Sam Mitchell Learns that Bad Shopping can get you Fired

Posted on December 4, 2008 by


“If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”

This quote – from Bill Parcells – essentially summarizes the problem facing all head coaches who work under a general manager.  The coach is responsible for the outcome of the dinner, but the general manager buys the groceries.

The Sam Mitchell Story

The latest coach to experience this problem is Sam Mitchell.  Mitchell became head coach of the Toronto Raptors in 2004.  After two losing seasons, the Raptors won 47 games in 2006-07 and Mitchell was named Coach of the Year.  The team’s record, though, was a bit of a mirage.  Toronto’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) was only 1.04, a mark consistent with only 44 victories.

Last year the Raptors improved.  The team’s efficiency differential rose to 3.12, the best mark in franchise history.  Although this differential is consistent with a 49 win team, Toronto only won 41 contests.  Consequently, it appeared that Toronto took a step back.

This past summer the Raptors sought to take a few giant steps forward.  Around the NBA draft, Toronto sent T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston, and the draft rights to Roy Hibbert to the Indiana Pacers for six-time All Star Jermaine O’Neal.  Since the players surrendered were not All-Stars, it was generally believed the Raptors were about to become a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. 

But this hasn’t happened.  After seventeen games the Raptors have a losing record.  And the team’s efficiency differential stands at -4.10. 

As a consequence, Mitchell has lost his job.  Here is how this decision was explained in an article by Adrian Wojnarowski and Johnny Ludden:

After strengthening their frontline in the summer with a trade for center Jermaine O’Neal, the Raptors had hoped to challenge the Boston Celtics in the Atlantic Division. Star forward Chris Bosh has responded with the best season of his career and point guard Jose Calderon is an All-Star candidate, but the Raptors have struggled to an 8-9 record. …”This team is a lot better than a 8-9 record,” (Bryan) Colangelo said on a conference call early Wednesday evening. “…We feel we were not getting the maximization of this roster we had hoped for.”

So was it the cook or the groceries?  Certainly Colangelo – the general manager buying the groceries – would like to believe the problem was Mitchell.  Unfortunately, I think the data suggests there isn’t much wrong with Toronto’s cook.

Why Toronto Has Declined

Table One reports where the Raptors stand after 17 games this season.  Two perspectives are offered.  The first looks at the outcome the Raptors should have expected given the performance of these players last season. The second looks at what the Raptors have done this season. Both perspectives tell essentially the same story.  Toronto is a below average team, and this outcome should have been expected.

Table One: The Toronto Raptors after 17 games in 2008-09

Last season the Raptors had seven players who played more than 1,000 minutes and posted WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] marks that were above average (average is 0.100).  These seven were Jose Calderon, Chris Bosh, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker, Carlos Delfino, T.J. Ford, and Rasho Nesterovic.  Ford and Nesterovic were sent to Indiana while Delfino migrated to Europe.  Of the four remaining players, Parker has been below average this year and Moon – although still above average – is offering less.  But even if Parker and Moon maintained what they did last year, this team would still be below par.

The problem is really quite simple.  Jermaine O’Neal – who used to be a “good” player – has not played well.  And his performance in 2008-09 is consistent with what we have seen since the middle of the 2006-07 season.  As you may recall, O’Neal suffered an injury at that point, and his production suggests he has never fully recovered. 

Essentially the Raptors have lost three productive players and then added a player who only has memories of being a good NBA player.  Consequently, we should not be surprised that this team has struggled.  What’s surprising is that the person who assembled this team expected a different outcome.  Remember, we have evidence that Colangelo was asked by his owner to read The Wages of Wins.  And yet, despite this assignment, Colangelo expects the team he constructed to be better. 

All of this leads me to believe that Colangelo’s owner forgot a crucial part in the process of making an assignment.  It really helps if you give people a test after you assign a reading.  At least I have found, students who know they are not going to be tested over an assignment tend to find other ways to spend their time.

Let me close with a few more notes on this story (comments that are a bit more serious).

  • Andrea Bargnani – the first choice in the 2006 NBA draft – has improved. Last year he was the least productive player in the NBA, finishing with -5.7 Wins Produced. This year he is on pace to produce 1.4 wins. He would actually be an above average small forward, but according to, Bargnani is playing most of his minutes at power forward. And at the four spot, he’s still below average (but not as bad as he was last year).
  • Bargnani’s improved shooting efficiency is one reason he is offering more. But while Bargnani is now frequently finding the basket, O’Neal is still struggling with his shot. Last year O’Neal’s adjusted field goal percentage was 44%. This year O’Neal’s mark stands at 42%. Both marks are well below average.
  • Last year O’Neal was paid $19.7 million and produced -0.4 wins. As a result, he was the Most Overpaid Player in the leagueAccording to HoopsHype, O’Neal is receiving $21.4 million this year. He is only on pace, though, to produce 0.4 wins. Consequently, it’s possible that O’Neal could be a repeat winner of the MOP award.
  • O’Neal’s partner in Toronto’s frontcourt is Chris Bosh. Bosh has declared that he wishes to be MVP in 2009. Currently he is on pace to produce 16.3 wins, which would be a career high. Although such a mark is very good, Bosh’s production levels are nowhere near what we see from Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, or LeBron James.
  • That being said, Bosh must be moving up the list of potential free agents in 2010. Bosh is not on a contender this year. And given Colangelo’s assessment of this team, he’s not likely to be on a contender in 2009-10. Hence, Bosh might want to go elsewhere. And if Bosh does depart Toronto, Colangelo might have to follow. At least, losing Bosh would make the task of building a contender in Toronto extremely difficult (even for someone who read The Wages of Wins).

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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.