Feb 26 2014

The BS of ‘Building Bad Habits’

Tanking has been seen as a necessary, albeit frustrating evil for the Sixers. Though many have had trouble coming to grips with it, the prevailing wisdom was that a 20-win season would be worth it in the end.

But in the wake of Monday night’s blowout loss to the lowly Milwaukee Bucks — Philadelphia’s 11th straight — many started questioning whether the Sixers are too bad for their own good. The Delaware County Times’ Dennis Deitch, for instance, offered a fairly extensive collection of these thoughts on Twitter last night (in response to Aaron McKie’s postgame anti-tank rant).

SB Nation’s Tom Ziller shared similar concerns in his Feb. 25 Hook, asking whether Sam Hinkie has made this team too awful. The Sixers, he argues, are in danger of becoming the next Cavaliers (footnote mine):

Remember: at least one of Philly’s core players of the future, Carter-Williams1, is already experiencing the poison of intentional putrefaction. Young might be sticking around too. Can they handle it for another year or two?

Deitch and Ziller both present one of the go-to anti-tank arguments, one that makes sense on its surface; losing breeds bad habits and bad habits breed more losing. This, however, assumes that professional athletes turn unprofessional when things — regular season games — aren’t going well. There is little in the form of hard, statistical evidence which backs up that assumption.

Image from @ScarletMcKfever

Image from @ScarletMcKfever

Because this is sports, the thinking goes, a different set of rules apply when analyzing employee behavior. NBA players, though, are like most other high-level professionals. The vast majority of them have worked as hard as any workforce member, and given that they’ve all collectively played thousands of games of basketball before hitting the pros, they learned a long time ago how to succeed, and how to win basketball games: you score more points than the other team.

Can athletes develop bad habits when shit hits the fan? Absolutely. Players stuck in losing cultures can develop bad habits, and regular season losses are an indicator of a losing culture. Let’s not, however, equate causation with correlation. Winning cultures — like the 2006-07 pre-championship Boston Celtics, the 1996-97 pre-Tim Duncan Spurs, and maybe the 2013-14 Sixers — can field losing teams, too.

Getting defensive

Let’s assume that culture-building and domino effects are real.2 The place to start is on the defensive end. Perhaps the biggest difference between the teams led by Doug Collins and Brett Brown’s current outfit is their incompetence on that end, which Deitch suggests is symptomatic of teams who have tanked and failed.

The Kings are the usual target of scorn in this realm, and that makes sense; they’re terrible right now, and in spite of landing prospect after prospect, they’ve remained terrible for the better part of the last decade.

But is that because regular season losses have inhibited the growth of their defense? Not necessarily. I’d argue the institutional instability leads to the losses, which leads to the poor defense. They’ve had six coaches in eight seasons.  (Note that the primary target of the SAC-attack is usually DeMarcus Cousins. By no means is he a defensive stopper, but he has led the team in defensive win shares by a large margin every season he has been in the league.)

What about the perennially mediocre Washington Wizards? Did their losing culture stunt their defense?

During John Wall’s rookie season, the Wizards team defensive rating of 110.2 was worse than the Sixers’ rating of 109.6 this season. They’ve since seen their points allowed drop by over five points and their defensive rating (which accounts for pace) is eighth best in the NBA. In other shocking news, the Wizards added more talent through the draft (Bradley Beal) and via trade (Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza) that have helped in this regard. Novel concept!

But perhaps the best example of all is in New Orleans, where Jrue Holiday3 was shipped in order to push the team to the playoffs. Having been part of competitive, defensive-minded teams under Collins, Holiday figured to be part of a revival spearheaded by the league’s leading shot blocker, Anthony Davis.

You’ll be shocked yet again: the Pelicans have given up four more points per game this season, and they’ve generally been a disorganized mess on that end, despite having a potentially transcendent anchor in Davis. Injuries have taken their toll in the Crescent City,  but even at full strength, the Pelicans assumed crunch-time lineup (No. 5 here) has been outrageously bad on defense.

