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This System Is Broken

Well, this stinks. Being a Knicks fan on the day of the NBA Draft stinks.  Being a Knicks fan on any day stinks, but on the day of the NBA Draft it stinks worse than most other days.

The draft is supposed to offer a chance for renewal, yet it never seems to renew the Knicks. It’s not hard to look at recent draft results and see numerous errors the Knicks made which prevented possible opportunities for renewal. We drafted Frank Ntilikina over Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo, drafted Kevin Knox over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and, going back a bit further in time, drafted Iman Shumpert over Jimmy Butler.

Sure, the Knicks have made lots of mistakes. No duh, as the kids say.

Even so, as terrible as the Knicks have been at drafting – or at, well, anything – their dismal performance is not entirely their fault. The Knicks are, dare I say, victims. They’re victims of a broken system, which has been giving other teams an unfair advantage.

The draft is the means by which incoming talent is distributed across the 30 teams in the NBA. To some degree, it is set up to put the best talent on the worst teams. That’s why the teams who qualify for the playoffs aren’t eligible for the Draft Lottery. At the same time, the draft is set up to avoid giving too big of a reward for losing. That’s why there’s a weighted Draft Lottery, instead of simply assigning draft order in reverse order of finish, as the NFL does.

It all sounds good in theory. But it’s not working.

The randomness associated with bouncing ping pong balls has led to a few teams getting disproportionately lucky, thereby defeating the purpose of the system. To see the problem, let’s look back at the past 30 years. With 30 teams in the league, we can do some easy math if we look back 30 years. Over that period of time, each team has won an average of 1 championship, and has won the draft lottery an average of 1 time. Looking at the list of NBA champions, we see that only 11 teams have won in the last 30 years. (Spoiler alert: the Knicks are not among those teams.) The Bulls and Lakers have each won 6, the Spurs 5, the Heat and Warriors 3, the Rockets 2, and each of the Raptors, Mavericks, Pistons, Celtics, and Cavs have won once. Fair enough. None of this necessarily means there’s a problem with the draft. It just means that having Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, or Kawhi Leonard gives you a tremendous advantage. I have no problem with that.

Looking at the list of lottery winners, though, we see a clear problem. Namely, we see that this random-by-design system has given a very small number of teams a tremendous advantage. In the last 30 years, the Orlando Magic have won the lottery 3 times – yielding Shaq, Chris Webber, and Dwight Howard. The Cavaliers have won the lottery an absurd 4 times – yielding LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins. Yes, Anthony Bennett wound up being terrible. That doesn’t prove that the system is working; it proves that the Cavs were fortunate enough to botch the #1 overall pick and still have fallen into enough assets that they could recover.  Seven teams have won the Lottery twice – the Sixers, Clippers, New Orleans (Pelicans / Hornets), Wizards, Bucks, Timberwolves, and Bulls. And, nine teams have won it once. That list includes Charlotte, Houston, the Nets, Trail Blazers, Raptors, Warriors, Suns, Spurs, and Celtics (who won it in 2017 and traded the pick to the Sixers). Adding that all up, only 18 of the 30 teams have won the Lottery over the last 30 years.

That leaves 12 of the NBA’s 30 teams who haven’t won the Lottery over the last 30 years. If those 12 teams had been consistently very good, then perhaps this system could be defended.  If that were the case, we could conclude that those 12 teams didn’t need an infusion of talent to make them good enough to advance the overall goal of competitive balance in the league. To be sure, some of those 12 teams have been very good for most of the 30-year period we’re looking at – including the Lakers, Mavs, and Heat. The fact that the Lakers haven’t won the Lottery during a period of time when they had Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron doesn’t establish that anything’s wrong with the Lottery system. The Mavs and Heat rode the careers of Nowitzki and Wade to sustained excellence for a long while. No problem there. The Pistons haven’t been consistently good, but they hung a banner during the previous 30 years. That still leaves 8 teams who have won neither the Lottery nor a championship: the Hawks, Jazz, Kings, Pacers, Thunder (Sonics), Nuggets, Grizzlies, and, of course, the Knicks.

I know that I’m just a slow dude with a blog that only three people read, but nonetheless I know enough about the game to see that this ping-pong-ball-based system isn’t giving us a fair distribution of talent. I see better possible ways of distributing incoming talent, assuming that the goals are to (1) maximize the league’s competitive balance, while (2) disincentivizing losing and minimizing the possibility that randomness winds up awarding a small number of teams nearly all of the time. For example, how about a rule establishing that when a team wins the Lottery, it’s ineligible to win the Lottery again during any of the next 5 years? That would have covered the Magic’s back-to-back wins in ’92 and ’93, as well as the Cavs landing the top pick in 3 of the 4 years from 2011-2014. It also would have prevented the Timberwolves from landing the top pick this year. Or, what about a rule establishing that when a team wins a championship it’s ineligible to win the Lottery during the next 5 seasons? That would have covered the Bulls winning the Lottery in 1999.

