Solving the NBA’s Tanking Problem

Tanking seems to be on everyone’s mind in the NBA these days. Like many sports problems, “tanking” is not singular but an amorphous cluster of problems all housed under one term. The term isn’t hard to define–it’s when a team has a strategic incentive to lose–but it lacks a precise scope. That makes it hard to settle on what exactly is included when different people use the term. Tanking involves teams actively competing to lose games, usually to better their draft position. So sure, we include The Process in Philadelphia. But do we also include Donald Sterling’s original version? For over a decade, he lived high on the proverbial hog supplied by league revenue sharing and high draft picks while displaying next to no commitment to being competitive (or a decent human being for that matter). Do we also include playoff teams who throw late season games to dictate a more favorable playoff match up?

People talking about tanking will include some of these scenarios but not others. Add to that, even where people agree on the boundaries of tanking they often disagree on the extent to which it is a problem for anyone outside a disgruntled team’s fan base (ahem). I’ll make a case for where I think tanking is a problem for the league; one that warrants an intervention. I offer one that basically involves redistributing draft lottery odds. I think it is simple and reasonably effective at removing most incentives for throwing games.

 

Where One Team’s Process Becomes the League’s Problem

My general axiom is that the NBA ought to shy away from dictating team-level strategy, certainly without clear evidence that established rules or the general dictates of competition are being subverted. Even under those circumstances, league interventions should begin with subtlety and build from there.

So, why does tanking violate that axiom? It creates two problems worthy of intervention: the welfare dependency problem and the “agency problem” problem.

The Welfare Dependency Problem. A major problem involved in tanking is in an odd way quite subtle. It can undermine the goodwill needed to run what is effectively a self-regulating cartel. Former Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a great illustration. For years he operated as a fairly open NBA “welfare cheat,” hoarding the goodies that necessarily go out to bad teams, like a disproportionate share of league revenue and high draft picks. At some point he changed his tactics, but memories are long. When he was recorded making bigoted remarks it became a pretext for owners to exile him, but the reason they united against him is that he’d destroyed so much goodwill through decades of douchebaggery. I don’t think it is controversial to suggest that a different owner might have survived the ordeal. Good riddance to Donald Sterling and all, but the perverse incentives that drove his behavior remain unaddressed. Unlike most single mothers who have received AFDC or TANF, businesses often conform to the stereotype of welfare dependency. This is a critical problem. A 32-team league must subsidize bad teams to a degree to keep up the baseline level of product quality. The question is, what’s the right amount before goodwill is eroded?

The Agency Problem. This is a fairly narrow problem that garners a lot of attention every March, as teams inevitably compete to lose games for more favorable draft lottery odds. It’s not a good look for the TV partners or the paying customer. But it also puts into play some nasty dueling incentives for a given team. Even those that have decided to “play the kids” for developmental purposes must confront disincentives to winning (and thus development) for minuscule improvements in draft odds. The problem here is that teams know that the difference between being in a position to draft Tim Duncan instead of Keith Van Horn is easily significant enough to compete for even microscopically better odds.

 

Reforming the Draft Lottery to Resolve Welfare Dependency and the Agency Problem

Sports subsidies are meant to be a hand up in tough times, but they cannot be a way of life. (This is the only time you’ll EVER hear me mimic a conservative Southern politician.) So here’s what I’d do.

1. Split the lottery into Tier 1 & Tier 2 teams, each with fixed odds of winning. Right now, the lottery over-rewards teams for what is effectively random noise in their respective records. A 2-3 game difference should not warrant mathematically different odds of drafting franchise-altering talent. So I would split lottery teams into two tiers. Tier 1 would consist of the league’s five worst non-playoff records with fixed odds of winning the lottery at, say 10%. Tier 2 would include the remaining non-playoff teams with fixed odds at 5%. Will teams fight to get into Tier 1? Perhaps. But I’d also arm the commissioner with the power to expand Tier 1 to six or seven teams and lower odds to 8% to deter throwing games. He could announce his decision at the lottery, giving strong incentives not to throw games in a race to the bottom. Again, I don’t mind a team saying, “We’re going to develop the kids,” but at tip-off I want as few structural disincentives to winning that night as possible.

