Losing for the future

There will be a lot to remember about this NBA season. This will be the year Lebron completed his three-peat (or didn’t), the season Kevin Durant reached new heights of ridiculous offensive destruction, and maybe (but don’t count on it) the last hurrah of Tim Duncan and San Antonio’s dynastic core.

But the 2013-’14 season will also have another, less attractive label: the Year of the Tank. At the beginning of the season, the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns appeared built to lose, fielding teams of untested youngsters after dealing away most of their veteran talent. These teams (and maybe a few others) appeared to embrace the idea that to succeed in the NBA, you have to hit rock bottom first.

Of course, teams have tanked before, perhaps most famously in 2006 when the Timberwolves obviously and unsuccessfully tried to throw away their final game of the season in order to keep a protected draft pick. More recently, the Bobcats set a record for futility with a 7–59 record during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. But for the first time, this year a number of teams seemed resigned to a deliberately uncompetitive season before the first game was played.

Among the group I named above, the Suns have been a pleasant surprise. Goran Dragic has been outstanding, and Phoenix currently sits in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Still, the tanking narrative remains compelling for some teams and general managers in the league.

The argument for intentional failure hinges on the fact that 19 of the past 20 NBA champions have featured one, if not more, of the top five players in the league that year, and maybe one of the top 25 players of all time. Only the 2004 Detroit Pistons managed to hoist the O’Brien Trophy without a superstar talent on their roster. Many teams today believe that the fastest path to the top is to find a star player first and build from there.

The only ways to acquire such players in the NBA are to trade for them, sign them in free agency, or draft them. Few teams would be willing to part with their franchise players unless convinced they were leaving anyway, and free agents often choose the biggest markets or to play with their superstar buddies (see James, Lebron). For small market teams like Philadelphia or Milwaukee, the best way to get one of these players may well be to hope for a high draft pick. That’s how San Antonio snared Tim Duncan and Seattle/Oklahoma City grabbed Kevin Durant. As much as the city may hate him now, Cleveland got seven years with Lebron that it never could have dreamed of without the draft.

But tanking may make more sense on paper than in practice, so I decided to take a look at how the teams with top-five picks in the past 20 drafts have done in the years following their selections. The only two players capable of carrying their teams to a championship drafted beyond that range since 1994 were Kobe Bryant (pick 13, 1996) and Dirk Nowitzki (pick 9, 1998). But those guys were a high school player and an international player before those categories were heavily scouted, so it’s reasonable to assume that to get a franchise talent, you need to look at the top five picks in the draft.

I looked at what percentage of those teams made the playoffs three years and five years down the road compared to the same percentages for teams with picks 6–10. These are also lottery picks, but the teams holding them are probably a little less bad and less likely to walk away from the draft with an elite talent. Lo and behold, the worst teams had about a five percent better chance of making the playoffs in three years, and an eight percent better chance of making the playoffs in five years. It looks like there may be some wisdom in trying to rig the draft after all.

The superstar argument really isn’t about making the playoffs, though; it’s about winning championships. So how did the franchises with top-five picks do by that standard? The sample size for teams that went from worst (or near-worst) to first isn’t very big, so I decided to look at teams that made their conference championships at some point in the three or five years after picking in the top five. Here, the results were reversed: better draft picks didn’t help a team go far in the playoffs.

Conventional wisdom in the NBA dictates that the worst place to be is a kind of no-man’s land between bottoming out and contending. In this space, you can’t get a superstar draft picks, and free agents don’t want to come to a team that is more than a couple steps away from a championship. To quantify this no-man’s land, I looked at teams that finished below the top 12, but above the top six in the NBA for three straight years. Last year that category included the Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves and the 76ers. Apparently tired of this purgatory, the Philadelphia front office blew up its team this off-season and, after the young roster overachieved to start this season, traded away two of its best players at the trade deadline.

No-man’s land teams have had a 40 percent chance of reaching the conference finals at some point over the next five years and a 20 percent chance over three years. Both numbers are nearly double the odds that a team with a top-five pick accomplishes the same feat.

These sample sizes are too small to draw any definitive conclusions, and there could be many other reasons that the teams I analyzed succeeded at different rates. At the very least though, Philadelphia should be careful what it asks for. It might hit the jackpot with some college star next year, and it might even be back in the playoffs in a couple years. But history suggests that the 76ers are just as likely to spend the rest of the decade dreaming about the days of Allen Iverson.

 

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