You Don’t Need to Be Bad to be Good in the NBA

The Portland Trail Blazers – a team that won 48 games in 2010-11 and was only three games below 0.500 this season – made two puzzling trades a couple of weeks ago.  Gerald Wallace was sent to the New Jersey Nets for two injured players and a first round pick in the 2012 draft.  And Marcus Camby was sent to the Houston Rockets for a second round pick and two players who had only played 158 minutes this year.

Camby and Wallace combined to produce more than 10 wins for the Blazers this season, and at the time of the trade their level of productivity led the team.  Given what the Blazers received back, it seems likely the Blazers just got worse.

Henry Abbott – at ESPN’s TrueHoop (and devoted Blazers fan) — made the following observations about these two moves:

  • The Camby and Wallace trades are evidence that the Blazers are trying to tank (or in Abbott’s words, “become a very, very bad team.”)
  • This move by the Blazers should be contrasted with the moves by the Houston Rockets.  As Abbott notes, the Rockets have been pretty good for a number of years and always seem to be trying to get better. Abbott notes, “…teams almost never progress from pretty good… to excellent.  It’s the jump we allege every team can make, but it’s one of the least likely in sports.”
  • Consequently, although Abbott doesn’t like the moves the Blazers have made, he thinks the path Portland is following is more likely to lead to an appearance in the NBA Finals in the future.

One should note that Abbott is not alone in thinking that NBA teams will essentially give away the present in an effort to improve the team’s position in the NBA draft.  Joe Price, Brian Soebbing, Brad Humphreys and I published a paper in the Journal of Sports Economics in 2010 that offered evidence that NBA teams do “tank” towards the end of the season.  That same paper also provided a reason for this behavior.  Our research indicated that the very first pick in the draft – who often is a very productive player (think Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, or Dwight Howard) was worth more in gate revenue than the second and third picks combined. In sum, winning the NBA lottery can really help a team. And you can’t win the lottery if you’re not in it.  So that means you have to miss the playoffs (only non-playoff teams are in the NBA lottery).

Okay, but should a team give up on the present for a chance at one of those amazing number one picks? That suggests you need to sacrifice today to win tomorrow.  But is this true?

To answers this question, we need to define what we mean by “excellent” and “pretty good.”  Since 1974, 79% of teams that won the NBA title won at least 55 regular season games.  So it seems reasonable to define “excellent” as a team that wins 55 games.  And “pretty good” has to be worse than “excellent,” so we will say a “pretty good” team wins between 40 and 49 games.

With our terms defined, let’s look at some numbers.  From 1974-75 to 2010-11, 150 different teams won 55 games. In other words, across the last 37 seasons we have 150 “excellent” teams. What were those teams doing the year before they were excellent?

What did the 150 “excellent” NBA teams from 1975-76 to 2010-11 do:

…one year before?

Number of Teams

Win 55 or more games

77

Win 50 or more games

111

Win 40 to 49 games (or “pretty good”)

29

Win 30 to 39 games

4

Win 20 to 29 games

6

Win less than 20 games

0

 

The table above indicates that most “excellent” teams were “excellent” the year before (had 55 or more wins) or were close to “excellent” (50 or more wins).  In other words, the NBA has a competitive balance problem (i.e. good teams tend to stay good, bad teams tend to stay bad).  

But of those teams that make the leap, what were they doing before the jump?  Of those that weren’t “excellent” or close to “excellent,” the vast majority were “pretty good.” Of the 39 teams that didn’t win 50 or more games the year before they were “excellent,” 29 won between 40 and 49 games.  And none of these teams won fewer than 20 games.

Okay, maybe looking at just the season before isn’t good enough.   Perhaps it takes time to build an “excellent” team.  So let’s go back two years. 

What did the 150 “excellent” NBA teams from 1975-76 to 2010-11 do:

…two years before?

Number of Teams

Win 55 or more games

60

Win 50 or more games

88

Win 40 to 49 games (or “pretty good”)

39

Win 30 to 39 games

15

Win 20 to 29 games

6

Win less than 20 games

0

 

Once again, most “excellent” teams today were either “excellent” two years ago or fairly close.  And once again, the next biggest group would be described as “pretty good.” Furthermore, there were no teams that failed to win 20 games that managed to win at least 55 games two years later. 

