The 76ers Are the Waterloo for "Stat Gurus"Tanking is wrong for many reasons--it violates the spirit of true competition, it rips off the fans, it destroys that franchise's opportunity to build a winning culture--but the most basic reason is the proven fact that it does not work. Sam Hinkie was an executive with the Houston Rockets for eight years. The Rockets won one playoff series during that time. Based on that remarkably unremarkable record, the Philadelphia 76ers hired Hinkie in 2013 to run their basketball operations. Hinkie took over a team that went 34-48 in 2012-13. Since that time, the 76ers went 19-63, 18-64 and 1-21 while Hinkie's supporters implored everyone to "trust the process." Hinkie is a "stat guru" whose "process" is tanking and he has dropped the 76ers so far into the tank it will be years before they see daylight again. During Hinkie's reign of error the 76ers have been widely recognized as one of the most analytically minded franchises in sports, so it is not an exaggeration to say that Hinkie's failure is a Waterloo moment for "stat gurus"--at least the self-promoting "stat gurus" who have been saying for years that if they only got the chance to run an NBA franchise they could do so much better than the people who have actually devoted their lives to playing, scouting and coaching.
Hinkie is Ted Stepien with a spreadsheet. Stepien was not intentionally tanking but he did such a horrible job as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980s that the NBA had to step in and save the franchise--which is pretty much what just happened in Philadelphia, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reportedly strongly suggested to the 76ers' owners that they bring in some outside help (which means, make sure that Hinkie never makes another personnel decision as long as he lives). Hinkie turned the 76ers into a laughingstock and the team is so terrible that other franchises had trouble selling tickets when Hinkie brought his version of the Washington Generals thinly disguised as a professional sports team into their towns. The 76ers have now hired Jerry Colangelo to clean up Hinkie's mess. As one writer quipped, Colangelo is going to talk a lot less about PER and a lot more about WINS. Colangelo has his work cut out for him but if anyone can turn the 76ers around he can, because he has enjoyed a tremendous career as a sports executive. Colangelo also should be commended for keeping his promise to correct some longstanding Basketball Hall of Fame injustices.
Hinkie's abject Philadelphia failure should also draw some attention to what is happening in Houston, where he served as Daryl Morey's protege. Morey's long tenure in Houston (Morey took over the basketball operations in May 2007) has produced nothing special; in Morey's first eight seasons, the Rockets missed the playoffs three times and won just three playoff series, with two of those victories coming last year. The Rockets are 10-12 this season and may not even make the playoffs just one year after their improbable (read "fluke") run to the Western Conference Finals--speaking of which, just how much does it mean to make the Conference Finals once? It may seem like that is getting really close to winning a title but it is actually only the halfway point, because it takes eight playoff wins to reach the Conference Finals and eight more playoff wins to claim the championship. Since Morey took over in Houston, 10 of the 15 Western Conference teams have reached the Conference Finals at least once (eight of the 15 Eastern Conference teams have reached the Conference Finals at least once during the same period).
Morey loudly claimed--and media outlets like ESPN and the New York Times loudly repeated his claims--that his use of so-called "advanced basketball statistics" created a clear advantage that would translate directly into wins. Or, to coin a phrase, "trust the process." Nearly a decade later, we have a large enough sample size of evidence to make a solid hypothesis: whatever "process" Morey and Hinkie are doing, it does not work, at least if you are trying to win a championship by doing it.
Statistics are a very important tool for executives, coaches, scouts, media member and fans. I have loved sports statistics since I was a kid and this website is chock full of statistics--but any piece of data is only as good as the person who is using it and the context in which that piece of data is applied. Of course the smartest front offices in the NBA are using the most advanced statistics possible--but they are not doing so to promote themselves as geniuses and they are not using numbers devoid of context.
The numbers tell Daryl Morey that James Harden is a "foundational player." Morey does not know or care that the eye test reveals that Harden does not give full effort on a consistent basis, he is an awful defender and he has no leadership skills. Harden has some All-Star level offensive skills but he relies way too much on begging for contact when he drives and on launching three pointers when he does not drive. Harden has little to no post up or midrange game. So, Harden can erupt for 35 or 40 points on any given night--but when his team really needs him in a big playoff game, he can also shoot 2-11 from the field with a playoff single-game record 13 turnovers.
It is no surprise that Harden's Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of his first two seasons with the team. It is somewhat unexpected that the Rockets made it to the Conference Finals last year but, as noted above, any executive who can keep his seat warm for nearly a decade will more than likely stumble into one Conference Finals appearance. Harden is not the right guy to be the best player on a legit contender. Three teams in each conference made the Conference Finals at least three times since 2007: Miami, Cleveland and Boston in the East and the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the West. We know that Harden would not have been close to being the best player on any of those teams, in no small part because he came off of the bench for Oklahoma City.
This season, we are seeing the real Harden and the real Rockets (which we also saw during his first two full seasons with the team). Harden is scoring a lot of points while not shooting well, his team is far from being a legit contender and his bad attitude played no small part in getting his coach fired. It should be clear to the rest of the world now what should have been clear all along: it would have been a travesty if James Harden won the MVP last year. Harden is Stephon Marbury with an overgrown beard, a coach killer who is more interested in his endorsements and the celebrity life than he is in being a great basketball player. Harden declares that he is better than Stephen Curry and LeBron James. What a joke. Curry actually works on his game and comes back each season with something new. James is a 6-8 beast with an all-around skill set who has led his teams to six Finals and two championships; yeah, there are some gaping holes in James' championship resume and it took him too long to even partially figure out the championship mentality that guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were born with but putting Harden in the same sentence with James is like comparing a Yugo to a Rolls-Royce.
What this all comes down to is character and character is always revealed eventually. Character means doing the right things the right way all of the time. Character means having the courage of your convictions (which is not at all the same thing as sticking with the same course as you plunge into an iceberg). Championships are not won by accident. If you have an overabundance of talent, you may achieve some success without character but that success will inevitably be transitory. Before Mike Tyson fought Evander Holyfield, Teddy Atlas--who trained the young Tyson--said that Tyson was scared of Holyfield, that Tyson lacked heart and that the moment things got tough he would commit a foul to get out of the fight because he did not want to be there and would not be able to accept losing like a real man. Atlas nailed it, because Atlas knew Tyson's character and Atlas was not fooled by the "baddest man on the planet" hyperbole surrounding Tyson.
You cannot win a championship if you have a loser's mentality. That is what Hinkie failed to understand when he sent the 76ers into the tank based on some numbers-based idea of accumulating top draft picks and that is what Morey failed to understand when he decided to make Harden the "foundation" in Houston. Harden's story is apparently appealing to a lot of media members and he fooled a lot of people into giving him recognition that he did not earn but none of that stuff matters when you have to get in between the lines in the playoffs and produce. The cliche is true: you win with character, not characters. I have spent my whole NBA writing career figuratively betting against characters like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden even when those guys were at the height of their popularity and I will place that eye test evaluation against a spreadsheet any day of the week.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:33 PM