Friday, September 6, 2013
Tank Week reflections
By Henry Abbott
This week, HoopIdea has been going hard on tanking. There's a reason for that. We expect the upcoming season to be tremendous, with a fine collection of contenders spread across two conferences, a pipeline of emerging and returning stars, and a league of hardworking players and coaches doing everything they can to win a ring.
The one bummer: This season also promises to feature a lot of teams that simply can't hang.
Rosters that are ill-prepared to compete will also be featured heavily, mostly because the upcoming draft promises to be a great one. More than a few teams could be better right now, but are going into the season keeping cap space even though they could sign free agents and keeping cheap coaches even though Stan Van Gundy or Phil Jackson could make a difference. These teams are prepared to collect extra losses in the name of increasing their odds for a top pick.
This is worth addressing, if you're the NBA, because what's happening goes beyond long-term planning, which is smart and strategic. Going into any contest hoping to lose ... that's counter to everything we love about sports.
Economists who specialize in sports have been contributing to TrueHoop all week (thanks to the handiwork of Kevin Arnovitz, who made that happen). They don't agree on how the system could be better. But they do agree that the current system is flawed, specifically in that it does too much to reward losing.
The whole idea of a lottery is to keep teams from intentionally pursuing losses by making it uncertain which team will get the top pick. There are various reasons to listen to economists, of all people, on this.
One of the biggest: They have studied it! Two serious studies show that the current version of the lottery simply doesn't do what it's supposed to do. (It was much better, ironically, in 1985, before they "fixed" it.)
Teams are still, evidently, losing games in the name of better picks.
But here's the kicker: Although the handouts to bad teams are too generous, those handouts are insufficient to make teams better anyway. It's like the worst of both worlds. We're polluting the league with intentionally crappy teams, who are dead set on getting Andrew Wiggins. But for the most part, even getting Wiggins won't be nearly enough to make a long-term loser into any kind of winner.
That's not because Wiggins isn't all that. It's because even the best young players often aren't enough to free a poorly run franchise from the millstone of repeated bad decisions.
And that reality, I'd argue, is made worse, and not better, by the league's efforts to help.
What makes a team bad?
- We've been told that small-market teams are the victims. But in a 30-team NBA, the 2013 conference finalists ranked as follows among the nation's biggest markets: 49th (Memphis), 36th (San Antonio), 26th (Indianapolis) and 16th (Miami).
- We've been told team revenue is the key, but are fans of any teams more frustrated right now than those following the revenue-rich but stuck-in-neutral Knicks and Lakers?
- Is it about owners with deep pockets? The Blazers, Nets and Kings have some of the richest owners but are not popular picks to win titles anytime soon.
It's about making good decisions. If your team is well-run, you can succeed anywhere from Oklahoma City to New York City.
The doomed teams are not strictly the ones with the poor owners, nor the ones in the small cities. They're the ones that do dumb things again and again, either because they know no better or are intentionally gaming the system.
Both cases would be reduced or eliminated if the league stopped rewarding losses.
I once published a story that focused on an unnamed general manager who worked but a few hours a week. Not that he was out scouting or meeting with agents. He just did not work much for his multimillion-dollar salary. As soon as it hit ESPN.com, I heard from longtime trusted people in three other front offices saying, essentially, "How did you know about our GM?"
Rest assured, in addition to the new wave of brilliant hard workers, the NBA has a tradition of front-office people who aren't all that interested in how things could be done better, nor in the value of long hours. It's on the way out, but it's not gone yet.
I've heard stories about GMs in the draft war room not recognizing names of top prospects from major programs. I know of brilliant young executives doing the kinds of scouting and analysis that defined the early careers of people like Sam Presti, Rob Hennigan and Ryan McDonough -- and having their work routinely dismissed by bosses too ham-handed to appreciate it. Even as the Spurs built a dynasty on undervalued foreign talent, I've had GMs explain to me at length why internationals are losers.
Even today, many GMs can't bring themselves to trust anything resembling sophisticated advanced analysis, doing things like signing Kwame Brown to protect the rim, because he looks like a guy who ought to be able to do that, even though in terms of the percentage of shots he blocks he has trailed point guards playing alongside him.
All that is to say nothing of formulating a vision, building a winning culture, making hires that fit, and establishing the credibility to mediate disputes between players, coaches and owners. These things simply don't happen on a lot of teams.
Why, in a league in which the players are so incredibly competitive, effective and hardworking, do so many of their bosses get away with being ineffective loafers?
Because the players simply must be among the best in the world or lose their jobs. They are subject to the laws of competition. You have to bust your butt to stick as a player. The front office, though, gets the mother lode of corporate welfare, which does an almighty job of fuzzing up who's really good and who's really bad at running a team. It's tough to hide a bad player, but it's a cinch to hide a bad GM. He's the guy winning the lottery. Or not -- maybe he did that intentionally.
You see the issue?
It can make it seem, to fans and owners alike, almost as if there's nothing to it but luck. But we know, on some level, that's not really true.
