Monday, December 29, 2008

TrueHoop, Malcolm Gladwell, and Malik Hairston

Back on December 11, TrueHoop ran a bullet commenting on a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell. In response to the article, Henry Abbott wrote:
...in professions like picking NFL quarterbacks or good teachers, it is nearly impossible to know who will succeed until you see them try. That means that the best way to find good ones, long term, is to try a lot of them and weed out the bad ones. I'm thinking the same line of thinking could be used in finding NBA players. If you tried it, you'd expand rosters with more inexpensive players. This could work in conjunction with the D-League, which could offer minutes to some of those players, especially the ones who weren't killing it in the NBA.
Abbott subsequently attached this addendum to the comment:
TrueHoop reader Brad e-mails: "Isn't what you recommend based on his [Gladwell's] findings exactly what the Spurs are doing? They bought a D-League team (Austin Toros, 90 minutes up I-35), and as 48 Minutes of Hell wonderfully explicate, the brilliant San Antonio management uses 10-day contracts like ongoing job interviews. They stash and/or farm young guys and bring them up every so often to see how they react. Even if they won't be playing this year, they're grooming them in the "Spurs Character" (not to mention Pop's basketball) system, so that next year, or the year after that, they will be more than ready -- and management will have seen who fits and who doesn't. Remarkable stuff, and this has been going on now for the last couple of years!"
TrueHoop reader Brad is a smart fella, and we thank him for drawing attention to our efforts to showcase the paradigm-shifting nature of the Spurs efforts in Austin. This is a Spurs blog, but we keep a close eye toward Austin, and precisely because we see the Toros as a fully-integrated part of the Spurs. The Toros, or at least their prominent players, are an extension of the San Antonio bench. Coach Quin Synder and his staff are an extension of Popovich. Dell Demps, who is with the Spurs front office, is the GM of the Toros. One is not fully covering the Spurs without paying attention to the Toros. Events in the the last week have provided a case study for the Spurs use of Austin as an "extended interview."

On December 15, the Spurs waived guard Blake Ahearn. Ahearn had been called up from the Dakota Wizards on November 16, just after the NBDL camps had started. In his month with the Spurs, he played in a couple parent club games before being assigned to Austin, where he played in another 6 contests before getting the axe. In other words, the Spurs signed Ahearn to audition him in Austin. I suspect the Spurs were sincere in their interest in Ahearn, but ultimately released him because they did not see him as a long term fit---maybe because of his questionable ability to defend at the NBA level.

Ahearn is not our case study, but I raise him as an introductory example to provide a segue. The Spurs dedicate their 14th and 15th roster spots to Austin and are bent on identifying players whom can eventually help the Spurs--rotation quality players, not suit-wearing end of the bench types. We're not going to discuss him in this post, but Anthony Tolliver is the Spurs current 14th man and has seen rotation minutes with the Spurs and a stint in Austin this season. This of course also says nothing of Ian Mahinmi, who is an important part of the conversation.

In this sense, the Spurs have basically eliminated their inactive list. They have an injured list and an active in Austin list. They don't let their prospects collect dust. This is true in the sense that they are always playing or practicing (Toros), but also in the sense that the Spurs are willing to burn through audition player after audition player until they find someone who is a legitimate stick. A few years down the line, we'll have a better sense of this. But perhaps in every 15 Austin interviewees, the Spurs will find one guy who lasts with the parent club. Or some such. You get the idea. Ahearn has been weeded out, Tolliver is in question, Mahinmi is in waiting (injury), and Hairston's got next.

It's curious to me that the Spurs are seeking to find in Austin what they've already found in Bruce Bowen, Ime Udoka and Roger Mason. That is, role players who have proved their worth by coming up through the minor league ranks. Players who find their way through a process of hard work and humility. In other words, whether or not a player will fit into "Spurs culture" is an important part of the equation. From what I can tell, the equations has three parts: is the player a cultural fit, does he fill an eventual need for the Spurs, and does he produce on the job, following Gladwell. Culture, need, performance. The Spurs want to surround their 3 stars with hard working role players who will run through a wall to help the team succeed.

