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Mar 21 2014

The Atlantic: Tanking Is a Losing Strategy

Here we go again…..

On Wednesday, an article from The Atlantic took a steaming dump on the effectiveness of tanking. With the Sixers on a 23-game losing streak (and counting!), the subject is particularly of interest for us these days.

The author, Derek Thompson, drops the tank bomb early in the piece:

Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. … The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years—the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency—as they are to make it past the second round.

Thompson’s argument is backed up by a study from David Berri (of The Wages of Wins fame), which takes 30 years of data and determines that perennial losers keep on losing. But we’ve been over this before… causation is not correlation. Yes, shitty teams on average stay shitty. That doesn’t, however, mean that intentionally shitty teams — or tankers — keep on losing too. Particularly if said teams have smart front offices.

Thompson also suggests that a top-tier lottery pick isn’t enough to fix all problems:

Turnarounds aren’t a one-man job in the NBA, either. Bad teams aren’t one great player away from greatness. They’re one great player away from mediocrity. Almost every championship team going back three decades had not one but three above-average starters.

This I agree with. But the Sixers won’t be asking their top 2014 prospect to single-handedly carry the load, though. Michael Carter-Williams has the highest player efficiency rating (14.6) of all rookies who have played at least 1,000 minutes this season, per Basketball-Reference. Though the jury is still out on Nerlens Noel, he could very well develop into an All-Star big man. (Thaddeus Young told reporters earlier this month that the Kentucky product can be “a focal point in the game and a big part of what goes on defensively.”)

Add in the potential late-lottery pick from the New Orleans Pelicans—with the 11th-worst record in the league, the Pelicans have a 97 percent chance of losing the pick—and that’s three potential sidekicks for Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Dante Exum. Not to mention, the Sixers have all the cap space and all the second-round picks.

Tanking’s not for everybody, and it won’t work every time. But used responsibly, in moderation — at the right time, with the right front office, and a little luck — it’s a strategy that can do wonders. Time will tell what tanking brings to the Sixers. But right now, it looks like they’ll be closer to a championship because they’re intentionally losing games this season.

  • robbybonfire23

    Informative article. And the self-defeating tanking premise goes double if this team does the expected and takes Wiggins or Parker over Embiid, or Exum and other, genuine NBA prospects. Making a major mistake on draft day will solidify this team’s status as a perennial NBA misfit organization.

    • hk99

      robby,

      What makes Exum a genuine prospect?

      • robbybonfire23

        HK – A lot of us wish we had access to Exum box score stats. On top of that, I have no idea of the level of his teammates’ and his competition? From video footage he seems to be a “finisher,” but that could be misleading because all these “highlight” films do not show missed shots, errant passes, defects on defense, etc.

        If you want to make the case that others, starting with Wiggins and Parker have just as much “athleticism” and upside, that would be hard to refute. However, we all have statistical breakdown information on Wiggins and Parker, and, I guess, most of us lack the same as regards Exum, so that I, for one, can say that “the jury is still out,” where Exum is concerned.

        Maybe we can also agree, an Exum-type prospect is going to be a bust or a star. Hard to fathom his just settling in as a “journeyman.” I would definitely take a shot on him, though, were I a G.M. on draft day. Being bold and imaginative can confer enormous rewards, when one is right and “the crowd” is wrong.

        • hk99

          robby,

          I don’t have enough information to say what I’d do if I was a GM based on a lack of understanding of the quality of Exum’s competition. I suspect that his agent, assuming he’s likely to be a top 5 or 6 pick, will not expose him to workouts against the Marcus Smarts and Gary Harrises of the world because there’s much more to lose than gain. As such, I’m not sure how to assess Exum vs. Wiggins and Parker. I know that you often quote the statistic points per missed field goal, so for some historical perspective, I compared Wiggins’s and Parker’s freshman years to those of Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Does it surprise you that the four players produced the following Pts / xFG in their freshman year?:

          Durant 2.65, Wiggins 2.60, Parker 2.55 and Anthony 2.32

          Now, I get that your statistic is not a be-all / end-all statistic, but I think you judge Wiggins and Parker pretty harshly when considering their respective scoring prowess relative to the fact the they’re freshman playing in top NCAA conferences.

          • robbybonfire23

            This is fascinating material to address, understanding that conclusions drawn now could be wrong, later, as in, egg on my face if Parker and Wiggins become special at the NBA level.

