WHEN THE Sacramento Kings acquired talented but troublesome forward Ron Artest nearly three years ago, they traded away three-time All-Star Peja Stojakovic and took on the remaining $14.9 million and two years on Artest's contract. It was a major risk, both financially and in terms of team chemistry, and its success depended on Artest's questionable ability to control the temper that had earned him a seasonlong suspension for his role in the infamous "Malice at the Palace" player-fan melee in 2004. What persuaded Gavin and Joe Maloof, the brothers who own the Kings, to take a chance on such a potentially problematic player? "We talked to him on the phone," Gavin said, "and he seemed like a nice guy."
The Maloofs, who also own the Palms hotel and casino in Las Vegas, are used to high-stakes gambling, so it's not shocking that they were willing to go all in based on little more than a hunch. (This one didn't turn out so well. Artest lasted less than the two seasons in Sacramento before things soured and he demanded a trade; the Kings sent him to Houston.) But when it comes to one of the most important personnel decisions any franchise can make—whether to keep or acquire an expensive star with a penchant for outbursts, altercations or simply dogging it—the Maloofs are hardly the only executives who seem willing to go with their gut and gamble on a talented wild card who might quickly undermine millions of dollars spent on building well-rounded rosters.
Clearly, a more scientific approach is needed. In an age when every aspect of player performance is quantified, when statistics like OPS+ and assist-to-turnover ratio and yards after the catch provide empirical data for owners and G.M.'s, teams need a way to objectively assess the risk-versus-reward issue. If only owners and executives had a Bill James for personality traits—someone to formulate a sabermetric system for troublemakers.
Take the case of a temperamental slugger like Manny Ramirez. Imagine if teams could compare Ramirez's LEPH (Loafing Episodes Per Homer) percentage to the league average. Then there's this question: Who would be a riskier addition to a team, gun-toting Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress or brawling Cowboys cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones? Obviously, whoever has the better arrest-to-game-changing-play ratio (AGCPR). In addition to knowing a player's 40-yard-dash time, how convenient it would be to know his LRA, or Locker Room Alienation time, i.e., how long it takes him to say enough stupid things for all of his teammates to want to stuff a roll of ankle tape in his mouth. Surely Dallas Stars left wing Sean Avery, who earned a six-game suspension last week for using the term "sloppy seconds" in reference to an ex-girlfriend now dating another NHL player, would lead the league in LRA—and maybe, for a while, lonely evenings.
Without those sorts of numbers, teams are mostly reduced to using considerably less reliable research—a process that typically includes some calling around, a Google search and a leap of faith. As Pistons team president Joe Dumars, who traded for Rasheed Wallace (known for his on-court volatility) in 2004 and for headstrong Allen Iverson last month, says, "It's really not that deep."
Sometimes teams guess right, as the Dodgers did last July when they traded for Ramirez, who, fresh off his pouting in Boston, led them to the NL West title. The Texas Rangers acquired Josh Hamilton (drug problems) and Milton Bradley (temper problems); the two jauntily dubbed themselves the Risk Brothers and wound up in last year's All-Star Game. But just as often management's guess is so spectacularly wrong that the franchise ends up regretting it for years—just ask the Knicks, who in 2004 took on $90 million over 4 1/2 years by bringing in malcontented point guard Stephon Marbury, a move that cost them on the court and helped cripple their ability to maneuver under the salary cap.
Someone will surely take another chance on Marbury when he and the Knicks end their dysfunctional relationship and on Avery in the event that he has worn out his welcome in Dallas. But before another owner or G.M. considers such a gamble, he might want to consult with some of the folks who do that sort of thing for a living, like Kimberly Thompson, associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Harvard. "If I were advising a team about this kind of decision," she says, "I would ask them to tell me their objectives as a team. Is it winning? Making money? Creating a culture that brings out the best in all players? Having a good reputation within the community? Keeping their costs low? In risk management, we ask, How do we value the possible outcomes that might occur considering all of the things that are important to us?"
In other words, in deciding whether to sign Ramirez, team execs should ask themselves such questions as, If Manny goes back to being Manny, and he doesn't help the team win the division but does help us increase revenue by some specific amount, would that be an acceptable outcome? If Avery brings even unflattering attention, and some curious eyeballs, to an NHL team, is that preferable to getting less attention without him and his unseemly expressions? There's far more to risk analysis theory, of course, including the part that holds that if a risk is judged to have failed, it's best to correct it quickly—a precept the Knicks clearly did not heed in their handling of Marbury.
Some teams, Thompson suspects, "already excel at risk analysis, although they may not recognize what they are doing as risk analysis." That may be true. But for other teams, the only analysis appears to be blowing on the dice and taking another roll.
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