Why some previously successful teams and individuals cannot succeed now?

December 26, 2016 by J.H. Yeh

In the NBA there are always teams or individuals who were successful before but struggle to regain that gory now in today’s NBA. Below is a list of teams and their respective GM/owners. Many of these names may be familiar to you:

 

  1. Detroit Pistons – Joe Dumars (GM, 2000-2014)
  2. NY Knicks – Phil Jackson (President, 2014-Present)
  3. NY Knicks – Isiah Thomas (President, 2003-2008)
  4. Phoenix Suns (Ryan MacDonough, GM 2013-Present)
  5. Orlando Magic – Rob Hannigan (GM, 2012-Present)
  6. Milwaukee Bucks – John Hammond (GM, 2008-Present)
  7. Charlotte Hornets – Michael Jordan (Owner, 2010-Present)

 

Most of these General Managers and President of Basketball Operations all share something in common–they all had a stellar playing or coaching careers but failed to translate to the front office. In addition, LA Lakers won five championships between 2000 ad 2010 and the Detroit Pistons won a championship in 2004, defeating the LA Lakers in five games. Moreover, Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic were very competitive in mid to late 2000’s and the New York Knicks were a regular playoffs contender in the 1990’s. Removing the Knicks from this list, all teams were very successful ten years ago but it seems like an endless perpetuity and a far cry from their glory days.

General Managers are the architect of the team and the person directly involved in building a roster through drafting, signing, and trading players. Often times General Managers are former NBA players who understand the inside business between he players and the teams. And often times, former players who had successful and lengthy playing careers are expected to become General Managers because of their influence, reputation, and shrewdness displayed on the court. In certain situations, coaches also translate to General Managers. Interestingly, many of them fail to carry their success to the front office–especially in today’s NBA. This is both somewhat unsurprising and perhaps puzzling as one may understand that playing basketball is a different ball game from building a basketball team. Moreover, it is especially more evident that in contemporary NBA, teams have shifted away from employing former players by hiring individuals with limited or no basketball careers such as Golden State Warriors’ Bob Myers, Houston Rockets’ Daryl Morey, and Cleveland Cavaliers’ David Griffin.

Now let’s take Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars as our first example why former players struggled to recapture that success in today’s NBA. Isiah Thomas was the Knicks’ President of Basketball Operations from 2003 to 2008, until he was replaced by Donnie Walsh. No question both Thomas and Dumars were successful players who guided the “Bad Boys” Pistons to two championships in 1989 and 1990. Joe Dumars immediately translated to the front office and even had a successful GM career in his first several years as he led the Pistons to their third championship in 2004.

Isiah Thomas had a disastrous tenure with the Knicks as he traded for Steve Francis in 2004, pairing him with Stephon Marbury. In addition, he also made the moves by signing Jared Jeffries and Jerome James while adding Eddy Curry, Quentin Richardson, and Antonio Davis through trades. A few bright spots during Thomas’ tenure included the draftings of David Lee and Wilson Chandler. However, to sum up, Thomas’ tenure was met with widespread criticism.

Joe Dumars started his GM career by signing talented but unwanted players such as Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups while drafting Tayshuan Prince and Mehmet Okur and adding Rasheed Wallace through trade. His smart decision led to winning the NBA Executive of the Year in 2003. All his efforts culminated in a championship in 2004 and another trip to the NBA Finals the following year as well as consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, the tides quickly turned after the 2008-09 season which marked the beginning of six consecutive misses from the playoffs and a series of endless disappointment as the team sank to a new low in 2013-14. And not surprisingly, Joe Dumars resigned from his position after that season. Below are notable moves by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars during their tenures. I only included Dumars’ notable moves from 2009 to his resignation in 2014.

 

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Isiah Thomas’ disappointment pinnacled at the end of the 2005–06 season as the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league and the second-worst record. Let’s not focus on the fact he traded away several future draft picks to Chicago in a deal for Eddy Curry, in which the picks turned out to be two lottery picks.

