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Losing Is Not a Winning Strategy in the NBA

Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner and "tanking" proponent.  (Photo: sdk)

Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner and “tanking” proponent. (Photo: sdk)

The NBA season is beginning this week and fans of each team are, of course, optimistic. At this point, everyone can hope a title is possible come next summer.

Although everyone could theoretically have dreams of a title in 2014, it is clear that every NBA fan isn’t actually hoping their team is successful in 2014. Some NBA fans are actually dreaming of an event that happens just after the conclusion of the NBA Finals.  For fans of a few teams, the focus is already on the 2014 draft.  For example, some fans of the Philadelphia 76ers seem convinced that not only are the Sixers not trying to win this year, but that this is actually the best course of action for this franchise.

Proponents of “tanking” dream of such number one picks as Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James. Each of these players were selected number one and went on to win multiple NBA titles.  Of course, other number one picks – like Yao Ming, Michael Olowokandi, Allen Iverson, Joe Smith, Glenn Robinson, Chris Webber, Larry Johnson, etc. –  played their entire careers and never won an NBA title.

Despite this list, fans of the NBA’s losers still have dreams that success in the NBA lottery will lead to title contention and an NBA championship in the future.  But is this likely to happen? About a year ago, I offered the concept of the “lottery treadmill” in an effort to understand how title contenders are built.  Now I want to address what happens to teams that are not contenders.

Or more specifically: if a team wins 25 or fewer games – a result needed to maximize success in the lottery – what happens in future NBA seasons?

Before answering this question, let’s make an observation.  Since 1985, only two teams (the Miami Heat in 2006 and the Houston Rockets in 1995) have managed to win an NBA title without winning at least 66 percent (54 wins in an 82-game season) of their games.  And since 1984-85, about 20 percent of teams have won 54 or more games.  So it seems likely that a team needs to be in this group to really be considered a contender.

But it appears that teams that win 25 or fewer games have a hard time joining this elite.  Of the teams that won 25 or fewer games since 1984-85,

In sum, nearly 90 percent of teams that win 25 or fewer games are not contenders five years later.  This suggests that “tanking” is a strategy that is very unlikely to lead to NBA success.

Of course, some may say that this is still better than just being “mediocre” in the NBA.  Back in 2011, three different NBA executives made a similar observation:

Towards the close of yesterday’s basketball analytics panel, Mark Cuban (owner of the Dallas Mavericks) and Kevin Pritchard (general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers) showed their cards in terms of fast-tracking a franchise rebuilding project.

Cuban confessed that once Dirk Nowitzki retires he expects the Mavericks to lose, and, if he gets his way, they’ll lose badly. Kevin Pritchard seemed to agree and introduced a new term into our lexicons: “the mediocrity treadmill.”

There is no championship future for a middling team that is stuck in the embattled space between those who struggle to make the playoffs and those that struggle and miss. Cuban has no desire for the Mavericks to be such a team. Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan recently defended trading Gerald Wallace to the Portland Trailblazers by saying, “We don’t want to be the seventh or eighth seed.” The Bobcats have been, at best, mediocre, and so perhaps we can interpret his statement as one owner casting his philosophical lot with Cuban and Pritchard.

So are teams better off avoiding the “mediocrity treadmill”?  Let’s define a mediocre team as one that wins between 34 and 49 wins.  Of the teams in this group,

In sum, a team that is mediocre is much more likely to contend in the near future than a loser.  And that means if your team is actually trying to build a loser (i.e. avoid the mediocrity treadmill), they are reducing their chances to contend.

Now some might argue that this next draft is different.  This next draft is supposed to have such players as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle.  Each of these players are supposed to be stars.  Of course, such players have only “starred” so far in high school.   So it is possible that these players will not excel in college or the NBA.

But let’s imagine these players are like LeBron.  It is important to remember that LeBron never won a title with the teams that acquired his services on draft night.  In fact, in the lottery era (since 1985) only the San Antonio Spurs (with David Robinson and Tim Duncan) have drafted a player number one and won a title with that player.  Every other number one pick failed to bring a title to the team that “won” the lottery.

So we see that the NBA draft lottery is quite similar to the state lotteries so many people play.  Winners of these lotteries often don’t get the life of their dreams.  And the odds of winning are so poor that state lotteries are often described as a tax on the mathematically illiterate.  Despite all this, people still buy lottery tickets in the hopes of realizing their dreams.  And likewise, some people in the NBA have dreams that winning the NBA lottery is the path to a future NBA title.

But it is important to remember as fans that these are often just dreams.  Losing is not a winning strategy in the NBA.  And if you see your team lose frequently this next season, you shouldn’t think that unhappiness experienced today is likely to lead to much happiness in the future.