As the 2009-2010 season mercifully lurches towards its conclusion and the Summer of 2010 approaches with all its promise of rebirth, I can’t help but wonder whether the Knicks’ cap-clearing plan could have been executed with more precision. I don’t mean that in the way of second guessing specific moves. This isn’t going to be a rant that the Knicks should have done “x” instead of “y” or should have drafted Brandon Jennings or whoever in 2009 instead of Jordan Hill (though suddenly Jordan Hill is looking pretty okay). You can always play those kinds of games and, unless you were inside the room and privy to all the information available, no one knows the answers to those questions.
No, I mean it in the following sense: Are the Knicks a smart, efficient organization? We know that, prior to Donnie Walsh’s hiring, the answer was a resounding “no”. In fact, during the Thomas administration they were dopiest, most frivolous, least efficient organization in the whole NBA. But what about now? For sure, things are better than they were. But even now, are the Knicks making the most of their vast resources?
What got me wondering about this was last week’s Sloane Sports Analytics Conference. For the uninitiated, the SSAC (also known as Dorkapalooza) is a gathering of some of sports’ most progressive and analytical minds. The conference centers around a series of panels discussing new methods for incorporating a more scientific approach to evaluating talent and running pro sports organizations. This movement has been pervasive in baseball for some time now but in recent years its reach has extended to NBA front offices. Among the early adopters of more analytical models were Houston Rockets GM and SSAC co-chairman Daryl Morey and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
To the best of my knowledge, a significant number of NBA teams sent representatives to the conference to observe the panels. And to the best of my knowledge, the Knicks were not among those teams. What I’m wondering is: why not?
I recognize that Donnie Walsh has been running NBA teams for a loooong time now and that he’s undoubtedly an old-school guy. But even if the Knicks take a more traditional approach to building and running a basketball team, I would hope that they’d want to be privy to anything and everything that could provide the team with even the smallest advantage. By blowing off the conference, are the Knicks suggesting that there’s nothing worthwhile or even minimally thought-provoking being discussed there? If so, I find that troubling.
They say information is power. More to the point, having better information than your competitors gives you an advantage over them. So, if the Knicks aren’t at least making themselves aware of the work being done in the egghead community, aren’t they setting themselves up to get worked over by eggheads?
If you’re rolling your eyes right now, consider the thought within the context of this year’s trade deadline. Walsh’s principal deadline adversary was none other than the aforementioned Morey, a noted devotee to analytics. Now, I’m not among those that bow at Morey’s alter. He’s an impressive young executive but he can’t match Donnie’s experience and savvy. I guarantee, though, that he was armed with more statistical information at the negotiating table about the players involved than Donnie was.
And to me that’s a bad thing. Not because it automatically means that Donnie has been or will be ripped off by a rival. I have a lot of faith in Donnie and he probably knew other things that Morey didn’t know. But rather, because it places Walsh at a needless disadvantage, at least in that limited respect. There’s absolutely no reason that a team with the Knicks’ resources shouldn’t be at least aware of, if not incorporating into their management philosophy, all the trends and concepts percolating within the basketball community. At a minimum, it would give the organization insight into how others are evaluating talent. At maximum, it might help Walsh exploit his adversaries. If Donnie has 40 years in the business and he knows what Morey is looking at, that would seem to present a huge advantage, no?
And this isn’t just about attending a conference and reading reports. It’s about finding ways to amass talent more efficiently. I’m no fan of Brandon Jennings but it’s troubling to me that Walsh didn’t know enough about the guy to even consider drafting him. Something like that can happen in Milwaukee, but should never happen in New York. The Knicks have the resources to evaluate every prospect under the sun (using both scouting and statistics) and buy multiple picks from cash starved teams every year. The Knicks should dominate the draft, adding multiple players on rookie deals to their stable of talent each offseason. Yet they refuse to flex their financial might in this way.
Another student of basketball analytics, Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard, has built an entire organization using the pay-for-picks method, and he now boasts a 50 win team in the West. Why? Because studies show that the most valuable players a team can own are true-max contract, superduperstar players (think LBJ, Wade, Bryant, Howard, Paul) and players on their rookie deals. Everyone in between earns dollars that exceed their actual value. In light of this fact and the Knicks’ unlimited resources, it just seems like bad business that this approach isn’t a bigger part of the team’s arsenal.
As the Knicks prepare for this summer’s free agent bonanza, I’m sure that Donnie Walsh is diligently considering all his options and drawing out multiple plans of action. And I’m sure that those plans are thoughtful and well-conceived. But are they as good as they can possibly be? Is Walsh armed with all the best information to make the best possible choices? For instance, is he aware that history tells us Joe Johnson’s performance may go over a cliff when he turns 32? Does he know that Jermaine O’Neal’s blocked shots are far more valuable than Brendan Haywood’s?
Now, it’s possible that the Knicks do have staff that evaluate the game from an analytical perspective and that the team does incorporate that kind of thinking into their management process. I certainly hope that’s the case because, with the Knicks on the precipice of the most important summer in the history of the franchise, I’d hate to think that anything is being overlooked or, worse, summarily dismissed out-of-hand.