Money and payroll aside, if we solely focus on the players for both teams, we can see a general trend. Both Thomas and Dumars mostly signed players who are good at finishing strong around the basket, good rebounders, and good mid-range shooters. For example, for Thomas, he drafted rebounders such as Renaldo Balkman, Channing Frye, and Wilson Chandler (note: the latter two did not expand their games to 3-point threats that time). Thomas also signed rebounders Jared Jeffries and Jerome James, and had offensive juggernauts who can play in the paint such as Eddy Cury and Zach Randolph. Thomas also had shooters in Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Jamal Crawford, and Quentin Richardson during his time with the Knicks.

Similarly, for Dumars, with the Pistons entering a rebuilding mode in the summer of 2009, composed his beloved team with mostly bulky rebounders, strong finishers around the basket, and quick guards who can shoot. Notable players during Dumars’ later tenure included Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Rodney Stuckey, and Ben Gordon. The types of players described above are the blueprint for both Thomas and Dumars. These are the type of players they looked for when building a team. And these are the type of players both of them heavily invested on. It was clear since day one that both franchises’ futures were heavily dependent on those players.

Attached below are the rosters of the 2005-06 and 2007-08 Knicks teams as these two teams posted only 23 wins–which were the two worst seasons during Thomas’ watch. The Pistons won 29 games twice and 25 games once. I will focus on the 2013-14 Pistons team (that team won 29 games) because that team featured an unusual starting lineup.

 

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Let’s start with the Knicks. The two Knicks teams are constructed with very similar styles: Both teams feature mostly rebounders and quick guards who can shoot. However, the teams lacked true 3-point shooters. Both Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury are ballhandlers who can drive and are able to knock down mid-range jumpers, but they averaged 32.5% and 34.1% from the 3-point arc. Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson are considered above average shooters but they struggled with consistency. The rest of the teams were composed of bulky rebounders and finishers, notably Eddy Curry and David Lee. Oftentimes during the games, the team mainly shared court time with three big men in Curry, Frye, and Davis (2005-06), and Curry, Lee, and Zach Randolph (2007-08). Other bigs such as Jared Jeffries and Renaldo Balkman also occasionally joined the already-crowded frontcourt.

On a similar note, Dumars’ Pistons also had the same built as Thomas’ Knicks. The 2011-12 and 2012-13 Pistons also featured big men in Greg Monroe, Jason Maxiell, Ben Wallace, and later Andre Drummond, while the rest of the teams were composed of guards not known for shooting 3s. Both 2011-12 and 2012-13 teams did feature a 3-point shooter in Ben Gordon (2011-12) and Jose Calderon (2012-13). However, neither player played enough to have true impact on the teams due to circumstance as Gordon was battling with health issues while Calderon was traded to the team in mid-season.

Let’s do a mini case study: The 2013-14 Pistons season is an interesting team to study because in the 2013 offseason, Dumars made the headline by signing Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, a good finisher who can also rebound and a high-scoring guard who can drive and shoot jumpers. Dumars intended to build a starting lineup featuring all three big men in Monroe, Smith, and the budding Drummond. As we all know now, this was a failed experiment as the team finished the season 29-53, and Smith was traded the next season and Monroe left the team the following summer.

Now it’s time to put the puzzle pieces together by understanding the backgrounds of Dumars and Thomas. Both players won championships in 1989 and 1990. A six-time All Star, Dumars was the 1989 Finals MVP and his jersey was retired. Thomas is Detroit’s all-time leading scorer and the 1990 Finals MVP. It was no doubt both players were very successful. However, both players competed in the 1980’s and 1990’s–back when analytics were not introduced to the NBA. Clearly, the two players came from a very different basketball game than today’s NBA. As suggested in the previous article, 3-pointers and 3-point shooters are a lot more valuable than just “scoring three points” because they provide floor spacing and allow more flexibility in offense. With that said, the short story is both players, who succeeded in the pre-analytics NBA, believed and insisted on building a team just like those during their playing days–where the game strategies emphasized on crashing boards and shooting near the basket.

