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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

"Tanking to the Top" is Not What the 76ers Have Done

I have never written a book review without reading the book I am reviewing, but this article is more of a review of a book review than a review of the book. Fred Barnes' The Wall Street Journal review of Yaron Weitzman's Tanking to the Top is as misguided as the title of the book itself. Weitzman's book is about the Philadelphia 76ers, who did indeed tank, but most assuredly have not reached the top.

I have previously discussed Why Tanking Does Not Work, but you do not have to take my word for it. In the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson analyzed the history of tanking:
Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. The last team to draft No. 1 and then win a championship (at any point thereafter) was the San Antonio Spurs, which lucked into the pick (Tim Duncan) back in 1997 when the team’s star center, David Robinson, missed all but six games the previous season because of injuries. 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.

Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.
Since Thompson wrote that article, two teams have won an NBA title subsequent to using a number one overall draft pick, but neither team triumphed by tanking. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 championship with two number one overall draft picks that they selected (LeBron James, 2003; Kyrie Irving, 2011), but tanking was not the basis for that team's success; James had left Cleveland, won two titles in Miami, and then returned to Cleveland as a free agent, while Irving has not had much team success before or after playing alongside James. The Cavaliers traded 2014 number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins for All-Star Kevin Love, who was a vital contributor for the 2016 championship team. Also, the 2019 Raptors won a title after having a number one overall draft pick in 2006, Andrea Bargnani; through a series of transactions, the Raptors ended up with a 2016 first round draft pick for Bargnani, and they traded the player that they drafted with that pick (Jakob Poltl) as part of a package to acquire 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but it would be foolish to suggest that tanking contributed in any meaningful way to Toronto's title.

In contrast, under the misguided leadership of Sam Hinkie, the Philadelphia 76ers went 19-63, 18-64 and 1-21 before firing Hinkie. Hinkie took over a 34-48 team, and he promptly turned it into perhaps the worst team in NBA history. In the full seasons since Hinkie departed, the 76ers went 28-54, 52-30, and 51-31; they are 39-26 in the suspended 2019-20 season. Prior to hiring Hinkie, the 76ers lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2012. Nearly a decade later, they have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs, and their regular season winning percentage has declined two years in a row. There is as much reason to believe that the 76ers have gone as far as they can with Joel Embiid--the poster boy draft pick of Hinkie's so-called "Process"--as there is to believe that the injury-prone Embiid will lead the 76ers to a title.

If the 76ers ever win another championship, it will be despite Hinkie's "Process," not because of it.

Tanking stands in marked contrast to Michael Jordan's approach to the game. Jordan would never accept tanking, and he would never consider second round playoff losses to be "the top."

As "The Last Dance" has reminded those who may have forgotten, or who may be too young to remember, Jordan battled against the Chicago Bulls' attempt to tank when he was injured during his second season, and he bristled at their eagerness to blow up a six-time champion at the end of his career. "The Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years," Jordan fumed in response to the Bulls' plan to run off him, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman to start from scratch.

The Bulls won six titles in the 1990s. They have won five playoff series since chasing away Jordan and crew. "They had a dynasty. Now they have a coffee shop," was Charles Oakley's take on the Chicago Bulls in 2002. I doubt that too many people in Chicago are buying the "Tanking to the Top" premise in 1998, in 2002, in 2020, or in any other year.

Jordan's singular focus was to win as many championships as possible. He divided people into two categories: those who could help him win championships, and those who could not help him win championships. Jordan had no interest in wasting time with anyone who fit into the second category. Jordan tested any player who joined the Chicago Bulls during his tenure. Players who passed the test stayed on the team; players who failed the test did not stay on the team.

Kobe Bryant had the same mentality, though he lacked Jordan's media-savvy ability to convince the public that this mentality is a virtue. Jordan punched a teammate in practice, and regularly berated his teammates, but Jordan remains a hero; Bryant reasonably stated a preference for Shaquille O'Neal to get in shape, and he pushed his teammates to levels that they never reached before or since, and Bryant was portrayed as a horrible teammate.