Maybe it takes more than two years to build a title contender.  So let’s go back three years.

What did the 150 “excellent” NBA teams from 1976-77 to 2010-11 do…

…three years before?

Number of Teams

Win 55 or more games

56

Win 50 or more games

79

Win 40 to 49 games (or “pretty good”)

38

Win 30 to 39 games

20

Win 20 to 29 games

8

Win less than 20 games

2

 

Okay, now we see some really bad teams that became “excellent.” Unfortunately, we only see two teams manage to make this leap. The New Orleans Hornets made such a jump from 2004-05 to 2007-08 (from 18 to 56 wins).  And the Miami Heat from 2007-08 to 2010-11, primarily due to the signing of LeBron James (not the drafting of LeBron James), also made such an advance (from 15 wins to 58 wins).  Neither team, though, managed to win a title (at least for Miami, not yet). 

Alright, maybe three years isn’t enough.  Maybe if a team is really bad it takes four years to reach “excellence.”

What did the 150 “excellent” NBA teams from 1977-78 to 2010-11 do…

…four years before

Number of Teams

Win 55 or more games

49

Win 50 or more games

69

Win 40 to 49 games (or “pretty good”)

45

Win 30 to 39 games

21

Win 20 to 29 games

12

Win less than 20 games

0

 

Now we don’t see any teams making this leap.  We still see that most teams that are excellent today were either “excellent,” “close to excellent,” or “pretty good” four years ago.  And only 12 teams won between 20 to 29 games four years ago.

At this point it seems pretty clear that the numbers don’t support the notion that the best way to be “excellent” is to be really bad today.  In fact, it seems that most teams that make the leap to “excellent” were recently “pretty good.”

There are some simple explanations for this result.  First, teams need more than just one great player to be excellent.  Chris Paul is a great example of this observation. Last season, Paul produced more wins than any other NBA player.  But his team only won 46 games, so they were just “pretty good.” That’s because Paul produced as many wins (18.4 – and here is how that is calculated) than the next three most productive New Orleans players combined (Emeka Okafor, David West, and Trevor Ariza combined to produce 18.4 wins). Everyone else on the roster (15 players), combined to produce fewer than 10 wins. In sum, as the Hornets have learned with Chris Paul now playing with the Clippers, New Orleans didn’t have much talent after CP3. 

So teams need more than just one great player.  In addition, most productive players in the NBA are not number one draft picks.  The following table reports the 40 most productive players in the NBA in 2010-11. These 40 players – who are less than 10% of the population of players employed by the NBA last season – produced more than 35% of the league’s wins (most wins in the NBA are produced by a minority of the players).

 

Ranking

Player

Drafted

Wins

Produced

Ranking

Player

Drafted

Wins

Produced

1

Chris Paul

4

18.4

21

Derrick Rose

1

10.2

2

Dwight Howard

1

18.4

22

Nene Hilario

7

9.9

3

Kevin Love

5

18.2

23

Gerald Wallace

25

9.9

4

LeBron James

1

17.2

24

Kevin Durant

2

9.8

5

Dwyane Wade

5

14.9

25

Blake Griffin

1

9.6

6

Pau Gasol

3

14.8

26

Andre Miller

8

9.6

7

Steve Nash

15

12.7

27

Serge Ibaka

24

9.5

8

Landry Fields

39

12.5

28

Kyle Lowry

24

9.3

9

Rajon Rondo

21

12.4

29

Luol Deng

7

9.3

10

Ray Allen

5

12.3

30

Shane Battier

6

9.2

11

Zach Randolph

19

12.1

31

Ronnie Brewer

14

9.1

12

Jason Kidd

2

11.8

32

Russell Westbrook

4

9.1

13

Lamar Odom

4

11.6

33

Beno Udrih

28

9.1

14

Tyson Chandler

2

11.5

34

Elton Brand

1

8.9

15

Al Horford

3

11.4

35

Chuck Hayes

Undrafted

8.9

16

Paul Pierce

10

11.3

36

Greg Monroe

7

8.9

17

Kris Humphries

14

10.9

37

Ty Lawson

18

8.9

18

Andre Iguodala

9

10.9

38

Andrew Bynum

10

8.8

19

Kevin Garnett

5

10.4

39

Arron Afflalo

27

8.7

20

Manu Ginobili

57

10.3

40

Tim Duncan

1

8.6

 

Where do we find these elites? As one can see, number one picks like Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Elton Brand, and Tim Duncan make the list.  But other number one picks like Kenyon Martin, Kwame Brown, Andrea Bargnani, and John Wall are not to be found (and Michael Olowokandi, Yao Ming, and Greg Oden – players selected first after Duncan – did not play last year).  So the first pick – while on average is quite good – is not guaranteed to be “excellent.”

