return on investment – allan houston….

mike asked me to write a column or two for his knick blogger – while he was away sunning himself on some remote beach – concerning anything about pro basketball. i’ve never been a knicks fan (being from cleveland, ohio), and the closest i’ve ever gotten to a knick was to play pickup ball against long time knick charles oakley many moons ago (who went to high school here in NE ohio and who stuffed many of my jumpers). but i do have a unique perspective on the nba in that i analyze the game through statistical analysis using computer simulation of nba games, and would like to do so here for something concerning the knicks…

its not hard to get the computer to play basketball – the key is just to get it to do so accurately. but after watching many tapes of games, charting things the league never kept track of (this was over a decade and a half ago and before, whom i wish was around back in 1990), and fiddling around with the numbers, after 15+ years i think i’ve got it down. the key is to derive from the stats how to rate players for how often they handle the ball on offense, and then to rate them for how often they shoot, pass, get fouled, and turn the ball over per time they do handle the ball on offense. the first i call a player’s possession factor (his touches/minute), the second his player attributes. once you can do that getting the computer to simulate the actual playing of a game, i.e. re-creating every shot, pass, rebound, assist, steal, turnover, blocked shot, etc, is relatively easy, and to get the computer to play hundreds or thousands of games takes little time. rating player defensively was alway tough, but thanks to, that part of the process has been made much easier too…

because i look at the league differently than most people do, i often feel i have an advantage over those who do not use computer simulation, in particular those in the league responsible for signing players, especially to mega-dollar long term contracts. in hindsight we can only shake our heads at the contracts given to players like stanley roberts and calvin booth, players given big money but who had played little time in the league prior to their contracts being signed, and wonder what were those teams thinking. but many players in the league have gotten long term contracts at top dollar, and the question is are they worth it?…

one contract i have always wondered about was the one given to allan houston. in july of 2001, after having played five seasons for the knicks, new york gave him a six year deal worth a staggering $100,000,000, and while i’m not sure i’m guessing its all guaranteed. that works out to about $16-$17 million per season, one of the highest annual salaries of any player at the time the contract was signed (and still one of the highest today), and double what he signed for with the knicks after coming over from the pistons following the 95-96 season. the question is – is he worth it?…

the neat thing about computer simulation is that you can take any player and place him on any team, and run as many games as needed to determine if that team is better or worse with that player. its ideal for running “what if” scenarios – like what if the knicks has shaq at C instead of mutombo/mohammed? but its also ideal for determining just how good your players are in relation to other players from around the league – by simply putting other players on your team to replace a certain player and simulating hundreds or thousands of games to see if the team is better or worse….

here are the knicks players from last season (03-04) and their minutes played:

min min/82 pattern min/g
n.mohammed 1611 20 20 20
k.thomas 2548 31 32 32
t.thomas 2088 25 24 24
a.houston 1799 22 24 40
s.marbury 3254 40 40 40
d.mutombo 1494 18 20 20
o.harrington 872 11 12 12
s.anderson 1947 24 24 12
p.hardaway 2095 26 24 24
m.norris 847 10 8 4
f.williams 714 9 8 8
m.sweetney 494 6 4 4
240 240

the 1st column is simply each player’s minutes played, the 2nd column their minutes played divided by 82 games. the computer simulation model can only substitute for players in increments of 4 minutes, so to get a default substitution pattern for the team i chose the multiple of 4 closest to their actual minutes played divided by 82 games (the 3rd column). do this for each team in the league and you can play entire seasons by computer to re-create what happened in the actual real-life season…

in 03-04 the knicks went 39-43, and based on their statistics they should have gone only 37-45. the above substitution pattern (the default), when 8200 games (100 seasons) are simulated on the computer, averages a W-L record of 38-44. to gauge the maximum impact of a player on a team i typically look at how the team does when that player plays 40 min/g, which is about the maximum playing time per game the best players play in any single season….

using the substitution pattern in the 4th column, i played allan houston 40 min/g, taking minutes away from shandon anderson and moochie norris. however when houston played 40 min/g the knicks W-L record increased just another 2 games over an average 82 games to a W-L record of 40-42. may not sound like much of an improvement for one of your team’s best players to play an additional 16 min/g, but keep in mind in 02-03 allan houston actually played all 82 games and 38 min/g, playing what was probably his best season statistically for the knicks, and the team went just 37-45….

