Tag Archives: Tim Duncan

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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Sometimes I think I’m the only basketball fan left who thinks Carmelo Anthony was ever any good, let alone who thinks he’s capable of helping a currently-competitive team. I regularly talk to friends (even though I have only 3 readers, I have more than 3 friends) who think Carmelo ruined the Knicks.  I’ve got friends – nearly all of them Knicks fans – who think Carmelo was a terrible basketball player, even in his prime.  A small number of them think Carmelo ruined the league. At least one of them blames Carmelo for global warming, one blames him for the  government shutdown, and another one said “If not for Carmelo, then Trump never would have gotten elected.”

Carmelo’s not a winner, they say.

Well, sure.  He’s not a winner.  If you discount all the winning he did, that is. But let’s not do that. To fairly evaluate Carmelo’s legacy, let’s start by acknowledging the winning wins that Carmelo won.  He burst onto the national scene as a freshman phenom, bringing a Hall of Fame coach his only national championship in one year at Syracuse. So, if Carmelo’s “not a winner,” then he’s not a winner who just happened to win a national championship in one year playing college hoops.

Perhaps it was a coincidence. Plus, it was only one year.

Looking beyond that one year, we see that Carmelo is also USA Basketball’s first four-time men’s Olympian, the first four-time men’s medalist and the first men’s player to win – yes, WIN – three Olympic gold medals.  Carmelo didn’t do all of that winning while riding coattails.  In the U.S. Olympic men’s career record book, he ranks first in points (336), field goals made (113), field goals attempted (262), rebounds (125), 3-point field goals attempted (139), free throws made (53) and free throws attempted (71); and second in 3-point field goals made (57). [Don’t take my word for it, the details are here.]

I wish I was as bad at winning basketball games as Carmelo is.

But what about the NBA? If you believe that NBA winning is the only kind of winning that’s really winning, then neither his NCAA nor his Olympic winnings will mean anything to you.  So, let’s ask… did Carmelo do any winning in the NBA worth mentioning? Nah, except for all the winning he did in Denver during his 7+ years there.  In the season before landing Carmelo, the Nuggets were a pathetic 17-65.  Then he arrived, and in his first season they went 43-39.  For each of his 7 full seasons there, they were in the playoffs. In other words, they WON enough games to make the playoffs. Aka #winning. And, in 08-09, they WON a few series in the playoffs.  Maybe it’s a coincidence.  Or maybe Dahntay Jones and JR Smith were a lot better than people give them credit for.

Perhaps, but I’m not convinced. (No offense to Dahntay Jones.)

Lastly, there’s his time on the Knicks.  Carmelo’s the only Knick since Patrick Ewing left who was the best player on a team that won the Atlantic Division. I swear, they won it. The whole division. There’s a banner hanging from the rafters and everything.  He’s also the only Knick since Ewing left to be the best player on a team that won a playoff series. (Oh, by the way… Spare me the ridiculous fantasy about how far they were destined to go around a core of Amar’e Stoudemire, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari. The only people who should get excited thinking about such a team are knee surgeons, physical therapists, and tattoo artists.)

That’s some worthwhile winning, if you ask me.

Before going further, I should put my biases on the table.  My parents met at Syracuse, both of my uncles went there, and one of my aunts, and also my mother-in-law. So, I cheer for the Orange, and I continue cheering for their players when those players move on  to the NBA.  Thus, I’m predisposed to like Carmelo.  And, I grew up a Knicks fan. Patrick Ewing’s Knicks were a central part of my childhood, and I completely lost interest once they pushed Ewing out the door.  After more than 10 years of having no reason to root for the Knicks, Carmelo arrived, and made them competitive again.

There, you know my angle. Let’s proceed.

Why the Carmelo hate? To be sure, part of it is substantive. Carmelo’s an imperfect player.  His defense is not a strength.  And his assist numbers don’t suggest a guy who makes his teammates better.

But, I humbly submit, he’s an all-time great player in spite of those imperfections. I think there’s a few reasons why he gets so much hate.  For starters, he entered the league with sky-high expectations, during an era when it would be very difficult to win.  When he entered, multiple top-15 players of all time were already established forces, such as Kobe, Duncan, and Dirk.  If he was going to win, he needed to be better than those guys — or at least needed to have more talent around him than those guys had. And, he entered in the same draft as LeBron and Wade – only a few years ahead of Curry and Durant.  Once we acknowledge that Carmelo wasn’t as good as Kobe, Duncan, Dirk, LeBron, Wade, Curry, or Durant, then why is it even fair to expect him to win a championship? Unless he was on a team with meaningfully more talent than their teams had, there’s no reason to think he would win a championship. Not only did he not wind up with more talent around him than those guys had, but those guys started JOINING UP WITH EACH OTHER during his prime, making it even less likely that he was going to win. LeBron joined with Wade.  Durant had Westbrook, then he joined with Curry.  Carmelo had Landry Fields.  Why does he get crushed for falling short of an expectation that was never reasonable?

