Category Archives: NBA

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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As noted here, one of the themes to be explored this season is that a dangerous trend is developing in the NBA, where a belief that championships are the only achievements worth celebrating has led us to undervalue competitiveness. One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is the prevalence of “tanking,” whereby teams are purposefully not as competitive as they could be in the short term, on the belief that it will maximize their chances of winning a championship in the future.

As a fan of the game, interested in seeing the league – not just my favorite teams – be good, I have a number of issues with this. This line of thinking, which accepts being terrible as an acceptable “means to an end,” takes fan loyalty as a given. To use the Sixers as an example, it assumes that Sixer fans have infinite patience, and are going to remain interested in the team over many years of lousiness. It also assumes that the Sixers have no obligation to the overall product the league is putting out; no obligation to contribute to making the league itself more interesting to the casual fan who isn’t predisposed to watch basketball all the time.

As a fan of the game, I have a gripe with those assumptions. We live in a world where people have multiple options for how they spend their time and money (making it harder for the NBA to attach a casual fan’s attention), where people move between geographic regions regularly (diminishing their connection to the team they grew up rooting for), and where people can access information about all teams almost equally (further diminishing the likelihood that they remain loyal to one team that is terrible for years). The Sixers are assuring that there’s at least one game on the calendar, each night they play, that a casual fan would have no interest in watching. I recognize that the Sixers are pursuing tanking to an extreme degree not matched by other teams. Even other teams that tank, though, are testing the loyalty of their fans and hurting the overall game, while not as dramatically as the Sixers.

In any event, for now, I’ll put aside whether tanking is good for the game, and assume that it’s an acceptable means to an end for a particular team to follow. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t work. Even assuming that a team’s only obligation is to maximize its chances of winning a championship “soon” – as opposed to, ya know, not being pathetic for multiple years – it’s not a good strategy. Look at the standings from the last 3 years: 2013, 2014, and 2015. The same teams miss the playoffs over and over! The following teams have missed the playoffs each of the last three years: Philly, Detroit, Orlando, Utah, Minnesota, Sacramento, Phoenix. Two others were in the playoffs in 2013, then fell into the lottery and show no signs of getting out; Denver and the Lakers. One of the teams that was able to pull itself out caught lightning in a bottle: Cleveland. Others who have been in the lottery at least once in the last three years hardly lit up the playoffs during the other years: New Orleans, Charlotte, Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee.

It’s easy to say that the same teams are in the lottery every year because they don’t know how to draft. But look at who they’ve picked, and it becomes clear that they often aren’t drafting “busts.” DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, Andrew Wiggins, Victor Oladipo, and Gordon Hayward were all drafted by one of the teams that’s been in the lottery each of the past three seasons. None of them can be considered a bust. Anthony Davis is certainly no bust, yet he’s now in his fourth season and New Orleans has no playoff series wins to show for it.

There’s more to be explored here, but to wrap this up for now there are a few reasons why the same teams wind up in the lottery over and over:

1. Players who can make a bad team competitive are extremely rare. LeBron joined a terrible Cleveland team and made them instantly competitive. Carmelo joined a terrible Denver team and had them in the playoffs every year he was there. To different degrees, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Steph Curry, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, and Derrick Rose all deserve credit for doing that, but in today’s game that’s about it. Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant joined teams that were going to be good without them, but let’s give them credit for belonging in this class, too. Let’s throw in Durant, Westbrook, Lillard, and Aldridge, even though it’s not clear exactly who deserves credit for the success their teams had. That’s 18 guys. In a 30 team league. Over a looong period of time – Pierce, Kobe, Garnett, and Duncan have each been in the league for about 20 years. Yet people think it’s sensible for a team to make itself purposefully bad in the short term on the expectation that it will make you good in the long term? I don’t get it. Seems to me that, if you’re purposefully bad in the short term, the only guarantee is that you’ll be bad in the short term.

2. When you’re bad, you’re drafting to “hit a home run.” When you’re competitive, on the other hand, you’re drafting for someone to fit into a structure that works. Just about all of the good teams have guys they drafted outside the lottery. Consider Kawhi Leonard on the Spurs and Draymond Green on the Warriors, to illustrate. Those guys are great – in the roles they’re being asked to fill. There’s no evidence, however, that they could make a bad team good. It’s not a knock on them, just an illustration of why it makes more sense to get competitive rather than stock up on ping pong balls in the lottery. Even look at my man Kristaps (what, you don’t think Kristaps is hanging out with losers who sit around blogging while stuffing their face with Doritos?) to illustrate the point; he’s exceeding anyone’s reasonable expectations, and the Knicks are suddenly 8-6, after being atrocious last year. But as good as KP6 has been, he’s only averaging 13 points and 9 rebounds. If he wasn’t on a team with Carmelo putting up 23 and 7, Knick fans would have much less reason to expect some success in the near future.