This isn’t to say that culture building and domino effects are non-existent. But they’re certainly not the be all end all.

Winning cultures

Finally, let’s address the team-building philosophy Deitch suggests as the alternative to the Sixers tankfest.

The Sixers would love to be the Spurs, the most consistently excellent franchise over the past 15 years by a wide margin. They’ve nailed their draft picks at the back of the first round, revitalized careers of players who otherwise may be out of the league, and built a “culture” that promotes team above self. That conveniently leaves out the part where the Spurs finished the 1996-97 season with a 20-62 record after David Robinson was lost to injury, leading to their drafting of Tim Duncan No. 1 overall4.

Have a look at the Spurs starting lineup in the final game of that season. Their leading scorer on the night, Carl Herrera, holds a career average of 5.3 points per game. Finishing second was a 37-year-old Dominique Wilkins, who was so washed up at that point that he had spent the previous year playing in Greece. Instead of wasting their time on has-beens and never weres, the Sixers have given the reigns to young players who can work out their mistakes on the fly, hopefully unearthing some jewels along the way.

As for the Pacers, their route to success isn’t typical. Built mostly on picks in the latter stages of drafts, Indiana overcame less than ideal picks by way of excellent evaluation and development. Since we all love Sam Hinkie, he could do the same given the chance, correct?

Perhaps. But that’s ignoring Philadelphia’s situation. What matters here are simple odds: what is the most likely way to turn this particular roster into a championship team? As luck would have it, Aaron Barzilai, now the Sixers director of analytics, has produced studies on player production relative to draft position.

The most damning figure of all suggests that players who go No. 1 (which in all likelihood goes to a team that is inherently “worse” than those further back in the draft) win the most games throughout their career. Barzilai illustrates that the difference between the value of the first pick and the 10th pick (where Indy’s Paul George was selected) is in the ballpark of 60%. The difference between pick No. 5 and pick No. 1, could be the difference between second-round exits and NBA championships.

Hinkie is managing his team much like a blackjack player assesses the cards, focusing not on the end result but the thought process that goes into it. You don’t draw a 10 or a face card every time you double down on 11, but you still make that gamble based on the odds. Similarly, you don’t get LeBron James or Kevin Durant every time you select No. 1 or No. 2, but picking there is the most likely way to get a franchise player.

The hesitation and frustration with this Sixers team is understandable. It’s difficult to watch a team when they aren’t competitive most nights, with the knowledge that most of these players have no place in the franchise’s long-term plans.

There is, however, little evidence suggesting that meaningless regular season losses inhibit long-term player growth. To suggest that Hinkie’s plan is stunting the development of the young players says more about the low (and condescending) expectations we put on athletes, than the athletes themselves. The notion is ignorant to decades of hard data and the context of the Sixers’ situation.

1. Michael Carter-Williams learned as much about winning on his Final Four-bound Syracuse team last season, as he is about losing on this year’s lottery-bound Sixers team.

2. Playing for a perpetual loser, I’d argue, would inhibit player development.  This is different from playing for an organization with a long-term vision that intentionally throws away one season.

3. The “winning breeds winning habits” theory would imply that playoff experience, however brief, is necessary for players to learn how to win. When the Sixers were able to advance to the second round of the 2012 playoffs, many were excited about young guns like Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday getting reps on a big stage. Flash forward almost two years, and neither Holiday nor Turner have seen that experience result in anything but more losing.

4. The extent to which the Spurs “tanked” is debatable, though they certainly didn’t go all out in trying to win regular season games.