The long story is, in today’s NBA, along with the emphasis on analytics and floor spacing, teams are heavily utilizing the 3-pointers to maximize their scoring returns. This explains why teams are all trending towards shooting 3s and taking advantage of it. Back in the pre-analytics era, the league, surprisingly for more than 15+ years since the inclusion of the 3-point line, did not realize nor did they exploit the 3-pointers. Another reason why players did not shoot 3s is because players in the 1980’s and 1990’s did not grow up with the 3-point line. Still, 15+ years are more than enough time to get used to the new addition. What about the coaches? Why didn’t they run plays that emphasize on shooting 3s? As it turns out, back then in the 1980s and early 1990’s, the offense was a lot more simple compared to today’s basketball strategies. To sum it up in the most simple way, back then basketball games were played in very similar way as pick-up basketball games participated by today’s middle schoolers. The game was easy: Accumulating points by scoring beneath the basket or from a short jumper while everyone who didn’t have the ball would crowd below the basket to rebound. The table below shows the average of 3-point attempts each game since the inclusion of the 3-point line prior to the 1979-80 season. This table is up to date as of December 25, 2016.

 

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As you can see, during the Pistons’ champion seasons in 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons, the teams attempted an average of  6.6   3-pointers–a far cry from today’s league average which is 26.6 by almost quadrupling it!

Joe Dumars did put together a championship team back in 2004, and during that time, it was towards the very end of pre-analytics era as teams were starting to realize the paramount impact of analytics and beginning to take advantage of the 3-point line. Coincidentally, then-Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni revolutionized the so-called “small ball” system in 2004–the same year the Pistons won it all for the third time. D’Antoni’s system soon changed the landscape of the NBA and many teams soon accepted the small lineup in order to stay competitive with the changing game of basketball. Around that same time, Dary Morey introduced analytics to the Boston Celtics and later took his advanced statistical findings that favor floor spacing and 3-point shooting to the Houston Rockets when he was hired as the GM in 2007; his works validated Mike D’Antoni’s philosophy, which was the major reason behind the coaching hire during the 2016 offseason.

The NBA is going through a drastic change in the past five years as the teams attempted an average of more than 20 3-pointers a game for the first time ever–and the attempts are increasing each year. The numbers all point towards how analytics are taking over the game of basketball by favoring the 3-point field goals over mid-point shooting, and putting an emphasis on floor spacing rather than clogging the paint for the rebounds and occasional easy baskets. 30 years ago, it was the norm to score from the mid-range and underneath the basket but such system is considered obsolete in today’s standard because having too many players in the paint not only deter potential drive-and-kick, but also bigger players tend to steal each other’s production which can slow the offense and cause inefficiency. Hence, explaining why some teams and individuals who were successful before cannot succeed in the NBA because of their reluctant to adapt to change since they were successful with the same formula back in their prime time. For another word, the last people and teams to utilize analytics to make basketball decisions are also the ones very successful without them because today’s NBA is quite different from the one where all these individuals performed well. Time has changed but their thinking remains the same.

With that being said, this explains why Thomas and Dumars are struggling in today’s NBA because they were unable to put players in the optimal position where they can be scoring threat while yielding offensive flexibility and floor spacing. This is evident by Dumars’ disastrous result as he assembled a “super big” starting lineup that featured Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond as the team failed to stretch the floor on offense and was too slow defensively to keep up with opponents’ fast-paced tempo. In basketball, the safest way to guard is to render that team ineffective on the offensive end, or out of position. The 2013-14 Pistons was certainly out of position because no one could complement each other. Below is the table, along with the league ranking, just to show how ineffective they were. Pay close attention to the field goals and rebounds.