better yet why not put that 02-03 allan houston on the 03-04 knicks and play 8200 simulated games to see how much better they play? i did just that and the team’s W-L record improves, but by just another half a game over an average 82 season, to 40.5-41.5. thus houston’s best season statistically of 02-03 wasn’t much better than his 03-04 campaign, just half a game over the span of an entire season…

so let’s see if the $16 million/yr man is worth his salary. the best way to judge that IMHO is to “trade” a number of SGs from around the league to the 03-04 knicks, replacing allan houston for 40 min/g at SG, and playing enough simulated games (in this case 8200, or 100 simulated seasons) to see if they improve the team’s W-L record or not, moreso than what houston does. typically i’ll try this with some of the best players in the league at that specific position (in this case SG), and also some of the worst, to see who the player in question (houston) plays like more. three of the best SGs in 03-04 were kobe bryant, tracy mcgrady, and ray allen, a few of the “worst” statistically were david wesley, dion glover, kendall gill, and dajuan wagner, and i also ran vince carter and lebron james for comparison. here are the results:

            average          scoring
player W-L pts/g FG% reb/g ast/g st/g to/g bs/g touches/min
mcgrady 02-03 53-29 29.7 .553 6.4 4.9 1.6 2.3 0.8 1.7
mcgrady 03-04 45.5-36.5 26.6 .517 5.9 5.2 1.4 2.5 0.6 1.6
bryant 02-03 51-31 26.7 .540 6.4 5.1 2.1 3.1 0.8 1.6
bryant 03-04 49.5-32.5 24.7 .539 5.7 5.1 1.8 2.6 0.4 1.5
r.allen 03-04 45.5-36.5 21.8 .558 5.3 4.6 1.3 2.7 0.2 1.4
carter 03-04 42.5-39.5 22.5 .494 5.0 4.7 1.2 3.0 0.9 1.5
l.james 03-04 41-41 20.4 .480 5.6 5.7 1.6 3.3 0.8 1.6
houston 02-03 40.5-41.5 21.9 .555 3.0 2.6 0.7 2.1 0.1 1.0
houston 03-04 40-42 19.7 .533 2.8 2.1 0.8 2.2 0.0 0.9
glover 03-04 38-44 15.0 .444 6.2 3.1 1.2 2.4 0.5 1.0
wesley 03-04 37-45 16.8 .478 2.8 3.4 1.4 1.9 0.3 1.1
k.gill 03-04 36.5-45.5 14.6 .438 5.3 2.4 1.7 2.2 0.4 0.9
wagner 03-04 33-49 14.5 .436 3.1 2.6 1.3 2.0 0.4 1.0

scoring FG% is simply (2pters + 1.5x3pters + FTM/2)/(FGA + FTA/2)…

i also ran kobe bryant’s and tracy mcgrady’s 02-03 stats because while they were the two best SGs in the league in 03-04, they were also each better statistically in 02-03 than they were in 03-04…

as you can see the difference between the best and worst players at a single position can be upwards of 15 to 20 games in a single 82 game season, in this case tracy mcgrady’s stellar 02-03 campaign (where he led the league in scoring with 32 pts/g on a very good scoring FG% of .553), compared to some of the league’s worst SGs. but what is also evident is that allan houston’s performance statistically is just a few games better over an 82 game season than that of some of the league’s worst SGs, and far worse than the league’s best SGs….

now don’t think that being just a few games better than some of the worst players at your position is insignificant – if all of the starters on your team were 4-5 games better than the worst players at your position, that means your team would theoretically be about 20-25 games better than the worst team in the league. if the worst team in the league wins 15-20 games out of 82, that means your team would win somewhere between 35-45 games (which btw is what the knicks won in both 02-03 and 03-04). but again its nowhere near as good as being 10-15 games better than the worst players at your position…

when allan houston signed his huge contract extension after the 2000-01 season, he had played for the knicks for 5 seasons, yet in those 5 seasons he averaged less than 18 pts/g (less than 19 pts/g in the playoffs) and never averaged as much as 20 pts/g in any single season, was an average defender (at best), was a poor offensive and average defensive rebounder, a player who got few steals and few blocks, and a shooter who hit a good 40% of his 3pters but just 46% of his 2pters (less than the league average of .468 on 2pters during those 5 seasons). his scoring FG% during that 5 year span was .533, which is good, but which is less than 2 percentage points above the league average of .515 during that same time period. to his credit he missed only 5 games out of the knicks 378, but is that worth $16-$17 million/yr for six years?…

notice that lebron james on new york wins just as many simulated games as allan houston does (41 to 40) but shot much worse, a low scoring FG% of just .480 (03-04 league average was .508) compared to houston’s .533. yet he rebounded twice as good, almost tripled houston’s ast/g, doubled his st/g, and blocked far more shots. bottom line is that in his 5 seasons as a knick before signing his extension allan houston was a very good shooter but contributed little else to his team…

Vinsanity 40, Starbury 38 (but the Knicks win)

Vince Carter might have outscored Stephon Marbury 40-38 last night, but it was Marbury with the last laugh as the Knicks won 108-101. I tried to watch the game last night, but was suffering from food poisoning (slightly worse than the bad taste left in my mouth from the Memphis game). In between bouts of running to the bathroom and a general overall sense of nausea and pain, I saw Marbury light it in the second half.