In addition, 34 players on the above list were not taken with the first pick.  And 16 players were taken 10th or lower.  So, productive players aren’t just found at the top of the draft.   Furthermore, 18 of these players are not with the team they played with during their rookie season.  That means teams can acquire top players someplace else in the draft. 

All of this illustrates how teams find “excellence.” The top pick in the draft is one place.  But there are top players found elsewhere in the draft.  And free agents and trades are also a place where one can find “excellent” players.

Of course, one can also find players in the draft and free agent market that don’t help.  In fact, since most players don’t produce many wins, that is what you will primarily find. 

This last point is very important when we look back at what the Blazers just did.  Wallace produced 9.9 wins last year, a mark that ranked 23rd in the league.   And in four of the proceeding five seasons, Wallace had also ranked in the top 25 in wins.  So Wallace is “excellent.” But rather than keep “excellent,” Portland has sent this player to New Jersey in the hope of finding someone who is “excellent.” 

Now that might happen.  But the draft is uncertain and it’s also quite possible the Blazers will find someone who won’t be “excellent.”

But if you are close – like the Blazers were – your best bet is to find one or two more players that will get you into the promise land.  Based on the data, giving away one of your most productive players for the hope of something better is simply not a very good strategy.  And given what we see from the history of “excellent” teams, the Blazers – if they are reduced to a team that is not good enough to win 40 games in 2012-13 – are now that much further from finding excellence (and making Henry Abbott happy).

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  1. Kentucky Packrat says:

    You fail to consider the great equalizer: age.

    If there is no hope of contention this year, then it is worthwhile to trade one expensive older player for multiple younger players and/or draft picks, because of the age difference. The receiving team gets a couple of years of instant contention, but little long-term advantage, and shed less useful players for themselves. Marcus Camby doesn’t have a lot of years left in him, so the idea of getting a younger, cheaper player for him has some value.

    Also, if the player himself has said “Trade me or I retire”, then that’s also a valid non-statistical reason. The Timberwolves essentially had to trade Kevin Garnett, because of his desire to leave. Perhaps Camby and Wallace “ordered” the trade, and Portland decided that it was easier to take the trade than force them to play.

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  2. Chris says:

    I see your results as misleading as performances in the NBA from year-to-year are generally positively correlated. I have to believe that this is a result of the power of a strong star player or coach within the NBA.

    Take the Chicago Bulls from 1985-1998 (the Michael Jordan years) as an example. Michael Jordan’s stay in Chicago resulted in 8 of the 55+ win seasons, but began with a 27 win season. Your statistics do not capture that these seasons originated from one point, the primary the drafting of Jordan.

    The Trail Blazers are looking in the right place for that kind of star player: the draft.

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    • Jason says:

      Chris makes a good point. If you isolate the stars of the excellent teams and trace those teams back to the few years before that star was drafted, I wonder what you get. You might also have to focus on the years since the draft lottery started.

      However, there does seem to be a history of multiple future HOF NBA players ending up on the same team (e.g, the 1980s Celtics and Lakers). Some of this is presumably similar to the current Heat team, where the players sought the connection. Some is good management and coaching. And some franchises just seem to constantly give away good and potentially good players – such is life!

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  3. Jackson Taylor says:

    So you are telling me that Kobe Bryant was, at best, the fourth most important player on the Lakers last season? I see three Lakers in your top 40, but Bryant isn’t one of them. That just doesn’t pass the eye test, guys.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 14 Thumb down 12
    • bradley says:

      You’re eyes are deceiving you (as they often do), Mark. The Lakers have been winning despite Kobe for years.

      Kobe may the most talented Laker, but he’s not the best/most effective. He IS the best Laker when it comes to TAKING shots, but unfortunately winning requires MAKING shots (and rebounding, taking care of the ball, etc.), and he’s just not very good at that.