 

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To sum up, in 2013-14, the Pistons attempted a lot of 2-point field goals and total field goal shots; however, overall their field goal percentage was poor (44.7%, ranked 20) and their 3-point shooting was non-existent, ranked 27th in attempts, 22 in made, and second to last in percentage. Moreover, due to the inability keep up with the fast opponents, their defense was not any better than the paper suggested, ranking 27 overall in opponents’ field goal percentage. The sole bright spot on that Pistons team was the rebounding as the team ranked first in offensive rebounds and third in total rebounds. The league is gearing towards 3-point shooters and rebounders and assembling a rebounding team will not help the team to succeed if it cannot find ways to score efficiently by stretching the floor. Moreover, the league is also currently in the process of abandoning chasing after offensive rebounds (we will save this topic for some other time) in favor of preventing transition points. To sum up, Dumars heavily invested on a team that looked exactly like the same Pistons team from the 1980’s; his Pistons team was good to compete in his playing time but not in modern NBA games. Dumars’ team was not a team built for perimeter shooting because it had too many bigs, which means no floor spacing, no 3-point threat, slow defensive recovery, and an easily predictable offense. No wonder why that Pistons team missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

The same situation also applies to Phil Jackson’s Knicks when he took over the team as the President in 2014. Jackson insisted on running the outdated and predictable triangle offense with the most unfit personnel while signing wahsed-up ex-Lakers Shannon Brown and Sasha Vucevic to complement Carmelo Anthony (and later Kristaps Porzingis). To make the matter worse, Jackson refused to hire people outside of his coaching tree and insisted on using only his people in Derek Fisher and Kurt Rambis. The result was an atrocious combined 49 wins in his first two seasons at the helm. Phil Jackson’s early tenure with the Knicks reflects on how formerly successful individuals who refuse to adjust to change are having a difficult time in finding that bygone eminence in contemporary competition–and the same can also be applied to life in general as well.

Of course, there is always a couple anomalies such as the Suns and the Magic, who were successful ten years ago with small lineups but are now reverting back to bigger lineups since going small did not help them to win it all. The Suns currently feature two centers in Tyson Chandler and Alex Lens–and both are too talented to be playing back up minutes. The result was similar to the 2013-14 Pistons’, as the Suns struggle to stretch the floor and, not surprisingly, find themselves on the bottom of the rungs in overall field goal percentage and 3-point shooting (currently ranked 27 in FG%, 20 in 3-point attempt and percentage, and 24 in 3-point made) due to the inability to provide flexible and efficient offense through floor spacing. Similarly, the Orlando Magic are also reverting back by featuring a giant lineup that features Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo, and Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has expanded his game to a legit 3-point shooting big man to help stretch the floor a little bit; unfortunately, his presence does not help the Magic too much as no one on the team is shooting better than 37% from beyond the arc (with minimum two 3-point field goal attempts per game). With no legit 3-point threat and a crowded frontcourt, it is also no surprise that the team is shooting collectively at 33.5% from the 3-point territory–far below the league average and good for 25th rank. Now let’s hope the two young GMs can help turn the two organizations around soon.

Lastly, there are previously unsuccessful teams that are starting to be receptive towards analytics such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets. The Bucks were a perennially mediocre team and in 2012-13 season they featured one of the most crowded frontcourt with half the team filled with bodies that are at least 6-10 tall, the team had a mix of promising potentials and established veterans in Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, Drew Gooden, Samuel Dalembert, Joel Przybilla, and Ekpe Udoh. The result? Strong rebounding marred by poor floor spacing and sporadic perimeter defense as that year’s Bucks finished the season with 38 wins–just right for another year of mediocrity. The same also goes to the Jordan-led Charlotte Bobcats, who struggled mightily with year after year of poorly constructed roster. It is no surprise that in the last couple years both teams have started to look into analytics by adding floor spacing shooters to compete, and both teams (especially the Hornets) are seeing some improvement. Interestingly, the Hornets put out two analytics positions in the summer of 2013–another evidence that teams are starting to turn their heads towards analytics as they connect data science and basketball decision together.

Conclusively, in the NBA–and the rest of the sport and business world–many managers who struggle to make good decisions are due to them being successful without analytics and technology during their time. People’s past always shape their current reasoning. Eventually, other competitors will catch up and new technology and metrics will be born, and at the end, it is their unwillingness to be receptive that hinder their success–not their competitors. Just like the old saying: Your worst enemy is yourself.

 

–J.H. Yeh

(all graphs are created by me, and all sources of information are courtesy of NBA.com and BasketballReference.com as of December 25, 2016)

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