In the extensive discussions regarding tanking and the health of the NBA, Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets are consistently held up as a paragon of virtue. Each year, the Rockets compete at the fringes of the playoff picture and end up with a mid-first round pick. Each year they also smartly leverage their available assets and an uncanny ability to find quality players with second round picks or off the scrap heap. But the context of these references is always distinctly patronizing tone. The narrative is that poor Daryl basically isn’t giving himself the best chance to win a championship, and atrocious teams who receive better lottery picks such as the Bobcats and Wizards are actually closer to championship contention under the “get good to get bad” principle.
On first glance, the idea that getting bad to get good is the only way to contend has some merit. It’s incredibly hard to win a championship in the NBA without a top-10 player in the league. That’s both because of the max salary resulting in the very best players being underpaid, and the structure of the game of basketball which allows a single player to dominate the game to a much greater extent than in any other sport (only five players on the court, the best player can get the ball at basically any time).
Not only is getting a star player crucial, it’s also the most difficult thing for an NBA team to do. For small markets obviously the only option is to either attempt to draft one and build a great team convincing him to stay. Even in the case of large markets which can attract stars who want to play there, however, it’s easy to think they got a superstar when they actually did not.
Since getting a superstar is the single hardest step on the road to building a contender, there is a temptation to say it is a good idea to completely sell out and do everything possible to get one. That means the Bobcats, who have a 25% chance at superstar-in-waiting Anthony Davis, are in better shape than the Rockets who have a minimal shot at a franchise-level player in this year’s draft. After the Bobcats win the lottery and draft Davis, they will win the lottery again and get Shabazz Mohammed. Then they will start actually making smart personnel decisions, fill out their roster with young role players, and win it all. Or that’s the “get bad to get good” theory.
A failure to understand math
While it’s true that acquiring a superstar is by far the hardest single part of building a contending roster, it’s part of an incredibly long and difficult journey to pull a franchise from putridity to contention. In addition to acquiring a superstar or two, a team has to fill out the rest of the roster with cost-effective role players who fit the team concept, and hire a coach who can develop players and get them to play defense. This might require 10-15 independent transactions to get just the right mixture.
While none of these transactions is independently nearly as improbable as getting a Davis-level player, each offers an independent opportunity for bad luck or just plain stupidity. It’s impossible to say exactly how many transactions it takes to build a great supporting cast for a variety of reasons, or what your odds of screwing it up are. But even if a personnel manager has to make just five discrete decisions with a 60% rate of success, the rate of failing at that is 93%. Even just the possibility of success for the first part of Charlotte’s plan (getting Davis and Muhammed) is around 11%.
The issue here is people generally fail to understand serialized probabilities for independent events. They look at the Packers, see they are favored in every single game, and don’t understand how unlikely it is to win eight in a row. Similarly, they fail to see how difficult it is to do what Oklahoma City did, or what Charlotte is trying to do. Part of that difficulty is the luck involved in getting a superstar or two. But another part is recognizing the value of James Harden over Jeff Green, seeing how useful Nick Collison is, and finding role players like Serge Ibaka in the late-first round.
Compounding the math misunderstanding is the desire to round “very small” to “zero.” Houston (or Denver, or Indiana) is extremely unlikely to get a superstar this year. That’s not the same as having no chance though. Houston has about five chances in a thousand at Davis. Houston also nearly bagged a superstar in Pau Gasol over the summer. Sometimes the right team can find an undervalued star like Zach Randolph by getting the timing right (though whether he fits the “superstar” description is somewhat up in the air).
And for all the chatter about how Morey has been like Sisyphus in his eternal quest for a superstar, it’s only been three years since Yao and T-Mac went down. So let’s give it a few years before we declare the middle of the NBA some sort of awful purgatory. Remember, purgatory lasts forever. Just because there is no obvious way out doesn’t mean there is no way out forever.
Being ready to be lucky
NBA history bears out the idea that most championship winners were the ones who were sort of middling along, then managed to add a superstar piece through either an extremely lucky occurrence (Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan) or by exploiting a market inefficiency (Kobe Bryant). When you add in the fact that even being a middling playoff team is fun, there’s no doubt I’m much happier with what’s happening with the Nuggets or Rockets than the Bobcats. I think the teams in the bottom half of the playoff bracket are far closer to winning it all. All they require is a single stroke of brilliance, luck, or serendipity where the Bobcats and Kings require a slew of semi-probable events.
That said, this argument is somewhat of a strawman. No team in the middle of the league with cost-effective young players has ever simply decided they would be better off getting really bad really fast. Teams that end up in the Bobcats’ situation do so because their middling core became untenable, based on both financial and age constraints. The idea that teams willingly go from the middle of the league to the bottom of the league to get closer to a championship is both wrong in assuming it occurs, and wrong in assuming it would help a team win it all.