Nba nerd

You Gotta Be Bad to Get Good?

The NBA version of the lyrics of the old song might go something like this:

Bad to get good, in the right measure,

Bad to get good, it's a very good plan.

Bad to get good, means that fans love you.

Baby, you gotta be bad to get good.

Of course, I have gone on record many times in saying that you don't have to be a bad team to become a good team; and that in fact, if you go back 30 years, there are many more examples of teams that went from mediocre to contending than there are teams who went from bad to contending. Furthermore, sentiments like this really make me scratch my head:

Think about that; more than three decades of futility for more than a third of the League. If you were growing up in Washington in 1984 when Stern came walking through that door and Orwell’s “Big Brother’’ started watching you, not only have you not seen the Bullets – now the Wizards – but neither have your children and possibly even your grandchildren.

Is it any wonder, then, that when franchises do those kind of analytics they quickly come to the realization that the only chance to escape perpetual mediocrity is to first sink to the depths, then hope to climb back up – with no assurance it will work?

Wait...30 years of sucking has not helped your team become winners. So the conclusion is....the best way to become a winner is to suck? Really? Clearly, in the long list of things you have been doing wrong for 30 years, "not sucking" isn't at the top. Maybe (just maybe) there is more to it than just being in the bottom of the standings for a few years.

Which leads me to the real point, one that I know Arturo advocates: Maybe being absolutely terrible is a really great way to rebuild into a contender, and maybe the reason it has such a horrible track record as a strategy is just that in the last 30 years or so, nobody has been doing it the right way. Most attempts to rebuild-through-sucking fail horribly for lots of reasons, including, but not limited to:

  • Teams use their "hard-won" draft picks on the wrong types of players. It's amazing to me when rebuilding teams, for instance, pass on the best player available and draft for need.
  • Teams go for high picks, but they don't do enough to get volume. You don't know who will work out and who won't, so spreading the rookie love around the roster is important.
  • Teams give non-star veterans too many deals, tying up valuable cap space that could be used to play facilitator in a trade (I'm looking Rob Hennigan right in the eye). Ideally, a tanking team should never be paying any veteran any money, unless that veteran was acquired in a money-dump trade that netted the rebuilding team some coveted picks or young players.
  • Teams don't evaluate talent well. For instance, if you are the GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves going into the 2010/11 season with a ton of capspace, you could, after being terrible a few years, bring in a good player to join Kevin Love and start your way to contention, or you can blow $4 million a year on three different terrible players and just torpedo your team back into the land of suck for 4 more years. Of course, if "you" are "David Kahn", then the odds are that you really don't have the player evaluation skills to take option 1), so there you are. Might have maybe helped if you had hired a coach who was smart enough to recognize that Kevin Love was your best player. 
  • Teams often don't know when it is time to change gears and put the pedal to the medal. You get to keep rookies for about 7 years (4 on rookie deals, one restricted free agent deal). If one of your rookies happens to become the superstar you were hoping for, you better figure it out early and shift gears now.

The last two points illustrate why so many teams fail. Let's evaluate Minnesota as an example of what not to do. In Love's second year, all the signs were already there that they'd stumbled upon a superstar: best rebounder in the NBA (per minute), great ability to get to the line, 3 point-range. Randy Whitman forbade Love from taking 3s his first season after he started so poorly from beyond the arc, despite the fact that he showed range in college, or his 3-point range might have shown up earlier. They had, thanks to Kevin McHale's earlier trade, acquired just the type of franchise-level talent that only comes along in the draft once a year or so, and often less. Much of the nation had not yet caught on, because Love's minutes were limited, so his per-game numbers were small. But close followers (like me) had already recognized that he was Minnesota's franchise player in the 2010 offseason.

But the Timberwolves management failed to recognize Love's talent. Kurt Rambis spent the first 10 games of the 10/11 season inexplicably limiting his playing time (including zero minutes in the fourth quarter of a close opening-night loss), leading the Wolve's largets fan site, cannishoopus, to post an image that went viral:

Imagine how the fortunes of those Timberwolves might have gone differently. Imagine an offseason where the management team says:

  • Love is our best player, we should make sure we have a coach that gets him 35 minutes a night (Love took care of this himself; he pulled down 31 boards in the 10th game of the season, and the highlights were on SportsCenter for 2 days straight. This forced Rambis to either play him more minutes, or look like a fool in every post-game press conference from there on out).
  • Love is our best player, we should find some guys that compliment him (instead, Kahn paid 2 midlevel deals for 2 big men in Pekovic and Milicic, and still tried to get David Lee after that). I like Pekovic a lot, but he's a horrible fit next to Love.
  • Love is our best player, maybe we should move Al Jefferson to center (nobody in Minnesota wanted to do this, but for some reason Utah and Charlotte had no problems with this strategy). Maybe we don't have to trade him to Utah?
  • Love is our best player, maybe we should lock him up for the maximum number of years? (Kahn refused and extended Love for 3 instead of 5 years. How he got out of Minnesota alive ahead of the pitchforks and torches after this inexcusable display of stubborn pride is beyond me).

