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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The 76ers Are the Waterloo for "Stat Gurus"

Tanking is wrong for many reasons--it violates the spirit of true competition, it rips off the fans, it destroys that franchise's opportunity to build a winning culture--but the most basic reason is the proven fact that it does not work. Sam Hinkie was an executive with the Houston Rockets for eight years. The Rockets won one playoff series during that time. Based on that remarkably unremarkable record, the Philadelphia 76ers hired Hinkie in 2013 to run their basketball operations. Hinkie took over a team that went 34-48 in 2012-13. Since that time, the 76ers went 19-63, 18-64 and 1-21 while Hinkie's supporters implored everyone to "trust the process." Hinkie is a "stat guru" whose "process" is tanking and he has dropped the 76ers so far into the tank it will be years before they see daylight again. During Hinkie's reign of error the 76ers have been widely recognized as one of the most analytically minded franchises in sports, so it is not an exaggeration to say that Hinkie's failure is a Waterloo moment for "stat gurus"--at least the self-promoting "stat gurus" who have been saying for years that if they only got the chance to run an NBA franchise they could do so much better than the people who have actually devoted their lives to playing, scouting and coaching.

Hinkie is Ted Stepien with a spreadsheet. Stepien was not intentionally tanking but he did such a horrible job as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980s that the NBA had to step in and save the franchise--which is pretty much what just happened in Philadelphia, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reportedly strongly suggested to the 76ers' owners that they bring in some outside help (which means, make sure that Hinkie never makes another personnel decision as long as he lives). Hinkie turned the 76ers into a laughingstock and the team is so terrible that other franchises had trouble selling tickets when Hinkie brought his version of the Washington Generals thinly disguised as a professional sports team into their towns. The 76ers have now hired Jerry Colangelo to clean up Hinkie's mess. As one writer quipped, Colangelo is going to talk a lot less about PER and a lot more about WINS. Colangelo has his work cut out for him but if anyone can turn the 76ers around he can, because he has enjoyed a tremendous career as a sports executive. Colangelo also should be commended for keeping his promise to correct some longstanding Basketball Hall of Fame injustices.

Hinkie's abject Philadelphia failure should also draw some attention to what is happening in Houston, where he served as Daryl Morey's protege. Morey's long tenure in Houston (Morey took over the basketball operations in May 2007) has produced nothing special; in Morey's first eight seasons, the Rockets missed the playoffs three times and won just three playoff series, with two of those victories coming last year. The Rockets are 10-12 this season and may not even make the playoffs just one year after their improbable (read "fluke") run to the Western Conference Finals--speaking of which, just how much does it mean to make the Conference Finals once? It may seem like that is getting really close to winning a title but it is actually only the halfway point, because it takes eight playoff wins to reach the Conference Finals and eight more playoff wins to claim the championship. Since Morey took over in Houston, 10 of the 15 Western Conference teams have reached the Conference Finals at least once (eight of the 15 Eastern Conference teams have reached the Conference Finals at least once during the same period).

Morey loudly claimed--and media outlets like ESPN and the New York Times loudly repeated his claims--that his use of so-called "advanced basketball statistics" created a clear advantage that would translate directly into wins. Or, to coin a phrase, "trust the process." Nearly a decade later, we have a large enough sample size of evidence to make a solid hypothesis: whatever "process" Morey and Hinkie are doing, it does not work, at least if you are trying to win a championship by doing it.

Statistics are a very important tool for executives, coaches, scouts, media member and fans. I have loved sports statistics since I was a kid and this website is chock full of statistics--but any piece of data is only as good as the person who is using it and the context in which that piece of data is applied. Of course the smartest front offices in the NBA are using the most advanced statistics possible--but they are not doing so to promote themselves as geniuses and they are not using numbers devoid of context.

The numbers tell Daryl Morey that James Harden is a "foundational player." Morey does not know or care that the eye test reveals that Harden does not give full effort on a consistent basis, he is an awful defender and he has no leadership skills. Harden has some All-Star level offensive skills but he relies way too much on begging for contact when he drives and on launching three pointers when he does not drive. Harden has little to no post up or midrange game. So, Harden can erupt for 35 or 40 points on any given night--but when his team really needs him in a big playoff game, he can also shoot 2-11 from the field with a playoff single-game record 13 turnovers.

It is no surprise that Harden's Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of his first two seasons with the team. It is somewhat unexpected that the Rockets made it to the Conference Finals last year but, as noted above, any executive who can keep his seat warm for nearly a decade will more than likely stumble into one Conference Finals appearance. Harden is not the right guy to be the best player on a legit contender. Three teams in each conference made the Conference Finals at least three times since 2007: Miami, Cleveland and Boston in the East and the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the West. We know that Harden would not have been close to being the best player on any of those teams, in no small part because he came off of the bench for Oklahoma City.

