At the time many people, including all of us here at Philadunkia, were asking is this a good move?
In an attempt to answer this larger question we have broken it down into its component parts:
Did Stefanski deserve the demotion?
Was Thorn the right hire?
And if not Thorn, who?
After the jump we take a stab at the first question and examine the Stefanski era.
Well, in his first big move as first-in-command he tied the franchise’s fortunes to a declining, now 30-something, soft and getting softer, jump-shot enamored four with a blown Achilles and dead legs. He then hired a head coach who ran an offense as ill-suited to his personnel as his braces were to the rest of his face* and allowed two of the three most productive players he inherited to leave the team via free agency and trade while reportedly shopping the third. So the reflexive answer is an emphatic yes.
(*Probably unnecessary. Not the braces – he needed those — the joke.)
But since the reflexive answer isn’t always the correct one (sorry Malcolm Gladwell) we’ll take a closer look before we judge. Our objective isn’t necessarily to determine whether or not his moves panned out* but to determine whether or not they were sound decisions, built on sound thinking. Our focus is on methodology –not outcomes. In other words has Stefanski been bad or just unlucky?
(*That was the goal of my original column. It read like this: “They haven’t.” My editor thought it was too short.)
The big move, the move that will define Stefanski’s stay in Philadunkia for better or for worse (clearly for worse) is the Elton Brand singing. Obviously right now it looks awful, but it’s not necessarily indefensible, and at the time it looked not only reasonable, but maybe –believe it or not– inspired. To understand why we have to go back to a simpler time. Break out your Crocs, your “I am… Sasha Fierce” album, and your Bush is a War Criminal bumper stickers –we’re going back to 2008!
In July of 2008 the Sixers –a team that going into the season was widely predicted to be the dregs of the league– was fresh off a 40-win season and a respectable four games to two first round defeat at the hands of a Pistons team that had won 59 games and was on their way to their sixth straight conference finals. The 7-6 were good, getting better, and they had cap space. The sky was the limit.
But those Sixers, while young and clearly on the up and up, had one glaring flaw: They needed a low post scorer. Fortunately one was available. An All-Star, 20-10 machine, on the right side of 30. Elton Brand. After a brief courtship and some clever cap maneuvering, on July 9th 2008 Stefanski inked him to a 5-year $79 million deal. The signing that sold a thousand jerseys was made*.
(*I think the actual total was more like 850.)
The move was praised in the media. They were going to be contenders. The Celtics had just gone from 24 wins to a title after acquiring Kevin Garnett and now the Sixers were primed to make a run of their own. The narrative was established; a great franchise that had fallen on tough times and a great player who had languished on bad teams find one another and return to their rightful place at the top. The narrative wasn’t just boilerplate either. Brand was –up to that point– a great player.
Why Brand was a Great Player*
|Statistic||Average PF||Elton Brand as of July 9, 2008|
|Points per shot||0.968||1.010|
|Adjusted Field Goal Percentage||0.484||0.505|
|Free Throw Percentage||0.714||0.738|
|Field Goal Attempts||15.8||19.2|
|Free Throw Attempts||5.6||8.1|
(*Totals are per 48 minutes and courtesy of Wins Produced Numbers From Andres Alvarez, as are all the other numbers littered throughout this thing.)
The red stuff signifies areas where Brand was better than average. Yeah, there’s red stuff everywhere. He was much better than the average PF at everything but getting steals and avoiding turnovers. And even then he was close. This Elton Brand, the one who played for the Bulls and Clippers, wouldn’t just be a nice fit on that Sixers team. He would be a nice fit on any team.
Elton would also allow the 7-6 to optimize their lineup. Because of their dearth of productive big men, they were forced to play guys out of position constantly in ‘07-‘08. Thaddeus Young had to slide from 3 to 4. Iguodala had to slide from 2 to 3. And Willie Green had to play. Brand would improve the lineup not only through his productivity itself, but his presence would allow the other Sixers to play their natural positions, theoretically improving their productivity too.
(We are now leaving 2008. If you want, you can imagine us passing through a sort of time-lapse vortex with a bunch of cable news images of Obama getting elected, and Elton Brand grabbing his shoulder, and tea party rallies, and pelicans covered in oil, and Brand grabbing a rebound and trying for the putback but not having the second-jump ability to get it up in time, and food stamp lines, and twitter, and maybe a kid having a catch with his Dad to soften things.)