By the time the front office found a coach who recognized the obvious (yes, this was obvious even then), the damage was done. Side note: looking through Minnesota's transaction history is truly depressing. They passed on Stephen Curry in favor of Johnny Flynn and Ricky Rubio (I love-love-love Rubio, but Stephen Curry is the better player today and was the recognized better pick at the time), they sold (not traded, SOLD) Ty Lawson and Chandler Parsons for cash. They ended up essentially just selling both the picks they got from the Al Jefferson deal. It's truly depressing.

At the end of the day, if you have a roster full of 21-year olds winning 30 games, you are looking at a potential championship contender in 2-3 years. It's probably time to shift into "win-now" mode. But if you have a roster with 2 rookies and a bunch of aging veterans winning 30 games, you've still got a lot of work to do.

Um...hey, you aren't paying any of those useless veterans $5-10 million a year for 4 years, are you? Ah. Well, good luck with that!

Next up: I'm going to look at how the 76ers seem to be the first team following all the tanking incentives to their logical conclusions. They may be the first ones "doing it right", which is probably why the NBA wants to nip it in the bud. Because if they manage to flip the switch and start contending, they are sure to inspire a lot of imitators.

Patrick:

I think the core issue of this is simple, and leads to a lot of misunderstanding: the point is to take the best available path to build a strong basketball team. Sucking for some x period of time (where x should be 3 years at most) is a side-effect, not causal. The execution of the strategy relies on attempted acquisition of max-quality (or ones who will develop into that) players on rookie contracts, or volumes of rookies on solid contracts. When a team achieves this goal, it needs to switch into talent acquisition mode (as the Rockets attempted to do this offseason, and even with the confusion around their moves, I think the strategy was correct though the execution could have been better).

Most teams that suck aren't tanking. They just suck, as you've pointed out. When they stop sucking, briefly, it's because they got a great player (who they will eventually lose by irritating them with their incompetence: Love, LeBron, etc.). People hold this up as success, but success should actually be to stop making stupid basketball decisions. If all the bad teams were actually tanking by engaging in future asset gathering and current asset stripping (turn them into future value), many fewer teams would stay bad over long periods of time.

Generally my barometer for tanking is simple: did you get playoff-level in the west good after 3-4 years with a sustainable, young core? If no, you aren't tanking. You just suck.
The difference between the Wolves tanking and the Sixers tanking is like the difference between being poor and broke. Being poor is long term and signals you have no clue how money works (winning). Being broke is temporary. Someone fell on hard times, but the desire and knowledge base is there to make money. The Wolves are poor. The sixers are broke. Both have "no money", but the Sixers will one day "be rich" while the wolves will always be poor.

Reinholt,
About half of the teams are in the playoffs but of the rest, most are tanking. See: Utah, Orlando, Boston
As Minton points though, others are just incompetent. See: Minnesota, Detroit, Sacramento, Denver

Even if the league changes the rule, the lottery odds go from bad to worst but the chances at the number 1 pick weren't good in this lottery era. What Philly is doing is called banking so why won't teams just replicate it and getting sour grapes. Keep banking, Philly!
@Andrew

I kinda disagree with you on the Nuggets. Yes, they only won 36 games, and they don't seem to have a plan. But two key players barely played. McGee played only 5 games, and Gallinari did not play at all. With these two in good health, they could have been a playoff team.

Of course, they made some bad moves, but they also had a bad luck.
Nuggets are still underplaying Faried. He was involved in a lot of trade talk as well. He is the team's best player. The injuries they suffered were important but Faried and the offseason moves before the season started was what I was pointing to.
Reinholt,

I agree. I've written many articles on how the losing is not the cause, but the effect. I'll elaborate tomorrow.
"Being poor is long term and signals you have no clue how money works."

Well, that's one of the sillier things I've read on the Internet this week; people who take this viewpoint hugely underestimate the role of impersonal, structural economics factors in the generation and perpetuation of poverty.

Aside from that, the analogy isn't terrible.

Also, I'm using my Twitter handle instead of Johnfloyd6675 on account of using Twitter more and having an excellent handle.
Judging from Zach Lavine's draft day reaction, the Minnesota markup must be huge. That 4 million likely can't attract any good FA whether they spend it on 3 bad players or 1 bad player. They are also never going to attract the Lebrons of the league. So they can't get Spursian discounts or load up with stars like the Heatles. The only option left is to bat a thousand in the draft like OKC. Since their time limit with any player is 7 years and it takes a couple seasons to get the band together and ready, they have roughly a 3 year window to compete if they play their hands perfectly. Knowing all this, is it really realistic to ever expect the Timberwolves to compete at a championship level?
DG22, It is perhaps really, really difficult for the T-Wolves to win an NBA championship given the restraints you mention but they have now gone 10 straight seasons without playing in a playoff game and employed Kevin Love or Kevin Garnett for 9 of those.