            For now my take on Smart and Harris is extremely unflattering. While Smart is an outstanding floor general, his shooting game is highly suspect. For this reason I should think Exum would would welcome workouts featuring all comers. Too bad Juwan Staten (2.80 PPX) is listed as just 6’1″ tall, because he has had a season far superior to Smart and Harris, but may be over-matched at the NBA level. Now if you were to match-up Exum vs. Delon Wright and Staten, you might just be impressed with all three. Plus I don’t know quite what to do as regards evaluating Kyle Anderson, who, at 6′-9″ might have to try SF, full time, at the next level.

            Comparisons with Carmelo Anthony may be meant to be flattering, or not, depending upon one’s perspective. He is yet another player who puts up so many shots people think he is “great” because he is the third-highest scorer (last time I looked) in the NBA. I also consider that Carmelo is quite low (just 37 percentile) as to where he ranks in NBA field goal percentage, which to me is more telling that his points per game production.

            For Wiggins and Parker to be in K. Durant country re PPX, impresses me a lot. BUT, Durant picks up his open teammates in OKC and his floor game is the equal of his shooting game. Wiggins and Parker are extremely suspect, as regards their floor game, Wiggins logging yet ~another~ zero assist game in the tournament, already, # 12 on the year; and Parker with his 17 assists in conference and tourney play, contrasted with 51 turnovers – well, HK, I have to conclude that these two young men may never approach what K.D. has accomplished at the NBA level. They have so much maturing they need to do, to become the next K.D. I will give you that they could become the next Carmelo, for what anyone thinks that is worth.

          • Charles Baron

            For what it’s worth KD put up 1.3 assists per game in college…

          • robbybonfire23

            This is interesting, in that K.D. now has an average of 5.48 assists with OKC, this year, understanding NBA games are 20 per cent longer than college games. That would “equalize” to 4.57 assists per game, were NBA games of 40 minutes duration.

            So K.D. rounded out his game at the NBA level, we can say. Do they all do that? What about those in college this year who already have formidable assist totals? How do they project to the next level?

            I see major program assist leaders this season include Chaz Williams at 6.9; Kyle Anderson at 6.6; and Juwan Staten at 5.8 assists per game. Kyle Anderson could step right in and help his new NBA team something big, given his stellar all-around play.

          • robbybonfire23

            HK – I just broke down my stats for these players into two categories – shooting game (PPX, or total points per missed FGA); also, on a regression basis, the floor game score for each of them.

            Updating regression values, they are: DR: +1.22; Assist: +1.41; Steal: +0.78; Block: +1.18; and Turnover: -0.44. I delete OR’s, as they grade with zero regression value. To obtain the floor game score, I multiple the player’s total in each category by the category value, total the five columns, then divide by the number of games each player has played, beginning with conference play in early January. (Jabari Parker, as a forward, I will compare with other forwards, another time.)

            A. Wiggins 2.62 PPX………7.61 Floor Game
            D. Wright 3.12 PPX………15.46 ” ”
            J. Staten 2.72 PPX………13.15 ” ”
            G. Harris 2.26 PPX………..8.91 ” ”
            M. Smart 2.46 PPX………15.64 ” ”

            From the above we can see that Delon Wright can shoot and has a solid floor game. Andrew Wiggins (a.k.a. “Mr. Selfish”) is a mediocre shooter with an invisible floor game; Gary Harris just plain stinks; Juwan Staten is a good shooter and has an outstanding floor game; and it’s too bad Marcus Smart cannot shoot straight, the effort and results re his floor game are quite impressive.

            Assuming Nerlens Noel will not become an offensive force, I have to say this team needs bona fide shooters, more than anything else.

  • robbybonfire23

    Of course Duke got bounced from the tournament by “Mighty Mercer,” so let’s take a look at the final seasonal report card for one Jabari Parker…

    I give Parker a failed grade on the season, starting in January with conference play, and extending through tournament play, 23 games, in all. In the seasonal finale, Parker was a “no show,” going 4-14 from the floor, while scoring just 14 total points to go with the 10 missed floor shots. Parker logged just 3 DR’s and zero assists in his 28 minutes of non-focused play in the biggest game of his team’s season. You can make a strong case that Duke lost primarily because of Jabari Parker’s dismal final college game performance.