This season, we are seeing the real Harden and the real Rockets (which we also saw during his first two full seasons with the team). Harden is scoring a lot of points while not shooting well, his team is far from being a legit contender and his bad attitude played no small part in getting his coach fired. It should be clear to the rest of the world now what should have been clear all along: it would have been a travesty if James Harden won the MVP last year. Harden is Stephon Marbury with an overgrown beard, a coach killer who is more interested in his endorsements and the celebrity life than he is in being a great basketball player. Harden declares that he is better than Stephen Curry and LeBron James. What a joke. Curry actually works on his game and comes back each season with something new. James is a 6-8 beast with an all-around skill set who has led his teams to six Finals and two championships; yeah, there are some gaping holes in James' championship resume and it took him too long to even partially figure out the championship mentality that guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were born with but putting Harden in the same sentence with James is like comparing a Yugo to a Rolls-Royce.

What this all comes down to is character and character is always revealed eventually. Character means doing the right things the right way all of the time. Character means having the courage of your convictions (which is not at all the same thing as sticking with the same course as you plunge into an iceberg). Championships are not won by accident. If you have an overabundance of talent, you may achieve some success without character but that success will inevitably be transitory. Before Mike Tyson fought Evander Holyfield, Teddy Atlas--who trained the young Tyson--said that Tyson was scared of Holyfield, that Tyson lacked heart and that the moment things got tough he would commit a foul to get out of the fight because he did not want to be there and would not be able to accept losing like a real man. Atlas nailed it, because Atlas knew Tyson's character and Atlas was not fooled by the "baddest man on the planet" hyperbole surrounding Tyson.

You cannot win a championship if you have a loser's mentality. That is what Hinkie failed to understand when he sent the 76ers into the tank based on some numbers-based idea of accumulating top draft picks and that is what Morey failed to understand when he decided to make Harden the "foundation" in Houston. Harden's story is apparently appealing to a lot of media members and he fooled a lot of people into giving him recognition that he did not earn but none of that stuff matters when you have to get in between the lines in the playoffs and produce. The cliche is true: you win with character, not characters. I have spent my whole NBA writing career figuratively betting against characters like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden even when those guys were at the height of their popularity and I will place that eye test evaluation against a spreadsheet any day of the week. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:33 PM


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At Thursday, December 10, 2015 2:38:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Hrm. Philosophically I agree with you- it's an insult to the game- but I think you're being a bit selective claiming that tanking doesn't work. Three of the six or so best teams in the league were built, in whole or in part, by tanking; it's got a proven record of working.

Cleveland tanked its way into three #1 picks and one #2 pick, which gave it enough of a warchest to be an appealing destination for Lebron James as well as enough assets to trade for Kevin Love.

OKC was pointedly, intentionally terrible for several years, allowing them to draft Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka.

Even San Antonio, if you look back far enough, only got Tim Duncan because they decided to punt when Robinson got hurt and tank their way into a high pick.

Additionally, much as I don't care of the Rockets, I think they're a different issue entirely. They never really tanked, their issue was over-estimating Harden's value and not holding out for a better option to build around.

As for Philly, it's certainly hard to watch, but there's a very real chance it's going to work. I hope it doesn't, because I like good, competitive basketball, but it's certainly true that tanking's worked in the past; though no one's ever attempted it at quite this level before. It'll be interesting to see how it shakes out.

At Thursday, December 10, 2015 3:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Presumably, the primary if not exclusive purpose for tanking is to get the number one pick in the draft. As noted in the Atlantic article that I cited, only once in the past 30 years has a team that drafted number one overall subsequently won a championship: that team is the Spurs, who drafted Tim Duncan. However, the Spurs did not tank to get that pick; David Robinson suffered a season-ending injury after playing just six games. Did the Spurs do every possible thing to win every game down the stretch of Robinson’s lost season? Maybe, maybe not—-but whatever the Spurs did or did not do, it does not remotely resemble Hinkie’s deliberate plan to lose as much as possible for years and years and years.

This is not just about the number one overall pick, though. Here is a key quote from the Atlantic article: "The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years--the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency--as they are to make it past the second round." Becoming really bad--on purpose or otherwise--simply does not lead to becoming really good any time soon. The data shows this, which is why it is hilarious and pathetic that a supposedly "analytic" GM chose a strategy that has been proven to fail.

