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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Why Tanking Does Not Work

"Stat gurus" believe that "advanced basketball statistics" enable them to more accurately and efficiently evaluate players and teams than the "old school" traditional scouting methods (watching players/teams in person, studying players/teams on film, considering basic box score numbers such as per game averages and raw shooting percentages). In theory, a "stat guru" could build a better team than an "old school" basketball talent evaluator by making better draft choices and/or by making shrewder decisions in terms of which players to sign, which players to trade and which players to cut. A high first round draft pick and/or a significant amount of salary cap space should be gold for a "stat guru" and one can easily imagine a team executive who believes in "advanced basketball statistics" thinking that it might be a good idea to tank in order to acquire a lottery pick, disregarding the idea that building a winning team requires putting a winning culture in place; there is no "advanced basketball statistic" that quantifies "winning culture," so such a concept is meaningless to a "stat guru."

In the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes that even the most ardent "stat gurus" have been forced to admit how difficult it is to accurately evaluate players--and that the challenges involved in player evaluation are a major reason why tanking does not work:

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.

Supposedly, the worst thing for an NBA team to do is get stuck on the 40-45 win "treadmill," good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to seriously contend for a championship. Why not gut the roster, plummet to 15-20 wins and rebuild around the talents of a lottery pick? That may seem logical but the reality, as Thompson notes, is "Mediocre teams don’t necessarily stay mediocre. Within two years, they’re three times more likely to become elite (winning at least two-thirds of their games) than the lousy squads that locked up the top picks. Developing and effectively deploying current players, making smart trades and judiciously signing free agents, finding good players later in the draft—these patient, sometimes incremental moves appear to work better than tearing things down to try to land a hyped-up superhero in the draft."

Dallas owner Mark Cuban is a big fan of "advanced basketball statistics." He broke up his 2011 championship team instead of giving that veteran, tough-minded squad a chance to defend their title. The Mavericks' winning percentage dropped from .695 (57-25) to .545 (36-30 in the lockout-shortened season, equivalent to 45-37 in an 82 game season) and they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Dallas went 41-41 last season and failed to qualify for the playoffs, while this season they are currently in a three-team dog fight for the final two playoff spots. Cuban did not literally tank--though Thompson points out that Cuban has publicly stated his support for such a tactic--but the moves that he made are based on the same principle as tanking: instead of trying to win the most possible games right now, he gave up proven players with the hope that he could obtain better and/or younger players. 

Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause thought the same way about the Chicago Bulls during the late 1990s. There are many examples of an owner/general manager combination threatening to break up a team if it did not win a championship but the 1997-98 "Last Dance" Bulls are the first--and, to the best of my knowledge, only--team that the owner and general manager pledged to break up, in advance, even if the team won the championship. Krause could not wait to push Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen out the door so that he could show the world how smart he is and just how quickly he could mold a championship team around his hand-picked coach, Tim Floyd. Since that time, the Bulls have missed the playoffs seven times, lost in the first round five times and made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals just once.

The bottom line is simple and it reflects the truths that pump through the heart of any champion and any person who takes pride in his craft: Tanking does not work, losing on purpose does not build a winning culture and breaking up a championship team is foolish.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:29 PM



At Tuesday, April 08, 2014 4:27:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

There's some very good points you make here.

I don't really believe teams should try to tank. Most teams that supposingly tank or are just flat out bad will wind up getting a top draft pick. But a lot of times that high pick doesn't turn out to be a superstar level imediately or down the line.

You have the teams that win 40-45 games a year. But cant really contend because they lack that speacial player. Theres no guarantee these teams will always get better. If you have a team that's only been winning 40-45 games per year for several years and still is not a serious threat to win a title while having players that are way overpaid; maybe then it would be ok to blow the team up. See if some teams out there would want those overpaid players before their value is completely gone.

Maybe in a rare occasion tanking could work.

When the Spurs got Duncan, they were obviously better than their record because of the injuries. He walked into a good situation. Duncan would have had an imediate impact reguardless of which team drafted him.


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