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  4. Mark Schick says:

    You touch on an important point in your opening sentence–”only three games below .500 this season”–and then fail to address it completely. If this were the same Blazers team that won 48 games a year ago, or were on a similar pace in terms of won/loss record, I would agree that it would be better for them to try to find one more productive player than to melt the entire thing down and rebuild from scratch. However, this team appeared to be going nowhere fast, at least this season.

    For teams stuck in the 30-45 win range on an annual basis, there is slim hope of improvement via the drat (since you end up with a pick in the teens), and if you are close to the salary cap you aren’t going to improve much via free agency, either. Therefore, if Portland management thought they were going to be stuck in this “no-man’s land” based on their current roster and financial obligations, the decision to hold a fire sale makes more sense. But if they are actually a 48-win team in sheep’s clothing, that decision was a poor one.

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    • alex in chicago says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • matt says:

        If i’m carrying the 1 correctly, he came up with about 4-5 teams per year as “excellent”. That seems a reasonable standard of championship contenders, ie “excellent,” for the argument he’s attacking.

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  5. The Oracle says:

    I think the article missing the entire point. First of all, the 6 best players in the NBA were all taken with a pick in the top 5. All of them.

    In order to get your first star player you usually have to draft one. Which means you either get lucky with the ping pong balls (lottery team) or you are very very bad.

    Without that star player you go nowhere, and no one is going to give you that first one for nothing.

    What normally happens is a team drafts that star player, and then is able to trade for a 2nd one with the player assets it has accumulated. Star players know they need 2 or more and tend to want to be traded to a team that already has one, LeBron and Bosh with Wade, Paul with Griffin, Garnett and Allen with Pierce. But you have to have the players to trade, and those also usually come from the draft. And of course you can trade 1st round picks.

    It takes 3-4 years of being very bad to accumulate enough high 1st round picks to turn your team around, and the result isn’t always immediate as it takes those players time to develop.

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    • Mike says:

      Lebron: FA.

      Bosh: FA.

      Garnett: Trade

      Shaq: Trade

      Kareem: Trade

      It doesn’t matter where a player was drafted, it matters where a player you HAVE can be acquired. Contenders are built by utilising every available tool, and usually, the best tool, the one with the least downside, is a franchise FA (LeBron as a FA was less risky than LeBron as a draft pick for example).

      YMMV, but the idea of tanking to get LeBron didn’t work out for either Cleveland or, more importantly, Memphis (as The Logo – who as GM in Memphis at the time)

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      • Dave says:

        But look at the teams they’ve gone to: Miami, Boston and LA. For teams in markets that can’t attract big name FA’s, draft is where you get the elite talent. You mentioned Cleveland, but fail to recognize that LeBron is still the best thing to happen to that franchise in a long time. While they may not have won the championship, they came close to contending which they haven’t been able to do without him. And again, how did Cleveland acquire him? Through the DRAFT.

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  6. The Oracle says:

    The worst place to be in the NBA is a slightly below average team, especially in the Western Conference.

    I call this NBA purgatory. You are not good enough to go to the playoffs, don’t have enough talent, but are unlikely to find that franchise changing talent in the late lottery. In other words, you’re likely stuck in permanent mediocrity, and you can remain there for decades. It’s much faster imo if you’re in that position, to tear it down, trade all your expensive veterans, go young and try to rebuild through the draft rather than “rearanging the deck chairs on the titanic” by trying to draft and/or trade your way out of mediocrity.

    I assume in this however that the mediocre team does not have a star player. You have to have a star player to compete, and sorry many of the highest win produced players are NOT star players. Think Jordan, Kobe, Wade, LeBron, Howard. You need a real star or two, and you get those players first through the draft.

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    • MW says:

      Your tables are weird: All categories are mutually exclusive EXCEPT that “55 or more” overlaps with “50 or more”, so tables don’t add to 150 as I’d expect. Also, even once you ignore the “55 or more” category to avoid double counting, the rest of the numbers add up to less that 150 (except for the first table). Did some of the teams not exist 4 years before excellence? (I know nothing about NBA teams.) Do you lack the data for the early 70′s to evaluate the excellent teams from the mid 70s?

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      • allenmark says:

        In 1976, there was the NBA-ABA merger, where teams from the ABA got integrated into the NBA, which could account for some missing numbers.

