Stumbling on Wins in Memphis

Posted on January 4, 2010 by


Last August I referred to the NBA franchise in Memphis as the  Memphis Lions.  Essentially I argued that the Memphis Grizzlies and Detroit Lions are quite similar.  Both teams have an owner that claims winning is important.  And most seasons, the team finishes with a losing record. 

The Detroit Lions have once again followed this pattern.  The 2009 season has now concluded and the Lions 2-14 record means fans of this team are now looking forward to the NFL draft (we actually started thinking of the draft in September). 

The Memphis Lions Vanish

Meanwhile the Memphis Lions… demolished the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night.  And now the Grizzlies have a 16-16 record.  So it appears the Memphis Lions have gone away.

And of course we wonder: How did this happen?    

A glance at Table One reveals who is responsible for this change. 

Table One: The Memphis Grizzlies after 32 Games in 2009-10

Table One indicates that the Grizzlies are on pace to win 40 games this season (and if that happens this will be the fourth best mark in franchise history).  Nearly 30 of these wins can be tied to the production of two players: Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.  Based on last year’s performance each player was expected to be among the leading producers of wins on the Grizzlies. This year, though, each is doing much more.

Relative to last year, Randolph has improved with respect to shooting efficiency and rebounds (the improved shooting efficiency can be partially explained by Randolph taking fewer three point shots).  The same story (minus the three-pointer story) can be seen with respect to Gasol.

The Benefit of the NBA Draft?

One of the supposed benefits of losing is that a team gets a top draft choice.   After years of losing the Grizzlies have certainly accumulated a few top picks.  What is interesting (at least to me) – as the following list illustrates — is the size of the benefit these top draft picks have provided. 

  • Rudy Gay (8th pick in 2006): 5.4 projected wins in 2009-10
  • Mike Conley (4th pick in 2007): 1.1 projected wins in 2009-10
  • O.J. Mayo (3rd pick in 2008): 4.5 projected wins in 2009-10
  • Hasheem Thabeet (2nd pick in 2009): 2.4 projected wins in 2009-10

If we add the projections together we only see 13.5 wins.  So if the Grizzlies were depending on their top draft picks they would still be the Memphis Lions.  Rather than depending on the draft, the Grizzlies have improved because of  a second round choice in the 2007 draft (Gasol) and a high-priced power forward the L.A. Clippers essentially gave away this past summer (Randolph).

Lucky or Good? 

One could argue that the performance of both Gasol and Randolph was not expected when Memphis acquired these players.  And had these players performed as they did last year, Memphis would be on pace to win fewer than 30 games again. So it looks like the Grizzlies have essentially stumbled on wins (sounds something like a great title for a great book).  The teams high draft picks have yet to produce significant quantities of wins (although Thabeet is already above average very early in his career).  And the team’s top producers of wins had not done this in the past.

Of course, it’s better to be lucky than good (or at least, that is how the saying goes).  But in evaluating decisions – and learning how to make better choices – it’s important to know why success (or failure) was achieved.  And when we look at the Grizzlies, it looks like at least some of this team’s success is tied to simple good fortune (as opposed to simply great decisions).   

– 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.