I’d love to wax poetic about Stephon Marbury, but I’m sure you could open up any of the New York newspapers and read about Starbury’s efforts last night.

Other than Stephon Marbury’s outburst there were a few notables in last night’s game. First is DerMarr Johnson’s 40 minute 15 point game. It was his first 40+ minute game since March 13, 2002. That year he had 4 games where he played that many minutes. The first month and a half of that year, he didn’t get much play, but eventually he would log major minutes, and start 46 games that year. Of course he would have that ill fated car accident in the off-season, which ended his Hawks career.

So far Dermarr’s time as a Knick has been unspectacular. He’s only had 6 games with more than 10 minutes, but we should see more of him with 4 of those coming in the last 4 games. Dermarr’s time yesterday was out of necessity, with Houston only playing the first 8 minutes due to injury, coupled with Toronto’s ability to go big at times. At one point the announcers noted that Vince Carter was the shortest player on the court at 6’6″. If you’re Lenny Wilkens, you’re not exactly going to put Moochie Norris on the court as the SG at that point.

Shooting 5-14 isn’t that impressive, but when you hit 3 from beyond the arc, it becomes a more respectable 46% adjusted FG%. He hit his only 2 free throws in the fourth quarter to help seal the deal against the Raptors. His 6’9″ frame also helped him to snag 7 rebounds. It’s hard to judge a player that has seen as little time as DerMarr has, but his Achilles heal seems to be his erratic shooting. Right now Wilkens’ has little other choice to play Johnson, but if the youngster wants to earn more minutes, he should concentrate on his shooting.

Also appearing last night was Michael Sweetney. The Knicks’ first round pick made his presence felt in the second half. In his 20 minutes, he grabbed 9 rebounds, and scored 8 points on 3 of 4 shooting. He left the game after committing an ill advised foul to stop the clock late in the game. If you call this a rookie mistake, you’d have a hard time explaining why Kurt Thomas did the same thing a few seconds later.

Of course there was little room for Sweetney in the first half, because Othella Harrington was logging his minutes. Other than miss 3 shots, Harrington only managed to commit a personal foul in his seven minutes of play, which is right about his average. I just don’t see why he gets any time at all. At best he should be the third option, when Thomas & Sweetney are in foul trouble. It’s more beneficial for the Knicks’ present and future to give Sweetney 27 minutes instead of 20.

Lenny Wilkens: Good Or Bad?

captain, there are doubts
your ability
to lead them
the men

— “Brave Captian”

Scott’s guest column yesterday gave me an idea. It seems that Toronto fans aren’t at all pleased with the job Lenny Wilkens did as coach of their team. So far as coach of the Knicks, I’ve had no complaints. Well maybe one, giving any minutes to Moochie Norris instead of Frank Williams. Noticing that the Knicks have a problem in the middle, Lenny tried a few different lineups, including starting Othella Harrington and Michael Sweetney, seeing if they could rise to the task (neither could). He’s settled on Nazr Mohammed as the center, which has added stability to the Knicks.

So how can we tell if a coach is good or bad? Phil Jackson fans will point to his championships with two different teams to attest to his greatness, while those that would mock him as “Chief Big Triangle” will be quick to point out that the credit should go to the great players he’s always had.

Bill James created something called Pythagorean Expected Win Percentage. It basically says that a team should win a certain percentage of their games depending on how many points scored for and against a team has over a season. So another theory (which I will call the Rob Neyer manager theory) says that if a coach consistently wins more games than expected, he’s probably a sound coach when it comes to in game strategies. Digging up Lenny Wilkens’ actual and expected wins I came up with this chart:

Year	Team	WINS	LOSS	ExpW	ExpL	ActW%	ExpW%	DIFF	SIG
1969	SEA	36	46	33	49	.439	.402	+.037	+1
1970	SEA	38	44	38	44	.463	.463	+.000	+0
1971	SEA	47	35	42	40	.573	.512	+.061	+1
1974	POR	38	44	42	40	.463	.512	-.049	-1
1975	POR	37	45	37	45	.451	.451	+.000	+0
1977	SEA	42	18	46	36	.700	.561	+.139	+1
1978	SEA	52	30	49	33	.634	.598	+.037	+1
1979	SEA	56	26	55	27	.683	.671	+.012	+0
1980	SEA	34	48	35	47	.415	.427	-.012	+0
1981	SEA	52	30	53	29	.634	.646	-.012	+0
1982	SEA	48	34	48	34	.585	.585	+.000	+0
1983	SEA	42	40	40	42	.512	.488	+.024	+1
1984	SEA	31	51	24	58	.378	.293	+.085	+1
1986	CLE	31	51	29	53	.378	.354	+.024	+1
1987	CLE	42	40	43	39	.512	.524	-.012	+0
1988	CLE	57	25	62	20	.695	.756	-.061	-1
1989	CLE	42	40	39	43	.512	.476	+.037	+1
1990	CLE	33	49	33	49	.402	.402	+.000	+0
1991	CLE	57	25	57	25	.695	.695	+.000	+0
1992	CLE	54	28	60	22	.659	.732	-.073	-1
1993	ATL	57	25	57	25	.695	.695	+.000	+0
1994	ATL	42	40	45	37	.512	.549	-.037	-1
1995	ATL	46	36	45	37	.561	.549	+.012	+0
1996	ATL	56	26	59	23	.683	.720	-.037	-1
1997	ATL	50	32	53	29	.610	.646	-.037	-1
1998	ATL	31	19	31	19	.620	.620	+.000	+0
1999	ATL	28	54	23	59	.341	.280	+.061	+1
2000	TOR	47	35	48	34	.573	.585	-.012	+0
2001	TOR	42	40	39	43	.512	.476	+.037	+1
2002	TOR	24	58	21	61	.293	.256	+.037	+1

[DIFF is the difference between actual win% and expected win%. SIG means was the difference significant enough to say it was a positive or negative season. I used a .025 difference to determine this. The first four years in italics are when Wilkens was both a player and a coach. I’ll ignore them for now, since we can’t split his contribution as a player from his contribution as a coach.]

So what does this chart tell us about the different stops Lenny has had?

Seattle: 8 seasons, 4 significantly better than expected, 0 worse.
Cleveland: 7 seasons, 2 better, 2 worse.
Atlanta: 7 seasons, 1 better, 3 worse.
Toronto: 3 seasons, 2 better, 0 worse.

According to this Seattle was his best tenure, which most people would agree with since that’s where he won his only championship. It’s ironic that Atlanta shows up as his worst job, since he’s credited with taking an average franchise and turning it into a contender. Even more ironic is Toronto, where he was booed last night, because Wilkens has no negative seasons.

Another way to measure a coach’s effectiveness is how the team performed before and after the coach’s arrival. When Wilkens took over Seattle in 1977 the team changed radically, so it’s impossible to say whether the impact was Wilkens or let’s say Gus Williams. After he left the Sonics, Bernie Bickerstaff took over the reigns. Bickertsaff had the same exact record, despite adding the 4th overall pick Xavier McDaniel to their starting lineup. I would say that this could be a “plus” for Wilkens.

George Karl’s ’85 Cavs bear little resemblance to the ’86 team that Wilkens led. In fact all 5 starters were different, as Ron Harper, Brad Dougherty, and Hotrod Williams all played their first year in the NBA. When he left Cleveland, Mike Fratello won 7 less games the next year. An old Larry Nance played half a season, but the Cavs did make a few additions in Tyrone Hill and Chris Mills, so it’s hard to make a determination either way. You could argue another “plus” or “neutral.”

Wilkens won 14 more games than his predecessor in Atlanta his first year there. Danny Manning was an addition for that team, but I don’t see Manning as making a team 14 games better, so I’ll credit Wilkens with some of this improvement. Lon Kruger won 3 less games than Wilkens, but the team was significantly different, so I can’t credit or condemn Lenny there.

In Toronto Butch Carter’s ’99 team had Tracy McGrady and won 45 games. McGrady left via free agency for Wilkens’ first year, but the coach ended up winning 2 more games than his predecessor. That could be a “plus” as well. As for last year, Vince Carter missing half a season is not enough an excuse for winning only 24 games, and I have to give Wilkens the blame.

The three methods I’ve used:

Visual (a.k.a. my opinion) – Wilkens looks good as the Knicks coach, but it’s very early.
Actual Wins vs. Expected Wins: Good for 2 teams, bad for 1, 1 tenure neutral.
Wilkens’ vs. other coaches with similar teams: 2 to 4 times he was better vs. only 1 worse.