2. No team can draft in Tier 1 for more than four consecutive seasons. I don’t believe teams should get to tank in perpetuity, regardless of whether decision-makers are committed to grifting or committed to game theory. Sam Hinkie’s version of The Process is based on game theory that says if you are allowed to bet double or nothing until you win that’s what you should do, and you should do it indefinitely. There is little argument against the strategy. The more relevant question for the NBA is why it would structure talent acquisition as this kind of game? I don’t think it should.

To be clear, I would NOT bar a team from winning the draft lottery for four consecutive seasons if the ping pong balls fell their way. Any team can win, even with low odds. But, after a third draft in Tier 1 a team would draft in Tier 2 in the fourth year unless they made the playoffs.

Did the Thunder Chokety Choke Choke, or Nah?

Welp. That Western Conference Final was difficult to characterize. To use a well-worn boxing analogy, it was a contest between knockout specialists, and an incredibly entertaining one. Both landed shots and took them. Both wobbled. Both recovered. I cannot recall a series where my “feel” for a given game at a given moment was so inconsistent with the score. Both teams had substantial leads that didn’t feel substantial. Both had slim leads that felt a lot bigger. Then at times both kinda crapped the bed.

I’m not a big fan of the “choke” label, though I don’t begrudge its use. It’s an eternally-contested concept, which means it has no established definition. It can be defined and re-defined to suit the user’s purposes, like “political correctness,” “draft bust,” “crunch time,” or in a recent addition, “ball movement.” So anyone can make a case for a choke job whenever they like, and it might even be insightful. (This is not.) Sometimes, the moment really can be too big. But, I’m not enamored with morality play analysis that turns every poor play or missed shot into a character flaw. I’m also not to into analysis that over-weights end-of-game scenarios. Put it this way, consecutive blown (uncontested) layups by Speights and Green with about 6 minutes to go, a questionable blocking foul on Green, a Green turnover and another near-turnover, could have been all been utterly condemnable gaffes. These plays are indistinguishable from anything anyone on OKC did late in game 6 or 7. Green was well on his way to crapping of the proverbial bed, and a summer of merciless replays of Adams posterizing him, but for the body blows Golden State’s 3rd unit landed to close out the 3rd quarter. That flurry of shots put Steph in a position to close things out with transcendent play in the 4th quarter, while Durant and Westbrook had to be perfect. Consider that OKC had mostly owned the ends of 3rd quarters throughout the series.

My synopsis? Basically, OKC didn’t really have enough 3-point shooting. For several games it looked like they might, but they came back to earth hard in games 6 and 7. When OKC can get even reasonable 3-point shooting–a must against Golden State–they are in a position to win. In their four losses, OKC shot 28% from 3 and in games 6 and 7 they’d have killed for even that. They shot 13 and 26% respectively. (In their wins they shot over 37%.) OKC’s “issue” is structural, not a character flaw. And it’s the same as it’s been for a while. They need a versatile and consistent (not prolific) weak-side scorer. Kevin Martin should have worked but that dude fell off a cliff when he got there. I thought they should have been in the DeMarre Carroll market, but it’s not like they haven’t tried to address the issue. I’ll be almost as interested in OKC’s off-season as New York’s.

Move Along. Nothing to See Here. (And That’s Just Fine.)

God. People are about to make me—a dyed in the wool hater of the 90s Bulls—defend Big Chief Triangle. This coaching search has brought out the absolute worst in NY media, and in many Knicks fans. The hissy-fits. The foot-stomping. The limp-bodied collapse in the middle of the grocery store checkout line, complete with wailing, tears, and snot.

And that’s just Berman and Isola.

The Daily News/Post brigade can’t even settle on why it’s mad anymore. It’s the triangle they hate. It’s not getting Steve Kerr. (Coffee is for closers Jackson.) It’s that Jackson’s ego is out of control. And, how dare he leave for LA?

I expect that from them.

