Don't Tank!: The Four Phases of NBA Franchises
Supposedly, the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers, and Orlando Magic are all “tanking”: purposefully losing games in order to get a better pick in the 2014 draft, which has been forecasted as completely incredible for years. If that’s the case, they all suck at tanking, since the Suns and Magic have scored more points than their opponents, and the 76ers are 5-6. The Suns are even above .500. The nerve of those players, playing to the best of their ability.
When the 76ers started the year 3-0, there was a combination of shock, amusement, bewilderment, and panic. ESPN even published a post about how they needed to blow up the roster, in order to tank better. You know… blow it up again, after trading away their All-Star point guard for a rookie who won’t play this season. This is, in fact, not what the 76ers should do, and articles like that betray a lack of understanding as to how to build a good team for the future.
Regardless of how many games the Suns are winning, they are rebuilding the right way. They traded off players that were old, expensive, or otherwise not useful to a rebuilding franchise. In exchange, they get up to four picks in the 2014 first round, and three more in the second. They also have some great young talent on the roster, and even better, their highest-paid player is Goran Dragic at $7.5m (whom I’ve already discussed them trading).
Losing games is overrated. Sure, it gives teams better odds of getting that #1 pick, but that’s all it gives: odds, not a guarantee, and it doesn’t shift the odds that dramatically. The worst team in the league only gets a 25% chance at the #1 pick. Playing reasonably well, on the other hand, makes their players more valuable: Markieff Morris, as of this writing, is #10 in the league in PER, and #8 in win shares per 48. During the offseason, you were more likely to hear jokes about Phoenix’s twins than genuine interest, but now people are genuinely impressed with him. Young players, playing well, get you trade offers. And trade offers lead to more draft picks, and more good young players. Sure you and I might know how sample size works, but do New York Knicks executives?
As I see it, there are four rough stages to building a team:
- Acquire long-term assets
- Get a superstar
- Build around your star
- Contend for the title
The tanking that people talk about is usually just acquiring long-term assets, in the form of draft picks and project players. These teams can afford to think five years down the line, and exploit that by nabbing assets from teams that are in a later stage of building their team (commonly referred to as “win now.” The 76ers are a great example here: their oldest players are three 25 year-olds. They have talented players in Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and the current Rookie of the Year frontrunner Michael Carter-Williams. They traded a second-round pick (top 50 protected!) for Tony Wroten, the 25th pick in the 2012 draft, from a team that couldn’t give him any minutes. He’s played more minutes in 11 games with the 76ers than he did in his rookie season with the Grizzlies. He made sports news with a triple-double in his first start (an arbitrary and meaningless measurement, but still kinda cool), and SportsCenter with some impressive plays.
Ask yourself: if the 76ers asked teams about a trade involving Tony Wroten, what do you think they’d get in return? Probably more than a relevance-protected second-round pick.
These teams aren’t going to keep up their initial hot starts, of course. The 76ers have already come back to earth, and with a DRTG (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 108.6, they’re the worst-defending team in basketball. Their margin of victory puts them at 27th overall. But they’ve made people notice them.
Defenders of tanking often point to the "Thunder model," of how the Oklahoma City Thunder swiftly built a championship contender seemingly out of nothing. The way I look at history is that they got absurdly lucky. If we go back to the 2007 draft, when they picked up Kevin Durant, they only had the fifth-worst record, which gave them an 18.5% chance of getting one of the first two picks. But getting the first pick would have probably led them to picking the consensus #1 pick, Greg Oden, so the only situation where their franchise ends up so well is exactly at the #2 slot. The following year, they got slightly unlucky to not get one of the first three picks in the draft, but both Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo have massively underperformed expectations after going second and third in that draft. Russell Westbrook wasn't really thought of as someone with massive superstar potential, at the time. Serge Ibaka wasn't even a lottery pick, and they got him in the same draft, and turned him into one of the better forwards in the league. In the next draft, they seemingly reached for James Harden with the third pick (after once again dodging the #2 pick bust Hasheem Thabeet) when mock drafts had Ricky Rubio as an "easy" pick.
