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December 31, 2007
Game Reax
The Isiah Saga, Part III

by Bradford Doolittle

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When you think too much about Isiah Thomas, you always come back to Alfre Woodard.

That's something about Isiah that we may be forgetting during this mad rush to terminate his presence at Madison Square Garden. He is a guy with an extraordinary back story, one with an upbringing so remarkable that they actually made a TV movie about it.

"There's only one gang around here," the Mary Thomas portrayed by Woodard said while bearing a sawed-off shotgun. "And that's the Thomas gang."

With that, the troublemakers were chased out of young Isiah's life, one that proved to be protected and charmed as he moved up life's ladder. There's a different kind of gang after Thomas these days, an angry mob gathering outside of Madison Square Garden with turkey feathers and hot tar. As this gang grows in size and animus, one can only wonder if Mary Thomas has something to do with her son's stubborn persistence at running the Knicks into the ground, unfettered by the likes of his boss, the execrable James Dolan. Perhaps Dolan has seen the movie and is just flat-out scared to pull the plug on the whole fiasco.

Thomas overcame a lot to achieve the amazing string of successes that marked his playing career in basketball. It's very likely that he sincerely feels his post-playing travails are just more obstacles to be overcome and that, in fact, a sequel to the "A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story" lies somewhere in his future.

That's crazy talk, of course. Thomas has proven beyond a doubt that he's not fit to run or coach a team. That his childhood was played out in front of a mise-en-scene of gang-banging and drug dealing on the rugged west side of Chicago isn't the telling aspect of his background. His life as a player was the stuff of movies but, sorry, the movie is over. While Isiah has held a number of high-level jobs since retiring as a player, he's never served any kind of apprenticeship. He's only had the opportunity to learn from his own mistakes.

When Thomas retired as a player, he should have been starting his new career at ground zero. If he wanted to go into sports management, he should have taken some business courses when he obtained his much-publicized college degree (which was in criminal justice) and probably a little sensitivity training to boot. He should have taken a subordinate role in an NBA front office and learned at the feet of a proven basketball operations person. Instead, he bypassed all of that when the Raptors pulled out the boss's chair for him back in 1994. Thomas has been systematically destroying the good reputation he built as a player ever since.

Last time out, I performed an inquiry into the backgrounds of all current NBA general managers, or whatever equivalent position exists in each front office. Thomas' case is fairly remarkable. While the majority of these key executives played in the NBA and while several of them, like Thomas, were of Hall-of-Fame caliber, it is unusual, or at least unwise, for a former player to be given a team to run without at least some cursory training in doing so.

There were 32 active GMs who made our series of background checks, the extra pair because we declared the duties in Miami and Charlotte to be split. Former players account for 19 of those 32 jobs. Of those 19, we were able to identify six of them as "unmentored," meaning that they've landed in their current position without receiving the prerequisite training somewhere along the line. (All 13 executives that did not play in the NBA went through a mentoring process, not surprising because you'd want someone running a basketball team to have a background in, you know, basketball.) Just for fun, I identified five current execs as having familial ties to the league that may or may not have resulted in them getting their initial break in the NBA.

Now let's play around we some of these groups.

Using the salary database at USA Today, I looked at payroll management over the last six seasons. The GMs I included were all those who had those jobs during that six-year span, including ones out of the game currently. There were 53 altogether, broken down as such: 25 former players, seven unmentored and nine with "daddy strings."

The first thing you notice is if the ratio of active players-cum-executives is 19 of 32, then that means just six of the 21 inactive GMs in the study played in the league. Only one of those six was unmentored (Jim Paxson, in case you're wondering). So there is a trend toward giving these jobs to former players, more and more of whom aren't serving proper apprenticeships. I doubt that's a good thing.

Here's a list of our unmentored execs: Isiah Thomas, John Paxson, Jim Paxson, Michael Jordan, Steve Kerr, Danny Ainge and Elgin Baylor. All of these former players, with the exception of Kerr, have been heavily-criticized during their time running teams. Alas, Kerr and Ainge may be on a Finals collision course, undermining the point of this study. Oh, well.

I wanted to look at the two primary areas of a GM's responsibility: on-court success and fiscal responsibility. For the on-court side, I came up with a completely arbitrary points system based on how far a team advances: one point for a winning season, three points for a playoff spot, five points for a trip to the conference finals, seven points for a trip to the NBA Finals and 10 points for winning the whole enchilada. So a total of 26 points in a season is possible.

Points/(Seasons*26) = on-court rating (ONR). The average ONR is .145.

For the fiscal part, I borrowed a chapter from the late Doug Pappas in that I measured marginal wins per marginal dollars (MWD). The idea behind that is that since all teams can be expected to win X number of games and spend X number of dollars in a season, it's more telling to measure the numbers above those levels. I set the bar pretty low in this case: 10 wins and 50 percent of a season's salary cap.