        There were also expansion teams like the Mavs, Heat, Grizzlies, Raptors, Bobcats, etc. that came periodically since, which could also account for some missing numbers. (Okay, not the Bobcats, though.)

        But this argument is incredibly flawed. Of course only a handful of #1 overall picks end up in the top 40 in Wins produced, you can potentially get a superstar anywhere in the lottery, though Top picks generally have a better chance of being great.

        Also, an NBA’s player usually comes into his prime around the ages of 26-32. How old were most players when they were drafted? 18-22. It’s not often that draft picks pay-off immediately (though it’s not unheard of, i.e. Lebron, Carmelo, Dwyane, etc), but even still, improvement to an excellent 55-win team doesn’t necessarily garner a Championship immediately. Older teams tend to win championships (in 2011, two really old teams, the Mavs and the Heat, were going for the title).

        Last things: I would never call a 40-win team a “pretty good” team. No team that is “pretty good” would win less than half of their total games. I don’t care if they made the 8th seed in the Eastern conference, they aren’t “pretty good.” And there should also be some sort of asterisk for team wins due to the 1998-1999 season, which was a lockout shortened 50 game season. By your standards, there wouldn’t be ANY excellent teams that year.

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  7. Chirag Agrawal says:

    I agree with your idea that tanking is not the best way to become better, however I do disagree with some of the points you made.

    1) You seem to refer to the 1st pick very often, and you use this to prove that tanking is not beneficial. However, the purpose of tanking is to increase chances of a higher pick in the lottery, not necessarily to attain the 1st pick. Obviously that would be nice, but even the worst team in the NBA only has a 25% chance at getting the 1st pick.

    2) From looking at your table, I’m even MORE convinced at how crucial it is to get high picks! Since 1997, 6/14 of the 1st picks are in the top 40. 26/140 of the top 10 picks are in the top 40. 14/700 of picks 11-60 (and undrafted) are in the top 40. This means the chances that your player will be great go from 43% (1st) to 19% (1st – 10th) to 2% (everyone else). So actually, getting high draft picks is a great way to build your team!

    I think the best approach would be to determine how exactly each of the last championship teams attained its primary players, and what position those teams were in when they attained those players.

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    • mike says:

      Why are you convinced?

      Half the top 6 is no longer with the team that drafted them – and 11 the top twenty weren’t drafted by their current team (Rondo and Love, as draft day trades I’ll say are, but Nash – drafted by the Suns and reacquired is a FA signing). And the top 40? 23 of the top 40 weren’t drafted by their team. Of the 17 that are, about a third (5) are on rookie contracts. I’d conclude that you get to keep players for a rookie contract, but beyond that, you can get stars – in their prime – by other methods.

      IMHO people focus too much on draft position, and not enough on method of acquisition by their current team. Over half the top 20 AND top 40 was not drafted by the team they play for. That alone should be compelling evidence that building through the draft is not always wise, especially when you are more likely to be Sacramento and pick 4th than LAC and pick Griffin (75% chance you don’t pick first when you are the WORST team).

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      • Chirag Agrawal says:

        Where these players are currently playing is not my point. Yes, you CAN acquire talent through trades or through free agency, however you can also acquire talent through the draft. Even if a little over half the players on the list are no longer on the team that drafted them, the fact that great players often come high in the draft is still indisputable.

        The fact that half the players are still on their original team is a great sign; draft a good player with a cheap rookie contract, and depending on what you do during his time there, there’s a little less than 50% chance that he’ll stay with your team. The key here is you have to be smart during his time there. The Cavaliers were a bad team and got a high draft pick. They drafted an amazing player in LeBron James, which turned them into a contender. Unfortunately, they did not successfully build on that, so he left.

        Trading and signing great players probably adds greater talent than a draft pick, but at a higher price than draft picks. Rookie contracts are very cheap compared to the cost of adding stars/superstars, and drafting a good rookie means age isn’t a concern. However, I think we can both agree that regardless of how the talent is attained, more work must be done to ensure the team is successful and to keep the stars.

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  8. Griffin E says:

    I am genuinely surprised that 15 people read this post in its entirety.

    I’m even more surprised that many of the comments posted here respond directly to Dave Berri as if he reads the comments.

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