Obviously, lottery chance affects every franchise, leading to an infinite number of "what-ifs." But it's pretty obvious that a team's expected value from three lottery picks in consecutive years is a lot lower than that of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. That's an incredible run of draft picks, and most teams would be overjoyed to have one of those players emerge from a non-first-overall pick. Imitating a team that got where they are by that much luck will not lead to very good results.
An alternate plan: if you give minutes to a bunch of recent draft picks, project castoffs from other teams, and D-League callups, most of those players will not be good. Some of them will even be atrocious. Back when the 76ers thought they were a decent team, they had a rookie named Nikola Vucevic that they drafted 16th, and got buried in their lineup. He played pretty well for a rookie in his 800-ish minutes. He ended up as a throw-in from the 76ers to the Magic in the four-team Dwight Howard/Andre Iguodala/Andrew Bynum trade, and the Magic actually gave the guy some minutes. He had a startlingly good sophomore season with them, and is exceeding it this year, becoming more efficient on more shots.
This will not happen every time, or most of the time, or half the time. But if you’re an asset-acquiring team, you can afford to play a bunch of young guys and find out who’s secretly a pretty good NBA starter. “Pretty good” might sound unexciting, especially in a league where so much depends on the best ten players, but if a guy is winning games for you while making less than $2m a year, as Vucevic is, that’s an incredible deal. All the guys who didn’t work out, the team is free to decline their rookie options, and they’ll probably get 10-day contracts or play overseas after that. If your team can find a couple starters at bargain-bin prices while sifting through junk, that’ll pay off when you move to the next phases of team-building.
Teams leave the asset-acquiring stage when they acquire a legitimate superstar. The traditional way (and the expected one from people that talk of tanking) is to acquire one with an early lottery pick. Just like the worst team has better odds, but a low overall chance, of the best pick in a draft, the #1 pick has the best odds, but no guarantee, of being the best player in their draft class. Looking from 2003 (when LeBron was the first pick) through the 2012 draft, the first pick has been superstar-quality six times (LeBron, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis), a very good player twice (John Wall and Andrew Bogut), somewhat of a bust in the case of Andrea Bargnani, and derailed by injury in the case of Greg Oden. 60% chance at a superstar is fantastic, there’s no doubt about that.
But looking at things from the opposite direction, the picture is muddied a bit. Of the top 20 players by PER who came into the league in 2003 or later, only three of them were the #1 overall pick. 17 of them were from the lottery, though, with only David West and JJ Hickson being drafted in the non-lottery first round, and Paul Millsap from the second round. The first pick is unquestionably better, there’s no doubt about that, but getting a collection of lottery picks can, taken collectively, give a team just as good odds at a superstar.
Drafting a star is so prone to random chance that many teams decide to use their assets to trade for one instead. This has worked out really well for Houston with James Harden, and not quite as well for the some more famous teams, but we’ll get to that. The opportunities to trade for or sign legitimate stars don’t happen often, and when they do, they inevitably result in year-long media assaults that make me want to follow curling or competitive Magic: the Gathering instead.
By the nature of the bidding war that teams go through to acquire that player, the acquiring team almost inevitably ends up overpaying, leaving the team with a skeletonized roster ill-equipped to compete alongside that player. In the long run, this is fine and necessary for the franchise to move forward, but it can lead to a lot of doomsday predictions when the “new and improved” team underperforms. The team will probably be saddled with the overpaid castoffs that the star’s former team demanded the acquiring team take with, and the best of the young assets the team got in the previous phase have to get shipped out.
At any given time, there are probably fewer than 15 players that I’d consider to be legitimate superstar-quality. It might even be as low as five. This isn’t to disparage the second tier, or to start a meaningless fight over who is or isn’t “elite” a la ESPN screaming head shows, but to caution a team against blowing everything to acquire that most dreaded player: the False Superstar. Some of them are great players, but, as the sports media catchphrase goes, aren’t good enough to be the best player on a championship team. The more sinister ones put up empty numbers. If a team trades their assets and takes on the enormous contract of the false superstar, they might be completely screwed for half a decade. Their assets are all sunk into one big, untradeable contract, and due to sunk costs, they’re resigned to building around their false superstar, leading to early playoff losses or worse.
