Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Analyzing Mitch Kupchak's GM skills: from 2001 to now

In the NBA, the best way to analyze how a general manager has done is to see how the players have performed under his watch, relative to their contracts. I've created a formula that boils down to three attributes: obviously, the contract value every year for a particular player is important, as after the rookie scale contract, this is the true test for whether the GM is competent in sensing a player's true worth. This is therefore an integral part of the equation. The second part is based on the age of the player, which is less consequential, but still it as a player ages, obviously their production is expected to wane. The most important part is based on the win shares/48 minutes of that player in that season. Win shares is based off the player's PER, so it is as flawed as PER is (which is a more of an offense-capturing stat and less of a defense one), but still, it captures the player's productivity in a given season, accounting for how many minutes they have played that season (so it can account for player injuries) and it also captures how well that player's team has done that season (so obviously, players on losing teams would have smaller win shares, even if their PER is higher). For example, players like Bruce Bowen who play a ton of minutes on winning teams, but have low PERs, can have their impact more accurately reflected through win shares/48. So there's a heavy weighting factor given to win shares (in fact, seven orders more!) as compared to contract value and age, so players that are producing are therefore worth more and likelier to outplay their contract.

So I’ve created a score that attempts to capture how well the investment was for each player for a given year. The formula is (((Win Shares per 48*10^3)^5)/(Contract Value*Age))/(10^7), which is weighted more towards win shares, or player impact, but still puts a decent weight on the contract value and age. Obviously, the higher the score, the better value that player presents. 

Here’s the general rubric for a player living up to their contract, based on their play/age:
  • <10: Subpar value for the contract (toxic if the player is making >=$3mil a year)
  •  10-15: OK value for the contract 
  •  15-20: Decent value for the contract
  •  20-30: Pretty good value for the contract 
  •  30-40: Good value for the contract
  •  40-50: Very good value for the contract 
  • >50: Excellent value for the contract
There is a subset ranking for this for those in their rookie scale contracts (generally between ages ~20-~24), but this is less grounded in fact:
  • <10: Won’t amount to much
  • 10-100: Likely lower level role player
  • 100-300: Role player
  • 300-600: Starter
  • 600-900: High Level Starter
  • >900: All Star
 The graphs below are going to be based on contract outplaying value, which is the number generated by the equation above for a particular player at a particular year, relative to their ages. For we're isolating production relative to age, so we can get a glimpse of how players perform when they get paid, when they're in their rookie scale contracts, etc. As you will see below, rookie scale players are paid very little but the ones who are NBA-viable tend to have huge spikes in production relative to their contract. Once players get paid, it's harder to produce value relative to the contract, but the ones who have longer careers will extract at least decent to very good value out of their contract consistently.

For a GM like Mitch, who has been at this job since 2001, or for 11 years and counting, it's critical to separate his moves into epochs, because you'll see stark differences between them. Epoch 1 runs from 2001-2004, Epoch 2 from 2005-2008, Epoch 3 from 2009-2012, and I also have a graph that illustrates the current players: 2012 and beyond. I'll also have graphs that show how players that Mitch have allowed to leave have done in each of the epochs. And finally, there's one that's more indirect: players that were draft picks of the Lakers that were traded before they even set foot with the Lakers. Yeah, it's more indirect, but it's interesting to analyze how those players have fared over the years.

Without further ado, let's start with Epoch 1:

 First, some context: the Lakers were in the thick of things from 2001 to 2005, going deep into the playoffs and always trying to contend for a championship. As a result, player development and the use of rookies weren't as important, as you can see with so few marks for players 28 and below. But even then, the Lakers' "younger players" at the time were pretty horrible--Samaki Walker and Mark Madsen went through one year spikes that dropped to "playing below contract" levels, so Mitch allowed them both to walk. Kareem Rush and Jelani McCoy were both bust that never ever showed value to the Lakers.  Because the Lakers were investing in older players ages 30 and above, they didn't see any of the huge spikes that were characteristic of the younger players. There was value--Shaq at the time was paid enormously and produced great value regardless, but a precipitous value drop made Mitch pull the trigger on a trade. Among older players, Karl Malone, at age 40 (see the far right of the graph), produced extreme value for the Lakers, particularly amazing for his age. Robert Horry had one good year, and Bryon Russell and Gary Payton also proved useful relative to their contracts. Among bad spots, Rick Fox was quite toxic with his $4.9million contract, producing three bad years of below contract value. The Lakers also got bad one-year blips out of Isaiah Rider, Lindsey Hunter, Mitch Richmond, Greg Foster, Tracy Murray, and to a lesser extent, Horace Grant. Needless to say, much of the action with epoch 1 circulated around the veterans.

