Tonight’s 4 Factors (@ LAC, 11/14/07)

After each game this season, we’ll be taking a look at what the four factors have to say about the game– how the winner won and the loser lost. For an intro to the four factors, see A Layman’s Guide to Advanced NBA Statistics.

Knicks lose to Clippers, 81-84

	Pace	Eff	eFG	FT/FG	OREB%	TOr
NYK	94.0	86.2	35.2%	29.6	35.3	21.3
LAC		89.4	39.4%	20.0	24.1	14.9

A few days ago after the miserable Miami loss, I lamented that it would be a small miracle if the Knicks held another opponent below 90 points per 100 possessions all season. Lo and behold, they did it again tonight. Unlike the Heat, the Clippers are not pushovers on offense– coming into the game they ranked 13th in the league at 107.3 points per 100 possessions. The Knicks held their eFG% below 40% and limited one of their offensive strengths, scoring from the free throw line.

However, just as in the Miami game, the offense once again failed the team. It wasn’t all bad. The offensive rebounding was exceptional, and New York had a good presence at the free throw line as well. But those good performances were offset by an awful 35.2 eFG% and an unacceptable but increasingly familiar TO rate north of 20 per 100 possessions.

What makes this one frustrating is that the poor shooting and ball handling included a bevy of blown layups and carelessness with the ball that could and should have been averted. Jamal Crawford was called for 2 carrying violations, adding to what must be his league-leading figure. New York completed the trifecta of unconscionable turnovers you’ll never even see in a high school game when Zach Randolph inexplicably handed Jamal Crawford the ball after a made Clippers basket rather than passing it. Eddy Curry checked in with a 3-second violation or two, though again he managed to keep his total respectable with only 2. When Eddy Curry is shaping up to have a career year in terms of limiting his turnovers and your team is still flirting with 20 TOs per 100 possessions, your team has problems.

Take one good sign away from this game– it was a good defensive performance against a team that isn’t merely inept on offense. If the Knicks can minimize their weakness and be something like the 20th placed team in defensive efficiency rather than the 26th, that is already a huge improvement. But again, to really go places they must be able to maximize their strength and consistently perform on the offensive end, where they do at least have the potential to be among the league’s better teams.


4 factor stats were acquired using the ESPN4Factors script by Cherokee of the ABPRmetrics board. Firefox users can use this script (after installing the Greasemonkey extension) to see 4 factor stats automatically displayed in all NBA boxscores on espn.com.

Tonight’s 4 Factors (11/13/07)

After each game this season, we’ll be taking a look at what the four factors have to say about the game– how the winner won and the loser lost. For an intro to the four factors, see A Layman’s Guide to Advanced NBA Statistics.

Knicks lose to Suns, 102 – 113

	Pace	Eff	eFG	FT/FG	OREB%	TOr
NYK	96.0	106.3	50.0%	18.6	29.3	17.7
PHO		117.7	61.0%	32.9	27.3	19.8

Seems a bit silly to look too closely into this one. Phoenix got whatever they wanted. Much of the game was garbage time or a close approximation, and so the stats won’t be completely true to the competitive portions. New York ended up with an offensive performance right at season average. Phoenix performed like an elite team on offense rather than the 9th place, 108 point per 100 possession team they had been up until tonight.

Of course much of the story with the Knicks right now is not in the box score. With Marbury AWOL and a rash of injuries (Q, Balkman, Collins, Nate’s hamstring), the season seems to be falling apart only 6 games in, if that’s even possible.


4 factor stats were acquired using the ESPN4Factors script by Cherokee of the ABPRmetrics board. Firefox users can use this script (after installing the Greasemonkey extension) to see 4 factor stats automatically displayed in all NBA boxscores on espn.com.

Tonight’s 4 Factors (11/11/07)

After each game this season, we’ll be taking a look at what the four factors have to say about the game– how the winner won and the loser lost. For an intro to the four factors, see here.