But this afternoon’s absolute garbage post at USA Today’s “The Big Lead,” by Jason McIntyre has me writing my first Knickerblogger post here in I don’t even know how long. No link, because the headline, “Phil Jackson on Vacation During the Knicks Coaching Search Means He Probably Has Somebody in Mind” is—by far—the most coherent thing in the post. Yet, nothing about it appears until line 23 (of 28):

Surely Jackson’s vacation means he has a plan, right? Like maybe he’s got an assistant coach from one of the teams still in the playoffs on his radar? Gosh I hope so.

You know what though. I’m not even really that mad. Instead, I’m hating myself for only now seeing the awful truth. Phil Jackson isn’t the problem. Everyone else is. You know why this coaching search has been so controversial? It’s a placebo effect.  Much like in studies where people drink non-alcoholic beer but think they’re actually drunk, they get slurred speech, slowed reactions, problems with balance—all the hallmarks of intoxication.

The notion that the Knicks are a cheap punchline has become so second nature no matter what they do it is assumed to be dumb. Most of us think they’re incapable of basic orthodoxy, much less doing something intelligent.

So what we are seeing is increasingly hysterical reaction to an orthodox—if deliberate—coaching search; one that barely even qualifies as quirky. People who should know better are acting like Phil is demanding that candidates hold their hand over a flame and recite a blood oath in Latin to the triangle. Thing is, there’s really no compelling argument to be made that it’s been poorly managed.

Does that mean that Phil didn’t make a mistake by letting Thibs get away? I don’t know. Thibs is obviously the most accomplished candidate on the market this cycle.

But let’s look at the barrage of claims about why this is “worst coaching search ever” one-by-one, shall we?

 

Claim #1. Phil is only gonna talk to his “triangle cronies!”

This has undergone a number of permutations.

First it was: This is all just window dressing so he can hire his buddy Rambis. The arrogance. The insatiable ego.

Now it’s: Thiiiiibbs!!! See. Phil’s still got an axe to grind with Van Gundy! Ah. Ah. Aaaaaahhhhh! Fire!

Look. There is a reasonable concern to be raised about Phil’s openness to contrasting approaches to the game. I get it. That Thibs was evidently never a serious candidate is worrisome and potentially a huge mistake. However, this legit concern has been pushed to ridiculous lengths to incite an atmosphere of hysteria. Few GMs would strongly consider a coach whose core ideas about the best way to play are nearly antithetical to his own. If Pop dropped dead today I’d bet an amount of money that matters that the San Antonio brass isn’t calling Mike Woodson to install iso-ball.

No matter how much some of us want Phil to “reject and denounce” Tex Winter’s offense as some sort of litmus test, he’s not going to. Yet, he’s objectively done enough to assuage concerns that he’s dismissive of other approaches. At this point I’d argue that Phil’s being far less dogmatic on this issue than many of his critics. As many times as he has said “system basketball,” paired with his initial efforts to hire Kerr, and his apparent interest in David Blatt and Luke Walton, the question seems settled. Phil is committed to a system that emphasizes weak side movement. He’s not going to consider a coach with a screen-roll dominant approach to the game.

It’s not an unassailable stance, but the old man might actually be onto something. Consider that putting Melo in a pass and cut offense resulted in his most complete season. Also consider the unspeakable atrocity the Toronto and OKC offenses can devolve into at times, despite their talent.

 

Claim #2. This coaching search lacks any semblance of transparency!

This claim is true. It’s not even a strawman argument like the triangle hysteria. Yet, this is what “normal” NBA searches look like in large part because there IS no normal in NBA coaching searches. NBA coaches come from all over. So it’s always hard to confirm the entire consideration set. You don’t get a complete list, even if you identify the presumptive leading candidate. That is the status quo for searches. We likely won’t know much about who Larry Bird considered in Indiana until after they’ve announced the new coach, maybe not even then. Yet no one will bat an eye if Bird hires Nate Macmillan, but then we hear months later that Rick Pitino was also in the consideration set.

At least for the time being, this is also the new normal at MSG. You know what it looks like when your beloved franchise doesn’t have a million leaks putting everything out in the street before it even happens? Well, sometimes it looks like nobody is doing anything, and that’s making some people anxious, some physically ill. But this is a good thing. They’ll get used to it.

 

Claim #3. Vacation?!? Not a sabbatical. Not a sabbatical. Not a leave of absence. Vacation.

