Tank to the Top? Not So Fast

Jan Vesely, center, was selected by the Washington Wizards with the sixth pick in the 2011 N.B.A. draft. It didn’t turn out well.

This was the N.B.A. season in which up became down, the sunny day was abandoned for an embrace of the rainy, and the race to the championship penthouse paled next to the joy of a tumble down the league stairs.

This past winter, nearly a dozen of the league’s bottom-feeders benched stars, traded off ambulatory role players and made more inexplicable coaching decisions than usual, all in hopes of losing enough to gain a top spot in the N.B.A. draft lottery.

For half a decade now, the league’s smart set — those cost-benefit, God-I-love-a-good-spreadsheet analytics guys who proliferate in N.B.A. front offices — have embraced a new creed: The best way to build a champion is to tear a decrepit team to the ground and reseed it with young and cheap talent from the draft.

They are almost certainly wrong.

With one or two exceptions, and those are most often impossible to predict, the tanking parade is a case of the hapless leading the dotards. Don’t take my word for it. Akira Motomura, an economics professor at Stonehill College and a man who knows his way around a database, wrote an article two years ago with three other economists for the Journal of Sports Economics: Does it pay to build through the draft in the N.B.A.?

I can sum up their findings in two words: Not really.

“We could not conclude that entering the draft was bad for a team,” Motomura told me. “But it’s not a help.”

It gets worse. It’s not clear that it’s much better to draft fifth than 25th. There was the barest difference in performance, perhaps 5 percent, between players picked at the top of the draft and those selected at the bottom.

Much like marine biologists looking at a particularly unfortunate river bottom, the economists found “dead zones” in the early and middle parts of the draft’s first round. These are waters where the decision-making is so mediocre and the talent pool so murky that many teams emerge in worse shape than they entered.

It is not difficult to find a sweet pile of anecdotal data to back up this study. Let’s take the 2011 N.B.A. draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the first choice and took that whirling scoring dervish Kyrie Irving. That was a good idea.

The Minnesota Timberwolves picked second and took the athletic forward Derrick Williams. That was a bad idea. He is an amiable fellow who at the age of 26 has only had one season in which he averaged in double-figures in scoring, and he is currently holding on to his N.B.A. career by his fingertips.

The next three draft picks in that 2011 draft offered a trio of nice, industrial-strength N.B.A. centers: Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson and Jonas Valanciunas. They are all nice, useful fellows, but none could be considered a difference maker in today’s guard-heavy league.

The sixth pick that year went to the Washington Wizards, who chose Jan Vesely. You could be forgiven for asking: Who? Vesely played in the N.B.A. for three years before falling through the league floor. He currently plays for Fenerbahce of the Turkish Basketball Super League.

The best moments of that 2011 draft arguably happened outside of the top ten picks, and they underlined a more important point: Nothing beats a quality organization. The Golden State Warriors took Klay Thompson with the 11th pick. The Indiana Pacers drafted Kawhi Leonard with the 15th pick and promptly had their pockets picked by the San Antonio Spurs, who traded for Leonard, who would become one of the league’s top five players.

The Chicago Bulls held the last pick of the first round that year. With the 30th pick, they took the future four-time All Star Jimmy Butler.

There is, in fact, a strong Darwinist flavor to the N.B.A. More than in most pro sports leagues, the best N.B.A. organizations and teams remain near the top, year after year. The Spurs, the Warriors, the Miami Heat, and the Boston Celtics have consistently fielded winning teams. Yet they rarely appear in the draft lottery unless they’ve lifted a draft pick from some hapless franchise.

In fact, this study found that a team that achieves high mediocrity — say, 45 wins — is better off bringing in the best possible minds and carefully adding talent, rather than engaging in a tear-down. Those teams trend up more often than drift down.

As Motomura’s study noted: “Very good organizations and G.M.s develop successful franchises that win more, even if they pick late in the first round.”

Talk of the hapless naturally turns my eyes to my Knicks, the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns. Any fan of the aforementioned franchises would be advised to seek therapeutic help before persuading themselves their teams will find salvation through the draft.

The Kings are near sui generis in their ability to dive into the draft pool and emerge holding something unappetizing. As Al Iannazzone of Newsday pointed out, they have had four top-five picks and 11 top-10 choices in the past dozen years and missed the playoffs in each of those seasons.

As for my Knicks, they could self-publish their own how-to book of management dysfunctions.

I don’t want to argue against innovation. The Philadelphia 76ers are seen as the great counterexample, a team that embarked on an epic spasm of losing, year after grinding year. That period became known as The Process, the mad vision of their former general manager Sam Hinkie.

You might even say it worked.

The 76ers emerged this year with a 52-30 record and in possession of two lottery-pick stars: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The 76ers’ success wound up being the moving snow plate that set off the avalanche of intentional losing the past few years.

Hinkie did not survive to reach the promised land with his team. The owners tired of his prophecies and Hinkie’s role in The Process ended in 2016, but not before he penned a 7,000 word resignation letter that quoted physicists and philosophers and offered the following aphorisms: True innovators rarely are honored in their time; the N.B.A. fraternity often celebrates the wrong people for the wrong reasons; and “you can be wrong for the right reasons.”

I particularly loved this fortune cookie line: “In this league, the long view picks at the lock of mediocrity.”

In that same letter, he noted that his draft-early-and-often strategy, taken together with prescience, had helped the 76ers land such “especially talented” draft picks as centers Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. As it happens, both of those young men have N.B.A. careers on the intensive care list.

So, you might say the 76ers’ draft-lottery strategy turned out to be more right than wrong for reasons that were often more wrong than right.

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