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Nov 06 2013

Why Wages of Wins Is Wrong About Tanking

Tanking does not work. At least, that’s the notion being spread by David Berri and the Boxscore Geeks.


Last week in Freakonomics, Berri explained why losing is not a winning strategy and supported his argument with a study examining the last three decades’ worst performing NBA teams:

Of the teams that won 25 or fewer games since 1984-85,

  • 2.3 percent won 54 or more games the next year
  • 3.9 percent won 54 or more games two years later
  • 5.7 percent won 54 or more games three years later
  • 10.1 percent won 54 or more games four years later
  • 10.6 percent won 54 or more games five years later

In sum, nearly 90 percent of teams that win 25 or fewer games are not contenders five years later.

These are interesting though not earth-shattering results. Teams that perform poorly have a hard time becoming elite. Losers don’t win. But the question is: Why? According to Berri, it’s because they employ a “tanking” strategy.

This suggests that “tanking” is a strategy that is very unlikely to lead to NBA success.

This argument seems silly. Teams that win fewer than 25 games are tanking → Teams that win fewer than 25 don’t have long-term success → tanking is unlikely to lead to long-term success. Causation=Correlation.

But maybe there’s something to it. To test out the theory, let’s take a closer look at the teams with the most 25-and-below seasons, “tanks,” since 1984-85 and examine why they were unsuccessful.For the sake of this admittedly problematic exercise, we’ll ignore that the sample is problematic.2

Top 10 “Tankers” since 1984-85
Grizzlies 10
Bullets/Wizards 9
Timberwolves 9
Clippers 9
Kings 7
Warriors 6
Nets 5
Bulls 5
Nuggets 5
Heat 5

In first place, with 10 “tanks,” is the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies: a 1995 expansion team that won 25 or fewer games in each of its first seven seasons. But why were they cellar dwellers? Was it because they were a small-market Canadian franchise owned by a hockey-first ownership group, Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment? Was it that they (and the expansion Toronto Raptors) could not pick top five in the draft their first season, or first overall the two seasons that followed? Or that they were handicapped by spending restrictions the first two seasons?

Ok, one team. Big deal. What about the Bullets/Wizards? Why have they been consistently terrible? Is it because they’re trying for that top pick year after year? Or is it because they make poor decisions, like drafting Kwame Brown first overall and signing Gilbert Arenas to a $111 million extension? And how about the Timberwolves. Were they tankers? Or were they a poorly-managed expansion team (1989) that had to forfeit three first-round picks and $3.5 million for trying to sign Joe Smith under the table. During Kevin Garnett’s prime. 

Next up we have Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers. The oft-maligned owner reportedly almost cost his franchise Chris Paul over the summer. This happened two years after his team gave away an unprotected lottery pick–which turned into No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving–for cap space. Add in the Maloof family-owned Sacramento Kings and the Chris Cohan-owned Golden State Warriors; those six aforementioned franchises account for 50 of the 112 “tanking” seasons in the sample.

Most of these teams weren’t losers because they had “tanking seasons.” They had “tanking seasons” because they were, for whatever reason, losers.

I brought this up to Berri yesterday and his email response was this (footnote mine):

How could you possibly distinguish in the sample teams that are “tanking” and teams that are just “not being run optimally”?  I would suggest all of those teams thought they were pursuing a strategy that would lead to a title.3  And for many of them, that strategy seems to be “let’s be horrible so we can get a bunch of good draft picks”.  Since it didn’t work, you are now saying they just didn’t know what they were doing.

But my point is not that poor management keeps tanking teams at the bottom of the standings. My point is that it’s wrong to assume these teams were bad because they used a “let’s be horrible so we can get draft picks” strategy.

This is not to defend tanking. Throwing away wins is not by itself a recipe for success. If the Sixers, for example, were to deal Thaddeus Young for a 20 cents on the dollar, that’d be a losing move. If last season they dealt Young for 60 cents on the dollar to gain an edge for the weaker 2013 draft, that might have been a losing move too. But what happens when teams tank responsibly, like the 2006-07 Celtics and the 1996-97 pre-Tim Duncan Spurs? When tanking–trading regular season wins for ping-pong balls and assets–is accompanied by analytically-driven decisions; for example, selling high on Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes before they hit free agency? Is losing then a winning strategy?

Berri capped off his response by comparing tanking to playing the lottery:

Let me have you think of it this way. Many people buy lottery tickets.  Most don’t get rich doing this.  A very few do. Should I argue that those who do not get rich playing the lottery are just not doing it right?

But tanking, in the broadest sense, is more like poker. Many people play and most don’t get rich doing this. Should I argue that those who lose money playing poker are just not doing it right? Absolutely.

 

1. The 1998-99 and 2011-12 lockout seasons were prorated to 82 games.
2. As the CBA, draft lottery, and overall league structure changes, so do incentives for ping-pong balls. Tanking in 1990 is different than tanking in 2013.
3. Many owners pursue strategies that maximize profits, not wins.

  • Wesley Share

    Also: Cavs also openly tanked for LeBron in ’02-’03. Won 17 games, tied for last in the NBA. Got LeBron. So, yeah, what you said.

  • dervin

    There’s a difference between tanking and rebuilding. You can tell the difference with one simple question: “If you don’t win the lottery, how f*cked is your organization?”
    And the Sixers are rebuilding, failing to get a top 3 pick won’t kill them. The draft is still loaded and they have two picks in the top half, they have two really good rookies in Noel & MCW, a coach that knows what he’s doing, some tradeable assets in Turner, Young and Hawes, and zero cap killing/dead money contracts on the books for next year.

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  • robbybonfire23

    This has to be the worst-trading organization, over the years, in the history of professional basketball. Therefore, there is never any need for tanking around here. This is the organization that traded Wilt, and traded Sir Charles, and so many others, for little or not value in return. What has changed besides nothing and several default ownership debacles?