Knicks lose to Heat, 72 – 75

	Pace	Eff	eFG	FT/FG	OREB%	TOr
MIA	84.0	89.3	47.9%	6.8	27.0	20.2
NYK		85.7	39.3%	17.3	26.7	21.4

In a word, this game was ugly. It was a slow, low possession game, but not substantially slower than the 97 – 93 win over the Timberwolves (87 possessions). What made it unbearable was the offensive ineptitude of both teams (and the general ineptitude of the Knicks down the stretch).

The Heat actually did not perform all that much worse than their seaosn averages, as they were 28th in offensive efficiency coming into the game (95.9 points per 100 possessions). One might want to credit the Knicks for at least keeping the Heat off the line and getting their turnovers high. But Miami had been dead last in the league in FTM/FGA coming into the game, and their turnovers seemed to result from sloppiness as much as any defensive pressure by the Knicks.

Still, the fact that Miami did not blow the doors off their previous offensive performances has to be regarded as a small victory for the defensively inept Knicks. Prior to this game, New York’s best defensive performance of the season was holding the rebuilding Timberwolves to 106.9 points per 100 possessions, and their average yield of 114.5 pp100 was second to last in the league. It would be a small miracle for New York to hold another team below 90 pp100 for the rest of the season.

But the story of this game for the Knicks is the sputtering offense. After a very strong showing in the season’s first 3 games had them among the league leaders in offensive efficiency (114.4 pp100), the offense has looked awful in the past two losses to Orlando and Miami. Much of the blame goes to the struggling backcourt. Against Orlando, Marbury, Crawford, and Robinson combined for 10-31 shooting with 13 TOs; tonight, the starting backcourt combined with Mardy Collins to produce 11-33 shooting with 7 TOs (which is worse than it might seem, given the game’s slow pace). The outlook for recovery in the backcourt is not terribly encouraging as Marbury is declining with age, Robinson is hampered with a hamstring injury, and Crawford is as streaky as ever. Losing Richardson to a hyperextended shooting elbow is just the cherry on top.

Worst of all, the Achilles’ Heel of last season’s offense– turnovers– seems to be back in force this season after what seemed like a promising start for the ballhandling. In the last three games, New York has coughed up 19, 19.6, and 21.4 TOs per 100 possessions. Granted that this team is going to be poor defensively, it must compensate with a strong offense to be competitive. But it is very hard to have a strong offense when you’re giving away one fifth of your possessions.


4 factor stats were acquired using the ESPN4Factors script by Cherokee of the ABPRmetrics board. Firefox users can use this script (after installing the Greasemonkey extension) to see 4 factor stats automatically displayed in all NBA boxscores on espn.com.

What ails the Knicks’ D?

The Knicks are a poor defensive team (24th out of 30 in points allowed per 100 possessions in ’07; 26th in ’06 with more or less the same roster). Conventional wisdom has it that New York’s defensive ineptitude is due in large part to a porous interior defense, where Eddy Curry is a poor rebounder and shotblocker, David Lee is slow to rotate, and the departing Channing Frye was soft. Many worry that the interior D is only going to get worse with Zach Randolph and his poor defensive reputation joining Curry, portending an even weaker defensive squad in 2008.

With all that in mind, the following quote from Isiah Thomas regarding the Randolph trade is more than a little surprising, even though by and large it seems to have gone unnoticed:

I think Zach is a prideful defender right now and I think, as a team, we?ll get better as a defensive unit. Again, because I think we?ll defend the three-point line better than last year. We don?t necessarily give up a tremendous amount of points in the paint. We usually outscore teams in the paint, but we got hurt last year defensively because of the three point line. I?m not necessarily looking to improve our interior defense as much as I am trying to improve the defense on the three-point line. We have to get better on the perimeter. That?s where we had problems last year.

No Knicks fan is going to argue that New York did a poor job defending the perimeter last season. But curiously, Thomas contends that the interior defense is not a key area of concern. But that can’t be right, can it?

