues that George Karl – head coach of the Denver Nuggets – is the reason why Denver is unable to contend for an NBA title this season.  When we look at Wins Produced, though, we see a different story.  The past performance of the players Denver employs this season do not lead one to predict title contention this season. Yes, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson are top scorers.  But neither player can produce wins in the quantities sufficient to vault a team into the title picture.

Although my argument was supported by many numbers (and adequate logic and writing), Feinstein read my story and has decided to disagree.  Here is his response:

FireGeorgeKarl, Fires Back!!

At last! Algorithms to explain the fiasco that is the 2007-08 Denver Nuggets…

If I’ve learned two things in my lifetime, it’s never question Reggie Theus’ officially listed height to his face (story for another time), and don’t get into an argument over empirical data with an Economics Professor.

One of the authors of “The Wages of Wins” has commented on this blog, suggesting that my argument blaming the coach for our team’s problems doesn’t quite add up. Professor David J. Berri points out that since some of the Nuggets players are playing “a bit better” this season (based on his algorithms that measure player performance), Coach Karl is doing an okay job. Well, try telling us fans and Stanley Kroenke’s accountant that they’re playing “a bit better” when we either miss the playoffs, or get knocked out in the first round again.

I have a great deal of respect for Professor Berri’s work, enjoy reading his online journal and look forward to reading his book for more insight – assuming I’m smart enough to understand it. I, however, believe that a hybrid of in-depth statistical analysis and general basketball know-how is the key to building a good team. For example, according to Malcom Gladwell’s New Yorker review of the book, “The Wages of Wins” states that Allen Iverson’s MVP season of 2000-01, in which he took the Philadelphia 76ers to the finals, ranked him as the 91st best player in the NBA. 91st! This means that either the data doesn’t account for intangibles like hustle, leadership, locker room presence, camaraderie with teammates, etc…or that Larry Brown is one hell of a coach.

But accepting that I’m not familiar with Professor Berri’s formulations in regards to a coach’s impact on a player, I have to ask him a general question: Isn’t player performance – past and present – attributed to the coach getting that performance out of them in the first place? At least somewhat? Professor Berri may argue that the current Nuggets players aren’t capable of being a lot better to begin with, but I would argue that it is the coach’s job to make them a lot better. Hence why Coach Karl and his NBA coach colleagues get paid millions of dollars a year.

So who’s right? Both of us? Neither? Perhaps the chicken-and-egg debate about coaching vs. player performance will just rage on for eternity.
In the meantime, may I suggest Professor Berri trading me a copy of his book in exchange for a copy of mine? This way, I can learn about the intricacies of the Win Produced vs. Win Score formula, and he can learn how to pick up girls in bars from the perspective of cartoon characters. It should be noted that my book didn’t get a New Yorker review from Gladwell, but received high praise from the Playboy Magazine Blog.

And My Response

Here is the first thought that came to mind after I read Feinstein:

“Feinstein’s book sounds cool!!! This sounds like a great trade.”

Unfortunately, this was followed by two additional thoughts.

1. The Wages of Wins was published by a Stanford Press.  I received a few free copies, but these have all been given out to friends and family.   So I don’t have anything to trade.

2. My wife tells me that I am not allowed to pick up girls in bars.  My two daughters confirm this sentiment. 

After these thoughts, I turned to the other stuff Feinstein had to say.

Feinstein argues that although Denver’s players may not have been great in the past, it’s still Karl’s job to get them to play better.  There is some evidence (which I think we will talk about in Book II) that coaches can influence player performance. That being said, it’s still the case that the best predictor of current performance is what a player did in the past.  In other words, although we can debate the role of coaching (or the role of teammates, diminishing returns, usage rates, injury, offensive and defensive schemes, etc…), for the most part players are what they are. 

Or in still other words, I doubt there are any magical words that Karl – or any other coach – could utter that would transform Melo and The Answer into the extremely productive players imagined by fans (and that’s still my story, even though the Nuggets pounded the Spurs on Friday night).

So to summarize…when Feinstein asks “who’s right?” the answer is simple:  It’s me.  At least, at this blog that’s true.  I still, though, want to see Feinstein’s book.  Maybe my wife will let me trade a copy of Book II.


By the way, for more on Iverson’s MVP season, please read the following posts:

How Did Philadelphia get to the Finals in 2001?

An Allen Iverson Comment