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.