Back to the point: our case study is Malik Hairston. As most Spurs fans know by now, Hairston was signed by the Spurs on the 22, just after winning NBDL Player of the Week honors. We've been watching Hairston carefully and were not surprised to learn of his new contract. We started painting his Spurs back story just after training camp, which you can read about here. On November 19 we wrote:
There is more hope for Malik Hairston, who will open his professional career as temporary property of the Austin Toros. He spent training camp with the Spurs and showed promise. Too bad for the Spurs, however, any team in the league will have opportunity to give Hairston a call up. This is likely. The people over at Draft Express put it this way:
Malik Hairston could very well be the first player called up by an NBA team, as soon as one injury or another happens and the need for a versatile swingman arises. He has an NBA body already to go along with nice physical tools, an advanced skill-set, and excellent intangibles to boot. It was surprising to say the least to see San Antonio decide to keep Desmon Farmer over him, but if Hairston can show improved ball-handling skills and the ability to defend both wing positions effectively, his stay in Austin should not be very long.
The Spurs will not have a first round pick in the 2009 draft. Their ability to fill gaps in the quickly eroding small forward wall will have to come through free agency, a trade, or the D-League. As we will see in a future post, this is not a simple task given the Spurs assets and cap situation. But for now, there is good reason to cheer for Hairston.
On December 13, we updated our readers on Hairston's progress:
Malik Hairston continues to intrigue. In this contest he was 8-11 from the field, ending the night with 25, 7, 7, 2, and 1. In college, Hairston displayed a decent three point stroke, improving each season and finishing at a respectable 43%. Since joining the NBDL, he is shooting 71%, but on only 8 attempts. In his final season at Oregon he attempted .34 three pointers per field goal attempt as compared to .10 as a Toro. Conversely, his free throw attempts have improved from .41 to .59 per FGA. In other words, Hairston is making a concerted effort to put the ball on the floor and get to the hoop. This is great considering his FT% is on a 10% rise (now at 83%). Quietly, Hairston has become a more efficient, better-rounded basketball player. During his preseason stint with the Spurs he looked unsure of himself on offense, but this is slowly changing. Development League, indeed.
In some sense, Hairston has been the Spurs 16th man since October. For those of us keeping score, he was drafted by San Antonio, summer leagued and camped with them, accepted allocation to the Toros, and now occupies a space on their official roster. Hairston has been with the Spurs since June, under the tutelage of their coaches and trainers, playing in their system the entire time. Of Hairston's signing, Gregg Popovich said, "Malik was doing well enough that I think other people were starting to get interested. We wanted to make sure we didn't lose him."

At the front of this post we quoted Henry Abbott imagining a situation wherein teams could see players succeed through trial and error, had the ability to weed through multiple applicants, and were able to expand their rosters and offer minutes to promising youngsters. I know what you're thinking: San Antonio Spurs, Austin Toros, Malik Hairston. And you're correct. That's exactly right.

There is no guarantee that Hairston will stick long term with the Spurs. If, for example, a trade brought back two for one, the Spurs might have to bite the bullet and free up roster space by waiving him. But with the ages and contract situations of Mike Finley, Ime Udoka and Bruce Bowen, one can see a number of scenarios wherein Hairston not only sticks, but significantly contributes to the future of the Spurs.

After signing his contract, by the way, Hairston spent a mere two days behind the Spurs bench before being re-assigned to the Toros. You can't become a better player in a suit. If Hairston lasts through the season, he has a solid chance of being in the Spurs rotation next season. Without slighting Ime Udoka, Hairston could probably approximate Udoka's current production, even now. By next season, he should be able to meet or exceed it. And, unlike a free agent signing, Hairston will be completely assimilated into Spurs culture and have a year in the system before being asked to do anything meaningful for San Antonio. It's a great model for development. Not only do the Spurs have the luxury of carefully identifying and nurturing those players who can succeed, Hairston is put in a position where success is a reasonable expectation.

We could say more, but that will have to suffice for now.

Update: It looks as if we're not the only ones who see a pattern emerging. Sham from Shamsports.com, chimes in with this comment from a recent post:
San Diego State legend Mohammed Abukar's career has taken a turn for the better, as he was unsigned until about 24 hours ago, when he was picked up by the Austin Toros of the D-League. Quietly, the San Antonio Spurs have managed to stash basically every one of their training camp signings on their D-League affiliate (which they own), as well as their former draft pick Marcus E. Williams. Owning your own affiliate seems to have some merit when the allocation players are handed out.

4 comments:

sam said...

isn't this just what they do already in all other major sports? minor league baseball affiliates, european soccer Reserves teams, the AHL... even NFL teams use the "practice squad" and special teams players to increase the depth of their rosters. Props to the Spurs for catching on first, for sure, but it seems like just a matter of time before the NBDL landscape looks like other minor leagues in the US

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