    Over this 23 game span, Parker averaged just 2.28 points per missed floor shot; and totaled just 17 assists, contrasted with the 51 turnovers he committed. His regression score for this 23 game span settled at a bottom-feeder 344, contrasted with the best forwards in the nation coming in with 500+ regression scores on the year.

    Yes, he will progress, over time, but he is light years removed from being NBA ready. My sympathy to the NBA team which drafts him with the thinking that they have landed a budding star. Jabari Parker is closer to a “bust” at the next level, than anything else, as of right now.

  • hk99

    How did Derek Thompson twist the facts to exclude the 1983-84 Chicago Bulls, the 1983-84 Houston Rockets and the 1988-89 Spurs from his narrative about truly awful teams. The 83-84 Bulls were the second worst team in the league while the Rockets were the third worst that year and the 1988-89 Spurs were the league’s worst. After those seasons, the Bulls started their climb by drafting Michael Jordan, the Rockets began their ascent by drafting Hakeem Olajuwon and the Spurs, added both Sean Elliot and David Robinson, who was picked #1 a few years earlier, but could not join the team until he fulfilled a commitment to the US Navy. Any history of the last 30 years of the NBA’s truly awful teams that ignores the 12 championships won after these awful teams bottomed out is spinning history to fit the narrative.

  • Charles Baron

    Isn’t the point of the article that teams fool themselves into thinking that they are brighter than their opponents, and that they possess some special set of skills that will make tanking work for them, as opposed to saying that tanking definitely doesn’t work – hence the comparison to the current practice in hiring CEOs (a point that seems to be entirely missed in this response, see “Particularly if said teams have smart front offices”)?

  • wbramh

    Except this is not a classic case of tanking. The new owners and management inherited a team of near-do-wells, retreads and the injured and less than interested Andrew Bynum who the team traded away for their top defensive player and minor star, Andre Iguodala.

    The trade with the Pelicans on draft night sending Jrue holiday south for Nerlens Noel and N.O.’s 1st round pick is turning into a genius move. Obviously, Noel was going to be out for the season and no other team wanted to wait for him. IMO, that showed foresight by Hinkie – foresight a bunch of other mediocre and miserable teams were not willing or capable of exercising. That move is about pay off . Additionally, their recent dumping of remaining “players” was a matter of taking out the trash. Their only”star” was Evan Turner, a #2 1st round pick made by the previous administration who never lived up to his college billing and isn’t good enough to be a starter on a number of other teams, including Indiana where he currently resides on the bench as “depth”. Turner was also due a major salary bump this year which would have negated the team’s opportunity to do much of anything in free agency.

    And you may ask, why would a free agent star want to sign on with Philadelphia?
    Well, as this article suggests, a core of Noel, Wiggins (or equivalent), Carter-Williams, Thad Young along with a second 1st round pick to land promising power forward or hot shot shooting guard to complement Carter-Williams and they’d already have the makings of a decent young team (the youngest in NBA history). Obviously there are a lot of ifs with young talent but two smart choices could make the playoffs next year, especially since a number of other better teams are growing too old and tailing off. If positions hold, the Sixers second pick would be #11 overall which is the exact position they picked up Rookie of the Year Carter-Williams last year.

    But thanks to the alleged “tanking” they’ve also cleaned out enough cap room to both pay for and entice a superstar veteran like Lebron, Melo or Nowitzki. The Sixers are one of the few teams who will be in a position to afford that level of talent and ego-wise, one of those top players may recognize the Sixers’ rapid transformation and what their personal talent and experience would add to the equation.

    While it’s a long shot, if this team ends up with the right ping pong ball and makes the right picks, one top free agent could send this team deep into the playoffs as early as next season. Hinkie is a metrics guy and so far his math has been on the money.Should his plan pay off the team will have accomplished its turn-around not just through the draft but also through maintaining the right 3-man core, creating cap room to land proven talent, rebuilding around healthy young studs and using 21st century science to help boost their chances of being right at every turn.

    The short answer? Don’t over simplify the meaning of the Sixers moves. Hinkie knows better than to rely on one unproven college star to fix this team;s woes.This is not just about tanking to land a #1 or #2 draft pick. “Tanking” is really just a byproduct. To simply call it “tanking” is missing the larger strategy at work here. They’re not looking to build a playoff team around a super star who is surrounded by underachievers and no-name journeymen. We all could name a few foundering teams currently constructed that way. I’m sure Hinkie would be the first to admit he’s still a gambler but he’s also among the best at counting cards. Advantage Sixers.