Now let's take a look at those players that Mitch allowed to leave in Epoch 1. As you can see, the graph sees more "productive" spikes upwards with quite a few players. Shaq had two more productive-relative-to-contract years after leaving the Lakers, and while he went through toxic contract doldrums between ages 34-37, at age 38 he saw a huge spike with the Celtics where he was producing relative to the veteran's minimum he was making. Another player to look at is Robert Horry: his value off the charts high for four years after leaving the Lakers, with the Spurs, because he was producing, and for a winning team. Mark Madsen had one good year with the Timberwolves before settling into being four years of being a toxic contract. Ime Udoka had two productive years with the Blazers and the Spurs before losing all value and retiring. Even young Jamal Sampson saw two productive seasons after leaving the Lakers, although he didn't play much. By and large, perhaps only letting Horry and Sampson go was a horrible decision, as many of the others became toxic contracts.As for good decisions on who to let go, Lindsey Hunter, Jannero Pargo, Kareem Rush, and Tyronn Lue produced very forgettable value throughout the duration of their careers.

Overall, Epoch 1 was OK: the Lakers were in win-now mode, so the Lakers really didn't have too many young players. But in doing so we couldn't see if Mitch was a proper evaluator of young talent, and based on Samaki, Mark and Kareem, his evaluation methods looked pretty bleak. There were a few hits with the older players, but also quite a few misses, so it was overall a mixed bag. Mitch didn't get burned too badly by players who left the Lakers, but Robert Horry, Ime Udoka and Shaq were a few notable ones. Overall, Epoch 1 was a mixed bag on both fronts. Mitch just wasn't that aggressive at making moves at the time.

The Lakers were less relevant after the Malone-Payton fiasco of 2004 and started to rebuild from scratch after trading Shaq: hence, Mitch started to scout for younger talent. The Lakers attained a lot of players in the ages 23-26 inset at this period. The Lakers got extreme value out of Ronny Turiaf for three years of his rookie contract, which is why it's important to draft players: that's where most of the extreme value can be attained. Brian Cook also produced three impressive years in his rookie contract, and Slava Medvedenko was very up-and-down during this period, but had several value years. Coby Karl was a pleasant surprise, and Jumaine Jones was decent as well in their lone year here. The Lakers coaxed a single good year out of basket-cases Smush Parker and Devean George, but both regressed into subpar production and George in particular was a toxic contract for four years with the Lakers during this period. It's hard to call Kwame a toxic contract because he was still quite young at the time, but in retrospect he was toxic, because he underperformed relative to the contract for three years with the Lakers as well. During this period got horrid production out of their older players, with Chucky Atkins, Shammond Williams and Brian Grant all vastly underperforming.

In getting younger players, and  in letting them go, it's easier to get burned since they're still likely to produce upon leaving the team. The Lakers saw some of that with Von Wafer, who had two value years at ages 23 and 25, and Ronny Turiaf, who went through some sort of mini renaissance of great bang for the buck at ages 28 and 30. Mo Evans went through a Turiaf-ian renaissance between ages 29-31 as well. Caron Butler was extremely overrated--he was fed a fat contract after leaving the Lakers and while he had two value seasons, ever since age 29 (he's now age 32) he's been perceived as a toxic contract because he's just vastly underperforming. Chucky Atkins and Kwame Brown both had one year spikes, but by and large they've remained at an underperforming state. Mitch was right to let Javaris Crittenton, Brian Cook, Devean George and Smush Parker go--they've remained consistently underperforming ever since they left the Lakers. But by and large, the only real "burns" were with Ronny Turiaf and Mo Evans to a slight extent, but everyone else--including the overrated Butler--they were absolutely right to let go. Mitch didn't get burned too much with these moves.