People should shut the hell up about a 70-something year old man taking care of his health and sanity by going on vacation. Some of y’all need to try it. People are out here giving billions of dollars back to companies by leaving vacation on the table, based in many instances entirely on peer pressure. It’s insanity. From a basketball standpoint there’s just nothing to discuss about Vacation-gate, as the Knicks have already been in touch with Vogel’s people. Evidently, Jackson delegates well, owns a phone, or both.

So here’s the thing Knicks fans. This is what a grown-up rebuild looks like. It’s slow. It’s frustrating. A lot of the time it looks like nothing is happening. Yet this is exactly what many supposed smart Knicks fans called for.

Is Phil quirky? Sure, but you knew that. Has he made some missteps? Absolutely. I haven’t loved every move and his intuition about the kind of coach the team needs may well be wrong. But in the broad brush strokes, Knicks fans are largely getting what they should expect out of a reasonably well-run rebuild. Phil has gotten a more complete Melo than any other leadership team. He’s found reasonable talent, and put those guys into roles where they could excel, like Rolo and Derrick Williams, and obviously he drafted/traded for Porzingis and Grant. We need more of the same from Phil, because this is a James Dolan-sized hole.

 

The Anti-Tank Cranks Must Be Stopped

Clearly I have been asleep, because somewhere along the way the “Tanking is an offense to the game!” crowd just took over column inches, airwaves, and bandwidth. They seem to be yelling a lot louder than the “embrace the tank” crowd. When Kevin Pelton, as reasonable a hoops analyst as you’ll find, is pulling out the virtual slide rule to assess the relative merits of competing anti-tank proposals, you know real change on this issue is likely pending. Now I’ve got nothing against those who find tanking morally repugnant, or just plain unsightly, but allowing what looks increasingly like a moral panic to drive policy is a classic recipe for bad policy.

I cannot truthfully claim to have read every single column bemoaning the cardinal sin of tanking, but I’ve read quite a few in recent weeks. Although proposals to fix the problem differ in specificity, they are almost uniform in how they view the problem. Although very few columns bother to define tanking with any precision, they are all quite committed to distinguishing the “deserving” from the “non-deserving” bad teams. Every columnist has in mind a textbook offender who exploits a draft system meant to help genuinely struggling teams. (Philadelphia is currently the NBA’s food-stamp hoarding, Cadillac-driving welfare queen.) Coincidentally, the draft-manipulating cheat is NEVER the San Antonio Spurs, who made no credible attempt to win in David Robinson’s absence but were rewarded the following year with Tim Duncan and a healthy David Robinson. Well, unless Rick Pitino is telling the story.

At the risk of going all Piven and Cloward on the reader, this anti-tanking business has many of the hallmarks of a classic moral panic.

  • Is there a separation into ill-defined yet somehow absolutely rigid moral categories (i.e., “deserving” vs “non-deserving”)? Check
  • Are the non-deserving identified by, and summarily punished for, fitting some nebulous description rather than specific behaviors? Check on the first part, and the knives are currently being sharpened for the punishment phase.
  • Are there proposals purporting to “tweak” the current system that appear reasonable, but only compared to the most dramatic and outrageous proposals to fix the problem? Check

If US history is any guide here–and it is–well after the moral fervor has died down someone will go back, sift through the wreckage, and determine that no real problem ever existed. Or, that it existed for a long time with no particularly ill effect. Some young Salemites may have practiced witchcraft. There were certainly American communists in the 1940s and 50s. Some Japanese-Americans probably did favor the empire over the stars and bars. Some women on AFDC probably did allow the fathers of their children to sleep in the house. Yet in each of these instances, it was obvious to anyone who cared to look that the “fix” to these alleged problems mostly scratched some people’s itch to punish the less powerful.

And no. I’m not making James Dolan the moral equivalent of a Japanese internee. I’m saying that moral panics in a variety of contexts have the same behavioral hallmarks. This is true when their consequences are insanely unjust or, as in the case of this tanking business, are mostly petty and self-defeating.

The fundamental problem with the anti-tanking narrative is that “tanking” is a managerial strategy, and a reasonable one for turning around a wayward franchise. To be clear though, I’m not here to advocate for tanking per se. My point is that once we move from good and healthy debate over competing morals to the land of policy then we must be clear about what policy can and cannot do.

