April 26, 2017

ESPN NBA Management Rankings

Last month, ESPN released its 2017 NBA Management Rankings, a list of coaches, general manager/team presidents and owners of every NBA franchise ranked from 1 to 30. This is the third year out of the last four that the TV network has released such rankings, starting in 2014 and again a year later in 2015 before the revised list was published in March. I couldn't find anything for 2016 so I'm assuming they just skipped last year. 

This year, the Wizards did pretty well by the folks in Bristol, Connecticut, ranking 12th overall, 9th in coaching (Scott Brooks) and 14th in GM/President (Ernie Grunfeld) with their only bottom half of the league (barely) coming in ownership at 16th (Ted Leonsis). It's certainly better than they fared two years ago when they finished overall at 21st with the highest ranking in any category being ownership, which just like this year, finished in the 16 spot.

Now I'm not exactly sure who has input into these rankings over at ESPN. Two years ago they referred to their ESPN Forecast Panel as the authors of the results. They also provided a link justifying why their panel produces "the most accurate predictions in the game" before referring to the process as "the future of forecasting." There was a list of six names at the bottom of that page, two of whom were titled economist or microeconomist although I'm not sure those folks are the entire panel. This year, the Panel seems to be a little more mysterious but here's the thing: I'm not sure these people have any idea what they are talking about.

So I get that the statement I just made is a little bit laughable. After all, I'm an architect who blogs about being a Wizards fan on nights and weekends and these folks are paid professionals who are presumably respected in their field. I also can't take issue with them ranking the San Antonio Spurs first overall in 2015 and 2017 and the New York Knicks as last overall both of those same years. I mean, who would really argue with those results?

But that's sort of the point. What panel wouldn't put the Spurs first and the Knicks last? It's the results in between that are leaving me questioning the value of this ranking in total because it seems to be a what have you done for me lately contest, with on court results determining the opinion of the evaluators based on what's already happened. Look, I can tell you who wins each NBA division at the end of the season; it's predicting it at the beginning the year and stating why that's the hard part. I think all these folks are looking at is results after the fact. And that just ain't that hard.

Scott Brooks: From 20th to 9th in two years while taking one of the two off. Such progress!
So you need some evidence, right? Let's start with the Wizards. Two years ago, my beloved team finished 26th in coaching in this ranking under then head coach Randy Wittman, a guy who was pretty much universally reviled by any sort of NBA analystics guy. This year, Scott Brooks has the coaching on our team ranked 17 spots higher than two years ago. That makes sense based on him leading the team to more wins and the franchise's first division title since 1979, right? I'm not really proving my own point am I?

Know where Brooks, who was then coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder, finished two years ago? 20th. So I guess that involuntary year off really made Scottie a way better coach, huh? Probably not. Or maybe a bunch of guys ahead of him quit the profession?  Well, yes, if you consider three a lot; but they (Kevin McHale, George Karl and David Blatt) were relieved of their responsibilities. So what's the deal?

Well it turns out, according to the Forecast Panel, some coaches just aren't as good this year as they were two years ago. Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer dropped from 2nd to 11th; Portland's Terry Stotts went from 7th to 14th; Tom Thibodeau switched teams and turned his number 5 spot with the Bulls into a 13 ranking with the Timberwolves; Dave Joerger did something similar (11 to 23) by bolting Memphis for Sacramento; and Frank Vogel was also on the wrong side of history by taking the Magic job this year, dropping his ESPN coaching rank from 9 to 24. All five of these coaches posted worse records this year than they did two years ago and turned a combined 254 wins (.620 winning percentage) in 2015 into 176 wins (.429 winning percentage) this year.

I'm maybe being a little unfair. Some coaches (Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle) are still highly thought of despite not making the playoffs this season. And no doubt they are good coaches. Then again, maybe they are just saved by having led at least one team to a championship this century. But what's the excuse for the change of heart on Brooks and the five other coaches? I say it's team performance. And that sucks. Either you can coach or you can't. And the panel of experts ought to know that.

So let's move on, shall we? Let's get back to the Wizards. This year Team President Ernie Grunfeld looks like a pretty good guy to make personnel decisions according to ESPN, finishing in the top half in this category. Yet two years ago he was 20th. So why the sudden change of heart? He's executing the same plan he was two years ago but this year the team he's been assembling has been more successful than any other collection of players for this franchise since the 1970s.  Why move him up? Is it because the folks ranking him two years ago didn't understand what the plan was and how it would work out? I say yes.

The ranking mistakes aren't as pronounced in the GM/President category but let me offer a few thoughts. The Phoenix Suns seem to have one of the most questionable personnel decision records over the last few years, choosing to lock up Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight long term while letting Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas leave Arizona. But two years ago, ESPN had that franchise's front office ranked ahead of the Wizards (this year they are 11 spots behind) probably because the Suns two years ago were seen as way overperforming when finishing with 39 wins. Clearly ESPN's experts knew about as much as the Suns' General Manager Ryan McDonough (still employed by the way) when he decided to let Dragic and Thomas play for someone else.

The panel was also seemingly in love with Sam Hinkie's process in Philadelphia in 2014, choosing him over Grunfeld by three spots, but not so wed to the aftermath, dropping Philly seven spots behind the Wiz this year. But most striking seems to be their swing on Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, who two years ago cobbled together a lineup that won 60 games, but who is 17 games worse this year. Sorry, Bud, ESPN drops you from 6th to 15th for that. Looks like ESPN is following the records. Again.

Finally let's look at the owners. And here the Panel may have gotten things mostly right precisely because they kept past NBA Championship winners towards the top of the ranking and let the rest of the teams stack up from there. And let's face it, of the teams that haven't won titles recently, there is plenty of mediocrity. The last five franchises to win NBA titles have been the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks. With the exception of Cleveland, these teams all rank in the top six in both 2015 and 2017. Kind of stupid to pick against a winner that's already won, right? Like shooting fish in a barrel.

But ESPN does follow the same recent history rule for ownership too. Cleveland is ranked 7th in this year's survey, the year after they won their first ever title; that's a jump of nine spots from two years ago which was 11 spots higher than 2014. Know what the Cavs' record was in 2014? 33-49. Three years, 27 to 7, same owner. The only difference? A title.  Stick to your guns people or stop predicting when you get things wrong. If Dan Gilbert is fourth worst among owners two years ago, why is he seventh best this year? Winning. Plain and simple.

The same situation plays out elsewhere in the midwest in Chicago. Jerry Riensdorf's basketball acumen got him a top 10 ranking in 2014 when the Bulls were 48-34. But with a 41-41 record, Reinsdorf can't crack the top 20 this year. Good owner two years ago; bad owner now. Makes no sense.

I suppose if ESPN ever does this sort of thing again, I may take a look, but only to get annoyed about how much they are dissing the Wizards for not having a great regular season record or winning a title recently. But this thing is of little value to me. It's all results based. They are just putting the teams who are the most successful at the top of the heap and if the same personnel with the same (or different) team are not quite so successful, they knock them down to the bottom. I'll pass on the "future of forecasting" thanks.  I'll just decide for myself how successful each team is at the end of the season. After all, that's what ESPN's doing.

Championships don't necessarily make you a better owner. Except in ESPN's eyes.

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