  • Charles Baron

    I don’t know that this article really brings up any evidence to disagree with the notion that losing begets more losing (not necessarily that I agree with that point, but if you are going to claim that “There is little in the form of hard, statistical evidence which backs up that assumption” then maybe you want to present some statistical evidence yourself, or you’ve just sorta started an argument based on who can yell the loudest)

    Also, saying that the Pacers path to contention “isn’t typical” is an interesting claim – depending on how you break down the ‘contenders’ in the league right now (as I see it, we can probably say something along the lines of 4 (miami/indiana/okc/san antonio) or 7-8ish (add houston/lac/portland/?golden state?)), there are either 2/4 (miami/indiana) or 4/7 or 5/8 (add houston/portland/?golden state?) contenders who have reached their current states without fully bottoming out/a top 3 pick of their own. So… yeah.

    Lastly: yeah we all know that to win in this league you need a top flight guy. And top flight guys are found more at the top of the draft than the bottom of it. But let’s all take a step back and maybe acknowledge that the way that Hinkie is building this team isn’t the perfect way to do it – it sure doesn’t seem like winning long term necessitates losing short term, which is what I’ve been seeing a lot of around here recently.

    • egoldwein

      Point 1: Yes, there’s no evidence pointing one direction or the other. That’s kinda the point. I think the assumption that losing begets losing is a sport-o-theory — it wouldn’t apply to other work environments. (If you worked for a start-up that was in the red for a year, does that mean you’re building bad habits in that company? If being “in the red” is part of that business’s plan, then maybe not.)

      Point 2: You have a point here … we underestimate the frequency of the Pacers’ path. Though given the Sixers’ situation, stripping it down seeeems — this isn’t mathematically backed up — like the easier path to success, especially if ownership is willing to swallow a shitty season.

      Point 3: you’re right that losing short-term isn’t necessary. But again, with this team in this situation, it seems like a short cut with very little downside.

      • Wesley Share

        Yeah, the path definitely is not a shortcut to success for all teams. But it’s definitely the lowest-risk path for the Sixers. Not all teams get multiple lottery picks in back-to-back drafts.

        The alternatives are A) stockpiling assets Houston-style and waiting for a star to request a trade (see: Houston and James Harden) and B) signing solid veterans, winning a little more short-term and banking on finding a star in the back-end of the lottery rather than the top (see: The Sixers post-Iverson).

        I see it like this: The path the Sixers have chosen by no means guarantees success. But it has the potential to be a shortcut to success if the right decisions are made. After seeing the moves Hinkie’s made and the progress he contributed to in Houston, I trust him to make those right decisions.

    • Kyle Neubeck

      Your claim is even more interesting, because you’re kind of glossing over the fact that of the 8 teams you mentioned, all had a player selected in the top 7 of their draft other than Indiana.

      (Italics for those on original team, Bold for draft night trade acquisition)

      -Miami: LeBron (1), Bosh (4), Wade (5)

      -OKC: Durant (2), Westbrook (4)

      -Portland: LMA (2), Lillard (6)

      -Houston: Dwight (1), Harden (3)

      -Clippers: Blake (1), CP3 (4)

      -Dubs: Bogut (1), Curry (7)

      -Spurs: Duncan (1)

      In other words, of the 14 players on 7 of the best teams in the league, over half (8/14 if you include Aldridge, who I would since that was a draft night flip) are playing for their original teams. Additionally, in the cases of Miami, GS and the Clippers, stars either chose to sign with or were dealt to franchises that already had a star in place from the last time they bottomed out. So now you’re looking at 12/14 that are directly or indirectly with teams as a result of one-time ineptitude. There’s no way to quantify management intelligence or luck, which is why so much of this is essentially guess work, but this is what we have.

      Though, I reject the notion that there’s no “hard data” that suggests losing isn’t a habit because of the very nature of how the draft works. As I suggested above, the teams that end up selecting at the top of the draft are inherently worse than those lower in the draft, despite the funkiness of the lottery.

