Saturday, December 28, 2013

Did all the GM's get lost in Brad Pitt's eyes?

Don't get lost in his eyes - Brad Pitt has important things to say!

This past weekend I was enjoying an artisinal craft lager (1) with my current friend and former couchmate John Lynn when we began discussing my most recent blog post. Although John cares roughly as much for sports as I do for canker sores, he is so devoted to being an active listener that he feigns interest in my rants and even provides valuable constructive criticism. After hearing me complain for entirely too long (2) about the consistent follies of NBA decision makers and how amazing it is that they continue to give away wins by employing horribly unproductive players, John posed the following question: "Is this misguided choice to play unproductive players unique to basketball or pervasive across other sports?" 

As John wandered off to have his first cig (of the last 12 minutes) I pondered his question and decided I'd look at baseball. Baseball has long been at the forefront of the sports analytics movement, a revolution that has only gained steam since the explosion of Moneyball (3). Consequently, I presumed that this massive headstart in emphasizing data driven analysis would result in a crop of savvy MLB decision makers who are better able to evaluate production than their NBA peers and subsequently to avoid giving away wins by not playing unproductive players. Then again, one of MLB's mascots is a crack-addict so maybe I shouldn't have given the league too much credit. 

In order to test the extent to which MLB decision makers understand the value of not employing unproductive players, I turned to Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic. WAR is a great metric because of its conceptual simplicity: it calculates the number of wins that a given player earned above a "replacement" level player (i.e. a player who could be found in the minor leagues or acquired for a choco taco). Specifically, I charted the aggregate negative WAR for the entire MLB from the years of 1984-2013 in two year increments. For fun, I looked at both all players who appeared during those years as well as strictly players who tallied enough appearances to qualify for batting/pitching titles. What I found was, well, sigh:

According to the data, MLB decision makers still give away tens of wins each year by allocating appearances to players who aren't simply below average, but are so unproductive that they don't produce at the level of a "AAAA" replacement player! Moreover, decision makers are giving away more wins now in the Sabrmetrics era than they did in the 80's and 90's!

When I saw this chart, I was convinced that something must be wrong. How could MLB decision makers, who must have seen Brad Pitt leverage easily available data to work wonders for the imaginary A's, still manage to employ such unproductive players? In order to dig a tad deeper, I counted the number of negative WAR players employed throughout this same time period(4). What I found was equally damning:

Yup, MLB decision makers are employing a greater number of sub-replacement level players now than they were in the 80's. 

So what's going on here? There are a number of explanations that likely contributed to this increase including an increase in injuries, changes to free agency/rising salaries, the steroid era increasing the performance discrepancy between the most talented juicers and least talented non-juicers as well as the expansion of the league - during their infancy, the Rockies and Marlins [added in 1993] and Diamondbacks and Rays [1998] all played some pretty horrible players (here's looking at you, Greg Dobbs!). That said, the increasing pool of talent coming from Latin America, Japan, etc... as well as the greatly increased understanding of what makes a productive player should have been more than enough to offset this change, right? 

All of which makes me wonder - did all the GM's get lost in Brad Pitt's eyes during Moneyball?

Let me know your thoughts, questions and critiques in the comments!


1. You're right - it was a Coors Lite. And that's only because they didn't serve Keystones...

2. Entirely too long = 2 Coors or 3 missed opportunities to speak to girls, depending on how you choose to measure time.

3.This trailblazing can be primarily attributed to logistical factors more than anything else:

-Baseball has been around forever (i.e. since the US of A was founded and time technically started)
-The game is (painfully) slow and full of deliberate actions, making it easy to track and quantify events
-Although there are clearly "team plays" that require teammate interaction (e.g. double-plays, sacrifice squeeze, etc...), baseball can be more easily evaluated as a series one-on-one battles between pitcher and batter as opposed to other sports (looking at you, football) in which it can be difficult to isolate an individual's contributions within a team performance.

4. In this case I strictly looked at players who had enough appearances to qualify for batting/pitching awards.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Secret Ingredient to Consistently Winning in the NBA

To consistently win games in the NBA, team decision makers must follow a seemingly simple recipe: acquire and employ productive players. However, for a variety of reasons, this recipe can be hard to execute. For one, most NBA teams do not properly evaluate talent, leading to the misallocation of valuable, limited resources (draft picks, cap space, minutes, etc…). Additionally, many productive players never even make it to the open market since league rules not only stipulate that new players must enter the draft, but also incentivize players to re-sign with their current teams via contractual favoritism. Moreover, NBA history is pockmarked with examples of teams who tanked in order to acquire a sure thing prospect, only to receive a picks that is worse than what they’ve “earned” or to find that the “can’t-miss” prospect they drafted did indeed miss. Throw in the unpredictability of injuries, and it’s clear that acquiring and employing productive players is more difficult and less controllable than teams would like.

