September 2011: Two weeks after Brad Pitt’s Moneyball was released, I spent about a half-hour talking to Basketball Hall of Famer and former NBA General Manager of the Golden State Warriors Chris Mullin. Mullin asked me what I wanted to be when I got older, and I told him and his wife Liz the answer was a general manager of a baseball team. The former Warrior and Pacer mentioned that he had just seen Billy Beane, the A’s GM, at the gym and asked for his advice on whether or not Mullin would be able to use Beane’s philosophy in developing a winner in the “Big 3 Era” of the NBA. Mullin abruptly changed the subject from Beane’s reply to asking a fourteen year old his thoughts. My answer was,“Absolutely not,”-the exact answer the now ESPN analyst had.
Fast-forward about eight months, with five teams remaining in the postseason, three built around a trio of superstars. The theory, Moneyball, a strategy derived on statistics and seeking an inexpensive option as opposed to purchasing superstars, may actually work in the National Basketball Association, but not in its traditional form.
Immediately after posting a Rovell-esque Twitter poll, I received countless tweets and direct messages, 95 percent of them consisted the word “Rockets”. Darryl Morey’s philosophy in Houston has been the closest parallel in the sport. Morey, named one of “The 10 Most Creative People in Sports” by Fast Company, has become known for his advanced statistics and has been at the forefront of the statistical movement in sports, but can you really call his model “Moneyball”? Morey traded for Sacramento’s Kevin Martin in February of 2010, with over $30M left on his contract that expires following next season. A couple of summers ago, Houston also locked up Argentinean big man Luis Scola to a five year-$47 million contract following his thirtieth birthday. That’s where Morey starts to lose me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved some of the low risk-high reward moves he made, like drafting Arizona’s Chase Budinger two years after he was a college star or swooping up Goran Dragic (a secound round choice) via trade during the 2011 Draft, but what the Rockets are doing in Houston doesn’t qualify as Moneyball to me.
For Moneyball to work in the NBA it is going to have to follow a similar mode of operating as Beane and the NFL, plus good coaching. In the 2011 NBA Draft, nineteen seniors were selected within the 60 overall draft picks. Most played an important role in their first season, some in helping their teams reach the playoffs, including Heat guard Norris Cole and Denver’s Kenneth Faried. In an era where freshman are swiped off the board in most of the top ten picks and seniors are looked at the same way Brandon Weeden was looked at when picked by the Browns, these seniors seem to be an easy way to create young veteran role players on a squad. The latest NBA CBA allows teams to keep a draft choice for four years without an extension, including a team option following the second and third season. Under the salary cap, conservation of finances could be a piece of cake while valuing lower first round choices and second round picks. The Knicks paid shooting guard, Landry Fields, a total of $1.3M for two seasons as a starter. Was it really crazy that Landry Fields produced in the NBA? Absolutely not. Prior to the 2010 Draft, Fields was on the All-Pac 10 First Team after leading the conference in scoring and rebounding. In that same draft, the Orlando Magic selected Kentucky center Daniel Orton in the first round after he played only 502 minutes in one year of college play. Since, Orton has scored 45 points in his NBA career and has spent time in the D-League while Fields has scored 31x more points than Orton in two seasons. I’m not saying to draft every senior (see: Shelden Williams), but why not a competitive winner in college? After the NBA Draft Lottery on Wednesday, one top ten team will be in position to draft Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, a big man expected to give teams a few decent years as a starter or sixth man. Over 111 million people watched the New England Patriots in February’s Super Bowl. Their head coach, Bill Belichick, is recognized for being a draft guru, trading down in the draft, stockpiling lower draft picks, and selecting good value players later in the draft. A top-5 NBA Draft choice could fetch a latter first round pick and at least one second round selection. It seems as though teams that have that top-5 selection are too stubborn to move their way down and instead that the risk on an unknown (see: Utah Jazz; 2011 NBA Draft). Two players have a better chance than becoming good players than one does.
When you are reviewing a championship season you are talking about a championship team. In my opinion, as an aspiring general manager in the sports world, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than studying character. A marvelous book I read was Character Is Not A Statistic, a book about former Detroit Tigers GM and Scout Bill Lajoie, who produced a champion out of finding players with the IQ, hunger, and mentality to win a World Series. Finding a devoted player and avoiding the player excited for his first million is as vital as to a team’s health as anything. Larry Bird didn’t own a basketball hoop growing up, but that didn’t stop him. Bird told the New Yorker a few years ago, “Before we got a real basketball hoop, we used a coffee can and tried to shoot one of those small sponge-rubber balls through it.” A team must be built around good character, which builds a good fan base. Dare I say that is why Tim Tebow won football games in Denver.
The next NBA Moneyball trick could be the correct use of the undrafted free agent. Most of the draft eligible players go undrafted with only sixty picks in the NBA Draft, which leaves tons of college players on the market. While some of the players left undrafted may lack that special element, many of these undrafted players turn out to be a solid touch on a roster. If you think this is all nonsense, take a look at the rings on Bruce Bowen, Udonis Haslem and Ben Wallace’s fingers and how they each have more than Charles Barkley (Sorry Chuck). Along with Bowen, Haslem and Wallace, John Starks and Raja Bell were solid, undrafted pros, all overlooked for being defensive specialists and lacking that offensive firepower. Another example: Jeremy Lin-overlooked after completely dominating…in the Ivy League. I don’t really think I need to get into what followed his college career. These teams could workout tons of undrafted players without a lockout this year. It is pretty sad if they lose out on a bunch of players because they are too focused on how they are going to lure superstars in. I could honestly say I wouldn’t have hesitated to sign Butler’s Matt Howard after the lockout after he showed an improved jumper in workouts and hustle in the Bulldogs two Final Four runs. Suit yourself NBA. Instead go out and sign Eddy Curry to fill your NBA roster.
On the statistical end, I’ll leave you with this examples introduced to me from my Quora post. Jeffrey Ma, a member of the blackjack team from MIT that inspired 21 and a consultant for the Portland Trailblazers, used a system called Protrade to advise the Blazers who to select with the second overall pick in the 2009 Draft. “With the number two pick in the NBA draft this summer, the Portland Trailblazers passed on Adam Morrison, hailed by many as the next Larry Bird, and snagged LaMarcus Aldridge instead. Why? "Our numbers said that Adam Morrison should have been a second-round pick," says Ma.” Well LaMarcus Aldridge averaged 21.7 points per game and 8 rebounds in 2012, while Morrison has not played in the NBA since April 27, 2010. Portland must’ve done something right in that draft because besides trading for the second pick for Aldridge, they drafted 3-time All-Star Brandon Roy a few picks after.
If Moneyball is about finding some great talent at a low price, then teams have four years to develop a young draft pick and deal him off Billy Beane style instead of signing him to a monster contract. Then the process restarts again. Team basketball, built around low-cost role players (see: San Antonio Spurs; 2011-2012), is the way to go. Moneyball is the way to build it. I really hope you read this Michael Jordan…
Disagree? Leave me a video or comment below on why.
*Kevin Love’s 4 year-$64M contract extension kicks in next season.
(Main image via HoopSpeak.com)