Overall, Epoch 2 was an improvement for Mitch in scouting talent--the Lakers were able to maximize Cook and arguably Turiaf as draft picks and had other decent finds, but Mitch did an about-face and only found old veterans who underperformed during this period, and also had two toxic contracts--Devean George and Kwame Brown, as opposed to only one (Rick Fox) at epoch 1. Mitch didn't get burned as much either in Epoch 2 with only Turiaf and Mo Evans as players who shouldn't have left so soon, but in Epoch 1 we could have said that about Shaq, Horry and Udoka. Overall, epoch 2 was a vast improvement, particularly in terms of finding younger talent.

From 2009-2012, the Lakers were back in contending mode, but this time, unlike the first slew of championship runs, they did it in a completely different fashion. Mitch didn't bother with the veterans this time--look at the chart above--he did it with a bunch of 20-30 year old types, a mixture of very young players and "young" veterans. And this is the ideal way to build a championship team so you can extend its shelf life. And Epoch 3 is really where Mitch hit a home run with virtually all of his moves--notice all those rookie scale contract type spikes. His drafting was very good during this period and he supplied the Lakers with a lot of younger players who were able to make contributions. Draftee Sasha Vujacic had four good value years with the Lakers, and Jordan Farmar had a great one year blip (unfortunately it was only one year, so he was let go after his rookie contract). Andrew Bynum proved that he was an All star and then some with four great value years between ages 20-24 with the Lakers. Mitch also brought great ammo value via trade, with Trevor Ariza producing two great value years, Shannon Brown producing a great one-year spike, and Ramon Sessions also providing good one-year value. The trade was a feature that Mitch hadn't really succeeded with prior to this, but these three trades cemented the idea that he was very good at extracting value out of young, previously underappreciated players. On top of good drafting, both in Epoch 2 and 3, that made him a formidable GM.

With the older players, Lamar Odom, after getting grossly overpaid at ages 25-27 so he wasn't really outproducing his contract, got a pay cut to the point where he was able to have major bang for the buck at ages 30-31. DJ Mbenga had several value seasons with the Lakers. But if we're talking about value, the best find was...wait for it...Matt Barnes. It's extremely rare to get great value off free agency, much less from a 30-year old, but the Lakers gave Barnes the near minimum and for two years he produced extreme bang for the buck. That was an excellent move.

Certainly there were problems--Luke Walton utilized one great year to get paid by the Lakers, and settled into a toxic contract for SIX! years--from ages 24 to 30 as the Lakers were unable to find takers. Vladimir Radmanovic was toxic but the Lakers were able to move in the third year of his contract. Derek Fisher lost value in his last two years of his first and second stint with the Lakers, so the Lakers let him go both times. Chris Mihm was toxic for three years and had only one decent season. Josh Powell and Adam Morrison were major busts.

But what's even more amazing, besides those Mitch moves? Look at the chart above. In Epoch 3, the vast majority of Lakers let go have failed to produce relative to their contracts. More power to Mitch--it shows that he has let the right personnel leave. The only major exception is Matt Barnes, who was a major mistake to let go and is producing even greater bang for the veteran minimum with the Clippers. Everyone else has suffered--Josh McRoberts is producing some value with the Magic right now, and Radmanovic, after three more seasons of being a toxic contract, is finally doing something of value to the Bulls, but other than that, everyone else has been suffering. On the younger side, Trevor Ariza now exists solely as a toxic contract from ages 24-27, and Shannon Brown and Ramon Sessions are putting up empty stat lines and underproducing relative to their contracts. On the older side, Luke Walton is at the verge of retirement, and Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom (the "mole" of the Dallas Mavericks) have been flat out underperforming-awful.

