Nov 13 2013

Tanking, Revisited

Hey Internet: stop saying the Sixers shouldn’t be tanking when the Sixers should be tanking.

I say this without irony or exaggeration: I love Dave Berri. The Wages of Wins author and wins produced architect has had more influence on the way I think about basketball than any other analyst in the game. There’s no close second. I didn’t read Wages, or its followup, Stumbling on Wins, as much as I devoured them–scribbling notes in the margin with lunatic intensity–then proceeded to revisit them every few months to keep the arguments fresh in my cluttered head. I probably wouldn’t be writing about basketball were it not for him.

This said, I have a gripe.

tankBerri and his cohort have been making a lot of noise on the Internet lately about the relative merits of tanking. In short: they think it’s really dumb. Berri’s stated argument–that teams that lose a lot of games in one season tend not to succeed in subsequent ones; thus “tanking” doesn’t work–is persuasive. He’s convinced me that, as a general principle, tanking is bad strategy. Or, at best, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

(There are some other anti-tanking arguments advanced by the Wages crew that I’m not going to tackle here, because I think they’re beside the point. The primary one being: NBA teams shouldn’t tank because losing decreases attendance, which in turn decreases revenue. If I owned a team, this would be a very compelling reason not to tank. As a fan? I only care about revenue insofar as it leads to title contention. [I also don’t want my team to lose so much money that they move to a different city. The Sixers, however, don’t seem to be at risk of doing this.])

The subtext of Berri’s argument is, to my mind, also sound. Berri and others who believe wins produced is the best and most accurate measure of a player’s value think there are a bunch of very good and very undervalued players in the league. They think this is the case because, in the WoW universe, NBA general managers are idiots who are over-enamored of scorers and ignore really consequential stuff like rebounding and field goal percentage. Thus, you don’t need to tank to build a winner in the NBA–you just need a copy of The Wages of Wins. Though the league is moving a bit on this front (volume scorers are losing value, etc.) I’m actually sympathetic to this view. GMs don’t seem to be rational actors and we all love buckets more than they love us back.

Here’s the problem: while Berri’s crew has demonstrated–I think simply and convincingly–that tanking is bad practice in general, they haven’t gone the extra step and shown that it doesn’t make sense for the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers. This is crucial. You can’t always take a particular from a general. For instance, as a rule, you shouldn’t throw young children from the roofs of buildings. But if the thing is engulfed in flames, and there’s a team of sure-handed fireman waiting at the bottom to catch her, throwing a kid is absolutely the right thing to do.

In the case of the Sixers, I think the building’s on fire.

The Sixers Have Every Reason to Tank

When we we talk about the Sixers tanking, what we’re really talking about is the franchise trading one or all of Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, and Evan Turner for players who are unlikely to contribute this season. While none are stars, such a move (or series of moves) would render the 76ers very bad. Boxscore Geeks (a tremendously underrated website that analyzes the NBA using wins produced) was the more bullish on the 76ers than anyone; yet, even by their reckoning, removing Hawes, Young, and Turner from the roster (and, again, not replacing them with anyone immediately helpful) would wipe 14.3 wins from the 2013-14 team, taking them down to 20.8 projected wins. (These figures are for the full season and, if we reprojected the team after such a trade, would have to be prorated.)

Such a trade would be problematic if Hawes, Young, and Turner were particularly valuable, but here’s the thing: they aren’t. The trio combined to produce 12.4 wins for the 76ers last season–only Thad Young had an above average wp48 (wins produced per 48 minutes)–and were paid, in total, a salary of $20.1 million. This is almost exactly market value. An NBA win costs about $1.7 million (we can get this figure by dividing the league’s total payroll by the number of wins available in a given season) and so with 12.4 wins, Hawes/Turner/Young produced about $21.1 million worth of victories for the team in 2012-13. Their salaries don’t represent an overpay, but it’s also clear the three don’t produce any substantial positive return on the team’s investment. And they’re about to get more expensive.

Hawes and Turner are free agents at season’s end and both, especially Turner, seem primed to sign contracts worth well in excess of $6 million a year. Young, the relative bargain, has two years and $18.88 million left on his (team-friendly) deal after this season, but will be 1.) 28 at the start of his next contract (an age that, given his skill set, seems likely to mark the beginning of his decline years) and 2.) will probably cost more than he does now.

Young/Turner/Hawes are at the absolute apex of their value, and they’re about a break-even investment. Also, looking at the 2014 free agent class, it seems the Sixers’ $20 million could be better spent this offseason. The franchise would be taking no great risk in trading them.

