Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Answering Dave Berri's 'Memphis Mirage' Piece

As I mentioned in the links post this week, I am a big fan of David Berri and his book The Wages of Wins. However I recognize certain problems with his system and it seems that many of these problems came together in his blog 'The Memphis Mirage'.

Here is my reasoning for disagreeing with the conclusions Mr. Berri drew in his blog.

I realize that usually success on the basketball court translates to success at the box office but Memphis' attendance woes began when the team was winning 49 games and reaching the playoffs not when the back to back 22 win seasons occurred. To say simply that winning is the only tonic needed to increase attendance flies in the face of Memphis' experience with the Grizzlies. Memphis fans were disenchanted with the product on the court and drastic changes were needed.

Mayo provides a demonstrable attempt to address that problem in Memphis. Whether or not he turns out to be the elite player he was at the end of the college season and the Grizzlies hope he will be or the average player he was at the beginning of his college career isn't as important as the idea that Memphis is willing to take some risks to provide the city with a winning team.

The feeling in Memphis has been that the owner has no desire to field a winning, entertaining team and would rather cut costs to the bone to pocket as much money as he could probably before selling the team (and Seattle has been mentioned a lot in that regard). The Mayo trade showed the city that this wasn't entirely the case and that Heisley was serious when he said he was going to rebuild with youth for three years at which time he would make whatever moves he needs to make to have the franchise win the championship. The team may fail in that regard but the idea that the team is attempting to get there is in itself a positive sign.

But enough on Berri's issues about Memphis' attendance woes. I also feel that WinScore has difficulty making predictions with rookies, college players and especially internationals. The system is predicated on the continuity of player’s performances. Over the life of a player's career his numbers tend to average out better than most of the other major sports and that consistency allows for a strong correlative aspect to predicting the future performances of players. However a rookie to 2nd year to 3rd year player is extremely volatile in his production. Right now Memphis' top players all have fewer than 5 full years of NBA game experience making the law of large numbers very shaky in regard to the predictions. Mayo, Arthur and Marc Gasol (the reigning MVP in the Spanish League and Pau's brother) all have very low correlative expectations. They could be poor players and they could be excellent ones. There is not a large enough amount of information to predict how they will play in the NBA. That means that three potential starters on the Grizzlies have no reliable data to base an opinion on.

Conley and Lowry, the returning point guards , play one of the most difficult positions in the NBA and have a combined 145 games of NBA experience between them. Crittenton may have been a PG in college but he has never played that position in Memphis. Mayo played SG in college as well but Mr. Berri lumps all four players into the PG mix for his appraisal. Naturally if you take all four players and classify them solely as PG's then there would be a major problem. However if Crittenton and Mayo play the positions they played last season then the problem is somewhat alleviated and that is the current plan of action. I fully expect one of Conley, Lowry and Crittenton to be moved this summer to address other areas of need on the team as well.

Rudy Gay's numbers were hurt by being forced into playing PF for stretches last season as well. No one can expect his performance to remain constant going forward. Rudy was one of the more improved players in the NBA last season raising his WP48 (read the book to understand what this is saying) from -0.045 to +0.055. That correlated to an increase in 6.3 wins from his rookie to sophomore years. The 3rd year in the league is when the largest increase in productive play usually occurs. How he and the point guards respond to their experience, more defined roles and other factors will have greater impact on the team's performance than I believe this system can approximate much less project at this time.

Then there is the wild card. Antoine Walker has played terrible the last two seasons especially last year. This season his contract will likely not be renewed so he is in effect a free agent after this year. His performance needs to resemble his career averages if he wants another NBA contract. Consider that in 2006-07 Antoine Walker had a 0.107 WSPM (Win Socre Per Minute) and in 2005-06 a mark of 0.164 WSPM. Has any work been done to judge how differently a player performs in a contract year to the years preceding? I would expect the results would be different than an average year. Will Antoine continue his decline or make improvement back toward his career numbers in this contract season? At 31 Antoine is hardly too old to return to his previous levels of performance according to 'average' which is very important to statistical evaluation.