These are only three methods of evaluating a coach, and even though I tried to be as objective as possible and use statistics (except in the first), it’s nearly impossible to get a non-subjective viewpoint of a coach’s impact on a team. Of course I didn’t even touch any other things like player development, rotation management, or chemistry.

As for the Raptor fans dislike of Lenny I can say that it might be warranted. Dean Oliver’s Basketball On Paper goes in depth on the 2002 Raps, if you ever want to read a whole chapter on them. That team had three extended winning and losing streaks. That kind of inconsistent play will draw the ire of fans. Last year’s expectations were much higher than the 24 games he won. It gets worse when the team’s franchise player criticizes the coach.

As for his current role, it’s unknown if Wilkens will be the coach of the Knicks after this year. But as far as I can tell, he’s a good coach for ths team.

International Relations

In the spirit of international friendship between our two nations and because our two favorite teams will be facing each other Friday night, Scott from and I will be swapping blogs for a day. You can catch my blog on the “new” Knicks there.

Cuz this life is too short
To live it just for you
But when you feel so powerless
What are you gonna do?
So say what you want

— “Powerless”
Nelly Furtado

Since I’m guest blogging for Mike, I figured I’d drop some Canadian content on y’all with the opening lyrics. Also, they’re an apt summary of my current state as a Raptors fan. Toronto’s recent injuries and pathetic performance have me feeling powerless and all I can do is bitch about it.

Knicks fans have undoubtedly been watching the Raptors’ recent struggles with great interest due to the effect they have on your playoff position. Toronto has lost 10 of their last 11 games with six of those losses occurring while Vince Carter and Jalen Rose were sidelined. Jalen is on the IL recovering from his broken hand but Vince is back in uniform. Even though he’s still suffering from his ankle injury from two weeks ago, he’s still the key to any hopes we have of making the post-season.

In his current condition, Carter does not have the explosiveness to beat your defenders off the dribble nor does he have the mobility to defend your quick guards. It won’t surprise me if Allan Houston gets the open looks he needs on Friday to rediscover his shooting stroke. Raptors’ coach Kevin O’Neill’s best bet would be to put Morris Peterson on H20, since Mo Pete is our best perimeter defender right now.

Down low, Chris Bosh will probably be unable to stop Nazr Mohammed and Kurt Thomas from dunking and rebounding at will. Bosh is woefully undersized at center and his bum ankle negates any athletic advantage he might have. I’m not particularly hopeful for a repeat performance of his 18-point, eight-rebound, four-block performance against your team in January. In his current emaciated, crippled condition, he’s as well-suited to play center as Al Sharpton is to become your next president.

At this point, you’re probably wondering if the Raptors have any hope whatsoever of preventing an old-fashioned New York beatdown at the Air Canada Centre. If Toronto has a secret weapon, it’s Donyell Marshall. Jalen Rose was the biggest name in November’s trade with Chicago, but Marshall has proven to be the true stud in this deal. He’s averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds as a Raptor while shooting 42 percent from three-point range. Donyell is our “stealth bomber”. Several times a game, Vince will drive and draw a double-team before dishing out to Marshall for a wide-open trey. The Thomas boys would be wise to stick to Donyell like glue rather than worry about Carter taking it to the hole. These days, his drives are mostly decoys.

I’m not even going to bother discussing Friday’s point guard matchup. Marbury vs. Palacio is more lopsided than a dance-off between Usher and William Hung. On Wednesday night, Starbury outscored Milt 36-0. I just threw up in my mouth while writing that last sentence.

Once your current group gets used to playing with each other, I think the Knicks could really make some noise in the post-season. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to root for your team even after the Raptors are inevitably stomped in the first round like a narc at a biker rally. I could never support a team run by a cold-hearted snake like Isiah Thomas. Oh, you’re cheering him now. But one day, you’ll see what a complete bastard, what a psychotic megalomaniac he is. And when that day comes, I’ll laugh and have a sandwich. Isiah has failed at everything he’s done since he retired from his playing career. It will be particularly sweet to see him crucified once and for all by the ruthless vipers in the New York media. Peter Vescey is sharpening his knives as I write this, waiting for the right moment to strike the killing blow…

Whoa, sorry about that. I got a little carried away with my Zeke-hate there. Anyway, good luck on Friday. But don’t count on seeing too many “Welcome back, Lenny” signs in the stands. The only reason we’re glad to see him again is that he’s coaching our opponents this time.

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