Fans more accustomed to other sports might raise an eyebrow at the importance given to acquiring one single superstar, rather than a solid overall team. What difference does it make if you have one player contributing 20 wins above replacement, or two players contributing ten each?
There are a few reasons for this: the easiest is to look at a game of basketball. More than any other sport, an individual player can have a huge impact on every single play. It’s not an exaggeration to say that both team’s gameplans, on both sides of the ball, center around LeBron James every second he’s on the court. Even football quarterbacks can, at most, be the focus of 50% of a team’s attention, unless Peyton Manning takes up free safety at some point.
Second, superstar players have an even bigger impact when it comes playoff time. During the regular season, these players might average 36 minutes per game. In the playoffs, it will very often be over 40. LeBron has a career playoff average of 43.1 minutes per game. This is enough of a change to completely exclude the lower parts of a team’s rotation, and the killer second units that propel certain teams through the regular season become less relevant.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly: contracts. NBA contracts are capped at a certain amount, according to an unbelievably complex formula that I can neither explain nor comprehend. The gist, though, is that there’s a certain dollar amount that’s a “max contract,” and that’s the most that player can get paid for that time period. Salary cap genius Larry Coon wrote an analysis (behind ESPN’s paywall, unfortunately) of the league’s most underpaid and overpaid players. The two most underpaid players, in terms of absolute difference between salary and value created, are… LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Those are the two best players in the NBA.
If a player creates $16m in value per year, and your team pays him $15m per year for this, your team is basically getting screwed. The value in a superstar comes from their surplus value, because all that unspent salary can be spread among the rest of a team’s players. If your highest-paid player is only creating wins at the rate you’re paying them for, that’s a one-way ticket to the middle of the league. Good luck leaving there when you’re paying someone $15m per year.
The only way around this is if a team somehow gets stuffed full of Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried clones; ie, players who aren’t stars, but have a star-like gap between their expected and actual salaries. This is impossible, though, because these players are rare (they have to be low draft picks who produce way more than expected), absurdly valuable as trade assets, and their incredible surplus value lasts only as long as their four-year rookie contract.
So how does a team avoid a false superstar? A real superstar is either a true two-way monster, like Paul George, Dwight Howard, or LeBron; or they’re so outrageously productive offensively that their defense can be mitigated, like James Harden, Steph Curry, or Kevin Love. A false superstar produces offense, but gives up just as many points on defense. They might also chuck up tons of shots, and expect people to be impressed with their nightly double-double. Do not trade for these players. They will hurt you.
As the Knicks have learned since they acquired Carmelo Anthony, getting a star is not the end. The next step is finding where he fits, and getting players that fit around him. For a while, this was looking pretty good: they were playing Carmelo at power forward, where he is excellent offensively and less-bad defensively, next to defensive powerhouse Tyson Chandler and an array of three-point shooters to stretch the floor while Carmelo went to work. Then, they took this extremely solid gameplan and handed it to James Dolan, who used it to wipe his sweaty testicles. It was disgusting, and now they have a roster composed entirely of players who play the same position as Carmelo.
Chandler and shooters are a great fit for a team built around Carmelo, because the former players are all low-usage guys, and Carmelo creates value by taking a ton of more-efficient-than-average shots. In theory, this should lead to those low-usage players all being efficient with the shots they end up taking, and playing great defense to compensate for Carmelo’s laziness on that end.
This plan is not limited to New York. The general team makeup of a star scorer, a defensive big, and a roster of shooters is on full display in Indiana, San Antonio, Houston, Golden State, and a few other teams are moving toward it. This has led to the increase in emphasis on three-and-D guys, and they’re getting harder to find. It’s not much of a stretch to see a future where the best of this archetype are getting max contracts from teams with money to spend, if they already have the superstar to build around. Andre Iguodala, the rocket-powered version of that player, might not have been the build-around player the 76ers were looking for, but he’s having a grand old time with the Warriors: leading the league with an absurd true shooting of .715, at the lowest usage% since his rookie year.
All that’s left after those stages is title contention. Sign the veterans that other teams bought out, trade your near-useless draft picks for bench depth, and cross your fingers that Michael Carter-Williams doesn’t beat you in the Finals.