Sorry it’s been quiet around here; I lose some interest when the seasons end. But with the NBA draft happening yesterday, I had a couple of quick thoughts. The first one: why do the Pistons hate me? Maybe Andre Drummond ends up a good player, but he’s the one guy everyone said was going to be hit or miss and had questions about. And of course he falls to the Pistons. Sigh. Alright, on to my other thoughts:
There was a lot of coverage this season on the topic of tanking. My opinion was that it sort of works, in that a really bad team will tend to become average after a few years. The guys at Wages of Wins disagreed, pointing out that bad teams rarely become good and great teams rarely ever started out bad (here are a few examples). But it’s a little odd to think that tanking doesn’t work, because pretty much everyone agrees that the good players are found in the lottery. This study uses a simple metric of productivity, but I imagine most other methods would come out fairly similarly (boom – Win Shares). Of course, some good players manage to slip through (as described here) and can be found late in the first round or even in the second, but for the most part your value is at the beginning of the draft.
So if you want a good player in the draft, you have to pick early in the draft. To pick early, you have to tank (or at least be bad). So how could tanking teams not get better? The answer has a couple of parts. One, drafted players aren’t as good as they’re going to be yet. Players are rarely fully-formed straight out of college; they usually peak after 4 or 5 years. So that crappy team may have a good player now, but they don’t have a great player yet. Two, crappy teams have multiple issues. Even if you draft that rare great-out-of-college player, the rest of the team probably still sucks. So teams that are that bad need to make a few moves to get better. Third, and probably the biggest problem, is that bad teams don’t keep their good players. Of the top 10 players who have been in the league at least four years (and thus have to be on a second contract) this past season according to Wins Produced, only half (Iguodala, Noah, Howard, Bynum, and Rondo) are still on the team that drafted them (Steve Nash doesn’t count as he left and came back to Phoenix). If you prefer Win Shares the list is a little different (Howard, Noah, Bynum, Millsap, and Wade) but still only half; RAPM has Dirk, Manu, Nick Collison, Millsap, and Luol Deng. On the other hand, guys like LeBron, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler, and Pau Gasol have all changed teams at least once. Since the NBA is a top-heavy league, you need to have a top player (if not two) to compete for a title. If you have your hands on one and let him go, you can’t expect to be a great team. And if you go farther down the lists to look at good-but-not-great players, you see more movement.
So perhaps teams can be great without tanking, but someone has to tank to get great players. The Cavs bottomed out to get LeBron and then Miami reaped the benefit (although the Cavs were also pretty good before he left, it shouldn’t be forgotten). The Bulls have cornerstone players in Noah and Rose from the lottery. The Celtics basically assembled their team through free agency but did it with two #5 picks (Allen and Garnett) and a #10 (Pierce). Teams like the Spurs (building with low picks) and the Thunder (have a bunch of good, young players) are rare, but it’s also just rare for poor teams to keep their great players. It will be interesting to see if and how long the Thunder can keep their core together.
EDIT: I forgot this was Durant’s fifth year, so he’s a top-10 guy (at least by WP and WS, not RAPM) who has stayed with his team so far. We’ll have to see if it ends up being forever though.
My other random thought has to do with draft grades. Once in a while you’ll see someone complain because 15 teams got an A, or the average grade for the league is a B+ or something like that. But that could happen, right? Let’s say we had perfect insight into how players would turn out and we ranked them by whatever metric summarizes that the best. Then let’s say that the team drafting first takes the best guy, the team drafting second takes the second-best, and so on. Doesn’t every team deserve an A in that case? It’s probably true that no team got anyone worthwhile in the second round, and the playoff teams probably got weak players too, but everyone took the best guy available. What else can they do?
Of course, teams don’t do this because they don’t have perfect insight. They also do it because the best guy available may not fit their needs. At this point, the Timberwolves would never use a high pick on a center, right? They already have Kevin Love. The Celtics would never take a point guard since they have Rondo. So instead of taking the best guy available, they should take the best guy who doesn’t play a position they have covered. So now you start shuffling the ‘best order’ a little. And there are other perfectly reasonable reasons to shuffle things around a bit. So I don’t see any reason to dismiss the idea of all teams doing well out of hand. Obviously some teams do just make questionable picks, and then they deserve to get dinged. But I have no problem, a priori, with the whole league having a good draft.