TrueHoop: Timothy Varner

Mark Cuban hopes to lose, and lose badly, someday

March, 5, 2011
By Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the various MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panels is how frequently they give rise to, one would hope, a future paper or panel.

Earlier this week I wondered if quants had numbers to determine the merits of conceding blowouts as soon as a game is, statistically-speaking, over. And yesterday, my mind was all aflutter about whether team's should think of developing new head coaches in the same way they develop young players.

Towards the close of yesterday's basketball analytics panel, Mark Cuban and Kevin Pritchard showed their cards in terms of fast-tracking a franchise rebuilding project.

Cuban confessed that once Dirk Nowitzki retires he expects the Mavericks to lose, and, if he gets his way, they'll lose badly. Kevin Pritchard seemed to agree and introduced a new term into our lexicons: "the mediocrity treadmill."

There is no championship future for a middling team that is stuck in the embattled space between those who struggle to make the playoffs and those that struggle and miss. Cuban has no desire for the Mavericks to be such a team. Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan recently defended trading Gerald Wallace to the Portland Trailblazers by saying, "We don't want to be the seventh or eighth seed." The Bobcats have been, at best, mediocre, and so perhaps we can interpret his statement as one owner casting his philosophical lot with Cuban and Pritchard.

But before we go and make assumptions, the first question that deserves an answer is whether the mediocrity treadmill actually exists?

Once there is a definitive answer to this question, the conversation shifts to the relative merits of mediocrity and, if one so desires, how to best bypass mediocrity and move into an era of winning. If you're stuck on the mediocrity treadmill, how do you get off? What do the numbers suggest is an appropriate amount of cap clearing? What balance should one seek between acquiring veteran free agents and acquiring draft picks through a combination of losing and house cleaning?

We make all sorts of assumptions based on these questions, but what do the numbers say?

Earlier today Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck suggested an in-house study that provides a baseline for team's who want to win championships. “We looked at the last 25 NBA champions. Twenty-four out of twenty-five were won with a big three concept - three all-stars." Grousbeck further defined his study by qualifying his big three as one player who is among the fifty greatest of all time and two all stars.

But it's not clear that all NBA owners mind walking the treadmill, year after year, season after season. Grousbeck is not Donald Sterling. Sterling, for example, seems entirely content to walk and walk and walk so long as the tread is lined with money. He's trying to turn a profit, and winning is a secondary concern. The Clippers are a team on the rise, but this is has little, if anything at all, to do with Sterling. The arrival of Blake Griffin has forced Sterling's hand.

But there are other teams -- the Bucks and 76ers come to mind -- that seem stuck in the middling tier. Is the opportunity of playoff revenue enough to offset the malaise of mediocrity?

Assuming teams have three, five and 10 year business plans in place -- plans that are designed to produce a team that is profitable at the box office and successful on the court -- should they pencil in a losing season or two as part of their plan? Some would describe this approach as a species of tanking, but that's not at all fair to Cuban and it misses the point, which is, after all, employing strategies that are more conducive to winning. If the data demonstrates that a strategy of temporarily embraced losing is actually a likelier fast-track to greater success, why would the sports public discourage stepping off the mediocrity treadmill as a smart long term strategy of team building. Losing, in this sense, is not only a path to success but, if viewed from above, a service to fans.

We knew that Graydon Gordian and Timothy Varner at 48 Minutes of Hell were good bloggers. Read it and you'll see: There's enough insight there to make even a Suns fan appreciate the Spurs just a little. But when we heard that a disgruntled Spurs fan set up a 48 Minutes of Hell "hate blog" because he was upset at Graydon and Tim's objective analysis of the team, we knew we had chosen well. We recently caught up with Graydon

San Antonio SpursWhat are you doing with a sports blog?
I am trying to figure out a new way to talk about sports. Sports is a wonderfully vibrant and complex social phenomenon and yet we too often rely on the same old tropes, the same over-employed narratives, to talk about events that could be mined for far more significance. Although I often talk about the value of placing sports in a broader social and political context, that is not what I am referring to: My goal is to eventually discover a way to talk about each individual game as a wonderfully unique and expressive event in which two sets of craftsmen struggle to push their version of the story to the surface. 