Another part of what drives the Carmelo hate is that defensive prowess (or lack thereof) is harder to measure than offensive production.  It’s widely understood that Carmelo isn’t a great defender.  But how bad is he?  Because we don’t have a great way to measure, it’s easy for his detractors to say that his defensive shortcomings wash away his offensive skills. It’s my humble opinion that many of those detractors push the point too far.  Of course, defense is important.  But, for starters, Carmelo has averaged 6.5 rebounds per game over his entire career.  I’ve always been taught that rebounding is a part of defense, because the possession isn’t over until you secure the rebound.  Plus, Carmelo has scored 25,551 points.  His defense would have to be quite terrible to nullify so much scoring.  Consider the guys 5 spots above him on the all-time scoring list, and the guys 5 spots below.  That list of 10 guys includes: Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, John Havlicek, Kevin Garnett, Alex English, Reggie Miller, Jerry West, Vince Carter, Patrick Ewing, and Ray Allen. It’s quite an impressive group. I’ll put aside the defensive shortcomings of Alex English, Reggie Miller, and Ray Allen, and stipulate that Carmelo’s the worst defender amongst that group of 10.  Even so, he’d have to be a uniquely terrible defensive player to be among that group of scorers and have his scoring be nullified by his defense. I’m talking like foul-a-shooter-in-the-act-of-shooting-during-the-same-possession-you-already-got-called-for-defensive-three-seconds-and-do-it-multiple-times-per-game level terrible.  I mean, woh crazy crazy terrible. He wasn’t a top defender, but he wasn’t that bad.

More than anything, though, I think two things drive the Carmelo hatred. One of those things is hindsight.  We basketball fans do a funny thing: we admire the skill of young superstars, and expect that they’ll one day earn a ring if they play at a high enough level for long enough.  But, once those players age, if they never got over the hump, we’re quick to discard them as failures.  The line between a superstar with potential to carry a team to a title and a player we dismiss as a superstar-in-disguise who actually never had that potential is very thin.  Carmelo joined a 17-65 team, and had them in the playoffs during his rookie season.  That’s much more than Anthony Davis did (in the ’12-13 season, New Orleans was 27-55), or Damian Lillard (also in ’12-13 Portland was 33-49), or Giannis (in the ’13-14 season, Milwaukee was 15-67). We still talk about those guys as players who have the potential to win, but, if they never win a championship, will that make them “losers,” too?  What about Russell Westbrook?  James Harden?

Most importantly, I think what drives the Carmelo hatred is our inability to celebrate any achievements other than rings. More than at any time during my basketball fandom, the collective body of basketball fans seems to celebrate the top 4 teams in the league, and also the bottom 3.  They buy into the idea that “you’re either on the short list of favorites to win a title or you should be tanking.” Once you buy into that idea, then there’s little room to appreciate a guy like Carmelo.  Without a great supporting cast, it was a longshot for him to be on a top 4 team (remember, during an era including Kobe, Duncan, Dirk, LeBron, Wade, Curry, and Durant among other all-time greats).  And having him meant you weren’t going to be anywhere near the bottom 3.  So, if the only things worth being are “top 4” or “bottom 3,” then Carmelo doesn’t bring you to anywhere worth going.

I don’t buy into that mindset. By that line of thinking, 23 teams in this 30 team league are wasting their time by even showing up for games, and most games that get played have no reason for being played. The thing is, I like watching games, both in person and on TV. The games have got good food, loud music, pretty cheerleaders, t-shirt cannons, mascots, and entertainment during timeouts. I don’t begrudge the teams who play in those games for showing up, putting on their uniforms, and trying to win.  In fact, I’m glad they do.  It allows me to watch the sport I love played at a high level.  Call me crazy, but I believe the radical belief that anyone who is able to score more than 25,000 points while showing up for those games is a pretty good basketball player. Even if he’s lousy at defense.

Say what you want, but Carmelo’s presence alone made the Nuggets competitive for 7 years.  After that, he brought the only excitement to MSG that we’ve seen since Ewing left. If you want to convince yourself that these achievements count for nothing, then all I say is Hate On, Haters.  I look at Carmelo and see a flawed but great basketball player – good enough to win a championship in the right circumstances. The fact that he never found himself in those circumstances doesn’t wash away his many achievements.

 

 

 

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