Are Knicks Doing Everything They Can?

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.

23 comments

  1. Traps

    Good thoughts, but I think it’ll be a question worth asking when we find his successor, not with Donnie, himself.

    • Dan L

      I think that if it is a worthy endeavor, it should be undertaken, irrespective of who the GM is at the time. For all I know, Donnie does it, but I have no idea either way.

      With the TMac trade, I’m not sure it would’ve mattered, because it wasn’t a basketball trade from the Knicks’ perspective.

      On the other hand, it was one on the Rockets’ and Kings’ side and if Donnie knew that Morey is analyzing players this way, he should definitely come to the negotiating table with the best idea of what Morey is trying to accomplish.

  2. Italian Stallion

    Great article.

    I’m sort of in the middle on this whole advanced statistics subject.

    I think advanced stats are an extremely useful tool in the hands of someone that actually understands the complexities of the game, the limitations of numbers, and that has good powers of observation, managerial experience etc….

    I think they tend to lead to false conclusions in the hands of someone that doesn’t.

    I was actually barred from a stats forum for not bowing down at the alter of numbers and debating some of these things, but I try to use advanced stats and understand as well as possible. That should be the minimum we expect from our own coaching staff and management.

    • Jon

      My perspective is, analytics isn’t the be-all, end-all. It’s just one tool in a GMs tool kit. The members of a front office ought to be able to digest this stuff, put its worth in proper context and apply it to their processes wherever appropriate.

      But you can’t do any of that if you don’t even know about it.

      • Cee La Rock

        @ Jon

        Great peice…I really belive the knicks need to revaluate there scouts and there whole approach to the draft or lack there of. I do belive Chris Mullins will succeed Walsh as GM i dont know how thaty will turn out. I have been a big chris Mullin fan i followed him out of St Johns into the pros great guy great player…true ny hooper..

        • Jon

          Thanks. I like Mullin a great deal too. And Mark Warkentein of the Denver Nuggets is another guy I hope the Knicks are looking at to succeed Walsh. His contract is up after this season.

          • EwingOak

            Really good article. I also am not up on all the latest and greatest calculations that go into scouting and building a team.. just hoping that Donnie’s more primative techniques astonish us somehow and that he truly knows alot more than we do.

            Enjoyed the post.

  3. JLS125

    there are plenty of teams whose front office don’t subscribe to the 1s and 0s of talent evaluation. It’s just fashionable analytics right now that stat geeks in MLB employ. And it’s starting to get more notice mainly because of ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Honestly, I live in the Bay Area where Engineers live like this and think that algorithms are the answer to human behavior on all levels. Yet for all this knowledge these guys can’t speak to a human being for the life of them. These guys have no interpersonal skills. How come the algorithm couldn’t solve that? In the same vein, I don’t see Daryl “the Genius” Morey with championship rings. Last time I checked, the past 10 NBA champions didn’t employ analytics in assembling their team including the consummate “team” the Detroit Pistons.

    The grass is always greener on the side. Let’s at least give Donnie a chance to work his plan.

    • Dan L

      I AM A ROBOT, I WILL USE MATHEMATICS TO BUILD A TEAM. MY METHODS RESULT IN CHAMPIONSHIPS 98.6 % OF THE TIME WITH A 2.5% STANDARD DEVIATION.

      THE FACT THAT MY METHODS HAVE RESULTED IN EXACTLY 0 CHAMPIONSHIPS SO FAR IS ATTRIBUTABLE TO HUMAN ERROR. HUMANS ARE IMPERFECT AND ARE BY NATURE INCAPABLE OF EXECUTING WITH PRECISION MY PERFECT STATISTICAL MODEL.

      CRUSH. DESTROY. KILL.

    • Jon

      See, I agree with what you’re saying to a point. But a normal, well-adjusted person should be able to use both. Stats aren’t the last word, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t informative or helpful. They have the most value when properly contextualized by a normal person. Yes, a person that lives exclusively by algorithms will struggle within the context of normal everyday life. But the people that can interpret mathematical models and properly integrate them into their overall thinking enjoy an advantage over those who can’t do that. Warren Buffet doesn’t evaluate markets simply by going with gut feel. I’m sure he trusts his instincts, but he also has method, and that method is governed by information some of which is highly analytical.

      In sports, the best example of this is the Yankees. They were a woefully inefficient organization that routinely papered over their mistakes with money. But over the past several years since Cashman has gained total control they’ve become far more intelligent about how they expend their resources. Yes they still spend astronomical amounts in the FA market when they see fit, but they also dominate the minor league talent market by consistently drafting players with exorbitant bonus demands and signing high-priced Latin American talent. Why? Because an analysis of the market shows that that’s a highly efficient use of resources. However much a Dominican teenage pitcher costs to sign, it’s far less than a 31 year old middle reliever and the potential return is far greater. Now that the Yankees have figured out how to operate efficiently in the marketplace, their financial might has become almost impossible for competitors to overcome.

      • Dan L

        I AM A ROBOT. I AM ONLY CAPABLE OF PROCESSING THE UNIVERSE VIA COMPLEX ALGORITHMS. BUT DOES THAT MEAN MY EXPERIENCES ARE ANY LESS MEANINGFUL? DOES THAT MEAN I AM NOT CAPABLE OF FEELING WHAT HUMANS CALL LOVE? DO I NOT DESERVE DIGNITY?

