Does tanking even work?

April, 9, 2012
4/09/12
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Paul Silas
Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images
History suggests Paul Silas and his 7-47 Bobcats have a nearly impossible road to contention.

Like all the other NBA teams, for the Bobcats the regular season began on Christmas. But what a miserable turd of a present the last 15 weeks have been for NBA fans in Charlotte.

By now the best teams have more than 40 wins. Charlotte's total: seven. The Bulls had won that many 13 weeks ago.

If there are NBA fans left in Charlotte, you better believe they are by definition die-hard. And to be a die-hard fan of this team is to be in need of some concept of hope.

Best I can come up with:
  • This is a decent draft. The worst record would deliver the Bobcats the best possible odds -- only 25 percent, thanks to the lottery -- of securing the top overall pick and the much-celebrated Anthony Davis.
  • Many say this is the way to really rebuild, and now you have a GM in Rich Cho, who has experience doing this in Oklahoma City.

There's also this: The most respected minds in the game agree that the worst place to be in the standings is in the middle. On stage at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year, geek hero and former Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard spoke of the importance of getting off the "treadmill of mediocrity."

The audience included any number of current, former and future NBA smartypants decision-makers, many of whom nodded assent.

Remember the proposed trade that David Stern rejected as owner of the Hornets? It would have brought the team all kinds of players who are good right now. But as the thinking goes, that's not how you build a winner. The NBA rejected that trade, and instead accepted one that meant less prime-of-career talent now, less winning now and a better draft pick later. Even now that the star of the trade they accepted instead, Eric Gordon, is injured, the consensus seems to be that the Hornets were wise to reject the package of veterans, take on fewer assets and punt the season away -- mostly because by doing so, they have a better chance to get Anthony Davis and escape mediocrity.

Speaking not of the New Orleans decision, but about the league generally, the NBA's president of basketball operations Joel Litvin says: "It’s the best way to improve yourself. Go young. Lower your payroll. Draft intelligently. Be smart about your free agent signings and your rookie extensions and hope you can become the Thunder."

The tough news is that it almost never works.

No-brainer: You need a superstar

To contend for a title, you need a true MVP-caliber player. Unlike some assumptions that have echoed through gymnasiums for eternity, this one jibes with the evidence. Since 1986, every title but one (Go 2004 Pistons!) has gone to a team with one or more of these 11 players: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki.

All those other ways to win, all that great team defense, all that inspired coaching, all those "Hoosiers" highlights, all those occasionally amazing players ... and the biggest prize still almost always goes to the "it" players. Does anyone doubt that the next title will go to someone already on that list, or to some other other-worldly talent like LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose?

So, clearly, the Bobcats have their eyes on that prize. Get one of those guys.

And you have to get them through the draft, because they seldom move via trade or free agency, because the whole league knows they're amazing. Garnett is the only one who was traded while he was still in condition to lead a title team (although you could make a case for O'Neal's role in support of Wade in Miami). Most have stayed with one team their entire careers.

You get players like that on draft day. That's what Litvin is talking about. And that's what roughly a third of the league -- including the league-owned Hornets -- is trying to do right now.

It is very tough to do. Some drafts don't have any players like that. Because of the lottery even a horrible team like the Bobcats, with the league's worst record, is more likely to pick third or fourth than first or second. Not to mention, on draft day it's seldom clear which players will ultimately prove to be stars at the next level.

From lottery top to title: Tim Duncan and emptiness

If tanking is a great way to win a title, then quick, name a team that has done it.

Anyone? Anyone?

We're looking for a team that had a horrible record, won one of those magical, coveted top-three draft picks the Bobcats are after, and celebrated a title in the following four years because of that special player.

If you said the San Antonio Spurs, congratulations ... kind of. In the history of the lottery, which goes back to 1985, it's the only technically correct answer (ignoring Detroit and Darko Milicic, who barely played).

OK, let's expand the limits beyond four years. According to Devin Dignam of the Wages of Wins, there is still a shocking lack of further examples. We can disregard multi-team players like Jason Kidd, who won a title with the team that drafted him (Dallas) only after toiling for 17 years for the Mavericks, the Suns and the Nets. A slightly more pertinent case is the that of David Robinson, who overcame years of frustration by winning a title with San Antonio 12 years after the Spurs made him the No. 1 pick. But Robinson needed Duncan to get it done.

In other words, NBA history has awful news for bad teams hoping to become great through the magic of a high pick.

Tanking, as a way to get good, is not tried and true. It is tried and tried and tried and tried and once-in-a-long-while kind of true.

More importantly, the Spurs are no model at all. Yes, they got the top overall pick that became Duncan by winning just 20 games in 1996-97 . But they weren't really a bad team. They were a great team, missing the injured Robinson. But that was just a timely blip. In the three seasons prior, the Spurs contended for the title, winning 55, 62 and 59 games. They had been among the league's top teams for seven years running.