So, for instance, let's say a team wins 31 games and spends $50 million in a season when the NBA salary cap was set at $46 million. To calculate MWD, I take $27 million (50 percent of the cap is $23 million, they spent $50 million) divided by 21 (31 actual wins minus the 10 wins all teams can expect to win) for a final MWD figure of $1.290 million. The average MWD for this study is $1.140 million.

For a final GM efficiency rating (GMR), I compared each aggregate number to the average and did this:

GMR = ((2*ONR)+(MWD))/3

The points system and the weighting used in calculating GMR are both arbitrary, so I in no way want to present this formula as being the new dynamic method for slotting the performance of NBA general managers. We're looking at group dynamics here. We will get a little naughty and look at some rankings, as well. Also, I should mention that I assigned each first-year GM (Steve Kerr, Darryl Morey, Sam Presti and Kevin Pritchard) one league-average season apiece to get them into the study.

PLAYERS VS. NON-PLAYERS

Category          No. Sea.  Win   ONR      MWD    GMR
player            25   96  40.9  .153   $1,161   1.03
nonplayer         28   92  41.3  .138   $1,118   0.97

(No. - number of samples; Sea. - seasons; Win - wins/82 games; MWD in '000s.)

There is not a lot of difference between the two groups. The non-players have won a fraction more regular-season games; the players have done a little better in the postseason and, remember, neither Gregg Popovich, who was still the Spurs' top executive in the first season of this study, nor his successor in that role, R.C. Buford, played in the league. The non-players have been a little more efficient in spending. All in all, an NBA owner would never want to make a GM hire based on whether or not the applicant played in the league.

MENTORED VS. UNMENTORED

Category          No. Sea.  Win   ONR      MWD    GMR
mentored          46  163  42.1  .161   $1,115   1.08
nonmentored        7   25  35.0  .042   $1,304   0.48

Ah, now we are talking turkey, are we not? First, the obvious: the sample sizes here and all through this exercise render these numbers as non-conclusive. I wouldn't write a thesis paper based on them. That doesn't mean they aren't suggestive because they do, in fact, reflect common sense.

The unmentored GMs in this study won 17 percent fewer games per season than their well-trained counterparts, they did not build squads that advanced in the playoffs and their wins cost their bosses 17 percent more on a per-win basis. As I said, these groups aren't big enough to construct dogma but if I were an owner or team president, I would think long and hard about turning the keys to my basketball operation over to somebody who hasn't paid their dues.

One more grouping, just for fun:

FAMILY TIES

Category          No. Sea.  Win   ONR      MWD    GMR
daddy              9   34  41.1  .130   $1,080   0.95
orphan            44  154  41.1  .149   $1,154   1.01

Nine of the GMs in our group grew up with the game in that they had fathers or brothers who played, coached or served as an executive in the NBA. Some of these, such as Bryan Colangelo, Larry Harris, Scott Layden and Donnie Nelson, got their starts almost certainly because of nepotism. For others--Danny Ferry, John Paxson, Jim Paxson, Kiki Vandeweghe and Rob Babcock--the family ties were probably coincidental. Either way, you can see it probably doesn't make much difference.

Isiah Thomas' GMR ranks 47th out of 53. Of the GMs with more than two seasons in the study, only Billy Knight ranks behind him. The only GM with a worse MWD was Allan Bristow, but that's based solely on one disastrous season with the Hornets. The only other GM that comes as close to Thomas in inefficient spending is Isiah's predecessor in New York, Scott Layden.

You could take that last fact two ways. You could say that Thomas inherited a mess when he came to New York, and you'd be right. You could also say that he's turned the mess into a disaster, and you'd also be right.

I'll leave you with a couple more tables. Here's the complete list of GMs in the study:

NBA GMs, 2001-02 to 2007-08

Rank Executive        Team   Sns     W   ONR    MWD   GMR
1    R.C. Buford       SAS     5  59.4  .662   $717  3.56
2    Joe Dumars        DET     6  54.2  .468   $712  2.68
3    Danny Ferry       CLE     2  50.0  .385   $794  2.24
4    Mitch Kupchak     LAL     6  47.5  .346 $1,005  1.97
5    Rod Thorn         NWJ     6  46.7  .308   $875  1.84
6    Donnie Nelson     DAL     5  59.4  .285 $1,033  1.67
7    Randy Pfund       MIA     6  43.0  .276 $1,095  1.61
8    Pat Riley         MIA     6  43.0  .276 $1,095  1.61
9    Chris Wallace     BOS     2  46.5  .250   $820  1.61
10   Gregg Popovich    SAS     1  58.0  .154   $526  1.43
11   Bryan Colangelo PHX/TOR   6  45.3  .167   $829  1.22
12   Don Nelson        DAL     1  57.0  .154   $750  1.21
13   Bob Bass          NOH     3  44.0  .154   $781  1.19
14   Geoff Petrie      SAC     6  50.3  .160   $993  1.12
15   Donnie Walsh      IND     6  45.2  .160 $1,053  1.10
16   Larry Bird        IND     4  45.3  .163 $1,112  1.09
17   Mike D'Antoni     PHX     1  61.0  .154 $1,096  1.05
18   Mark Warkentien   DEN     1  45.0  .154 $1,099  1.05
19   John Paxson       CHI     4  40.0  .115   $761  1.03
20   Kevin O'Connor    UTA     6  41.8  .122   $828  1.02
21   Sam Presti        SEA     1  40.3  .142 $1,116  0.99
22   Darryl Morey      HOU     1  40.3  .142 $1,116  0.99
23   Kevin Pritchard   POR     1  40.3  .142 $1,116  0.99
24   Steve Kerr        PHX     1  40.3  .142 $1,116  0.99
25   Bob Whitsitt      POR     2  49.5  .154 $1,860  0.91
26   Ernie Grunfeld    WAS     6  39.3  .109 $1,054  0.86
27   Kevin McHale      MIN     6  44.7  .115 $1,159  0.86
28   Kiki Vandeweghe   DEN     5  36.0  .092   $925  0.83
29   Bernie BickerstaffCHA     3  25.7  .000   $471  0.81
30   Carroll Dawson    HOU     6  42.2  .083   $974  0.77
31   Jerry West        MEM     5  38.8  .092 $1,210  0.74
32   Billy King        PHI     6  40.0  .077 $1,179  0.67
33   Larry Harris      MIL     4  34.8  .067 $1,059  0.67
34   Pat Williams      ORL     4  35.8  .077 $1,270  0.65
35   Rick Sund         SEA     6  40.0  .051   $936  0.64
36   Danny Ainge       BOS     4  34.5  .067 $1,261  0.61
37   Otis Smith        ORL     2  38.0  .058 $1,110  0.61
38   Elgin Baylor      LAC     6  36.3  .026   $840  0.57
39   Chris Mullin      GSW     3  36.7  .051 $1,215  0.55
40   Glen Grunwald     TOR     3  33.0  .051 $1,522  0.48
41   Jeff Bower        NOH     2  38.5  .000   $798  0.48
42   Michael Jordan  WAS/CHA   3  35.7  .000   $930  0.41
43   Jim Paxson        CLE     4  30.8  .010 $1,240  0.35
44   Rob Babcock       TOR     2  30.0  .000 $1,150  0.33
45   Garry St. Jean    SAC     3  32.0  .000 $1,258  0.30
46   Pete Babcock      ATL     2  34.0  .000 $1,341  0.28
47   Isiah Thomas      NYK     4  32.0  .029 $2,932  0.26
48   Jerry Krause      CHI     2  25.5  .000 $1,471  0.26
49   John Nash         POR     2  34.0  .019 $2,514  0.24
50   Billy Knight      ATL     5  24.0  .000 $1,750  0.22
51   Steve Patterson   POR     2  26.5  .000 $1,956  0.19
52   Scott Layden      NYK     2  33.5  .000 $2,912  0.13
53   Allan Bristow     NOH     1  18.0  .000 $4,317  0.09

And, finally, here are the aggregate numbers broken down by team:

TEAM GMR, 2001-02 to 2006-07

No. Team           ONR   Wins    MWD   GMR
1   Spurs         .577   59.2   $686  3.20
2   Pistons       .468   54.2   $712  2.68
3   Lakers        .346   47.5 $1,005  1.97
4   Nets          .308   46.7   $875  1.84
5   Heat          .276   43.0 $1,095  1.61
6   Mavericks     .263   59.0   $988  1.59
7   Suns          .167   47.7   $956  1.16
8   Kings         .160   50.3   $993  1.12
9   Pacers        .160   45.2 $1,053  1.10
10  Jazz          .122   41.8   $828  1.02
11  Cavaliers     .135   37.2 $1,021  0.99
12  Celtics       .128   38.5 $1,073  0.94
13  Nuggets       .103   37.5   $962  0.87
14  Timberwolves  .115   44.7 $1,159  0.86
15  Bobcats       .000   25.7   $471  0.81
16  Rockets       .083   42.2   $974  0.77
17  Bulls         .077   35.2   $907  0.77
18  Hornets       .077   37.8   $957  0.75
19  Wizards       .077   37.8 $1,004  0.73
20  Bucks         .077   37.0 $1,105  0.70
21  76ers         .077   40.0 $1,179  0.67
22  Grizzlies     .077   36.2 $1,295  0.65
23  SuperSonics   .051   40.0   $936  0.64
24  Magic         .071   36.5 $1,213  0.64
25  Clippers      .026   36.3   $840  0.57
26  Raptors       .051   34.3 $1,144  0.57
27  Trail Blazers .058   36.7 $2,076  0.45
28  Warriors      .026   34.3 $1,235  0.43
29  Hawks         .000   27.5 $1,503  0.25
30  Knicks        .019   32.5 $2,925  0.22

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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