Ah, but the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Brand of course missed all but 29 games of the 08-09 season with a shoulder injury and in the 29 games he did see action he was a less than useful piece. The Sixers consequently went nowhere. They improved by a single game and again fell 4-2 in the first round.
And then this past season, which was a complete disaster, happened.
So now Brand is an $79 million albatross (or now that we’ve paid him for two seasons, a $51 million albatross). And Stefanski probably should have seen it coming.
While the ink was drying on the 5-year deal he signed that fateful July, Brand’s left Achilles tendon was still healing from its rupture of less than a year earlier. The estimated time for a full recovery from an achilles (full as in “as close to full as you’re gonna get”) is a year-plus and a lot of athletes never make it back. Ed probably should have considered this before handing a guy who was yet to prove he’d recovered $79 million.
And that injury notwithstanding — and it was withstanding in a really big way — Brand still may not have lived up to the contract he signed. The average NBA player peaks at 24, levels off at 25, then declines slowly every year until they hit 29, when their decline accelerates*. Elton Brand was 29 when he signed his five-year deal. By the time the average NBA player is 34 – a season Brand will be paid $18 million — they are 13 percent as productive as they were at their zenith. Stefanski evidently doesn’t understand that you sign players based not on what they’ve done in the past, but on what they can be expected to do in the future.
(*Berri, David J., and Martin B. Schmidt. Stumbling on Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports. Pg. 129)
This brings us to the other candidate that summer for the gaping hole at PF the Sixers needed to full: Josh Smith. In retrospect Smith would have been a much better signing (Smith has produced 19.8 wins in the intervening years while Brand has produced 0.97 –in this case hindsight is like 20-10) and while at the time that wasn’t so obvious, what was obvious was that he was much younger, had a more intact Achilles tendon, and was a better fit for the Sixers up-tempo style of play than the candidate who was eventually chosen.
That said, in the final analysis the signing wasn’t crazy or dumb: it was just a gamble that didn’t pay off. The team was on the cusp of contention, and Ed rolled the dice on a guy he thought –not without evidence– could push them over the top. It was a massive, but ultimately excusable, mistake.
So while we can’t really hold the Brand signing against him, unfortunately for Ed, there is a bunch of other stuff that we can. What follows is a not-comprehensive but still voluminous overview of his lesser, but more damning, mistakes.
Allowing Andre Miller to leave
Good teams are built by retaining good players and allowing bad players to leave. Stefanski consistently confuses this rule. He might be dyslexic. After offering him a one year deal that he balked at, Stefanski let his starting point guard and third-most-productive player walk. Miller, as always, went on to post nice numbers with his new team (7.5 wins, a .144 WP48, and one 52 point outburst for a fun Portland squad).
The Eddie Jordan hiring
Wrong coach. Wrong style. Wrong team.
So Ed Stefanski gave him a four-year $13 million contract and fired him after one season. The Sixers will now pay him six-million-dollars over the next two years to do nothing.
The non-move deadline move
Stefanski was somehow a major power broker at the trade deadline this past season, fielding multiple calls about multiple players from multiple teams. He used this power to acquire Jodi Meeks.
The Dalembert trade
Player A in 2009-10: 10.8 wins produced/0.244 WP48
Players B and C in 2009-10: -2.67 wins produced/-0.038 WP48
Stefanski traded A for B and C. For the second-best player on his team he got the worst and third-worst players from the second-worst team in the NBA. I know that Dalembert’s attitude was awful, his knowledge of the game limited and his work ethic non-existent, but that’s still thirteen wins backwards in one move. Not good.
Basically all his moves
You know, in the interest of efficiency (please note the irony of trying to efficiently discuss these decisions), lets just condense all his personnel moves into a neat little chart.
This is a terrifically bad track record.
In 32 months on the job Ed Stefanski has yet to acquire a player who went on to post an above-average season with the Sixers. Not a single player. This is really bad news for a guy whose job is to acquire players who go on to post above-average seasons with the Sixers. He’s been doing this job for almost three years and hasn’t done his job once*.
(*I will give him credit for drafting Holiday. Though he’s yet to have an above-average season (WP48>0.1), he really came on late last year and was a nice get at 17. Turner on the other hand was an obvious pick. No credit there.)
So Ed Stefanski has been bad. And he’s been unlucky. And he’s made bad moves that were made worse by his unluckiness.
He deserved the demotion.