Duncan didn't make a bad team amazing. He made an amazing team into champions.

Those who say losing, and a top lottery pick, are essential parts of building a championship team need Kevin Durant's Thunder to win it all this year -- and even then, we're talking about three high lottery picks that have turned out amazingly well, in addition to another first-round pick. (And while Oklahoma City has a high ceiling, it has yet to make the Finals, much less win a title.)

Short of that, there are no other examples. Derrick Rose's Bulls averaged 43 wins a season over the four years before he arrived. Even if you expand beyond the lottery era it's hard to find exceptions.

For instance, what about Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan?

First of all, we're talking about three of the greatest players in the history of the game. If you can tank (and luck) your way into talent like that, go for it.

Second, let's not forget -- Larry Bird was the sixth pick in the 1979 draft and Jordan was the guy Chicago had to settle for with the third pick after Olajuwon and Sam Bowie were off the board. On draft day, those players were not seen as Anthony Davis-style draft prizes, but rather solid-but-flawed talents.

Bird did turn Boston around, but a cavalcade of great decisions -- trading for Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, among other nifty moves -- were all necessary for those rings.

As for Olajuwon? His Rockets were mired in mediocrity and unhappiness for much of his tenure before catching a wave and taking advantage of Jordan's absence for two mid-1990s titles, in Hakeem's 10th and 11th seasons.

Jordan famously needed the arrival of Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant to overcome six seasons of frustration in winning his first title.

In other words, even the exceptions are really just examples of extreme luck followed by extreme success in team-building. Really, can anyone with a straight face point to the Celtics, Bulls or Rockets of the 1980s as a model for building a title team?

How about a more recent example, LeBron James? Without question, LeBron is a meaningful case. But: very few players come into the league with LeBron's talent. (There is no shortage of ways to prove this.) Second, the Cavs made the Finals only once in seven seasons with James, and lost in a one-sided sweep.

Widen the scope even further. Surely there are more examples of teams getting bad and then getting good, right?

Surprisingly few.

Continued bad luck for lottery teams

You have probably heard about the large number of people who win millions in the real lottery and are broke again a few years later.

The same is a little true in the NBA, where the good teams tend to stay that way, and the bad teams tend to stay that way, too.
  • In the lottery era, there have been 150 teams to reach 55 wins or more -- a level around which a team can be said to be contending. How many of those 150 were bad at any point in the preceding four years? How many endured a season of, say, fewer than 30 wins? How many walked the path that tanking teams aspire to walk? Just 34 of 150, or 23 percent, according to the tallies of economist David Berri on the Freakonomics blog. And only two teams -- the Heat last year and Chris Paul's Hornets -- have gone from winning fewer than 20 games to winning more than 55 in four years or less (the Thunder never won fewer than 20). In other words, bad teams have almost no shot of becoming great with any speed, and one of the two that did did so through the power of cap space, not the draft. That's a blow to tanking teams everywhere.
  • Does more time help? Not much. Win 34 games or fewer in any season, according to Arturo Galletti at The Wages of Wins, and over the next decade your chances of winning more than 55 are abysmal, at just 12 percent. Think about that. A 34-win team is not bad, winning 41 percent of its games. This season's closest equivalent would be the Timberwolves. But still, a team that good has only about a 1-in-10 chance of winning 55 or more at any point in the next decade. Heaven forbid you are a truly bad team. Even given a full decade to get it done, teams have done the full metamorphosis, from the cocoon of a sub-20 win season to the contending butterfly of 55-plus wins, only six percent of the time, and again, one of those was the outlier Heat.
  • Meanwhile, in the four seasons after getting a top-three pick, teams are not living the dream. Dignam shows missing the playoffs for four straight years even after getting that plum draft pick is common, and writes: "After four years -- the amount of time on rookie scale contracts -- about 31 percent of the teams with top three picks hadn’t made the playoffs even once. Almost 26 percent of these teams’ best showing was only the first round. And a further 22 percent of teams topped out in the second round."
Every once in a while

On Basketball Prospectus Neil Paine reacts to news that tanking usually fails, but that doesn't mean there aren't some superteams that got good by first being bad.

Paine writes:
Teams who were led to the Finals by players they drafted (or otherwise acquired before their NBA debut) averaged just 31.3 wins per 82 games in the season prior to acquiring the player, and that number is skewed by teams like the 1989 Lakers, who were already good when acquiring James Worthy with Cleveland's 1st-round pick.

27 of the 39 finalists (69.2 percent) who were led by original-team players had 33 or fewer wins the year before picking up their star.

21 of the 39 (53.8 percent) won 27 games or fewer, and 13 of the 39 (33%) won 21 or fewer.

Simply put, the vast majority (75 percent) of NBA Finalists acquire their stars via the draft or draft-day trades, and the majority of those players came to the team after a tank-worthy season.

A rational-minded person would add to this analysis that these teams are no models. Because over the period of time Paine studied, all kinds of teams lost all kinds of games, and only the tiniest of minorities emerged as winners.