As part of Tank Week, economists Arup Sen and Timothy Bond proposed something fascinating and brilliant, where teams would buy draft picks with credits. Play around with that one in your imagination. It's rich.
Andy Glockner is half being funny here. But it's also right smack-dab at the heart of what matters here. The Spurs know exactly what they're doing and your team doesn't. On some level, that's great news: Front offices can be amazing! On another level, it's horrible news because yours probably isn't.
A. Keep handicapping the Spurs by giving your team better players.
B. Rejigger the market to force every team to get real-deal management, as the Spurs have.
I choose "B" because I can't see any reason every team can't have a great GM. There are tons of people who would be amazing running teams. (Those geniuses who run the Tampa Bay Rays -- was anyone even recruiting them before they took over, did things differently, and started winning?) Basketball's next generation of geniuses are mostly waiting for the phone to ring, effectively locked out by a horribly inefficient market that's kept afloat by a very rich brand of corporate welfare. You're the kind of horrible GM the Spurs dream of facing? Here's a lottery pick and media articles praising your genius. Often that's the only way to keep your job.
Meanwhile, with crappy leadership, you're more or less doomed no matter how many great picks you get. The talented players don't develop properly. The chemistry fails. The coaching is a joke. And on and on.
Thirty teams can't win titles every year, but 30 teams can be great at developing systems that work, calling plays and scouting talent.
The league's truly doomed franchises now are not the small markets or the penny-pinchers. The doomed franchises are those that can't make five straight good decisions. And the lottery system goes a long way toward keeping those teams from the evolution, innovation and turnover necessary to get ahead.
Yes, it is bold. And it would be different. But it's not a lot of the horrid things many think it would be.
Eliminate the rookie salary scale and let there be a bidding war for every rookie. And remember, the NBA effectively has a hard cap. So really bad teams would be able to offer Andrew Wiggins $20 million while free-spending teams would be trying to talk him into things like the quality of the practice facility and training staff.
European soccer basically has this model, and there it does create a super class of perennial contenders. But they don't have salary caps.
Emotion suggests this would create competitive-balance issues. The evidence says: probably not.
All I know is the sky was falling when Kevin Garnett made all that money out of high school. That's the deal that freaked everybody out and ushered in rookie salary scales. But in retrospect it was wholly unnecessary, and today smart people are calling for the removal of these kinds of caps. Garnett turned out to be a champion and one of the best players ever, and while he does get on his hands and knees and bark at opponents, which is weird, he is generally seen as a major boon to the league, which is typical. Players who arrive in the NBA very young tend to succeed more than others, according to Michael McCann's research.
In other words, you could be right, but I'd need convincing.
In the meantime, I assume that's all just a cover story. Less money for young players means more money for everyone else at the collective bargaining table, including veterans and owners. If anyone complains, they say, "Oh, we all know what money isn't good for them." And, amazingly, people buy that.
Sure, that could happen in a world without a draft.
But, wow, is it tricky.
Let's say you're Pat Riley in the summer of 2014, coming off either three straight titles, or two straight and a very good season. To get under the cap enough to woo Wiggins or a similar player, you're going to need to let major talent go. Basically, at a minimum you're ditching Dwyane Wade for the chance to sign a guy with one year of college experience, who (history shows) is essentially a lock to get roasted on defense for at least a season. Kevin Durant might be the best college freshman in NCAA history, but he didn't help his team, per plus/minus, until his third season.
You know LeBron + Wade + Bosh + cheap role players = perennial contending machine and some likelihood of future titles.
Does LeBron + Bosh + a rookie + cheap role players = equal any titles? Presumably the team is worse while starting that rookie, and much better than they'd otherwise be post-LeBron. But will Wiggins or Randle catch up to where Wade might be while James is still in his prime? LeBron's prime is a horrible thing to waste.
And don't forget you'd have to ditch Wade first, and then see if you can get Wiggins.
Meanwhile, with or without the draft, Riley has the ability to ditch a major player for a current free agent. This isn't that new.
Who knows what the Heat would do, or if this is the best example. But if you're contending, clearing cap space for Wiggins means giving up meaningful stuff. If you're not contending, getting a good player probably helps competitive balance more than hurts it.
But after thinking about all this long and hard through Tank Week, and becoming convinced the existing system is subpar, my conviction is that GMs don't need handouts any more than anyone else in the sport. It's hard to find, acquire and value the right talent? That's really the problem the league is trying to solve for front offices? Isn't that all front offices do?
Change is hard to come by, and I don't expect NBA owners to ditch the lottery and draft overnight.
But if you're asking an honest question about what system would work best for fans, players, front offices, owners and other stakeholders -- who all benefit from the most intense possible competition -- to me the current system is not the place to start. It's not nearly as good as it could be at ensuring the best possible competition.
The conversation ought to begin with going back to the beginning and eliminating the draft entirely. Tweaks beyond that might be necessary, but they ought to be backed up with stronger arguments and evidence than I have been able to find.