Jordan and Bryant would scoff at the notion that anything less than a championship is satisfactory. They did not play to win division titles or conference titles, or lose in the second round of the playoffs. Bryant explained the mentality that he and Jordan shared:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
Weitzman's book endorses Hinkie's tanking, and Barnes raves, "By the time he joined the Sixers, Mr. Hinkie knew some core truths about the modern game...The author's analysis is convincing and his reporting thorough. Tanking to the Top is the best basketball book in years."

If you want to know "core truths about the modern game," read Derek Thompson's analysis cited above, or read Phil Jackson's Eleven Rings. There are many basketball books from the past few years that I would select over a misguided attempt to justify losing on purpose: in addition to Jackson's book, some other fine choices include Wooden: A Coach's Life, and The Mamba Mentality.

In the same review article, Barnes also praises The Victory Machine, by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who is perhaps best known for annoying Kevin Durant at a press conference by asking the same question (in slightly different forms) repeatedly about why Durant had not been talking to the media recently, until Durant became frustrated. Durant labeled Strauss as "a dude...who come in here and give his whole opinion on stuff and make it seem like it's coming from me. He walk around here, don't talk to nobody, just walk in here, survey and write something like that." It takes no particular skill to ask the same unimaginative question over and over, but Strauss achieved his real goal: he obtained publicity for himself, and promptly announced that he was writing a book about the Warriors (the book that Barnes just reviewed). When you watch a sporting event and you know the names of the referees, that typically means that the referees are not doing their jobs: the sport is not supposed to be about them, but about the athletes. Similarly, if after a press conference you know the name of a reporter, it typically means that reporter was not doing his job: the press conference is not supposed to be about reporters, but about the athletes. No one tuned into that press conference to hear Strauss keep asking Durant why Durant had not talked to the media. I observed all kinds of press conference nonsense firsthand when I covered the NBA.

I don't know if those two books were assigned to Barnes, or if he picked them himself, but if those are the two best basketball books being released now--and if Barnes is the most qualified person to review those books--then that is just sad.

This is not the first instance of questionable sports analysis by The Wall Street Journal. In 2010, David Biderman contacted me regarding my research showing that Chris Paul's assist totals are inflated, but his subsequent article in The Wall Street Journal did not mention my findings. Biderman later informed me that he did not have enough room in his rather lengthy piece to do justice to my analysis. So, instead of telling the story accurately and completely, he included misleading and/or inaccurate sound bite quotes from other people regarding the use of statistics in basketball. It is enlightening to get an inside view of how the media works; the one and only goal for most media outlets is to generate content that is likely to produce advertising revenue: the truth is not even a casualty of the process, but rather it is irrelevant.

The Wall Street Journal has fared even worse when it turned its attention to chess, as I documented in Why Does Chess Not Receive Intelligent Mainstream Media Coverage?, Wall Street Journal Publishes Another Sloppily Rendered Chess Article , and Wall Street Journal Attempts to Correct Faulty Chess Article. In 2009, former Women's World Chess Champion Alexandria Kosteniuk was so outraged by one of the The Wall Street Journal articles cited above that she wrote the following on her website:
What's upsetting is that the Wall Street journalist, Barbara Jepson, tricked me by telling me that the article she was writing was about "Women's Chess", which made me very happy, as I supposed she would be writing something to support women's chess (not destroy it), that's why I took great care to answer in a positive and honest way (as I always do).

She asked me several questions including if I thought special women's titles should be eliminated. In my answer to her, I wrote very clearly with my reasoning that "Women's titles and tournaments should exist". And then she changed the title of her piece to "Abolish Women's Chess Titles", and used my name in it (I guess to add some authority to it, as if to boast she consulted with the women's world champion about it), only quoting some insignificant point I made to another question about sponsoring, without stating I was against that idea of abolishing women's titles, so that most people thought I agreed with the idea of abolishing women's titles since I was featured in her article and said nothing about the lead question of abolishing titles.

This apparently caused on purpose misunderstanding led me to get several emails from people asking me why I supported abolishing women's titles. This lie started to be posted all over the web and can still be seen on several web sites. I had to immediately respond on my blog and set things right.

Now you, dear reader, please judge for yourself what kind of article that Wall Street Journal was? 
It was about the same kind of article that would assert (1) that Sam Hinkie understands deep truths about the NBA and (2) that a book praising tanking as a good strategy is the best basketball book of the past several years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:32 PM

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