But what if there was another way to win more regular season games that, while not as impactful as employing stars, was far easier, cheaper and more controllable? Surely NBA decision makers, being the rational actors they are, would recognize this strategy and use it to their benefit…right? If you’re nodding “yes” right now, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.

So what is this oft-overlooked, easy, cheap and controllable tactic that could enable teams to easily add regular season wins to their totals? Simply put, it’s to avoid giving any meaningful minutes to really bad players, particularly to veterans who aren’t likely to improve.

To accomplish this goal, a team simply needs to reallocate all the minutes it’s currently giving to unproductive players. In theory, this reallocation may sound feasible but tricky, given that every other rational team should be competing for the same limited group of productive players. In reality, however, this trade would be remarkably simple, since NBA talent evaluators inaccurately measure productivity, leaving a ripe field of underplayed, attainable players just waiting to perform average or better.

Furthermore, teams don’t even need to uncover hidden gems to win more regular season games: simply reallocating their wasted minutes to average or even slightly below average players would lead to an increase in win totals! And yet, a quick scan of recent NBA history indicates that even in the information age, almost every team is guilty of employing players who should only see the floor in case of emergency.

As a quick and dirty way of capturing the extent to which each team has allowed unproductive players to sabotage regular season success, I looked at data from the 13 seasons spanning 1999-2013 and summed each team’s negative wins produced over that time. This data certainly doesn’t serve as a complete reflection of a team’s decision making competence and there is the occasional (rare) justification for playing unproductive players (e.g. rookies, trade bait, garbage time, etc…). However, this data serves as a decent proxy for revealing just how many wins are given away by decision makers whose job security is closely tied to their ability to win games:

For even more fun, I generated a scatter plot comparing each team’s negative wins produced and their overall win percentage. What you see is a strong correlation that, although is to be expected for a number of reasons, nevertheless accentuates how the most consistent winners (San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, etc…) not only acquire good players, but understand the value of not giving away wins via the employment of bad players:

To summarize, it’s important to recognize just how much a team loses by choosing to employ very bad players, particularly veterans who aren’t like to improve. These teams waste valuable, limited resources in the form of minutes and roster spots that at a bare minimum should be given to unproductive young players with potential. Moreover, since we know that fan attendance is tied to wins, teams that give away wins are also choosing to give away money.

Nevertheless, there are clear limits to the gains a team could achieve by redistributing minutes given to poor players. Realistically, teams need good players to win, particularly in the playoffs when wins can be largely attributed to your top 5 players. However, in a competitive league where playoff seeding (and home-court advantage) can come down to one or two games, it’s amazing to see NBA decision makers consistently give away valuable wins by choosing to play horrible players. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Forget Doc Rivers - I want to hear more about the Garnett and Pierce deals!

As the Clippers and Celtics finally agreed to terms on a Doc Rivers trade, the majority of the media attention is focused on the potential impact of Doc's movement on both squads. Since games are impacted significantly more by players than coaches (assuming those coaches don’t sabotage their teams by neglecting to play their best players the minutes they deserve), I've been surprised at how much less attention the much rumored (and still very much alive) Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trades have received.*

Don't get me wrong: Rivers is universally revered as one of the league's best coaches and as a Bostonian I can attest to the genuine adoration the majority of Celtics fans feel for him; he's open-minded to new concepts, willing to defer to superior X's and O's defensive assistant coaches, puts his players in a position to excel and exudes class and charm to the point where the media have basically given him a free pass on his mistakes (e.g. deciding offensive rebounds were bad for business despite all the data suggesting otherwise). That said, the majority of coaches really don't make much of an impact, especially compared to the impact of a valuable player. Any potential player exchange containing Garnett (or Pierce, Jason Terry or even Courtney Lee, for that matter...), in a vacuum, would produce far greater impact on the Celtics than the loss of Doc.

