Managing Expectations in New York

Posted on September 3, 2008 by

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Under Isiah Thomas the New York Knicks consistently ranked among the league leaders in payroll.  And the Knicks also consistently ranked among the league leaders in losses.  In fact, only the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats lost more games since the start of the 2004-05 season (the first full year Isiah Thomas was in New York). 

The high payrolls in New York tended to raise the expectations of the team’s fans.  Such high expectations, though, kept crashing against the reality of poor play.  And this disconnect between expectations and results consistently led to disappointed and angry fans.

Obviously the solution to this problem is to align expectations and results.  And this can be accomplished by simply winning more often.  Of course, there is also another solution.  If you can simply lower expectations you might also lower the level of unhappiness in New York.

Lowering Expectations in New York

Faced with these two choices, the new management in New York – president Donnie Walsh and head coach Mike D’Antoni — has apparently started by pursuing the latter option.  Since taking over for Isiah Thomas, Walsh and D’Antoni have

  • drafted Danilo Gallinari, who Erich Doerr compared to Andreas Bargnani (Bargnani was the least productive player in the NBA last season)
  • traded Renaldo Balkman – one of the few above average players on the team in 2007-08 –to the Denver Nuggets to make room for Gallinari (and did I mention that Doerr comparied Gallinari to the least productive player in the NBA)
  • signed Chris Duhon, a player who was benched in 2007-08 by the woeful Chicago Bulls
  • traded for Patrick Ewing, Jr.  And no, that’s not the same as taking Patrick Ewing Sr. to the fountain of youth and bringing him out of retirement.

The Knicks only won 23 games last season.  And when we look at these moves, it’s hard to see how this team is going to improve.

Fortunately for the Knicks, though, it seems hard to imagine that Knick fans are going to think that the additions of Gallinari, Duhon, and Ewing Jr. are going to transform the Knicks into a contender. 

The one position that seems to exemplify the drive to lower expectations is at point guard.  Stephon Marbury – as noted last November – entered the 2007-08 season with a 0.107 career WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  Average is 0.100, so Marbury has essentially been an average NBA player in his career.

Chris Duhon posted a 0.088 mark last year in Chicago, but has a career mark of 0.127.   This looks like a slightly better career average than Marbury, but essentially should be thought of as a similar level of productivity.  In sum, the Knicks appear to be replacing a slightly above average point guard with another slightly above average point guard.

The advantage of this move is that people think Marbury is Starbury.  So when Starbury is average, and his team fails to wins (a scenario that has happened across much of his career), people are disappointed.  In contrast, no one thinks Duahon – who has only averaged 6.9 points per game in his career – is a star.  Consequently, few people (primarily just a few people who read The Wages of Wins Journal), think Duhon is anywhere near average or that his addition will make much difference.  In fact, many people might think Duhon makes this team worse.  So when the team loses with Duhon, no one will be disappointed.

Looking for Results in New York

But will the Knicks keep losing in 2008-09?  To answer this question, let’s look at what exactly happened last year.

Last year the Knicks only won 23 games.  The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of -6.9 was the worst mark in franchise history (at least history since 1973-74, the first year we can measure this differential).

 Table One: The New York Knicks in 2007-08

When we look at the team’s players in 2006-07 – reported in Table One — we see the Knicks were not supposed to be quite this bad.  Had the team’s players maintained what they did two years ago, this team should have expected to win about 35 games.  Unfortunately, Quentin Richardson got hurt and that injury lowered his productivity by nearly six wins.  And David Lee – who was amazing in 2006-07 – was merely very, very good in 2007-08.  The remaining players on the roster, given what they did in 2006-07, were expected to produce 11.2 wins last year.  When we look at what they actually did in 2007-08, though, we only see 10.2 victories.  Yes, that’s about the same. 

Despite the poor performance of most of the Knicks last season, Walsh and D’Antoni are choosing to bring back most of these players.  To the extent there is a plan, it appears to center on the abilities of Coach D’Antoni.  Over the last four seasons the Knicks have averaged 28 victories per year.  Across this time period, D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns averaged 58 victories. 

When we look at these Phoenix teams, though, we see that 81% of the team’s wins can be tied to the productivity of just three players: Shawn Marion (74.2 Wins Produced), Steve Nash (70.9 Wins Produced), and Amare Stoudemire (43.3 Wins Produced).  And none of these players -as of yet – are joining D’Antoni in New York.

Now one might suspect that D’Antoni is the reason why these three were so productive.  And therefore D’Antoni will be able to transform existing players in New York into what he had in Phoenix.   Certainly Nash did play better under D’Antoni (although does anyone see Duhon becoming another Nash?). Marion, though, was essentially the same player with and without D’Antoni.  In Marion’s first five seasons he generated 86.1 Wins Produced and posted a 0.299 WP48.  In the four years under D’Antoni, Marion produced 74.2 wins with a 0.303 WP48. Yes it’s possible that coaches can alter player performance.  But in the case of the leading wins producer on the Suns, it doesn’t look like D’Antoni made much difference.

Nevertheless, the coaching of D’Antoni appears to be the plan in New York.  And although some might expect this to make a difference, I am skeptical.  Given what these players did in the past in New York, it’s hard to see these players becoming winners in 2008-09 (regardless of the coach).  This won’t be a problem, though, if no one expects a winner.  And with the additions of Gallinari, Duhon, and Ewing Jr., I can’t see why anyone would have such an expectation.

– DJ

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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.