Nba nerd

Are the 76ers Tanking Too Well?

Yesterday, I raised the possibility that "tanking" is the best way to create a contending team (as opposed to the "Rockets' model" of remaining reasonably competitive while you search for a superstar), but that it has a lousy track record as a strategy because almost everyone's been doing it wrong. That is, most teams that stink just stink. Public speeches about "rebuilding" seem to be more about appeasing fan bases and covering up the flaws of poor management.

Enter the 76ers. The jury is, of course, still out on whether the plan will ultimately pay off, but the 76ers appear to be following an entirely different rebuilding plan than most of the "tanking" teams of the past. There are no mid-level contracts to veterans to fill out the 12-man minimum (active) roster. No one in Philadelphia is worried about meeting the salary floor. The team always drafts the best player available, even if that player is likely to miss the whole season. Sam Hinkie values quantity of draft picks almost as much as quality (draft order). And the team refuses to extend free agent contracts to players who didn't work out under their rookie deals, preferring instead to trade them.

Perhaps the most classic mistake most NBA GMs make is to fail to account for sunk costs. Or in other words, they tend to hang on to every player they draft. I will be very curious to see what happens with this year's 4th-year players around the league, particularly the ones who have cracked rotations but have not really shown signs of stardom. This includes players such as Alec Burks, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Derrick Williams, Iman Shumpert, the Morris twins, Thomas Robinson, and others. These are the kinds of players that teams should be happy to trade in their fourth year, or let them go in restricted free agency. They become precisely the kind of veteran contracts that are crippling to a rebuilding team because they grab up cap space that could be used on more rookies, a max free agent (or two -- the "turnaround" to contention can come quickly; ask Miami), "salary dumps" (when a team "bribes" another team to take a bad salary off their books), or "facilitations" (when two teams want to make a trade, but can't make it work under the cap, they may bribe a third team to get involved). Instead, I'd like to place a bet that most of these players will end up signing extensions or signing as restricted free agents. Teams hate to give up on players that they have invested so much time into.

The 76ers, so far, don't seem to be breaking any of these rules. They were happy to let Evan Turner go. They were happy to wait until the last minute to flesh out their roster. They waited until the trade deadline to acquire enough salary to meet the salary floor (and then negotiated discounts on that salary by buying players out). They have stockpiled picks (7 in 2014; so far, 6 in 2015, the exact mix depends on how lottery protection falls out) and young players. They are keeping max cap room available so that they can absorb salary and acquire even more assets. And they've been drafting the best players available, even if those players might not be available immediately.

In the end, it is this extremely efficient follow-through that seems to be irking the NBA, which has proposed changes to the lottery. I suspect it isn't the fact that the Sixers have stunk that bothers the NBA; rather, it is the prospect of the Sixers becoming contenders in a year or two after such a blatant tank job. If they succeed, they are bound to inspire countless emulators.

 

The current structure - where teams have a big incentive to lose games unless they're playoff-bound - is fundamentally in conflict with the league's goal of having teams actively try to win every individual game. The original practice of picking in reverse win-loss record order is something that we should expect the NBA to keep moving away from, and this coming round of changes should be no particular surprise.

If the goal is to address the conflict of interest between tanking teams and a league that's looking for competitive play, then it's only natural to change the rules before the season, and the 76ers' complaints seem to be more motivated by self-interest than by a desire for fairness.
As I pointed to earlier, whether they changed the rules or not, it's still great strategy. After two years, I would be looking to move the said rookie or if i'm a college coach, letting a kid go from his scholarship. The latter might be looked at with scorn but college sports are a business.
If you really want to eliminate the incentive to tank, you have to disconnect having a poor record from getting higher quality assets.

There may still be teams that strip the team of current value in order to accumulate future value, but it will be more transparent (like the trading deadline at baseball) and likely restricted to the teams who are truly DOA regarding the playoffs.

But if you moved the lottery to a system where, for instance, every single team had an equal weight chance (or at least all the non-finals teams), you'd eliminate any incentive to be bad purely for draft reasons. There may be other reasons, as stated, regarding current vs. future value, but any time you create things like a cap system and where money is involved, current value vs. future value is an unavoidable discussion.
Reinholt,

that's essentially the argument I have in one of the articles I have in the queue.
The geeks should do posts on pro labor. Those are the more interesting ones. Players would be inclined to listen if it gets them more money. GMs just want to keep their jobs os they much less incentive to break from convention. I remember a piece from WOW on how to get paid in the NBA. Great piece.

