Legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian once observed: "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky they're going to give Cleveland State another year of probation."
As Tarkanian observes, success can often make you immune to prosecution. And a lack of success makes it easier for misdeeds to be punished.
For example, Donald Sterling -- owner of the Clippers -- made some racist comments and subsequently was removed as owner of the team. However, Isiah Thomas -- as Eric Marmon recently noted -- made sexist comments and now is being asked to the lead the New York Liberty of the WNBA. Furthermore, there is no evidence Thomas has really learned from this experience.
As Marmon observed: "In its simplest form, Sterling said something disgusting and hurtful and ignorant to an entire race of people. Thomas said somethings disgusting and hurtful and ignorant to an entire gender."
Marmon goes on to wonder how this is possible. Perhaps one explanation follows Tarkanian's observation. Sterling was one of the greatest losers in NBA history. Sterling purchased the Clippers in 1981. From 1981-82 to 2013-14, Sterling's Clippers only won 37 percent of their regular season contests. And in a league where 16 teams have made the playoffs since 1983, Sterling's team only appeared in the post-season seven times during Sterling's tenure. So when the NBA removed Sterling, the league wasn't just removing someone who made "disgusting and hurtful and ignorant" comments. The league was also removing a loser.
In contrast, people seem to see Isiah Thomas as a winner. Thomas won an NCAA title as a college player at the University of Indiana. After being selected with the 2nd pick in the 1981 draft, he proceeded to be named to 12 consecutive All-Star games. In addition, he won two NBA titles with the Detroit Pistons and was name the NBA Finals MVP in 1990. Although, the data suggests that Isiah was overrated as a player (and the Pistons success with Thomas was more about Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman), people perceive Thomas as a winner as a player.
So maybe it is not surprising that James Dolan -- owner of the New York Knicks and New York Liberty -- offered this comment on Thomas and his ability to lead the Liberty: "He's an excellent judge of talent, and I'm confident that he will put all of his energy and experience into making the Liberty a perennially competitive and successful team."
Okay, actually this should be immensely surprising. Although we might think that having the talent to play basketball means you have the ability to judge talent, we have plenty of data that suggests this is not the case when it comes to Thomas.
Let's start with the following argument: If a talent evaluator is "good" at their job, then they should be able to acquire wins relatively cheaply. In contrast, if you consistently spend more than most everyone else on talent, then I think we can say you are a "bad" judge of talent.
To see if Thomas is "good" or "bad", we simply need data on payrolls and wins. For payrolls data we can turn to the the website of Patricia Bender and Basketball-Reference.com, which report team spending in the NBA from 1990-91 to 2014-15. Because spending has increased dramatically across these 25 seasons, we have to normalize the data. Specifically, for each year each team's relative spending -- or team spending in that year relative to the average in that year -- was calculated. This ratio was then multiplied by the average spending in 2014-15. Once we do this we can compare team spending across this entire time period.
For example, the Chicago Bulls spent 94 percent of the league average payroll in 1995-96. If we multiple 0.94 by $73.0 million (average spending in 2014-15) we see that the Bulls in 1995-96 spent the equivalent of $68.7 million on talent. And since the team won 72 games, the Bulls spent $0.95 million per win. Only the Chicago Bulls in 2010-11 ($0.94 million per win) and Phoenix Suns in 2004-05 ($0.88 million per win) posted better marks.
Each of these teams managed to win more than 60 games with a below average payroll. So of the 726 team observations in the data set, it is not surprising that this trio were the most efficient.
In contrast, the following table reports the 25 teams in the data set that spent the most per win.
So this table consists of all the teams that were "bad" at evaluating talent.
There are three franchises that appear more than once on this list. The Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves have two entries. And the New York Knicks appear six different times.
Each of the editions of the Knicks that appear on this list are from the time James Dolan has owned this team. In other words, before Dolan began running this team the Knicks were not known for being tremendously bad at judging talent. But Dolan is not the only issue. Thomas led the Knicks across four complete seasons. And all four of these teams rank among the most inefficient teams in the last 25 years.
This point needs to be emphasized. Since 1990-91, no team outside of New York appears twice on the list of "bad" talent evaluators. However, Isiah Thomas -- by himself -- led four teams that appear on this list. And these were the only four teams Isiah led with the Knicks.
Outside of sports it is difficult to judge a person's abilities. But sports come with numbers. And those numbers tell a very clear story about the ability Thomas has to judge talent. With the Knicks his teams ranked towards the top in spending and towards the bottom in wins. Thomas chose the players on those teams. And he chose poorly.
From this record we have to conclude that Dolan is very wrong. The evidence says quite loudly that Thomas is NOT an "excellent judge of talent."
The historical record also tells us something else about Thomas. As Eric Marmon noted, the following statement has been attributed to Thomas:
"Don't forget, you f------ b----, I'm the president of this f------ team." - Isiah Thomas to Anucha Browne Sanders, according to former Knicks assistant GM Jeff Nix. And as Marmon also notes, for statements like this Thomas was found guilty of sexually harassing a female employee.
Again, there is a tendency in sports to give breaks to the people who are good at their jobs. We should not do this. But it certainly seems to happen.
But when it comes to Isiah Thomas, there is simply no evidence that he is actually good at judging talent. So like Eric Marmon, I wonder why we people are not more vocal in their opposition to the idea of Thomas assuming the leadership of the New York Liberty.
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