Will the Grizzlies be successful this season? I doubt it but that isn't being expected in Memphis either nor even desired. Memphis wants and needs another high lottery pick to continue to build a strong base of NBA talent so that in three seasons the playoffs can be talked about with a straight face and the fans know this. The people purchasing tickets now see a team trying to become competitive again and not content on being doormats forever. They are interested in watching that young talent develop into a quality team. That is why tickets are being sold and it took acquiring a personality and big name player like OJ Mayo to convince people that are in fact what the team is trying to do.

This isn't a mirage. It is more of an opportunity to give the community something to believe in that has been lacking since a story was leaked a year and a half ago that Pau Gasol was demanding a trade. People have hope again and that was missing for the last two seasons, especially at the end of last year.

As I said previoulsy, I really respect Mr. Berri's work and strongly suggest everyone read his book Wages of Wins (now out in paperback by the way but I prefer the hardback). It is easy to dismiss his work because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom often but without reading his discussion you are judging out of ignorance. I believe the easy answers don't tell the whole story about the Grizzlies this coming season but that doesn't mean the book is worthless. It isn't.

I hope Mr. Berri will take the time to respond to this blog. I will gladly post his reply (or reference it if he chooses to put it on his blog instead).

Addendum: In referring back to the article I saw a reference to the 2007 season when the rebuilding process began. I think everyone should read Losing to Win in 2007 and relate that to the 2008-09 season. Memphis could win more games this season making different moves but they couldn't be competitive. By rebuilding the way the team is now they hope to be competitive in the future.

BallHype: hype it up!


Anonymous said...

Nice blog Chip. I expect the Grizz to struggle this year also. Young teams simply do not win in the NBA. I expect the final win total to be less than 30 (maybe even less than 22), but I expect the Grizz to play a totally different style of basketball on the defensive end, as we now have a true alpha dog that will lead by example on that end of the court. You want see it in the win column this year, but it won't be long in coming either.

Anonymous said...

I'm expecting progress in the win column, maybe above 30. My guess is that the following factors will play a role:

1. Kevin O'Neill as Defensive Guru. Think they don't make a difference? Ask Tom Thibodeau of the Celtics.

2. Chemistry. If most of the core comes back (Kyle, Conley, Rudy, Darko, Critt, Hak), they'll have played together and be familiar with each other. Iavaroni will probably be better, more settled as well.

3. Antoine Walker. For the same reasons you mention, Chip, I'd expect 'Toine to perform better than expected. At 31, he's far from being obsolete in the league, and he'll want to prove it. He'll either back up Rudy, or I wouldn't be surprised if he plays himself into the starting lineup at some point at PF.

4. Attrition. We're witnessing shakeups across the NBA, and somebody's got to fall off. Golden State's already lost Baron (and I'm not sold that the Clippers are contenders yet). PHX and SA? Old. Dallas? Disarray. That's not to say we'll make the playoffs, just to say that some teams won't be as good as they have been.

And now, for my "Darko's not a total bust" rant . . .

What about Darko at PF? Just a thought. . . what if the Serbian Gangster switches to the 4, and Gasol moves in at Center? I can't see Iavaroni not at least trying that, given the mismatches it could cause. Darko's not really a back to the basket player anyway, and he can shoot.

For the record, I'm not his cousin or man-crush. I just believe that Darko can improve and that whoever figures out how to use him properly will be dubbed a genius.


Chip Crain said...

I agree 100% that Darko can and should improve. I just think if we play Darko and Mark too much together we really leave ourselves short at backup Center. However it would be a bruising frontline that is more highly skilled than people realize.

3SOB has been a long time supporter of Darko and since he is younger than Gasol with more NBA experience we fully expect him to start the season in the middle. Personally I still remember the Darko would played so well on opening night. The injured thumb really threw him off his game. I expect a much better second season.

Having said that please keep your expectations low this season. We aren't building for this season. We are building for the future and there will be a lot of lumps along the way.