      If the top guys truly were entering “losing environments” with “teammates who learned how to lose”, you’d expect the difference between the wins accumulated by those taken in the top 5 and the top 10 to be much closer, even if we assume (and you said yourself) that more top flight guys are at the top. Logic dictates that in all likelihood, the top player taken is going to a crappier team on average, yet still outperforming his draft peers by a large margin. I was trying to keep this from being a dissertation, so I took out things (like that) that I thought were inferred.

      There is no guaranteed path to success, period. That’s why I used the blackjack analogy. It’s just the best route they have underneath the current CBA.

      • Kyle Neubeck

        For some reason formatting isn’t working but for reference: Duncan, Curry, Blake, Lillard, Wade, Durant, Westbrook should be in italics, LMA in bold.

      • Charles Baron

        So my initial point wasn’t as follows, but it should have been more: there isn’t really a typical path to contention in the NBA. No matter how you slice it, at least 1/4 contenders (either Indiana alone, or Houston and Indiana) have reached (the nebulously defined) elite status sans a top pick (of their own – let’s try to both not gloss over realities (I’ll admit/acknowledge that pretending D-Wade wasn’t a top pick in (arguably) the best draft ever at number 5 was at best a brainfart, and more accurately straight up ignoring the truth, but only if you agree that saying that Harden and Dwight on the Rockets is equally as dishonest if we’re comparing methods to team building; that being said, LMA clearly counts as being homegrown for the Blazers, they traded the 4th pick for him)) – and depending on how we want to define a top pick, the Warriors fit this too (just beacuse Bogut was picked first overall doesn’t mean he was regarded as such at the time of the trade (or even today) – and if we’re talking about team building, then being able to trade for top flight talent sorta argues against the need to tank…)

        Regarding the second point: the data simply states that players picked higher in the draft tend to have better careers than those picked lower. It doesn’t argue that they do better or worse than expected based on their teams record in the year(s) preceding their arrival (aka the environment they are joining – looking at how 1st overall picks do when they join teams that jump the lottery would sorta be the goal there, but even in that case the methodology would be awfully difficult, because Anthony Davis /= Anthony Bennett) – to do that it would need to be more of an analysis of 1st picks against 1st picks, and 2nd picks against 2nd picks, instead of 1st vs 2nd vs 3rd vs 4th. I’m not saying that it should, or that I would expect anyone to do that analysis, I’m more just saying that we should read the available evidence correctly rather than as we’d like to read it.

        Lastly: I tend to agree that losing doesn’t really beget losing, and that a winning environment is a silly concept. I feel like the best situation for a team to be in is a situation in which the entire organization is on the same page, so there aren’t clashes between individual and team goals – and I think the Sixers are solidly in that state right now (the Pistons are probably the prime example of the opposite as it currently stands). I don’t know that tanking or not tanking is the right call, I just want to make sure that we as the (probably over-invested) fans, and as the one’s willing to do the sort of pseudo-scientific leg work to analyze the decision making aren’t simply bowing to the altar of Hinkie just because – let’s be willing to call a spade a spade, and argue against dissent with evidence rather than changing discussions midstream to fit our terms.

        • Kyle Neubeck

          The formatting problem is why it came across like that – I wasn’t trying to present all of the above as selected by the teams they were on, just that these teams were all made up of former top picks, and in most cases that foundation of one or more is what set them on the path to contention. The Rockets are obviously more along the lines of the Pacers model, I was simply presenting their current roster as built around top-flight guys to illustrate the talent discrepancy, because the real question behind the “are they too bad” discussion is “is this worth it?” Which I’d answer with a resounding yes.

          You are right in that I’m inferring a lot from the data we have, and I don’t think anyone should be bowing to Hinkie – remember, it was rumored that they would have made the Holiday trade if any of Bennett, Dipo or Noel fell to NO. It always comes down to varying degrees of luck. I also think you’re spot on with the organizational thing, and I think that was touched on in the post; teams like the Kings are where they are not because they got “too bad”, but because they have been led by a disjointed/incompetent front office. Same with the Clevelands, Charlottes, etc. of the world.