Reversing those unearned advantages would almost certainly not have been enough to make the Knicks respectable. It’s hard to imagine what would have had to happen to achieve respectability for the Knicks. Even so, it’s clear that they’ve suffered from an unfair system. Our own inability to imagine a world where the Knicks are competitive shouldn’t prevent us from imagining a better system for the league to use when it distributes incoming talent.

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Well, this stinks.  Two months of quarantining were largely made tolerable by having new episodes of The Last Dance to look forward to.  And now that’s over.

My social life is pretty sad during regular times, and it’s even sadder during a quarantine.  During regular times, a major part of my socializing is watching basketball with friends and talking about basketball with friends.  That remained true during the quarantine, even without live basketball to watch.  My text messages would be most active on Sunday evenings into Monday, with chatter about the current episodes.

Now that the documentary is over, and there’s no end of the quarantine on the immediate horizon, the outlook is grim for my social life.  I might as well try to extend the discussion by posting my thoughts about the documentary and the discussion it generated, and hope it motivates a few people to communicate with me.

After watching all 10 episodes of the documentary, discussing lots of it with my friends, and spending too much time on Twitter reading what strangers were saying about it, my main thought… is about Carmen Electra.

Actually, strike that.  I should stick to basketball. I’ll try again.

Basketball, basketball, basketball. You know who must have been really good at basketball? Carmen Electra must have been really good at basketball.  In 1998,  Dennis Rodman’s productivity was slipping, then he spent a few days in the middle of the season in Las Vegas with Carmen, and he came back an improved basketball player.  Stands to reason that she’s great at basketball, and they got some quality practice time together while in Vegas.  Right?

Uhhh…. You know what?  Let’s forget about Carmen Electra altogether, and move on to other topics.

My main thought, after watching the documentary, discussing the documentary, listening to commentary about the documentary, and reading about the documentary, is that Scottie Pippen has become extremely over-rated.

Yeah, I said it.  OVERrated.

I keep hearing that Scottie Pippen was under-rated. For the life of me, I don’t understand where the people who make this claim think Scottie Pippen is rated. Back when the NBA “turned 50,” it recognized 50 players as the best 50 to have ever played.  Pippen was among the top 50. Bill Simmons is the one person alive who has devoted years to creating a system for ranking the best NBA players throughout history, and then actually ranking them.  He has Pippen at #28.  Just this month, ESPN pulled together a list of the top 100.  They have Pippen at 21.

21?!?!  That’s insane.  Even 28 is pushing it.

Each of those rankings puts Pippen ahead of Dwyane Wade. (Simmons had Wade at 53 when he published his book in 2009, and Wade’s not one of the guys Simmons bumped ahead of Pippen as of April 2020. ESPN puts Wade at 26.) ESPN has Isiah at 31, and Barkley at 23.

The fundamental mistake these rankings make is that they overvalue rings achieved as the second-best player on a team, and they undervalue the immense achievement of making a bad team competitive, or of leading a team to a title even just one time.  In the ’02-03 season, Miami was 25-57. Then they drafted Wade, and they made the playoffs in 10 of the next 12 seasons, including 3 championships. Some people pretend there’s a question about who was the best player on their ’06 championship team between Wade and Shaq, but Wade averaged 27 points in 38 Minutes Per Game that season, while Shaq averaged 20 points in 30 Minutes Per Game. There’s no question – Wade was the top player on that team.

Isiah’s even better.  In the 1980-81 season, the Pistons were 21-61. Then they drafted Isiah, and made the playoffs every year from 1984 – 1992, including two championships and one additional Finals appearance.

Pippen never joined a bad team and made them good.  He can’t be blamed for that; it’s not his fault that he joined a team that already had MJ.  But, it’s not like he played his entire career on MJ’s team.  In 1994, he was the best player on a Bulls team that lost in the second round.  In 1995, he was the best player on a Bulls team that was 34-31 when Jordan announced he was coming out of retirement.  Pippen then spent 5 more years in the league (disregarding his ceremonial final season on the Bulls), and never made The Finals. His best team achievement without MJ was making the Conference Finals once, and his best statistical season without MJ was 93-94, when he averaged 22 points, 6 assists, and 9 rebounds.

Pippen was a phenomenal player, no question about it.  If I really took the time to rank everyone, I’d probably put him between 30 and 35. But to rank as Top 25 of all time, shouldn’t you have a track record of making a bad team good, or at least of being the best player on a Finals team if not on a championship team? A whole bunch of phenomenal players achieved at least one of those things, and I don’t see how Pippen’s achievements jump him ahead of those players.

There’s much more to say about this, but I doubt any of the three of you are still reading.  Stay safe, hoopservers.

2 Comments:

  • Joshua Sipkin

    Pippen is underrated because his name and game will forever be automatically associated with Jordan. It is fair to say that’s an unfair disadvantage to him when discussing his individual talents and accomplishments. Pippen was great. GREAT. No, he didn’t win without the best ever on his team but, the best ever didn’t win any titles without Pippen on his team.

  • Howard Martin

    21 sounds a little high for Pippen, but 28 could be right. Remember in the first year of Jordans retirement the Pippen led Bulls took the Knicks to game 7 of the eastern conference semis. I would put both Isaiah and Wade ahead of him, but there still could be room for him at 28.

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