It's totally reasonable to expect much, much better.
Two small criticisms:

Rubio was generally higher on draft boards than Curry. He was projected second until after the lottery, when he began making noises about not wanting to go to Memphis to compete with Conley.

Ty Lawson wasn't sold, he was traded for a future pick.
Players have that reaction to MN because they are a terrible organization that insists on repeating their mistakes. With Sterling out, I think there's now a legitimate argument that the TWolves are the worst run team in the NBA.

I can see why players don't want to go there. The only way you fix that is by developing competence, and it would be a multi-year project.
I constantly see comments regarding small market teams and how they will never recruit big free agents, which is the cause for the doom of so many teams (TWolves, Bucks, etc). I disagree, players want to play where they can win, which relies more on ownership than the market. I mean, Cleveland just got the biggest free agent in the world, and the second biggest wants to move there. Stephenson just went to Charlotte. San Antonio is no attraction on it's own. Players relocate to good owners/teams, not just places with the hottest night clubs.
Cleveland got the hometown discount in a special case.

Stephenson went to his only real option. And the perception on this site and amongst the league are pretty different. Any team that appreciated his talents likely had no cap space this off season.

San Antonio is no attraction outside of the attractive Texas tax situation. They draft everyone and were forced to look overseas because no one wanted to play there. I'd consider them the exception that proves the rule.
"I disagree, players want to play where they can win, which relies more on ownership than the market."

I agree that player personnel seems to be one of the strongest factors in FAs' decision-making process, but I don't think we can narrowly boil down a player's desire to play with particular teammates as being purely a product of "basketball situation" in terms of win production. Factors like personal friendships, animosities, and the reputations of the key players for the franchise in question come into play as well.

For instance, Lebron/Carmelo/Bosh (and I hate to use all caps) MANIFESTLY did not want to play with Howard and Harden, and it's not terribly difficult to see why. Arturo noted many times throughout the season that the Rockets were and are a "party team." Howard in particular has a reputation for caring very little about the game, eating lots of candy, shaking his butt at female bystanders, and generally not paying a whole hell of a lot of attention. Harden, for his part, protagonizes the most damning Youtube video of defensive lowlights in the NBA, and was seen (again, hate to use all caps) IN THE PORTLAND SERIES kicking it at a hookah bar in Oregon; I find this story credible in part because of the highly convincing photographic evidence online.

Lebron James doesn't want to have to monitor Dwight Howard's candy consumption or to police James Harden's tobacco(!) use; whether or not they're great players, their reputations clearly dissuaded a fair number of top FAs from giving HOU serious consideration this offseason.
Well, if salary caps weren't in place, none of the factors besides money would matter in theory. It would be hard for Duncan to turn down 40 million if say the Knicks offered it.
I don't want to get into the whole efficient-markets-vs-behavioral-economics debate, but even without salary caps, there are factors beyond pay that determine where players end up. These extraneous factors would likely be more pronounced in a sport, such as basketball, in which the supply of players able to compete at the highest levels is extremely limited; such players can be more easily concentrated into elite leagues, in which the imperative to win a championship weighs heavily against money's allure.
Money is the motive. Most players when put in the decision to choose, they will likely take the money. People were shocked when Cano went to Seattle instead of staying in New York. Who does that? Uh rational actors. Players value winning up until a point. The city doesn't matter because you only have to live there during the season.
I agree that money is the main factor. Of course, this goes beyond a players contract but also their marketability (which is strongly correlated to winning). My point is that small market teams have the ability to offer this to coveted FAs if they have a good team. Love wants to play in Cleveland because he knows he'll win there and it will be good for his brand. Same with any other player in San Antonio. I don't buy the argument that the Twolves (or other similar teams) can only win if they draft perfectly for five years.
The Love point is only because they have James. Now, if this were like non American soccer, Cavs would have to pay a transfer fee. Now that would be interesting to see because something tells me that Love doesn't stay in Cleveland but then again he lives LA in the offseason so maybe he can dread living in Cleveland.(Don't know how sarcasm works online but that was a bit of it)
Minnesota isn't a multi-year project. Not even when this Wiggins trade goes through. Pekovic and Dieng are a strong front court that has good synergy, unlike the Pekovic-Love situation. So the most important positions in the game are setup very well for the Wolves, and they have the next superstar coming in to fill a gaping hole at the wing. Minnesota is in a really good spot right now.
I'm probably the voice of a (very small) minority. I think the lottery and draft are hyped beyond their merit and side with the NFL's Chip Kelly, who pulled back the curtain to expose his league's wizards. PT Barnum must be smiling somewhere knowing fans are enthusiastic about being in the lottery in any given year---much less purchasing a ticket to see a team that has thrown in the towel. Articles on this site about the "treadmill of mediocrity" have some merit, but I think that's preferable to the zero-sum title-or-lottery view that seems to be prevalent.

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