Simply eliminating most of the restriction in sports and letting the market decided would be most optimal. So no draft, trade deadlines, salary caps, roster limits, etc. It works for the NCAA. College fanatics look at signing day like hardcore fans look at the draft. More trades mean more buzz. More buzz is good I hear.
They seem to be doing a good job at what they aim to do, but the league should not be structured in a way to encourage losing. It is interesting to see the process and machinations as an outsider in the same vague sense as the Ellimist wanting to watch the evolution of the universe. But as a fan of an individual basketball team, seeing them lose for several years in a row is awful and the league should discourage any intentional losing strategies from owners and GMs- especially when the GMs that lose the most efficiently are praised the most. However, I'm not sure about the alternatives so far suggested in various media outlets. The Wheel sounds like a decent system, but the league can't stick with a collective bargaining system for a decade, let alone have the patience to stick with a generation long Wheel system.
@Reinholt,

Or they could simply do away with the draft.
I mean, some things are never going to happen in American sports. Exhibit A is promotion and relegation; part of the $2b Ballmer just paid for LAC reflects his certainty that the Clippers are and shall remain an NBA team, irrespective of possible future incompetence. If all team owners suddenly had to contend with the possibility that their franchises would find themselves in something equivalent to the Championship (England's soccer equivalent of AAA), the market prices for those assets would plummet as prospective purchasers had to assess the risk that team in question might be relegated below the NBA, thus severely damaging its earning power in the short-to-medium term.

I think the draft is probably like that; even baseball, the most similar of American sports systems to European models, uses the draft system, and people are constantly bitching about the perennial dominance of the rich teams.
> ...even baseball, the most similar of American sports systems to > European models, uses the draft system, and people are
> constantly bitching about the perennial dominance of the rich
> teams.

It's pretty clear that parity is limited in the top European leagues. This is true in the Premier league, 1. Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A or the Turkish Super League.

Although separately incorporated German teams are still club affiliated, and the league rules require that the original club retains 50%+1 of the votes. (Although two corporate owned teams are grandfathered.)
Exactly, I mean, look at Bayern Munich. Look at the front lines from Madrid and Barcelona this year. Fans of 25 teams would be rioting in the streets if the NBA had that sort of concentration of talent.
the draft should be done away with, and replaced with nothing. As should the current system of rookie contracts. Let the young players get what they are worth before they get injured.
How about the idea of draft relegation? The bottom 4 teams would be relegated to the bottom of the first round.
I've been a proponent of equal-chance lottery for a long time now. Every pick should be in the lottery and every team should have an equal shot at each pick.

The NBA draft shouldn't be connected to the standings.
Marparker's idea is actually pretty interesting. You couldn't game the system by being as godawful as possible. The aim is to end up with the 5th worst record. But that's not easy! Just the same as with relegation-threatened teams in soccer leagues, NBA teams would fight like hell to stay out of the relegation zone. Tanking could only really start once you've clinched being no worse than the 5th worst team, which is likely not until the last couple weeks of the season.

I like that idea a lot.
In the European leagues they also promote teams from the second league to take their place, and the relegated teams tend to play in the same arena. I'm not sure there are any teams prepared to step into the NBA.

I think Jesot is right to suggest disconnect the draft from the teams' record, though I still prefer the idea of a draft lottery.
No matter what the move is regarding a lottery, Philly is still making the right move. Not getting stuck with bad contracts and accumulating assets. Now if the promotion and relegation aspect was brought in, then the process wouldn't be so smart.
The promotion/relegation system promotes merit, not parity.

I agree with the economics of your post, baddynoshoes (that relegation would never happen because it would decrease the value of NBA franchises), but if anyone is concluding that relegation would increase parity, then...uh, hell no.

Having said that, I wouldn't say that Bayern's domination of the Bundesliga is much different than what has often happened in the NBA. If you go back to the 50s, the Lakers and Celtics have 33 championships. That is nearly as many as the rest *combined* (35).