In other words, I am trying to figure out a way to forget all the extraneous stuff and just let the game speak.

What, to you, is the point of a sports blog?

To empower a multiplicity of voices. Sports is not some elite venture. We were all raised playing and watching sports. And although we may not possess the physical gifts to play at a professional level, many of us possess the mental gifts to analyze a game in an insightful manner. But the monopolized nature of sports media boxes us out. It is not that every sports blog is valuable; giving a voice to the masses inevitably brings some bad with the good. But the medium is miraculously meritocratic and allows for those of us with the ability to say something substantive to make our voices heard.

You've written a lot about basketball as a visual art, physical poetry, as a dance.  What are you seeing that others might be missing?
I don't think I see anything that others miss. I think I am trying to articulate what we all know to be true. How often have you heard a play described as "beautiful?" And yet how often to we take the time to really consider the significance of such a statement?

I believe that all sports have the capacity for beauty but in basketball there is a unique relationship between the functional and self-expression. In other words, I believe movement to be fundamentally and inextricably communicative. The question is, what exactly are ten men, two hoops and a ball communicating?

Photo courtesy of Graydon GordianFor whatever reason, the Spurs have emerged as the black hat in the NBA's Spy vs. Spy game. If you weren't a native of central Texas, would you have any affinity for the Spurs?

I believe I would respect the Spurs, as they play such a disciplined, thoroughly-conceived style of basketball. And I have always felt a strong affinity for small-market teams so in games against the titans of either coast the Spurs would be sure to receive my support anyway.

But in some ways the wonderful thing about sports is the intellectual freedom blind partisanship grants. For the time being I am a staunch defender of defense-first, team-oriented play. But I may wake up a decade from now to discover San Antonio has become a paragon of run-and-gun ball. And I will love them still.

Some may call this being a shameless homer but I believe this is "liberated fandom" flipped on its head: The beauty of pledging one's allegiance to a franchise is the intellectual malleability it grants. I'll also note that I was raised a Knicks fan (my dad is from New York) but in my adolescence chose to throw in my lot with the arch-villains of the Association.

In that same spirit, you mounted an "ethical defense of Bruce Bowen" in 48 Minutes of Hell. Care to recapitulate your argument for the skeptical among us?
By the "skeptical among us" I believe you are referring to everyone.

My argument had several parts but the most directly "ethical" of them had to do with the nature of the court as an ethical space. In short, I argued that the court (or the field or the ring) is not subject to the same ethical laws as regular society. The most extreme example of this is the difference between punching someone in public and doing so inside the confines of a boxing ring. The idea is that an act (such as punching) has no inherent ethical value but can only be judged by the context in which it occurs. And this context is not arbitrarily determined.

A concrete organization (the National Basketball Association) decides which acts are acceptable on the court and which are not. It even has the ability to go back and review an action in order to determine whether it deserves further punishment. I guess what I am trying to say is that there really is no such thing as the ethical and the unethical in professional sports; there is only the legal and the illegal.

And given how infrequently Bruce Bowen is reprimanded by the league, it suggests to me that his actions are inside what they determine to be acceptable. Some would argue that there is a code beyond the law, an unwritten ethical code of the court. I would argue that, although this idea is not without merit (and certainly something I fully subscribe to when playing), such notions recede into the background when it is your professional responsibility to do everything within your power to win.

You worked on the recent presidential campaign.  What can the NBA learn from politics?  What can the political process learn from the NBA?
I think they can learn the exact same lesson from one another: There is no substitute for substance. Whether you enjoy the high-minded classicism of a Popovichian defense or the avant garde stylings of a D'Antoni led team, true, enduring fans are produced by good basketball. They are not produced by "kiss cams", t-shirt cannons and dance squads.

Similarly, any politician can have the gift of gab. Our new president is certainly blessed with a golden tongue. What makes him such a potent political force is the strength of his ideas and his unwavering focus on bringing about real, palpable change. In this instance, the medium is not the message. No political panache can replace a thoughtful and open approach to policy. You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still ... well, you know what I'm saying.