Friday, January 14, 2011

Streaks of Great Seasons Are Bigger In Texas

A few quick points in response to John Hollinger's latest column on ESPN about the remarkable decade-long success of the Mavericks and Spurs.

1. It is not likely that Dallas regrets the effective swap of Steve Nash for Erick Dampier back in the summer of 2004. The Mavs got to the NBA Finals in 2006 and then amassed the best record in '07 without Nash. Nash is a fine point guard who excels in the open system of Mike D'Antoni and Alvin Gentry system, but he suffers on the defensive side of the court and surely would not have thrived under Avery Johnson.

2. Hollinger ponders why there is no training academy for new NBA owners. Existing owners have no incentive to educate new owners on good management practices. In the McDonald's regime, every franchisee wants to keep the quality of the McD brand high; incidents of scalding coffee or French fries cooked with pig lard are not good for business. And each McDonald's store is not competing with another; each outlet tends to be at least one mile away from the nearest saffron arch. In the NBA, however, the league's reputation is not harmed much if Minnesota fields a crummy team; a few instances of abysmality are expected by nation-wide fans. Additionally, teams are competing against each other, at least in basketball terms.

3. Finally, Hollinger says that the probability of a randomly selected team winning 50 games, then doing it again the following year has historically been about 70%. Thus, the chance of ten consecutive 50-win repeats is some tiny fraction. That is a fine approach to elementary statistics. However, we are not considering the case of a randomly selected team of unknown identity. We're talking about the MAVS and the SPURS. These teams have not merely strung together a crazy, fluky, hot streak with tons of lucky breaks. Based on what we know about the quality of their organizations, we should update our estimate of their probability of attaining repeat 50-win seasons. In other words, by now we should not be surprised.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Knowing When To Fold 'Em's Henry Abbott today posits that NBA teams are, in recent years, quicker to give up on high draft picks compared to the good old days. Is this really so? Abbott declines to give one bit of evidence for his position.

Looking at the top 11 picks in the seven drafts from 2003-2007, I find the following players who were traded, or non-renewed, by their original teams within three years after the draft. (I am not counting any player who was traded on draft day or very shortly thereafter by the team that drafted him. I am defining "original team" to mean the team that the player suited up with in his first training camp.)

2003: Darko Milicic, TJ Ford, Michael Sweetney
2004: Luke Jackson, Rafael Araujo
2005: Ike Diogu
2006: Adam Morrison, Randy Foye, Shelden Williams, Patrick O'Bryant, Mouhamed Sene
2007: Yi Jianlian, Spencer Hawes, Acie Law
2008: Michael Beasley, Joe Alexander, Jerryd Bayless
2009: Terrence Williams

That is 18 guys out of 77, or 23%.

What of the seven drafts from 1996-2002?
1996: Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Lorenzen Wright, Samaki Walker, Todd Fuller
1997: Chauncey Billups, Antonio Daniels, Tony Battie, Ron Mercer, Tim Thomas, Danny Fortson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad
1998: Mike Bibby, Robert Traylor, Jason Williams, Larry Hughes
1999: Elton Brand, Rip Hamilton, Andre Miller, Trajan Langdon
2000: Darius Miles, Mike Miller, DerMarr Johnson, Jérôme Moïso
2001: Eddie Griffin, Rodney White, Joe Johnson, Kedrick Brown
2002: Drew Gooden, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner, Caron Butler

That is 32 guys out of 77, or 42%.

It appears that, contra Abbott, team management have actually become LESS willing to part with lottery picks early in their career. Perhaps part of this dynamic can be explained by the more talent-rich drafts of recent years, compared to fin-de-siecle times. I cannot explain why the Jimmy Carter administration produced so few basketball-bound babies of star caliber, whereas the Reagan years of natality have been replete with talent. However, the trend is undeniable. 1996 was unquestionably a good draft year (three future MVPs in Iverson, Bryant, Nash, just to start) but most of the top picks in the immediate years after that were stiffs: Olowokandi, Marcus Fizer, Kwame Brown... But starting with 2003's cohort of James, Wade, Bosh, and Anthony, several Hall of Fame-caliber players have entered the league. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Blake Griffin all could be HOF-bound if they maintain their current pace for another decade. Why give up on players like that?

Whether the influx of talent masks a secular change in GM philosophy regarding young "busts" is hard to say.