  4. CeeLARock

    I think the knicks need to revamp there infrstructer. There college scouts are terrible. We have made alot of bad draft picks and NY that cant happen, we get beat out by little market teams and this needs to end. Dolan needs to wake up..

    As far as for the upcoming summer heres my outlook:

    Duhon=got to go
    T-Mac=keep to have come off the bench sign a 2yr deal at min cost
    house= keep to come off bench or let walk
    Tony D= back up point run 2nd unit
    Gallo and Chandler build around

    Look at signing Ray Allen at a low price, K-mart rebounding and D, Camby at C ,Mike Miller at the 2 can come off bench or start, Boozer, Amare or Bosh ( i prefer Boozer) at C or PF. I also like Arroyo at PG until CP# gets free in 11.

    What do u think Dan L, Jon?? Stallion???

    This is without LBJ or Wade coming to NY

    • Traps

      Johnson and Jermaine O’Neal are Tellem guys… I’d take Bosh/O’Neal over Bosh/Camby at a price that costs us a second near-max. Don’t mind Ray Allen at $4-5M but that’s way down the list at plan E

    • Dan L

      That sounds good. Most of it. I’ve never been a KMart fan though he does play D.

      Boozer is a tougher player than Lee but not as durable. He wouldn’t be my preference over Bosh, especially if the money is the same. However, he is not a bad option.

      I think Ray Allen is a great idea if you can get him at the vet min. I’m a big fan of Mike Miller too.

      I have my doubts about Arroyo. He can never seem to stick with any team.

  5. EwingOak

    It would be a great thing to get a couple of guys like Ray Allen at a decent price to bring some veteran leadership (not just veteran presence) out there on the floor for some consistancy and level play in crunch time. Mike Miller would be great out there too.

  6. ez

    Jon,

    This is the type of work that the sports”writers” (gossip queens) of New York should be publishing. It is a shame more people will not have the chance to see this article. Very well done.

    Of all the major pro sports, statistical analysis in pro basketball is in it’s most nascent stages. Football Outsiders publishes very progressive work on NFL statistics, with their DVOA rankings, they watch game film to break down statistics you can’t get by reading a box score. Great insight about the subtle aspects of the game. Statistical analysis in baseball has become so advanced that teams have had to change gears and develop new strategies to leverage inefficiencies in the market, and that at it’s core is the value of statistical analysis in sports.

    Basketball is different than other sports in that one player can dominate to the extent that he can make his team successful with very little help. You can win a title with 1 world class player and several good role players. This can hide a lot of flaws in a roster and make some average gm’s seem better than their actual talent. To JLS’s point, this is why some teams may not prioritize statistics, they either have that star player (the cavs), or are “chasing the dragon” to get them (the knicks). Is this ignorance, stuborness or laziness? It is probably a mixture of both, depending on the organization (i would put donnie in the stubborn category)

    Also, saying Bill Simmons spread the gospel of statistical analysis in sports is like giving credit to Al Gore for starting the internets. I like Bill Simmons, he is a very entertaining sports/pop culture, who wrote a great book on the nba and occasionaly makes salient points on sports topics, but he has had practically no impact on this movement. Michael Lewis’s bestselling book Moneyball is by far the most influential sports book of the past 20 years. If you have not read it you should, you may not agree with everything he writes (i did not) but you will defintely learn something and walk away more informed about how the business of sports operates today.

    • JLS125

      I’m not saying that Bill Simmons has spread the gospel to those that are within NBA front offices. I was saying that the popularity of statisticians to the casual fan (bloggers included) can be traced back to the pop culture icon known as Bill Simmons.

      I agree with your assertion about Moneyball and it’s impact in the business of sports entertainment. I should have clarified to say that we, the casual fan, wouldn’t care about statisticians in the front office if the Henry Abbots [TrueHoop], Bill Simmons and Brian Kennys weren’t raising their profile on ESPN (the ultimate in mainstream/pop culture).

      I mean, would we really know who Drew Rosenhaus or Scott Boras was if it weren’t for pop culture?

    • JLS125

      BTW, you hit the nail on the head with my point about the difference in analytics between the NBA and MLB.

  7. Dan L

    Timely link from RealGM:

    According to interviews with every team, David Biderman of the Wall Street Journal found that half the league’s teams this season have at least one statistician who helps make in-game, draft-day and trade-deadline decisions.

    The list accounts for all six division leaders, including the Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavericks, who have a data analyst traveling with the team.

    These 15 teams that have invested heavily in statistics have combined to win 59.3% of their games this season. The 15 teams without such analysts have won 40.7% of their games, and only three—the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks—are on pace to make the postseason.

    “If you took LeBron off the Cavaliers, you could give them 10,000 number crunchers, and it wouldn’t make a difference,” says David Kahn, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations.

    Read more: http://realgm.com/src_wiretap_archives/65312/20100312/half_of_nba_teams_employ_statheads/##ixzz0hzD4g8oh

  8. Pingback: Joe Johnson To Knicks A “Done Deal”. Bosh On His Way Too? | The Knicks FanBlog

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