Good policy cannot reliably legislate against strategy. It can only legislate away its behavioral proxies. Tanking, however one cares to define it, is behaviorally indistinguishable from just being a bad team. The fact that the Knicks were not perceptibly worse after releasing STAT, trading JR, Shump, and Prigs, pretty much proves that one cannot distinguish (a priori) a tanking team from a bad one. Despite being a poster child for “the team that couldn’t even tank right,” the Knicks began the season thinking a playoff berth was not out of the question. After the first few weeks made it clear that this was laughable, they never again gave any more than a cursory nod in the direction of winning. Yet there is no behavior one could reliably point to  from a policy standpoint that distinguishes early season bad-but-deserving Knicks from later season still-bad-but-non-deserving Knicks.

 

Screw the basketball gods! Embrace your inner hoops atheist.

So the Knicks were the only team to end up worse off than regular season record would dictate.

Of friggin’ course. Because LOLKnicks, right?

The draft with the best looking pair of bigs to come out together in a long time, and New York appears to be on the outside looking in. It’s not like we need low post scoring or rim protection.

That’s it for you basketball gods. You’re done here. I renounce you, like the mythical Salieri.

So with that out of the way, the draft is still weeks off which means current prospect rankings will stay in flux as teams work them out. Short of injury or scandal though, Towns and Okafor (in some order) will be the top two selections. Of course, some are already suggesting that the Lakers may take Mudiay at #2. (I doubt it.) Philadelphia also looks poised to take a guard at #3, but who the heck knows what the Sixers will do.

It seems like the Knicks have three categories of options involving the pick.

1. Draft best player available at #4 and sign a rim protector in free agency. Right now a consensus appears to be forming around 19 year old PG Emmanual Mudiay as the fourth best player. He played about a dozen games (including playoffs) in the Chinese league after foregoing the Larry Brown experience at SMU. I have nothing intelligent to say about the kid because I haven’t seen or read much about him. He has a pro body at 19, and that’s not something to take lightly. Drafting a guard would force the Knicks to look elsewhere for the rim protection it sorely needs. Hey, I hear Tyson Chandler is unrestricted…

2. Draft the best remaining center at #4. A strategy that hasn’t received much ink just yet involves the Knicks using the pick on the next best center after Towns and Okafor. Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein and Texas freshman Myles Turner are defense-first bigs in the Tyson Chandler mold. That’s probably the ideal style of center to play alongside Carmelo Anthonly. Both are right at or about 7’0″ and 240lbs. Right now DraftExpress lists Cauley-Stein as the 6th rated player and Turner as the 11th. Assuming those ratings hold, Cauley-Stein’s probably not an outrageous reach at #4. By the time we get through work out season, we may be talking about him as pretty good value at that spot.

3. Move the pick for additional assets. The pundits are already speculating that the Knicks will listen to trade proposals. All things equal, I prefer the team use the pick rather than move it unless a move involves other young, cheap players and/or picks.

I am a salty dog right now. Like pretty much every other Knicks fan, I was hoping the draft lottery would provide some clarity on who would anchor the next good Knicks team. We are not much closer to knowing that, unfortunately.

The big thing Knicks fans (by which I mostly mean me) must remember though is that this roster needs a massive talent infusion. It is legitimately one of the worst 2 or 3 in the league. At this point, New York won’t get one of the two would-be franchise-altering bigs. Still, there is PLENTY of space on the roster for young, quality, athletic basketball players. Plenty of minutes too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Knicks could stand an athletic upgrade at virtually every roster spot.

Although our dreams of drafting the next Patrick Ewing may have been dashed, an equally important dream of not drafting the next Stacey King/Jason Caffey or trading the pick for the next Eddie Curry remains very much alive. So, lets count our blessings. But keep in mind that they were supplied by random chance. Not the basketball gods.

Fuck those guys. Seriously. Fuck them.

More Summer League Thoughts: What About the Defense?

Most us expected to see D-Fish trot out some version of Tex Winter’s triangle in Summer League. But coming into Vegas his defensive philosophy was less clear. The team’s summer league performance has brought a couple things into focus.

