The Treadmill of Overspending

We've been hearing that it's terrible to be "in the middle of the pack" on the "treadmill of mediocrity" and that it's better to just lose. It's gotten such wide-spread acceptance that now Magic Johnson is joining the bandwagon:

“I hope the Lakers lose every game,” Johnson told Newsday. “Because if you’re going to lose, lose. I’m serious. … You can’t be in the middle of the pack. You either have to be great or you have to be bad to get a good pick.”

I've been saying for about 3 years now that this isn't true. You see, there are counfounding variables. It is not a bad thing to be in the middle of the pack -- unless you are spending a lot of money on players. The "treadmill of mediocrity" has nothing to do with your record and everything to do with roster contruction. The future looks just fine for the Atlanta Hawks, but pretty bleak for the Brooklyn Nets.

Consider the New Orleans Pelicans. Recently on Truehoop, Ethan Sherwood Strauss talked about how the Pelicans are in a worse place than the 76ers:

In trying to win, the Pelicans lost. Their only reason for hope is Davis and players to be added after the cap leaps higher in 2016. The Pels are actually a good advertisement for being the Sixers.

But this is ridiculous. To see why, ask yourself this: What is the 76ers BEST-CASE scenario with all of their numerous draft picks? The obvious answer is: to get a player as good as Anthony Davis! What's interesting is that Strauss goes on to mention the Pelican's poor roster decisions, but then glosses over them as a symptom rather than the actual problem:

To be clear, New Orleans made mistakes along the way that have nothing to do with trying too hard. Why the Pelicans gave up Robin Lopez, I have no idea. Their signing of Tyreke Evans and re-signing of Eric Gordon were understandable, if ill-fated moves.

So let me rephrase the earlier question: If I gave you the option of complete control of either the 76ers or the Pelicans, which team would you take? Assuming your goal is to win championships (and not to present yourself the biggest challenge and/or the most interesting puzzle), your answer should be the Pelicans, and it is not even close. This is because the 76ers path to contention is mysterious and will require some luck, whereas the Pelican's path to contention, is straightforward (even if that does not mean "easy"):

  • Hold a fire sale on every player not named "Davis" or "Holiday" or "Asik". You should not care AT ALL what you get back as long as you don't have to take bad contracts or give up picks.
  • Stop paying max contracts to non-superstars.
  • Surround Anthony Davis with young players or cheap and effective players. Every time you are considering paying the midlevel or more, stop yourself and say "Wait, what the hell am I doing, and why?"
  • Win 35-40 games anyway because you have Anthony ****ing Davis
  • Play the "who wants to earn max money and play with Anthony Davis in the Big Easy?" game every off-season with the superstars that are available and/or use your massive cap room to trade for one.

To see why, pretend that we could take all of the leagues rookies and sophomores, throw them in a bag, and select 8 of them completely at random, and throw them together with Davis, Holiday, and Asik, and waive everyone else on this roster. Does that team win 40 (ish) games? Probably. OH NO! Does that mean there is no escape from the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity!? Of course not! They'd have eight rookie contracts!

Are we beginning to see what is going on here? There is no treadmill of mediocrity, or at least, the treadmill isn't a treadmill because it sucks to win 40 games. Rather, there is a hamster wheel of bad decision making. If you trade Dwight Howard for a bunch of picks, tank a couple of years, then spend all that saved-up cap room on Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, and Luke Ridnour, well, here's where that gets you:

Back to the Pelicans: the team drafted Austin Rivers nine spots after taking Anthony Davis, then weeks later matched a $58 million dollar offer sheet for a young player who had yet to live up to potential and had bad cartiledge in his knees. Later, they gave up Robin Lopez and a rotation point guard for the right to overpay Tyreke Evans in a crowded backcourt. And this summer they let small forward Al-Farouq Aminu walk to another team even though they could have kept him cheaply. 

And we're saying that the problem is that they've been trying too hard to win!?