By contrast, Bayern has won 24 of 102 championships. Bayern may be slightly more dominant than either the Lakers or the Celtics, but only just.
Just because I'm busy at work - and what better to do when busy than procrastinate - through BBRef's standings tool, I took a look at the NBA standings on April 1, 2014, which is about 2 weeks before the season's end. I wanted to see how a system in which the bottom 4 teams's draft picks are relegated would have affected the teams' incentives as of that date.

On April 1, 2014, there were 11 teams that were out of the playoff race, and thus had zero incentive to win additional games and every incentive to lose additional games to improve their draft position. That's more than a third of the league.

Under a draft relegation system, on April 1, there would only be 1 team whose draft pick was already relegated (Sorry, Bucks - enjoy the 27th pick in the first round!), and only 3 teams (TWolves, Nuggets and Pele's) who were safe from relegation but also out of playoff contention.

So by going to a system where the worst 4 teams have their draft picks relegated, we reduced the number of teams with incentive to lose from 11 to 4. That's pretty good!

But here's the other thing - a draft relegation system is also better than an equal-chance lottery, because it also gives the bad teams an incentive to go all out to win at the end of the season, since they will want to stay out of the relegation zone. Under an equal chance lottery, bad teams (who are eliminated from playoff contention) don't have incentive to lose, but neither do they have incentive to win. So they have no incentive to play guys that might be a little nicked up, and they may play younger players instead of your best players simply to see what the young guys have got. Because - who cares if you win or lose - there's no incentive. But if you have to fight to stay out of the relegation zone, then maybe you play your best players.
Al_S,

What's interesting is whether those incentives matter. For instance, you are a Timberwolves fan in February. What do you want to see? The vets trying to eek out one more win?

Or would you be more interested to see Zach Lavine getting 30 minutes to see what he can do?

The incentives should align with what the fans want (and 76er fans were realistic about wins and losses, but almost certainly didn't want to see Nerlens Noel kept safely on the bench the last two months of the season!)
I believe the benching of Noel had more to do with money than with tanking. My understanding is that if a player doesn't play a single game then the team isn't responsible for their salary (some insurance policy picks up the tab). If they played him at the end of the season, it would have cost them millions.

This was discussed a lot on Chicago talk radio during the '12-'13 season.
I'm curious if there is an actual problem here in regards to the bottom teams losing a lot in the last month. Does the mainstream fan have any interest in watching the Bucks and Jazz square off at the end of March even if they are playing their best?
I think it only affects the local fan's willingness to buy tickets. In that case there isn't an externality problem. The effects are directly felt by the primary decision makers.
This site has written plenty about how it is a losing strategy (at least historically) so who is really hurt if some team nobody wants to watch regardless loses a little extra.

The problem of the draft being a terrible way to allocate resources is another one though.
"Does the mainstream fan have any interest in watching the Bucks and Jazz square off at the end of March even if they are playing their best?"

I will give you the example of soccer leagues, where relegation battles do, in fact, generate significant interest, even though both teams are bad. Moreover, I think it is helpful in general since presumably even games involving a playoff team and a relegation-threatened team are more interesting.
As a political socialist I have pretty much zero problem with the draft and the shared risk/shared reward structure of American sports, because even though they're not perfect they are infinitely preferable to a system where 20 teams become feeder squads for 10.

And I live in a big market that would likely benefit from such a system.
Al_S, good point about relegation. The relegation system would add some interest but seems so unfeasible for all the reasons already mentioned.
But I still think the average fan (apparently) is interested in watching match ups that feature some combination of heavyweights, big markets or teams with a superstar player on television.

The 2014 Bucks were never going to be in any of those groups. Junkie fans like those of us on this site want to watch all kinds of match ups and different combinations but luckily for the NBA we're so addicted they don't need to fix anything to get our attention.
My solution is quite different. Rather than trying to re-jigger the draft, my idea is to increase revenue sharing, then punish teams financially by taking away money from teams that are consistently bad and under-perform the expected ratings/attendance for what an average team would do in their market. I'd find a way to tie the penalty to what is expected for their local market so it hammers even harder on teams that try to tank in marquee locations.

How many teams would willingly embrace a 76ers-style tank job if it would cost them an additional $20 million in revenue sharing on top of whatever they lose from putting a sub-par product on the court?

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