Mixed in with the normal emotions that go in to the run-up to the season with any below-average team (trepidation about losing your star to free agency at some point, optimism about high pedigree rookies (Lillard), hope for a surprising sleeper performance from the depths of the roster (Will Barton, Nolan Smith)), a significant faction of folks seem to think losses will be better than wins in 2012-13. While it’s true that the current core of the Blazers needs another star-level talent to be a championship level team, that doesn’t mean losing more is the best way forward.
Essentially the case for losing is that the improved draft pick gained from losing a game increases caliber of prospect attained in the upcoming draft would offset the team being worse in the short term. But this thinking just doesn’t hold up to even the most cursory of scrutiny! Looking at Kubatko or Barzilai’s overviews indicates the relative values of picks, although Kubatko’s study is of older data and Barzilai’s does not have absolute values, they give excellent parameters for what a team can expect given a certain pick.
Using Kubatko’s study, a team’s reward for going from the 12th worst record to the 5th worst record is about 16 winshares over the the draft pick’s career, and about 6 winshares over the rookie contract period. That’s about 2 winshares per season, a significant difference to be sure but not a franchise-altering one (it’s roughly the difference between a strongly above average starter and an all-star (but not superstar) player). Translating these things to wins is always a tricky and controversial exercise, so I won’t do it, but basically in the mid-lottery you get a significantly better player.
However, at what cost? How much more do you have to lose to go from the 12th pick to the 5th pick (note from Barzali’s study that the 5th pick appears to represent a pretty big upgrade from the 6th, though sample sizes are obviously tiny).
On the theory that winning and losing close games is mostly luck, here is the difference in pyth wins between the 5th and 12th worst teams in the NBA over the past few years:
2007: 5th worst (CHA) = 30; 12th worst (SAC) = 36, difference of 6 wins.
2008: 5th worst (NYK) = 23; 12th worst (ATL) = 36, difference of 13 wins.
2009: 5th worst (MEM) = 26; 12th worst (MIL) = 38, difference of 12 wins.
2010: 5th worst (WAS) = 28; 12th worst (TOR) = 36, difference of 8 wins.
2011: 5th worst (MIN) = 24; 12th worst (IND) = 38, difference of 14 wins.
In this little sample, you have to be an average of 10.6 wins worse the season before to draft a player who is likely to be a significant, but not game changing, upgrade. There is a real reason that teams in the back end of the lottery like the Pacers were the past few years get back to the playoffs and get decent much faster than the Kings or Wolves: it’s because their incumbent talent isn’t terrible!
I would understand the rationale for throwing the season away if we hated the current roster and it needed a refresher. This logic is tautological though. Lillard and Freeland will look a lot better as young guys playing heavy minutes on a 35 win team than a 24 win team. Likewise, them being horrible will make it easier to draft a somewhat better player. However, the upshot of history is that the sacrifice in team quality to get a higher draft pick far outweighs the rewards of the superior prospect. So I’d rather have the better team now, and hope to improve on that rather than hope this (very young, hopefully long-term) set of players turns out terrible so we can kick them to the curb.
Though the Blazers are unlikely to compete for anything meaningful this season, both for short term enjoyment of fans and the long-term prospects of the team, having the current roster members actually be good would be far better than having them be bad. And that means it’s better to win games this year than lose them.