So as much as I'm sad to see Doc go, I'm way more excited to see what takes place on the player front, particularly a Pierce or KG deal. It's safe to say the Celtics will explore their options with both Pierce and KG:

Pierce has a $15 million option the Celtics would be fools to not pick up; there is no chance the C's acquire better value than an expiring Pierce deal for what is effectively $10 million given his $5 million buyout clause, especially considering the Celtics would still be over the cap even without Pierce's contract. I fully expect them to exercise Pierce's team option and then look to move him at the deadline, most likely for a package built around a 1st round pick or underachieving young former lottery pick.

As for Garnett, given that he's has a no-trade clause and has shown little interest to play for a rebuilding team that isn't led by Doc Rivers (and certainly not for one that employs neither Rivers nor Pierce, who could be moved at any moment) and that the Celtics have equally little interest in paying him $12.5 million to play limited minutes for an also-ran, there is an impetus on both sides to work together to facilitate a move.

The most obvious scenario would be a straight up swap with the Clippers for DeAndre Jordan. "Sources" have recently deemed this deal "dead" due to the NBA's insistence that any such trade involving these two as principals would be deemed an extension of the Doc transaction given the persistent rumors of their inclusion. That said, I'm skeptical that the league would go so far as to tell these two teams they cannot include those players in any deal in any form at say, the trade deadline (although I wouldn't put anything past a retiring David Stern - he might expand the league into China in the next couple months). Additionally, there are clear motivations on both sides to make such a deal happen, particularly from KG superfans Chris Paul and Doc Rivers. And if the deal does go through, Celtics fans should be thrilled for a number of reasons:

1. Although not all basketball careers follow a strict bell curve in terms of productivity, there really isn't as much deviation as one would think (and not nearly as much as in football or baseball where production is far less consistent from year to year). The vast majority of players peak at age 24-25 and then begin a slow but steady decline until their early-mid 30's (assuming they are still in the league by then) at which point they become valued more for their "leadership" and "experience" than their ability to actually impact a basketball game. Kevin Garnett turned 37 last month and has seen his productivity decrease sharply over the past two seasons; DeAndre Jordan, on the other hand will be turning 25 next month and has demonstrated that he's a consistently high performer at the peak of his powers. 

So for a team with no real shot at winning this year whose planning for the medium/long-term (say a 3-5 year window) would you rather have the aging veteran on his last legs (whose minutes will need to be managed this year and may not even play next year) or the spring chicken who is ready to contribute now and for the next few years? If you haven't realized this was a rhetorical question and have actually stopped to consider the options, you may actually have a future as an NBA decision maker. 

2. As a card carrying Celtic fanatic, it pains me to write this as much as it pains other C's fans to read it: not only is Jordan going to be better than Garnett in the future, but according to most advanced metrics he is currently better than Garnett and has been for the past 2 seasons. 

Now I'll be the first to admit that I'm dubious as to how well any metrics quantify defense (Garnett's primary value these days) and that Garnett scores more points, grabs more defensive boards and fouls less than Jordan and even that KG's passing skills make him a regular Pistol Pete when compared to Jordan's stone hands. But a deeper look at the numbers elucidates a few areas where Jordan excels (offensive boards, blocks) and one key area where Jordan vastly outperforms Garnett to the point of being a superior player: points per shot. Over the past two seasons, DeAndre Jordan has averaged 1.5 points/shot, good for top-10 in the league. KG's scoring roughly 1.2 points/shot, placing him in the mid 70's among qualifying shooters. Although Garnett may score more raw points, the efficiency with which Jordan shoots makes him far more valuable offensively than KG and offsets many of Jordan's other weaknesses, too. 

When deciding whether to trade either or both of these guys, you need to run a quick cost-benefit analysis and determine whether holding on to KG and Pierce simply delays the inevitable rebuild an extra year, or genuinely squanders you chance to acquire good foundational picks and players. If I'm Ainge, I'm worrying more about my job security than loyalty and asking every GM "what will you give me for my two legends?"

What would you say?


*Please don't tell me that Doc has greater worth than the aforementioned because his presence empowers the Clippers to retain All-world PG Chris Paul; if you think Chris Paul is signing outside LA, regardless of coach, GM, owner, mascot, etc..., re-read the CBA and get back to me. Besides, if he cared enough about the leadership figures in the franchise to forgo roughly $27 million, wouldn't he be a tad bit skittish about signing up to play for an owner who is a crookedracistcheapskate?).

