Evaluating the Nucleus in Memphis

Posted on April 14, 2008 by

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In a very short period of time, 3 Shades of Blue has become one of the better NBA team fan sites on the Internet.  In addition to providing detailed coverage of the Memphis Grizzlies, this site is also becoming known for landing significant interviews with important people associated with this team.

The latest interview from the Shades of Blue folks was with Michael Heisley, the owner the Grizzlies.  In a five part interview (see links below), Heisley answers just about any question one could think of for an NBA owner.

Michael Heisley Tells It Like It Is – Part One

Michael Heisley Tells It Like It Is – Part Two

Michael Heisley Tells It Like It Is – Part Three

Michael Heisley Tells It Like It Is – Part Four

Michael Heisley Tells It Like It Is – Part Five

Chip Crain – one of the writers at 3 Shades of Blue – gave me an advanced copy of the entire interview.  The single spaced Word document runs for more than 22 pages and contains more than 13,000 words.  So this is one long interview. 

A Vision

I would like to focus on a question Heisley was asked at the very onset.  The first question was as follows: “…what is your vision of the team going forward? How long do you expect we can return to the playoffs? How long before we are competing for a championship?”

And here is part of Heisley’s response:

My vision for the team is we are in the process of rebuilding the team. We got a nucleus of 5 young players that we are trying to build a team around. That doesn’t mean that they will be with us for 5 years but it is the nucleus we are going to build around. That includes young players like Rudy Gay, (Hakim) Warrick, {Mike) Conley, Kyle Lowry and (Javaris) Crittenton and they’re the young players that are there.

There is more to the quote, but the basic idea is that the Grizzlies are assembling a nucleus of young players who they hope will eventually develop into a title contender.

The very next question noted an obvious omission from Heisley’s list. Darko Milicic – the second player taken in the 2003 draft – was not listed.  When asked about this, Heisley offered this response:

I think Darko’s a part of the team. I think the reason you’re looking at it is that Darko’s been in the league for a length of time, you would hope the question is have we seen what Darko is going to be or are we seeing what he is and what he might be might be even better. That’s what we’re hoping. When we brought Darko in our hope was to basically get some of things we’ve gotten out of him and that is #1 defense and I think he’s done a fantastic job against some of the other big men in the league. #2 is rebounding and I think he can do a better job on rebounding, and if we got some offense out of him that was a big plus. I think we need to get more of what we’ve seen from him game to game rather than some of the ups and downs that Darko has.

Okay, there is much more to this interview (and you should read it all).  But I want to just focus on just these two quotes.  According to Heisley, the foundation of this team is the young players currently employed.   I wish to look at the numbers and evaluate the strength of this foundation. 

The Grizzlies in 2007-08

Let me begin with what this team has done after 80 games in 2007-08

Table One: The Memphis Grizzlies after 80 games

Table One takes the standard approach.   The team is evaluated both in terms of what happened this year, and what we could have expected had each player performed as he did in 2006-07 (except for rookies).  As Table One reports, reality and expectation were quite similar for the Grizzlies.

Wins Produced in 2007-08 (and efficiency differential) says this team should have won about 24 of its first 80 games (the team actually won 22 games).  If we look at last year’s numbers, we would have expected about 23 wins.

Although the team is performing as expected, there have been some changes in the play of a few individuals.  Specifically, Rudy Gay and Mike Miller are offering more this season (on a per-minute basis).  Pau Gasol, Darko Milicic, and Brian Cardinal offered less (on a per-minute basis).

Heisley noted that the team was focusing on youth.  Following that vision, Gasol was traded to the Lakers.  And one presumes that both Miller (currently the most productive player on the roster) and Cardinal (one of the least productive) will no longer be playing in Memphis when this team returns to the playoffs (although Miller is only 27, so I am not sure that’s true).  So let’s take a look at Gay and Milicic.

Rudy Gay Improves

We begin with Gay.  Last year Gay was one of the worst rookies.  This year – as Table Two indicates – he has improved.

Table Two: Rudy Gay Improves

It’s important to note, though, how he has improved.  With respect to Net Possessions (Rebounds + Steals – Turnovers), Gay’s performance the past two years is virtually unchanged.  The same story can be told about assists, blocked shots, and personal fouls.

Where Gay has stepped forward is with respect to shooting efficiency. 

Although Gay’s better shooting has caused his overall productivity to increase, one has to be concerned that progress has only been made with respect to one aspect of the game.  His lack of progress with respect to rebounds may seem especially odd since Gay has been spending more time at power forward (where rebounding is really important) and he plays on a team that is not very good on the boards (so there should be rebounds to be had).

Given Gay’s persistent inability to rebound, his time at power forward is especially costly to the Grizzlies.  In fact, it’s almost as costly as this team giving more time in the front-court to Darko Milicic.

Darko Regresses

As noted, Milicic was taken with the second pick of the 2003 draft.  Thus far his career Wins Produced stands at 1.0.  Yes, Darko has produced only one win for his entire career.  This is hardly what Joe Dumars envisioned when Milicic was chosen by the Pistons (instead of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Nick Collison, Chris Kaman, David West, etc…).

When we look at the individual stats – detailed in Table Three – we see where Darko has struggled.

Table Three: Darko Regresses

As noted in the table, marks in red are below average. And Darko’s table just bleeds.  Basically Darko has one skill.  He can block shots.  But he can’t shoot. He doesn’t rebound well.  He also doesn’t get a team assists or steals. 

In addition to not being good at much, he has also done less for Memphis than he did last year in Orlando.  In other words, he has regressed.

Much of this regression is tied to his shooting efficiency.  When it comes to rebounds, Milicic has actually improved.  Perhaps if he could learn to hit his shots, he could become an average center.  No, that’s not what Joe Dumars envisioned in 2004.  But if the Grizzlies got the production of an average center out of Darko, I think they would be thrilled.

Evaluating the Foundation

So Gay has improved, but only enough to be a slightly above average small forward (but still below average at power forward).  Darko doesn’t seem to be making much progress. What of the other players Heisley identified?

Warrick was drafted in 2005.  After three years he has not come close to being an average player.  A big part of the problem is that Warrick spends much of his time at power forward, where (just like we saw with Gay) his productivity is not sufficient.

Conley, Lowry, and Crittenton are all point guards. This year Lowry is about average.  Conley and Crittenton are both rookies who are below average yet in the positive range. It’s possible that at least one of these players will develop into a productive lead guard.

So the Grizzlies currently have productive players at the one, two (if Mike Miller stays), and the three.  What they don’t have is anybody to produce at power forward or center. 

It’s possible this team will land Michael Beasley (or perhaps Kevin Love) in the draft, and he should help.  I am not as confident that Brook Lopez or DeAndre Jordan will help immediately (or ever).  Still, it’s possible that the draft will provide some relief.

Certainly this team does need some help.  Although the Grizzlies have players who can be about average, other than Mike Miller this team does not have anyone who has shown he can be a major producer of wins.  And if you don’t have players who can produce wins in large quantities, your team doesn’t tend to win many games.

And with this thought in mind, let me close by re-posting something I said about the Grizzlies last September:

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.

This thought needs to be remembered as Memphis rebuilds.  Until the foundation of this team is populated by players who produce wins in large quantities, this team will simply continue to struggle.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com 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.