All in all, Epoch 3 cemented Mitch as a top GM. Sure, he had a few toxic contracts, such as Walton, Mihm and Radmanovic, and including a weird obsession with Derek Fisher, but great drafting, great trading, and great young player bang-for-the-buck type production was the unheralded factor in helping the Lakers win their several championships over this period. Older bang for the bucks from Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom were also essential. And to further cement this, Mitch wasn't really burned at all, except with Matt Barnes--most of the young AND old players he let go during this period are underproducing relative to their contracts. This is the mark of a good GM--both trading, drafting well, and knowing which players to let go.

Another angle we can look at Mitch's GM skills is to see which Laker draft picks he traded away, whether before the draft (ie Rajon Rondo, Greivis Vasquez, etc) or at the time of the draft (Toney Douglas) or even as a stash (Marc Gasol). Mitch severely got burned by two of those at Epoch 2--Marc Gasol and Rajon Rondo. Rondo is incredibly indirect, I know, but once upon a time, the pick he was drafted with belonged to the Lakers (the 21st overall pick). Needless to say, Rondo produced huge rookie year spikes with the Celtics that cemented the fact that he was a star, and he got paid accordingly--he hasn't been producing excellent value at ages 24-26, but decent enough value. Marc Gasol, another Epoch 2 product, has been a consistently excellent bang for the buck type, really producing extreme value ever since he came to the league. Mitch really got burned by those two. Epoch 3 products Greivis Vasquez and Toney Douglas are now putting up empty stat lines and underperforming relative to their contracts, although Douglas had two good prior years in his rookie contract. JaJuan Johnson and Donte Greene are now out of the league and had struggled to produce value,and Chris Jefferies was an Epoch 1 irrelevant player who faded very early. Overall, Mitch really got burned at Epoch 2 with Rondo and Gasol, but the other draft picks that left were OK to leave.

Finally, the last chart shows the current production trajectories of the 2012-2013 Lakers. And this is where the Lakers appear somewhat disappointing again: their roster is old, and very 30-33 years old heavy. Mitch has made some great value plays with "youngish" players--Jodie Meeks (free agency) and Jordan Hill (trade again, further cementing Mitch's legend as a "thief") have punched good value above their contract. In addition, Kobe has been raking in the cash and has produced OK values in the early 30s, and has bounced back from a bad season last year to produce excellent value so far in this season. But the Lakers are currently struggling with some of their star players failing to punch above their contract. It's not OK for Dwight Howard to merely produce OK value for his contract if this team is to go far, but that's where he currently stands right now.  As of this moment, even Chris Duhon punches above his contract more than Dwight does. And Pau Gasol, who once was able to produce excellent value (particularly at ages 27-29) for the Lakers, has dropped like a rock heading into ages 31-32 and now he's severely underperforming his contract and therefore the subject of endless trade rumors. In addition, young players Darius Morris and Devin Ebanks have been disappointments, so the Lakers aren't able to get major bang for the buck that are typical of talented young rookies. While every team has a bad contract, Mitch has been saddled with Steve Blake's toxic contract for two years running.

So the Lakers are headed into an Epoch 1 direction--the very young are very bad, and there's a huge reliance on the old. The difference is the stars are underperforming, and that needs to change if the Lakers are to be relevant. Perhaps Mitch, who excels in trading for youngish players, should trade some of the underperformers (Gasol) for such talent. The Lakers are seriously lacking in draft picks after putting all their poker chips in the win now mode, so it might behoove them to trade for draft picks (which Mitch also excels at).

Overall, Mitch's management ability has been very good, with his shining moment at Epoch 3 (2009-2012). He appears to excel at trading for youngish players (Epoch 3) and drafting decently, particularly at Epochs 2 and Epoch 3. He's had some luck finding veterans, but overall he's very hit and miss at this end. While Steve Blake is the latest in the long line of toxic contracts, the majority of his toxic giveaways happened earlier in his regime, so one presumes that he's learned from a lot of it. However, the Lakers look like they're moving at the wrong direction as of this moment, with an old-heavy team similar to Epoch 1, where Mitch didn't look as good. But here's a chance for Mitch to take what he's learned at Epochs 2 and 3 and see if he can rectify the situation.

*Statistical support provided by Basketball-Reference.

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