Thursday, March 09, 2006

Did Pierre Lacroix Pull An Isiah Thomas?

Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post is not pleased with the trade made by Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix yesterday, sending David Aebischer to Montreal for Jose Theodore. I have to agree with his assessment.

"We got the best goalie in the business," Lacroix said Wednesday, after a swap of goalies that sent David Aebischer packing to Montreal.

Um, no you didn't. As Pierre Lebrun noted, the Canadians dumped a player who hasn't played terribly well in almost four years, as well as salary that will now allow them to go after players like Todd Bertuzzi. They also got a pretty good, and relatively cheap, goaltender in return.

The Theodore/Aebischer trade reminded me of Bill Simmon's interview with Malcolm Gladwell the other day, and what Gladwell had to say about New York Knicks manager Isiah Thomas:

Here's the real question. If I was GM of the Knicks, would I be doing a better job of managing the team than Thomas? I believe, somewhat immodestly, that the answer is yes. And I say this even though it is abundantly clear that Thomas knows several thousand times more about basketball than I do. I've never picked up a basketball. I couldn't diagram a play to save my life. I would put my level of basketball knowledge, among hard core fans, in the 25th percentile.

So why do I think I would be better? There's a famous experiment done by a wonderful psychologist at Columbia University named Dan Goldstein. He goes to a class of American college students and asks them which city they think is bigger -- San Antonio or San Diego. The students are divided. Then he goes to an equivalent class of German college students and asks the same question. This time the class votes overwhelmingly for San Diego. The right answer? San Diego. So the Germans are smarter, at least on this question, than the American kids. But that's not because they know more about American geography. It's because they know less. They've never heard of San Antonio. But they've heard of San Diego and using only that rule of thumb, they figure San Diego must be bigger. The American students know way more. They know all about San Antonio. They know it's in Texas and that Texas is booming. They know it has a pro basketball team, so it must be a pretty big market. Some of them may have been in San Antonio and taken forever to drive from one side of town to another -- and that, and a thousand other stray facts about Texas and San Antonio, have the effect of muddling their judgment and preventing them from getting the right answer.

I'd be the equivalent of the German student. I know nothing about basketball, so I'd make only the safest, most obvious decisions. I'd read John Hollinger and Chad Ford and I'd print out your mid-season NBA roundup and post it on my blackboard. I'd look at the box scores every morning, and watch Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith on TNT. Would I have made the disastrous Marbury trade? Of course not. I'd wonder why Jerry Colangelo -- who I know is a lot smarter than I am -- was so willing to part with him.

Would I have traded for Curry? Are you kidding? All I know is that Chicago is scared of his attitude and his health, and Paxson knows way more about basketball -- and about Eddy Curry -- than I do. Trade for Jalen Rose? No way. One of the few simple facts that basketball dummies like me know is that players in their early thirties are pretty much over the hill. And Jerome James? Please. I have no idea how to evaluate a player's potential. But I'd look up his stastistics on and see that's he's been pretty dreadful his whole career, and then I'd tell his agent to take a hike.

Now would I be as good as GM as Jerry West or Joe Dumars? Of course not. But just by sitting on my hands, and being scared of looking like a fool, and taking only the safest, most conservative steps, and drafting only solid players that everybody agrees are a can't miss, I could make the Knicks a vastly better team than they are today -- as could any reasonably cautious and uninformed fan. (The big exception, of course, would be you. You would draft the starting point guard from Holy Cross, a handful of short Irish guys from the South End, and various members of Larry Bird's extended family -- and then try to package them to Milwaukee for Bobby Simmons).

Here's the money shot:

The point is that knowledge and the ability to make a good decision correlate only sporadically, and there are plenty of times when knowledge gets in the way of judgement. That's Thomas in a nutshell: He knows so much about basketball that he believes that he knows more than anyone else about the potential of previously undistinguished players.

Did Lacroix make the same mistake as Thomas, thinking that if Theodore was away from hockey-crazed Montreal, as well as his lengthy list of personal problems, he might return to form? Do any numbers support him? This season's definitely do not. Does he know something that the rest of the world doesn't know about Jose Theodore? We will have to wait and see, but my non-expert guess is no. I think Pierre Lacroix just pulled an Isiah Thomas, and Bob Gainey just pulled a Billy Beane.


At 4:27 AM, Blogger Alex said...

For me, the most interesting part of LeBrun's article is the mention that Montreal is in the hunt to acquire Todd Bertuzzi.

I'm not sure what it would take to pry him away from Vancouver, but if he lands in Montreal, it will cement Les Habitants as the least likeable team in the league.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Alex said...

As for the Isaiah Thomas comparison, I don't think it fits here.

If you look at Isaiah's record in the draft, it's actually quite strong (he's drafted players like Camby, T-Mac, and now Channing Frye), so there's reason to believe that he can recognize talent, though moves like the Eddy Curry trade indicate that he perhaps recognizes potential better than he does talent.

His problem is that he has no management skills (as evidenced by the way he's ruined New York's cap flexibility for the next decade) and no concept of how to build a team (as evidenced by his preference for stocking his team with shoot first guards).

Lacroix has a record of recognizing talent and building successful teams, which puts him ahead of Isaiah.

I'm also not ready to give up on Theodore yet. He's having a terrible season, but everybody does. He's only a year or two older than Aebischer, and up until this season he had clearly outperformed him when you compare their respective careers.

