Friday, June 22, 2012

Winning and Losing in the NBA

One of the most widely-held views on the NBA is that you have to bottom out to win. This view holds that teams in the bottom of the playoffs and upper reaches of the lottery are just wasting their time and that they won’t be able to compete without ditching expensive veterans and loading up on top draft picks. I decided to take a look at this view.

Losers and Winners

Before I get to the actual analysis (what a tease!) let’s a take a post to look at recent winners and losers in the lottery era (1984-85 to present) just to get a feel for the stories of those teams.

Winners are relatively easy for this period. You have the Mavericks, Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets and that is it. Every NBA championship in the draft lottery era, 28 years, has gone to one of these eight teams.

The losers are bit harder to define. On one level they are all of the other teams, but that’s a little hard to distill for analysis. On a more manageable level we will take a look at the teams that made the playoffs less than 40% of the time (16 teams out of the current 30 make the playoffs every year, but in 1985 16 out of the then-current 23 teams made the playoffs). These hapless franchises include 4 expansion teams (Bobcats, Grizzlies, Raptors and Timberwolves) as well as the Clippers, Kings, Warriors and Wizards. The Heat, Magic and Hornets were the expansion franchises within the period to avoid this distinction with the Heat winning two NBA titles and the Magic winning an Eastern Conference title.


The losers have long and tortured histories of finding ways to lose including curses (Clippers), Bill Simmons articles detailing tortured histories (Clippers and Warriors), Michael Jordan simultaneously drafting and then psychologically destroying players (Wizards), Michael Jordan playing but not as well as he used to (Wizards), Michael Jordan drafting terrible players and saving money to pay off golf bets (Bobcats), being based in Canada (Raptors and Grizzlies), drafting KG and then finding new and ever more creative ways to demoralize him (Timberwolves) and Chris Webber (Warriors, Wizards and Kings).

To the point of this post, the 28 seasons since the draft lottery began have seen one of these losers have the worst record 14 times. The 30 teams in the league have played, collectively, 780 seasons of basketball in this period with the 8 losers playing 177 (not proportional due to expansion). The losers represent just 23% of seasons played but an astonishing 39% of the worst seasons. Confined to just the top picks, where the tanking teams are trying to go, the losers have represented 46% of the top 5 slots in the lottery since its inception.

These eight teams are significantly overrepresented in the table of worst records/best lottery odds. Depressing as this is, it should have given them the best shot to win going forward but things did not work out that way.


Magic Johnson-era Lakers (85, 87, 88): This team relied primarily on the draft, building around Magic who came in as the first overall pick via a trade with Utah and a coin flip victory over Chicago. James Worthy also arrived in the draft via trades and another coin flip victory, this time over the Clippers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still productive after arriving via lopsided trade with Milwaukee after Kareem demanded to be traded to New York or LA.
Verdict: No Tanking

Bird-era Celtics (86): Larry Legend arrived as a 6th overall pick, with the Celtics laying the blueprint for some Spurs moves to be reviewed later and taking him despite having to wait a year to get him to the team. Robert Parish came in a trade of the 1st and 13th picks from Boston to Golden State for Parish and the 3rd pick, which turned into Kevin McHale.
Verdict: No Tanking

Bad Boy Pistons (89, 90): Isiah Thomas came in as the number two pick in 1981, but the rest of this team came as trades (Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Vinnie Johnson), and later picks (Joe Dumars – 18th, John Salley – 11th, Dennis Rodman – 27th).
Verdict: No Tanking

Jordan Bulls (91, 92, 93, 96, 97, 98): Michael Jordan came in the 1984 draft with the third pick, following Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. While his selection could be an endorsement of tanking, the team did not take off until Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came in later. Any team tanking in the 1984 draft (cough Houston cough) would likely have been doing so primarily for Olajuwon anyway.
Verdict: No Tanking

Olajuwon Rockets (94, 95): Hakeem the Dream was a classic tanking pick and one of the instigators for the draft lottery. After the Rockets successfully tanked by losing 14 of 17 at the end of the year and with Patrick Ewing on the horizon for the following season, the league set up the lottery system to dissuade teams from losing by removing the guarantee of the top pick to the worst team.
Verdict: Tanking, but would they be on this list without a baseball hiatus for Jordan?

Tim Duncan Spurs (99, 03, 05, 07): Duncan fit the Olajuwon stereotype as an absurdly skilled big man and teams responded in kind with quite a bit of tanking to get him. The Spurs, with injured (or semi-injured, or possibly healthy by the end of the season but let’s keep resting him) David Robinson, went from 59 wins in 95-96 down to 20 in 96-97 to win the right to draft Duncan with the third-best chance and popped right back up to 56 wins the following season.
Verdict: Tanking, even if not admitted

Shaq-Kobe Lakers (00, 01, 02): Kobe was a late pick by Charlotte (Hornets, not Bobcats) brought in when the Lakers opened up the vault and parted with Vlade Divacs to swing a draft day trade while Shaq and Phil Jackson were free agents.
Verdict: No Tanking

Pistons (04): I don’t think any other team wanted these guys. Rasheed was flipped by the Hawks only a couple weeks after landing there from Portland, Chauncey played for about a dozen teams before settling in Detroit, Tayshaun Prince still looks too light to play sports and Ben Wallace was a throw-in for trading Grant Hill to Orlando.
Verdict: No Tanking

Shaq-Dwyane Wade Heat (06): Wade wasn’t even a consolation prize in the loaded 2003 draft. Carmelo Anthony went to the Nuggets with the third pick and UPDATE WITH DRAFT HISTORY. Shaq came in a trade and Pat Riley arrived after running over Stan Van Gundy, throwing it in reverse and then doing it a couple more times.
Verdict: No Tanking

Big Three Celtics (08): Lots of trades and some lucky draft picks (Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins) put this team in place. They tried to tank in the 06-07 season to get a shot at Greg Oden, but after failing to win the top pick they traded for Allen and landed Garnett.
Verdict: Tanking, this team wouldn’t be together if they kept grinding out 35-45 wins with Paul Pierce (see 02-03 through 05-06) and didn’t tank to pick up a tradable asset

Kobe Lakers (09, 10): They issued a ring to Chris Wallace, right?
Verdict: No Tanking

Dirk-Jason Kidd Mavs (11): This is the anti-tanking team. They rebuilt on the fly after the 2006 Finals loss to the Heat. Trades and signings brought in key players like Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion to go with the Dirk/Jason Terry core that remained.
Verdict: No Tanking

Chris Bosh Heat (12): I don’t want to talk about it.
Verdict: No Tanking; possibly some tampering, but no tanking

Putting it all together, seven of the 28 titles from 1984-85 through 2010-2011 went to teams that tanked to put themselves in place to win. Teams like the Lakers, Mavs and later-stage Spurs are almost perfectly opposed to the tanking strategy. They averaged a lot of wins between titles – 44.5 (Lakers 04-05 to 07-08), 56 (Mavs 06-07 to 09-10) and 55 (Spurs since their last title in 06-07) while rebuilding their teams on the fly.

All this is hardly a ringing endorsement of tanking as a strategy but not necessarily enough to put it down for good, my next post will take a look at this from a more-quantitative perspective.

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