1) More straight-up man with less switching.

Keep in mind that you’re likely to see pretty vanilla defensive scheming in Summer League for any number of reasons. So, a switching fetish is not out of the realm of possibility once the season starts and Calderon starts yelling “Git that!” at the sight of the first high ball screen. But still, based on what I’ve seen in a game-and-a-half my impression is that Fisher’s Knicks will play a fairly traditional man defense. Guards will be expected to stay with their assignment, fighting through screens and such. Bigs will still help on drivers, but without the incessant auto-switching. The team has added Sam Dalembert, Jason Smith, and (technically) Cole Aldrich and Melo through free agency and trade. Add STAT and Bargnani to the frontcourt. Then take away Tyson Chandler. That’s a strong signal that the team will play pretty traditional man.

2) More extended perimeter defense.

One potential defensive wrinkle from Fisher is extending on the perimeter more than we are used to seeing. These summer Knicks extend on the perimeter a good bit, way more than I expected. Antetokounmpo is hitting anything that moves inside the halfcourt line. Shane Larkin is also jumping passing lanes to swipe lazy passes. Now I have not seen much designed trapping and pressing, which leads me to believe that the Knicks are trying to delay opponents from getting into their stuff more than force turnovers. This was an under-appreciated feature of Jackson’s Bulls, and most notably Scottie Pippen. He’d commonly pick up a single ball handler at half- or three-quarter court and make him use up 8-10 seconds to even throw the first pass of the set. I could see Antetokounmpo developing into that kind of role.

Of course we won’t know anything for sure about Fisher’s approach to defense until we see the final roster, which could see another minor move or two before the season. Even then we’ll need to see the first few pre-season games to get a feel for his vision on defense.

A few final thoughts:

  • Is Jeremy Tyler in danger of playing himself out of a camp invite? I’ve not seen all the games, but he certainly looked confused in the triangle while playing against the D-League select team. It’s a tough offense on bigs who are not used to creating. His indecision resulted in multiple turnovers and he appeared to let that frustration cause him to lose focus on defense.
  • Conversely, is Henriquez playing himself into a camp invite – somewhere, if not New York? As a rebounder and rim protector, he certainly looks better than New York’s summer league bigs of recent vintage.
  • I was never a fan of the Wear twins in college. My buddy Ty dubbed them, “soft as baby shit.” That said, Travis is skilled, particularly as a passer. He hit a very difficult baseline jumper vs. the Select team. He also got a turnover on a pass that would have been highlight worthy. It was a no-look job, and there really was nothing wrong with the pass. Whoever was on the break simply had no idea to expect THAT pass from a big guy handling the ball. I hope Wear gets some burn vs. Charlotte.

 

Woj: Carmelo to Sign 5-Year Deal with New York

Wojnarowski twatteth:

[Editor’s note: Here’s Robert Silverman with a bit more info]

Here’s this afternoon’s #WojBomb™:

Carmelo Anthony will sign a five-year, $120 million-plus contract to return to the New York Knicks, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Anthony considered the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets before deciding to re-sign. He notified the other teams on Saturday that he’s returning to New York.

Anthony might still take less than the maximum $129 million the Knicks can give him, a source said.

Anthony is expected to publicly announce his return on Sunday.

Taking a tad less–even if it’s just a 9 million dollar haircut–would certainly be nice. As J-Doobs ‘splains:

We’ll have to wait until tomorrow (later today? Who knows…) to see if that is in fact the case. There have been so many half-sourced sources and weird breadcrumbs that have been reported as “news” in the Mouth of Madness that is NBA Free Agency in the Year of our Lord 2014, that it’s probably wise to wait until all the parties involved are standing in front of a plastic MSG backdrop, making nice for the cameras, and smiling and slinging easily-digestible quotes before anything is determined to be a done deal.

That said, Woj is directly plugged into the hivemind/shadowy cabal of agents, front office types, insiders and whatnot that Know Things, so (aside from the actual numbers on the contract) it’s safe to say it’s done.

What this means for the team…well…we’ll have more coherent analysis in the very near future from your Friendly Neighborhood Knickerbloggers.

Go Knicks!