Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Getting Good by Being Bad

  The NBA season began yesterday and it promises to be one of the more fascinating seasons in many years. There are many intriguing storylines. LeBron James has rejoined the Cleveland Cavaliers and is part of a new ‘Big 3’ along with perennial All-Star Kevin Love and 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers have surrounded their Big 3 with capable role players like Shawn Marion and look to be a lock to get at least to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Chicago Bulls have a supposedly healthy Derrick Rose for the first time since his MVP season on 2011. I think the surprise team in the Eastern Conference will be the Charlotte Hornets who have assembled a talented roster and have an excellent coach in Steve Clifford. They look poised to build upon last years’ second ever franchise playoff appearance with an extended playoff run as long as they can recover from an injury plagued preseason.

  The Western Conference has already been shaken up by the broken foot suffered by Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant which will cause him to miss the first two months of the season. Durant’s injury opens the door for teams like the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Golden State Warriors to grab a top two seed in the conference and avoid the defending champion San Antonio Spurs until the conference finals. I think the Rockets have the best chance for a breakout season. Center Dwight Howard seems to have finally recovered from the back and shoulder injuries that plagued him over the past three years and may be motivated to remind the basketball world what a great player he was with the Orlando Magic before he injured his back and became the fall guy for the end if the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty.

  I like to predict which NBA teams will contend and perform above expectations and I enjoy watching the best teams in the league play each other but as the season goes on I always find I’m much more interested in following the worst teams in the league and this year it looks like I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Philadelphia 76ers as they pursue the strategy of getting good by being bad.

  In May 2013, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as their General Manager. Hinkie is a Stanford MBA who specializes in advanced statistics and was the assistant GM with the Houston Rockets. HInkie took over a mediocre team that barely made the playoffs in 2012 and barely missed the playoffs in 2013. He immediately set about the task of rebuilding the team by trading All-star point guard Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel (the #6 pick in the draft who was recovering from knee surgery and didn’t play all year) and a first round pick in the 2014 draft. The 2014 76ers started with a respectable 5-5 record, lost 26 of their next 36 games to drop to 15-31 and then lost an NBA record 26 games in a row en route to the second worst record in the league at 19-63. In the midst of the losing streak, Hinkie traded starters Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner for second round draft picks instead of players who could help the team win games. In the 2014 NBA draft Hinke had two of the top 10 draft picks (the 76ers third pick in the draft and the pick he received in the Holiday trade) and selected Kansas center Joel Embiid and Croatian forward Dario Saric. On paper this looks to be two solid picks but there will be no immediate help from these two since six days before the draft Embiid broke a bone in his foot and will be likely be out the entire season while Saric is under contract to his team in the Turkish league for two more years. In addition to their two ‘non-draft’ picks, the 76ers acquired journeymen players Luc Mbah a Moute, Alexy Shved, and Marcus Teague. None of these three players have ever averaged even ten points a game in any season during their NBA careers.

  The 76ers payback from trading their All-star guard in 2013 is a player who won't play for them for another two years and the draft pick awarded them for finishing with the second worst record in the league was spent on a player who won't play this year. Without any new talent being added to a 19 win team, how do the 76ers expect to improve? Their only hope is that their top draft pick from last year (Noel) will be ready to play and capable of performing like a top ten NBA draft pick but perhaps the 76ers plan isn't to improve at all for the moment. The suspicion around the league is that the 76ers have no intention of getting better this year and Hinkie’s master plan is to have another disastrous season to gain yet another top five draft pick. The 76ers can also use their $20 million in unused salary to take on other team’s unwanted contracts in return for more draft picks, and eventually build a powerhouse team in the future with all their top draft picks.

  This strategy is commonly called ‘tanking’ but has rarely been done as blatantly as the 76ers current attempt. The last time a team blatantly tanked was in the early 1980’s when the Houston Rockets won the coin flip (back then the worst team in each conference flipped a coin to determine the top draft pick) and selected Ralph Samson. The next year the Rockets sat their better players over the last month of the season, lost 14 or their final 17 games, finished last in the conference by one game, and won another coin flip that allowed them to select Hakeem Olajuwon. Led by their two #1 draft picks the Rockets were in the NBA finals two years later.

  The NBA reacted to the Rockets strategy by instituting a ‘draft lottery’ in which all the non-playoff teams had an equal chance of getting the top draft pick. This system has evolved over the years to giving the worst teams the best chance of getting the top draft pick and only deciding the top three picks by the lottery. That last change ensured the worst team in the league would get at least the fourth pick in the draft. Hinkie’s strategy spawned a proposal to change the draft lottery by deciding the top six picks by lottery but the change was defeated last month.

  I think a better way to prevent tanking would be to prohibit any team with a top three pick in one draft from getting a top ten pick the next year so a team like the 76ers could only get the 11th pick in next year’s draft no matter how bad they were. All the same I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the draft lottery and I’m glad to see the change was defeated. There’s a good reason more bad teams don’t tank and that reason is that it rarely works as a multi-year strategy. A team can occasionally strike gold like the Rockets did with Olajawon or the Spurs with Tim Duncan but more often than not top draft picks just don’t turn into superstars and sometimes don’t even become anything more than answers to trivia questions. The top draft pick may turn out to be Tim Duncan or Magic Johnson but it could also turn out to be Greg Oden or Michael Olowokandi. No one will know for years and no one can know ahead of time.

  Hinkie’s strategy is based on his belief in his drafting ability. His other first round pick in 2013 (aside from the injured Noel) was Michael Carter Williams and Williams won the 2013-2014 Rookie of the Year Award so I would have to judge Hinkie's confidence as having some basis for being well-founded. I would have strong reservations before continually picking players that are injured before they even get to the professional level. College teams play between 30 and 45 games in a season which is only half as many the NBA teams. If a player’s body can’t withstand the rigors of a 40 games schedule it seems unlikely to last through an 82 game schedule with back to back and 4 games in 5 night stretches.

  Hinkie is betting on himself and his ability to correctly identify and draft the pieces that will build his team into a championship contender and the collateral for his bet are lost seasons for his franchise. The 76ers had the second lowest attendance of any team in the league last year and this coming year promises to be no better. This is millions of dollars in revenue that the 76ers aren’t getting but if Hinkie’s gamble pays off attendance will skyrocket and the lost revenue will be recouped multiple times over. I believe that Hinkie will be able to put together a strong playoff team if not a championship contender but I also believe the 76ers ownership will not put up with being the doormat of the league for very long. The question in my mind is if Hinkie’s plan will come to fruition before his employer’s patience runs out.


Bentoons said...

Since last year, I was looking forward to this more than the actual season. Thank you for a fantastic preview to the upcoming NBA season and giving me several reasons to at least sort of pay attention to basketball again!

Hank Anzis said...

Thanks for leaving a comment, Bentoons! I got to see the 76ers play the Pacers on Wednesday and I was impressed with how active and athletic they were against a team missing 3 of their projected opening day starters. Having said that, they still lost....