The Memphis Mirage

Posted on July 6, 2008 by


Here are the first few lines from a recent article (by Jim Masilak) in the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

Greg Campbell knows that one factor above all others drives interest in the sports world.

“Star potential. That’s what the fans want to see every night they come to an event,” said Campbell, the Grizzlies’ new president of business operations. “Wins are important, but they want to see something exciting.”

A perennial NBA doormat, the Grizzlies may finally have a reason to roll out the red carpet.

Excitement over the draft-night deal that brought guard O.J. Mayo to Memphis is palpable at FedExForum, where skeptical season-ticket holders are signaling their approval by re-upping for the 2008-09 season.

What Drives Gate Revenue in the NBA?

Campbell – the president of business operations for the Grizzlies — argues that star appeal (rather than wins) is what drives ticket sales.  Our research, though, indicates otherwise.  As noted in Chapter Five of The Wages of Wins (and as I wrote in The New York Times in February of 2007), gate revenue in the NBA is driven by wins.  Star power is not found to be very important. 

You can see this clearly in the regression analysis.  And you can also see this when you look at specific stars.  For example – again, as noted in the above New York Times article – Allen Iverson was not able to attract many fans while playing for losing teams in Philadelphia. 

Or consider the case of Kevin Garnett.  According to, KG and the Minnesota Timberwolves ranked in the bottom third in league attendance (measured in terms of percentage of capacity) in 2006-07.  The same story could be told about the Celtics that season.  With both teams in the bottom of the NBA standings, many fans decided to stay away. But when KG moved to Boston for the 2007-08 season, the Celtics were suddenly playing before a sold out arena.  The same KG who couldn’t draw in Minnesota was suddenly a big hit playing for a Boston team that led the NBA in wins.  Once again, it appears that winning drives attendance in the NBA.

The Grizzlies Test the Hypothesis

Still the above story indicates that the Grizzlies are selling more tickets after drafting O.J. Mayo.  One suspects this is because Memphis fans think the Grizzlies are about to improve.  Is this expectation likely to be realized?

To answer this question, let’s first look at what the Grizzlies were on 2007-08.

Table One: The Memphis Grizzlies in 2007-08

An average NBA player will produce 0.100 wins per 48 minutes played [WP48].  When we look at the Grizzlies last season, we see exactly three above average performers: Mike Miller [0.213 WP48], Pau Gasol [0.153 WP48], and Kyle Lowry [0.108 WP48].   Gasol was traded to the Lakers in mid-season (a move that helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals).  Now Miller has been moved to Minnesota in the trade that netted O.J. Mayo.

After this trade the Grizzlies roster consisted of the following veteran players (WP48 in 2007-08 reported after each name)

Kyle Lowry [0.108]

Marko Jaric (0.096)

Rudy Gay (0.055)

Mike Conley (0.054)

Javaris Crittenton (0.025)

Hakim Warrick (0.009)

Greg Buckner (-0.003)

Darko Milicic (-0.013)

Antoine Walker (-0.097)

Of the nine veterans employed, only one was above average last season (average WP48 is 0.100).  And Lowry was only barely above average.   Plus, Lowry is probably going to lose minutes in a crowded backcourt that now employs Mayo.

It has been argued that Mayo was the third best “talent” in the 2008 NBA draft.  The work of Erich Doerr, though, tells us that Mayo was not the third most productive player taken out of college this summer.  In fact, Mayo’s performance in college last year was below average for an NBA prospect. Doerr did note that Mayo’s performance improved over the last nine games of the season.  Still, it’s hard to believe that adding Mayo (or Darrell Arthur, the other Memphis draft pick that Doerr’s analysis frowns upon) to this collection of veterans is going to produce many wins.

Certainly one suspects that Memphis is not done making moves.  Right now Memphis has four young point guards (Mayo, Conley, Lowry, and Crittenton).  In addition, Marko Jaric is also listed at the point.  Meanwhile, with Juan Carlos Navarro going back to Spain, Greg Buckner is the only shooting guard.  And Rudy Gay is the only player listed at small forward (assuming Casey Jacobsen is gone).   

So it’s possible that Memphis is going to make some changes (beyond just signing Pau Gasol’s brother).  Given what they have right now, though, we can expect Memphis to lose frequently in 2008-09.  And when Memphis fans realize that Mayo is not bringing wins to town, we can expect these fans to start staying home in larger numbers. 

While they are home, perhaps they can peruse Doerr’s first glance at the 2009 draft class.  It’s from this collection of talent that Memphis will once again attempt to choose a player who can turn this team around.   Of course, before Memphis can get to the 2009 draft, fans of the Grizzlies will still have to endure the 2008-09 season.  And that experience will bring to mind one of my favorite sayings of Detroit Lions fans during another losing NFL season: “This downtime between the draft sure is a drag.”

– DJ

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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.