At 8:43 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Forget everything else. Read the last paragraph. I am talking about a specific instance: this trade. And how can you ignore this year's numbers and count ones from five years ago? Are you Joe Morgan? Current performance is a stronger predictor of current performance than past performance, no? Would you trade for Eric Lindros today? I heard he had a good season seven years ago. Oh wait, your team already did that. My bad.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger Alex said...

Since you used Lindros as an example, I'll contrast his case with Theodore's.

Lindros has a history of injuries (mostly concussions, which have lasting effects), and his production has been decreasing for the last number of years. I don't think it was a bad move for the Leafs to sign him as a free agent, since he commands a relatively low base salary, and is only signed for 1-2 years, but giving up any players or draft picks for him would be foolish.

Theodore has struggled this season, admittedly, but your "what have you done for me lately?" attitude is a terrible way to build a club. I wouldn't say Theodore's stats were declining so much as I would argue that his Hart Trophy year was an abberration. Coming off of the lockout, you had reason to believe that he'd continue to be a Top 10 goalie in the league.

If recent production is all that matters, Andy, would you have been content to see Kevin Lowe shop Chris Pronger around after his poor Olympic tournament? Furthermore, how recent does someone's production have to be to be considered relevant?

If you're going to say ignore everything but the last paragraph, then I would suggest that you delete everything but the last paragraph, and stick with what's relevant. I'm not saying this move is a steal for Colorado, but I'm not ready to write Theodore off as a bust quite yet. Changes of scenery often do players good, and perhaps Jose just needs some time to adjust to the new rules and equipment. I'm not ignoring this year's stats, but I'm not using them as my sole frame of reference for this trade.

I think picking up his salary for two years is a bit of a red flag, but the Avs probably weren't winning the Cup with David Aebischer. In fact, they might have been content to let him walk as an unrestricted free agent in 2007.

I'm not convinced he's significantly better than Peter Budaj, so I consider this is a good gamble for the Avs. Could Theodore turn out to be a bust? Absolutely. But he could also reestablish himself as a #1 goalie in this league.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

My point about the last paragraph was that you missed the whole point of the article. I don't need to remove anything. You need to talk about the actual issue at hand. Focus, and I won't have to spoon-feed you. Did I bring up Thomas' draft record, or Laroix's? No. Why is it relevant to the question? I know Thomas made smart picks ten years ago, and I think Lacroix is one of the 5 best managers in the game. But in this instance, did the guy outsmart himself? Yes. My post asks whether Lacroix pulled an Isiah, not whether he is going to permanently transform into him.

Again, to get back to the point, since you seem unable to comprehend it, what basis would Lacroix have for signing a player whose numbers have decreased for at least two years, who is playing substantially worse than the player you traded him for, and whose salary is not only engorged, but prohibitive? Throw in the personal problems, and it doesn't make any sense. Theodore hasn't been a Top 10 goalie for 4 years, yet Lacroix called him the best goalie in hockey. That is a sure sign of Thomas-like blindness. You called him a top ten goaile coming off the lockout, even though the lockout ended six months ago. Maybe the Avalanche should hire you. Your logic makes as much sense as Lacroix's.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Alex said...

Actually, if you look closely at Theodore's stats, they haven't been steadily declining. In fact, his stats from 2003-04 and in the Swedish League in 2004-05 are better than his stats from 2002-03, his post-Hart Trophy year.

Lacroix calling him "the best goaltender in hockey" is clearly a case of delusion, hyperbole, or some combination of both.

Now, you said:
what basis would Lacroix have for signing a player whose numbers have decreased for at least two years, who is playing substantially worse than the player you traded him for, and whose salary is not only engorged, but prohibitive? Throw in the personal problems, and it doesn't make any sense.

1. I covered the point about Lacroix's comments above.

2. We've established that his numbers have not been steadily decreasing

3. His save percentage is only .019 less than Aebischer's is. The fact that some of his other stats (like G.A.A) leads you to believe that one goalie's statistics have been helped by having a better team in front of him. I'll let you guess which one.

4. HIs salary is $2.6 million more than what Aebischer earns; Aebischer is a RFA this summer, so the difference for next year will be closer to $2 mil. That's a big difference, but a $4.5 million salary for a goalie is not prohibitive. The Avs also have a number of young players among their corps (Svatos, Liles) who are at least a few years from commanding heavy salaries.

5. The personal problems would cause me to think twice about a deal, but getting him far away from his family in Quebec may be a healthy separation, and make them a significantly smaller distraction.

As for the last paragraph of Gladwell's article, Theodore is anything but a previously undistinguished player. Prior to his bad four month stretch to start this season, he was in consideration for the Canadian Olympic team. Everyone struggles from time to time; the rule and equipment changes have exacerbated things for Jose.

Now, did Lacroix outthink himself here? I don't think so. I think he knows the risks involved, but feels like Theodore can rebound in Denver. There's a big difference between taking on a player who's had a bad four month stretch, and one who's been a career underachiever and/or cancer in the locker room.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Let others speak for me. From Tyler at mc79 Hockey:

Update: Andy Grabia at Sports Matters compares Pierre Lacroix to Isiah Thomas for the Theo deal. I was going to take issue with his characterization of Theodore as not having had a great season in four years, but after looking closely at the numbers, I can't. Theodore put up a 1009 relative save percentage (think ERA+; it's the same concept) in 2002-03, which looks good but he had a very favourable split of shots at ES as opposed to the PP; 82% of his shots were at ES as compared to a league average of 78% and 14% of his shots were against the PP as compared to a league average of 19%. He hasn't had a year I'd pay $5.33MM for since 2001-02, whereas Aebischer's salary this year seems to be about the going rate for a .900 save percentage. This trade is almost indefensible.


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