Some Prose on the Pros of Tanking

What would the Sixers get in a trade (or trades) for the trio? I’m not going to roll up my sleeves and map out potential deals, but I’ll repeat this point: we would be selling high. Turner and Hawes are both in the midst of career seasons (ET has a .123 ws48, which is more than double his career average, while Hawes has career high ws48 and wp48s of .164 and .203, respectively) and though Thad is struggling a bit, he’s an established player with established value. The time is right to move them.

Of course, the biggest return the Sixers would get for moving Hawes/Turner/Young is the losses that would pile up this season, and the extra ping pong balls that would come with them. Let’s say that the Boxscore Geeks’ Sixers’ projection is more or less accurate and that, without any major changes to the roster, the Sixers should win about 35 games in 2013-14. This would leave them with around the 12th pick. Conversely, if the Sixers trade the veterans, dive head-first into tank mode, and finish with the league’s worst record, that would earn them a 25 percent shot at the first pick and a guarantee they would fall no lower than No. 4. It’s difficult to overstate how consequential this difference is.

The above chart was created by the guys at the Wages of Wins Journal. It’s hard to read it as anything but a full-throated endorsement of a Hawes/Turner/Young trade.

To wit: If we assume the 76ers would finish with 21 wins if the veterans were subtracted and nothing immediately significant were added in their place (I’m assuming this, and not prorating the loss of the three, because Arnett Moultrie–who accounts for 5 wins in the Boxscore Geek projection–is out with an ankle injury right now) the odds are very strong that the team finishes with one of the four worst records in the NBA. (Since 2001-02, no team with 21 wins has finished better than that in the standings in a non-strike year.) Then, if we take the modeled value of these first round selections and incorporate them into the NBA Draft lottery odds associated with the four lowest rungs in the standings, we get something this:

  • Worst record: Expected lottery pick value of $25.1 million over first four seasons.
  • 2nd worst record: Expected lottery pick value of $24.1 million over first four seasons.
  • 3rd worst record: Expected lottery pick value of $22.3 million over first four seasons.
  • 4th worst record: Expected lottery pick value of $21.5 million over first four seasons.

The expected value of the lottery pick associated with the 12th worst record in basketball? $10.7 million over four seasons. Even if the Sixers finish with only the 4th worst record in basketball after trading Hawes/Turner/Young, that still gives them a lottery pick with an expected value that is, on a per season basis, nearly three times what Hawes/Turner/Young provided last season–before raises and age-related decline set in and further diminish the trio’s worth. (This is also before we consider what picks/players Hinkie would directly get in return for the veterans.)

The final point is, maybe, the most important one. The above math is assuming an average draft year which, according to everyone with an opinion on the subject, 2014 is decidedly not. Tanking has been described, derisively, as “playing the lottery” but I don’t think the analogy is quite apposite here. What the Sixers would be doing is swinging for the fence–trading in the certain mediocrity Hawes/Turner/Young, in aggregate, represent for a chance, and not an insignificant one, at something better. And after exactly one 50 win season in the last 24 years, that’s precisely the sort of swing the organization should be taking.

  • Waltpaw

    I can’t even fathom — I can’t go there. I can’t believe that that would happen. Maybe I’m naïve and going to read a fairytale after this.

  • eric5000

    You idiots keep assuming these kids will instantly help the team. If there is one thing that is true you don’t know what you are getting with rookies; see Kwame Brown, Carmelo Anthony, Stacy King, William Bedford, Darko Milicic, Steve Francis and the first pick this year so far! Remember rookies are just that potential ( J.P. Riccardi ). Get over this crap already!

    • Chris Suswal

      Maybe I’m not grasping exactly what you’re saying, but your player examples are beyond random. Carmelo’s Nuggets were one of the worst teams in the league before he was drafted, then snagged the 8 seed in the west in his rookie year. Was that part of the point?

    • hk99

      1. Of those guys, only Carmelo was rated as highly as Wiggins.

      2. Carmelo put up 21 and 6 as a rookie.

      3. You cherry-picked a number of guys who failed, but ignored 1st overall picks like LeBron, Dwight Howard, D. Rose, Blake Griffin, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis, who is beginning to emerge.

      4. Why would you care if the guy instantly helps the team? If he struggles a bit as a rookie and starts to emerge in his 2nd year, the team could get another top draft pick before it starts to gel.

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