Believe it or not, former Cleveland Browns GM Sashi Brown is now a Washington Wizard, entrusted with the responsibility to rebuild that sorry NBA franchise. Odds are, it will work, as long as the team does not give him too much responsibility.
How can Sashi Brown, and ex-football GM, become a basketball expert? Well, truth to tell, he wasn’t really much of a football expert either. Cleveland Browns fans will remember him as a high profile “analytics” advocate, meaning that he used methods of game theory and finance in order to rebuild the Browns.
It is probably true that a mathematical mind would able to trade draft picks better than a more intuitive general manager. In many ways it is not that different from trading stocks. Brown was probably good at figuring out the relative value of draft picks, and the merits of trading up versus trading back. He was great at accumulating draft picks. This skill will probably also work in the NBA.
Likewise, he probably understood game theory better than most GM’s. In particular, Brown understood that it was better to purge the roster of veterans who are unlikely to stick around long enough to help the team win. Better to trade or release players like that, take credit for the salary cap reduction, and save the money for when it is needed to preserve a winning team. This understanding can also be useful to an NBA team.
Brown’s problem is that his record for evaluating talent was poor. Although he had several extra draft picks to work from, he drafted a high percentage of draft busts. His prize recruit was probably Myles Garrett, but on the other hand you or I could have made that call. Later in that draft, the Browns selected Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku, both of whom are NFL caliber, but not necessarily Pro Bowl candidates.
The year before, Brown managed to draft four wide receivers from a draft that the rest of the league thought was not very strong in wide receivers. Rule No. 1 for analytics should have been to draft the best athlete available. On top of that, he cut Taylor Gabriel, who was better than any of the four players drafted (Rashard Higgins being the best of the group).
An overpaid free agent signee, Kenny Britt was not a suitable replacement for Terrell Pryor. There was also criticism that Brown drafted guys who did not fit the Browns team; i.e., 3-4 players for a 4-3 defense. The Wizards will probably not let Brown get too involved in talent evaluation, but managing the cap might be something he can be good at.
Brown also made some huge errors in sending away players who were not really done. Mitchell Schwartz is now over 7,000 consecutive snaps and might actually challenge Joe Thomas’ record, but alas he is doing it for the Kansas City Chiefs. Similarly, Brown gift wrapped Joe Haden for the Pittsburgh Steelers, even though most of his 2017 salary was guaranteed. In effect the Browns subsidized the Steelers.
In those moves, Brown probably went too far. He needed to have some understanding with the players so that he would not make trades whose primary function is to weaken the team to qualify for better draft position. The team has to make a bona fide effort to win, or the players’ confidence will be lost. Brown failed in that regard when players like Hayden and Schwartz were let go without a clear replacement in mind.
So, can a mathematically trained Harvard lawyer really be a good General Manager? Well, no. Brown led the team to an 0-16 record in 2017, though he had plenty of help, especially in the person of head coach Hue Jackson.
But he probably has a very good chance of helping the Wizards by managing the salary cap and accumulating draft picks. If the Wizards have some good personnel evaluation skills, they might be a good team.