3. When you’re bad, you’ve eliminated other ways to make yourself good. The best
free agents generally aren’t leaving their team to join a bad team. And superstars hardly ever get traded for draft picks. So, if you’re bad, your only reasonable hope to get better is to do it through the draft. And that rarely works. (See item #1, above.)

Enough outta me for now. All of this will be explored further this season. For the moment, the point is simply this: Forget trying to wind up with the magic ping pong ball. Wanna win? My suggestion is to try winning, for starters.

Thoughts? Hit me up.

4 Comments:

  • Steve Alford's Kid

    Other than the Sixers, who else among the playoff-missers could be characterized fairly as “tanking”? What if some franchises just don’t get it–because of limited resources, bad management, disinterested fan base? With the lottery system revamp, any geek with a calculator should be able to tell management that playing for ping pong balls isn’t a good strategy. So maybe “tanking” is being conflated with “poorly run” or “unlucky” or “indifferent” in this analysis.

  • Tweener

    @ Steve Alford’s Kid, I guess you weren’t listening to sports radio in NY last year, when folks were mad every time the Knicks made a game competitive, because they were in a race for the Knicks to be as bad as possible as quickly as possible.

  • Tweener

    Also, the Lakers have been, to some extent, tanking. I acknowledge that there isn’t always a bright line. But if we define it loosely as “a team not making every effort to be as competitive as it could be now, while stopping short of unreasonably restricting its flexibility in the future,” then the Lakers are there. They essentially pushed Pau Gasol out the door without any veterans who could come close to replacing him, and focused their offseason moves on adding high draft picks who weren’t ready to contribute. Sure, Gasol left as a FA so it’s unclear how responsible the Lakers were for it, but it’s not like the Lakers moved heaven and earth to get him to stay. He was benched for large parts of his final season there. And sure, maybe they simply misjudged Randle and Russell. But, if you’re pushing out productive veterans, and replacing them with 19-year-old rookies, that’s some degree of tanking. For all I know, Randle and Russell might turn out to be great years down the road, but right now the Lakers are terrible and there’s no indication that they’ll be competitive any time soon.

  • Lance

    You’re right – tanking is never the right way to go, however, let’s look at the top 3 teams in the NBA right now. Not sure if they got extremely lucky or their scouting department is just superior to others…

    Spurs – landed Duncan when they didn’t have the best odds in the lottery. Stuck with what everyone thought to be an average coach in Popovich (he was fired previously). I like to think picking Parker and Manu was smart scouting. But Kawhi – the 15th pick! He couldn’t shoot a lick in college and now he’s almost a 50% 3 point shooter. He’s the best defender in the league and probably a 1st team all NBA player. The Spurs (mainly Pop) deserve tons of credit for developing him, but they got a little lucky right? You’re telling me 14 teams looked at Kawhi and said, eh he’s not that good, but the Spurs scouts knew something else? I don’t believe that. Of course Pop gets the most out of nobodies (fat Boris, Patty “lights-out” Mills and BOGAN) and that is HUGE, but the Spurs aren’t the dynasty that we have come to love without a ton of luck.

    GSW – Curry fell to them at 7 in the draft. The Wolves picked 2 POINT GUARDS ahead of him (Kahn). That was ridiculous when it happened and still ridiculous. And no one thought this little Davidson shooter was going to be this good…no one. And Draymond – 2nd rounder who really freaking competed but had weight and height problems. Turns out he’s the absolute perfect fit for this Dubs team. And you’re totally right – no chance does Draymond make a terrible team great, but on this Dubs team, it’s the perfect harmony. Again – lucky?

    Cavs – besides for the obvious luck of Lebron being born in Cleveland and feeling the need to bring a championship to his hometown, they’ve won the lottery how many times? 4 – which has netted them Lebron, Kryie and Love (via Wiggins). (Sidenote, because I know you hate Love, – there’s a lot of talk about what he can’t do, and that’s very valid – below average defender, can’t rim protect, sometimes hangs out on the 3 point line too much, etc. But let’s talk about what he can do – he’s a double double machine, excellent defensive rebounder, excellent passer and elite stretch 4 on offense (which is quite possibly the most important position in today’s NBA). Oh and his basketball IQ is well above average. All this talk about trading Love is nonsense.

    My point is – I don’t know. But I do know that tanking is clearly not the right strategy, but not tanking is also not going to get you there. Maybe my point is – luck plays more of a role than we’d like to think?

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