**It's still amazes me how badly Danny Ainge and whoever the hell runs the Clippers these days messed this up so badly. The Miami trio blatantly tampered to join forces and the League didn't even slap them with a fine.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why the Nets had to hire Jason Kidd

It's been reported that Jason Kidd will serve as the new Head Coach of the Brooklyn Nets. The initial reaction of many in the sports world is one of skepticism, due primarily to the fact that Kidd has no previous coaching experience at any level, let alone in the world's premier league; since Kidd has never done it before, the thinking goes, now way he can do it competently on his first try! Although I understand the risk averse thought process of NBA decision makers (the name of the game for NBA GM's is "don't give them a reason to fire you"), hiring Kidd would prove a prudent calculated risk for the Nets with the potential benefits far outweighing the risks.

Head Coaches impact three major facets of the game responsibilities:

A) Designing strategies
B) Inspiring the troops to play hard
C) Allotting burn to players

(NB: When it comes to tangibly improving player performance, the differences between the vast majority of coaches is shockingly slim. But assuming the Nets are seeking the rare coach who can impact player performance consistently, and they can't hire one of the select few coaches (Phil Jax, Popovich, etc...) who does improve player performance [and if the Nets could, they presumably would have by now] which option would you prefer: the low risk/low reward retread option or the higher risk/higher reward option, a well respected player/tactician who has never coached before?)

I have few questions about Kidd on point A given the fact that he is a brilliant basketball mind and will no doubt feature an all-star staff of coaching assistants (including Lawrence Frank, the same Mensa who only played Andre Drummond 21 minutes/game last year). As for getting his guys to buy-in, Kidd is a well-respected veteran fresh off (during...?) his playing career, thus making him identifiable to both veterans and youngsters.

That leaves C: playing the right players. This is a biggie because it's the coach's most impactful decision; but isn't playing time allotment a concern the Nets would have with any new hire? Would you rather have Larry Brown and his debilitating obsession with shitty veterans who "play the game the right way?" Additionally, when you consider the makeup of this team (PG, SG, SF and C are locked up for the next couple years, whether those players deserve the run or not), the risk is further minimized.

So really, the only risky bet you're making is that Kidd (and his staff) understands player productivity and lineups well enough to not hurt you. Considering the following potential rewards, is hiring Kidd not well worth the minimal risk?

-Put yourself in Brooklyn's hipster Chuck Taylors: you are in roughly the worst possible cap scenario in which any NBA team can find themselves: up against the luxury tax for the foreseeable future with a semi-competitive team, no good draft picks/young studs and sans flexibility; you owe big money long-term contracts to Deron Williams, who may or may not have lost 20-25 lbs throughout the season, Brook Lopez, who has yet to meet a rebound he's found of, Gerald Wallace (whose productivity just fell off a cliff and isn't getting up any time soon) and Iso Joe Johnson, whose deal looks particularly egregious because A) he's not very good and B) he signed it during the previous CBA when salaries were longer and inflated.

Realistically, your team ain't competing any time soon unless you hit a homerun in acquiring a stud player or coach. Can you afford to NOT take the high risk/high reward option, for either players or coaches? In Kidd, it's not like you're getting some Vinny Del Negro chopped liver: you're getting a rare basketball mind - one of the finest offensive tacticians the NBA has seen and an underrated defender who relied on guile to maintain some effectiveness as he aged. You may not have this chance again if some other team picks him up.

-Given your lack of cap flexibility, the only chance you have at acquiring any good players is getting a steal in the draft, fleecing another team in a trade or talking a veteran into the midlevel or veterans exceptions. Given that Billy King is your GM, you can throw the draft/trade route out the window. Now I know veterans typically choose to sign with winners, but is it out of the question to think Kidd could speak with some of his mentees and friends and get them to play for him in New York? At the least it's an added potential benefit.

-Not only does it help you on the court, but it helps your branding and marketing. Hiring a Nets legend away from the rival Knicks is exactly the type of splash every mediocre, high salaried New York team needs.

-And finally, I cannot verbalize how excited I am by the thought of a current day player-coach. Yes, Jason Kidd has retired, but as any sports fan knows, an athlete's retirement announcement is roughly the equivalent of his wedding vows. Besides, is there really any doubt the JKidd would be far and away their best option at backup guard? According to advanced metrics, Kidd was still a valuable player last year on a per minute basis with the only real knock on him being his lack of scoring, a non-issue on this current Nets team.

So what do you think - was hiring Kidd worth the risk?