The broad data says "almost nobody survives that path through the jungle." Those special exceptions, however, scream "people have made it through the jungle, and most of those have taken that path."

What everyone can agree on, however, is that the jungle is rough. You're probably not going to make it through. If the past is any guide, the Bobcats probably won't be great at any point in the next decade.

Good teams stay good

Dean Oliver, now the ESPN Director of Production Analytics, is widely respected in the world of sports analysis. (Bill James: "I learn a lot by reading him.") Oliver's book, "Basketball on Paper," includes a chart showing how, over time, there is a natural tendency for all teams to move toward .500. He calls that every team's "ultimate fate," in a league where every game has one winner and one loser. Just as surely as water runs to the sea, teams are likely to find that level. And his chart shows that bad teams do indeed tend to reach .500 in the anticipated way.

But here's the oddity. The good teams ... they don't drift down to .500 nearly as quickly as you'd expect. The good teams stay good. "Parity has pulled on the bad teams, but the good teams have resisted," Oliver writes. "Even ten years down the road, good teams seem to be able to maintain some comfort level between themselves and .500."

Ten years is longer than most players can stay at their peak, so this seems to be about more than one superstar keeping a team good. Along those lines, consider the Spurs right now. They're somehow contenders again, playing about as well as any team. And while they still have Tim Duncan, they certainly do not still have Tim Duncan, the problem solver, the best big man in the game, the player who makes Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford look like geniuses no matter what play they call or which player they pick. The current version of Tim Duncan is the kind of big man many teams have, in terms of production. But even without that magical player, they're still majestic.

In Oliver's book, he suggests that some franchises have been built in a way that "stays strong."

So in addition to getting a player like Duncan from the lottery, teams have to be built the right way. Winning the lottery doesn't get it done, and interestingly it was never designed to.

The draft was never intended as salvation

David Berri argues in his 2010 book "Stumbling on Wins" that the draft was not, as widely assumed, created to help bad teams get good. In 1935, the NFL's Dodgers and Eagles got into a bidding war for the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Stanislaus ("Stockyard Stan") Kostka. The Dodgers won, Kostka got a big salary and Eagles owner Bert Bell was angry.

"The owner of the Eagles argued that NFL teams should no longer compete for the services of college talent," writes Berri. "For Bell, a better system would be reverse-order draft ... Upon being drafted, the players would only be allowed to negotiate a contract with the team that held his rights."

It was a great system for Bell and all owners, in that it eliminated bidding wars and sharply reduced rookie salaries. Furthermore, the next year Bell's team was the worst in the league and got the first pick in the draft he made had made a reality.

Most assume the draft is about parity -- that is, about making bad teams good. Berri concludes Bell's primary goal was saving owners money. And that's exactly what drafts have done. Interestingly, economists studying drafts in major sports through the years almost uniformly agree that they have worked perfectly in keeping paychecks small for young players.

Meanwhile, fans and other observers accept this because it appears to have this wonderful ability to make bad teams good.

It's an illusion, argues Berri and much of sports economics history (the field was essentially founded with the 1956 publication of Simon Rottenberg's work to this effect). Meanwhile, the vaunted ability of a draft to help bad teams get good ... that is so tough to find that many economists insist it does not exist at all.

In other words, the draft doesn't work to make bad teams good, because that's not what it was ever designed to do. It just gives that appearance.

Good picks alone aren't a strategy

Put it all together, and you get hopes and dreams of greatness -- but nothing remotely resembling assurances. Any objective look through NBA history suggests that "the Thunder model" is no model at all. Good luck with your tanking. If you get bad, you will get a high pick and you may even get a good player. But by far the most likely thing is that you'll be tanking again long before you make it to the promised land, or even the conference finals.

But remember, way back up there at the beginning of this story, fans of the Bobcats had two reasons for hope. The first was the draft lottery, which has only a little more cause for hope than a ticket in the real lottery. The other reason was a new GM, who is talking about a long-term process and building a culture ... maybe there's something to that.

What is it about those good teams that stay good, even as their good players come and go? How is it the Lakers, who already hit home runs with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also placed the right bets on James Worthy and later Kobe Bryant (the 13th pick!), Andrew Bynum (10th!) and so many other transactions -- not to mention going all-in on Shaquille O'Neal in free agency?

As magical as great young players can be, maybe that systemic genius is just as essential. And maybe that's the Thunder model. Even when the Thunder were terrible, they had a way of doing things. They drafted players with squeaky clean lives, on and off the court. They did not leak information to the media. They worked obsessively to identify talent in the D-League and overseas. A visiting coach was blown away at the organization and on-time scheduling of everything from his ride from the airport to the start time of practice. Maybe they uncovered ways to get more out of players.

There is a very short list of NBA superstars -- getting one on your roster is one of the hardest things to do in sports. But when it comes to assembling a contender, that might be the easy part.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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