Your contentions about the Cavs and OKC appear to lack foundation. Regarding the Cavaliers, they fired their coach and GM prior to LeBron James leaving and then suffered some injuries (most notably to Varejao), so the 2010-11 campaign was a lost cause from the start (19-63). The 2012 Cavaliers were not very good but they were not tanking. They were starting Kyrie Irving alongside veterans like Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao and Anthony Parker. The team suffered injuries and was not super-talented but the organization was not just trying to lose and in a lockout shortened year the winning percentage increased to .318 from .232. The 2013 Cavs were 19-40 when Irving played and 5-18 when he did not play. Irving’s injuries cost them some wins but the Cavs were not tanking. The 2014 Cavs went 33-49 and missed the playoffs by five games. The franchise had rebuilt slowly but surely since James left and there was enough of a talent base there to encourage him to return.

The Sonics (before becoming the Thunder) went 35-47 in 2006, which is perhaps the worst possible record according to “tanking theory” (you either want to win 60 games or 6, nothing in the middle). The Sonics went 31-51 in 2007, also a bad record according to “tanking theory.” In 2008, the Sonics went 20-62 as they tried to develop rookies Durant and Green—-but that is not tanking: giving playing time to young players who are part of your future is the best way to develop those players. That is NOT what Hinkie has been doing; Hinkie has been trotting out lineups with D-Leaguers who have no hope of being in the NBA long-term. When Brett Brown almost messed up Hinkie’s plan by developing Michael Carter-Williams, Hinkie promptly traded MCW.

There is zero chance that Hinkie's plan is going to work. Hinkie’s plan has already failed, which is why the NBA stepped in and strongly suggested that the team replace the "stat guru" with someone who actually knows how to run a professional sports organization. If/when the Sixers are relevant again it will be because Jerry Colangelo is making decisions to undo all the damage that Hinkie did. In a different era and sport, Bill Walsh once said that an organization that is being run correctly can go from nothing to contender in about three years. If the Sixers are smart enough to keep Colangelo around that long (and he wants to do the job) and if they are smart enough to put Hinkie where he can't do any more damage then the Sixers could be a playoff team in three or four years but that will hardly be a vindication of Hinkie's "process" and will likely not feature a single player he picked/wanted to pick.

At Thursday, December 10, 2015 3:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I did not say that Houston tanked; my point about Morey is that his poor decisions are motivated by the same kind of nonsense that motivates Hinkie, namely thinking that most if not all of the answers to building a team can be found in a spreadsheet. If the media held Morey to the same standards applied to other GMs he would have been on the hot seat years ago, because he came in talking big but has actually accomplished nothing. Isiah Thomas may be the most mocked NBA executive of the past decade or so but compare the players he drafted and acquired with the players Morey has drafted and acquired and you tell me who has a better eye for NBA talent.

Morey's infatuation with Harden will eventually be his undoing, though, because Harden's inability to be the best player on a legit contender is becoming more and more obvious every day to even casual NBA observers.

At Thursday, December 10, 2015 4:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I disagree about the Spurs, Sonics, and Cavs. None of those teams were particularly interested in winning games, and each had most of the telltale tanking signs- wonky lineups, longer-than-average injury "recovery" periods, bizarre strategic moves (Durant the 2 guard!), etc. The Sonics were arguably not tanking in '07, when they still had Ray Allen, but they certainly started actively tanking when they traded him for the Durant pick and hired PJ Carlesimo (who had a career 183-222 record despite some talented teams when they hired him).

As for Hinkie, I was under the impression that his plan was "suck for five years, accumulate a bunch of good young pieces, build from there." Since he's still in the "suck to accumulate" phase, it's difficult to evaluate whether or not it worked yet. I believe the NBA put Colangelo there to stop the abuse of tanking- not because HInkie's plan failed, but because his plan was a disgusting abuse of the system. It is quite likely that at least two of Philly's lottery picks will turn into extremely productive players for the 76ers (my picks are Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric), though they've had some much deserved bad karma with regards to Okafor's antics and Embiid's injuries. I don't necessarily think their plan will work- it may be difficult for them to attract the supporting players they'll need, and I don't think that losing is generally a good way to develop young players- but I am also hesitant to completely write it off; stockpiling assets has worked before, the question is merely if it can work at this extreme a level.

As for Morey, I'm neither as high on him as most nor as low on him as you are. I think he made a bad choice locking in Harden the way he did (likely motivated by being starved for a star), but many of his other moves have been very smart (though I similarly question the Lawson signing). While he is a big analytics guy, I think his bigger problem is an attraction to high-offense/low-defense players (who thrive on metrics like PER) like Harden/Lawson/Parsons, and assuming that plugging in Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza will be enough to cover their deficiencies; if he looked at the right analytics, they'd disabuse him of that notion. Analytics are a useful too, but you have to look at all of them, not merely the "sexy" ones, and you still need some measure of common sense/understanding of the game to properly utilize them. He's still probably a top 15 NBA GM- his teams have never sucked, and are generally at least in contention for the playoffs- but he's certainly no Buford or Riley.


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