This matter bears a closer investigation. Fortunately, we can get a pretty decent picture of how well the Knicks defend different regions of the court using data from 82games.com. (Not all of the stats mentioned here are directly available at 82games.com, but they can be calculated from stats available at 82games.com and basketball-reference.com.) In particular, we can look at how well the Knicks defend shots in the paint, 2 point jumpers, and 3 point attempts. There are a couple of different components we can look at for each portion of the court: how often the opponent tends to shoot there and how well the Knicks defend field goals attempted there. Combining those two components, we can figure out how many points the average Knicks opponent gets from each region of the court per 100 field goal attempts. These data for the 2006/07 season are plotted in the graph below in standardized form, in order to give a side-by-side comparison of how the Knicks’ performance on each measure stacked up against the rest of the league.

Knicks 2006/07 Defense

The data seems to support Thomas’s claim. It seems the Knicks actually did do a good job of defending the paint in ’07. In actual fact, New York was not very good at preventing opponents from scoring once they got in position to get a shot up in the paint. However, this weakness was more than compensated for by the sheer paucity of field goal attempts in the paint by Knicks opponents. Only the Rockets allowed a lower proportion of inside field goal attempts than the Knicks. And in terms of points in the paint per 100 FGA, only the Rockets (3rd in overall defensive efficiency), Bulls (1st), Heat (8th), and Spurs (2nd) were stingier. That is impressive company.

Still, something doesn’t seem quite right. The 4 teams that allowed fewer points in the paint per 100 FGA were all strong defensive teams overall with strong shot blocking presences. Neither of those things can be said for the ’07 Knicks. All 4 of those teams were also in the top 7 in eFG% allowed in the paint, which makes for a natural story: these teams were very good at defending field goal attempts in the paint, thus dissuading the opposition from attempting shots in the paint to begin with. Such a natural explanation for why the opposition attempted so few shots in the paint is not on offer for the Knicks, since they were among the worst at guarding inside shot attempts. This raises one’s suspicion that perhaps the Knicks allowed so few shot attempts in the paint for some reason other than good interior defense.

For instance, perhaps the Knicks just fouled the opposition a lot whenever they got near the rim. This would be poor defensive practice, but it would also have the effect of reducing inside FGA by the opponent. But this excessive fouling in the paint hypothesis doesn’t seem tenable. The Knicks were right at the league average in terms of opponent free throw attempts per 100 possessions, and at the center / power forward positions they accumulated only 0.4 fouls per 100 possessions more than the league average.

Another possibility is that the Knicks did a lot of switching, doubling, and rotating to try to compensate for their poor interior defensive eFG%. Such a tactic could have the effect of limiting interior FGA while leaving the perimeter vulnerable. But is this consistent with the data? The Knicks certainly got crushed from the 3 point line. But they actually did a pretty good job at defending the 2 point jumper, holding opponents’ eFG% below the league average and allowing them to shoot a higher proportion of 2 point jumpers than the league average. (Allowing more 2 point jumpers is actually a good defensive tactic on the whole, since they are the lowest percentage shots available on the court.)

It turns out that this pattern of data is consistent with league trends for the ’07 season. For the league as a whole, defensive eFG% in the paint was significantly correlated with opponent 3 point attempts (r = .42, p = .02), opponent 3 point eFG% (r = .53, p = .003), and opponent points per 100 FGA coming from 3 pointers (r = .52, p = .003). In other words, the teams that defended the paint better also tended to defend the 3 point shot better. However, the correlations between interior defensive eFG% and 2 point jumper attempts and eFG% fail to reach statistical significance. That is, at least in ’07, there was no relationship between how well teams defended the paint and how well they defended the 2 point jump shot.

On the other hand, on a league-wide scale, the proportion of interior FGA allowed was not correlated with interior defensive eFG% and also was not correlated with opponent % FGA and eFG% for 2 and 3 point jumpers. This does not fit so nicely with the hypothesis that the Knicks surrendered so few interior FGA because of a swarming, scrambling interior D that left the perimeter vulnerable. It is possible that the hypothesis is correct nonetheless, and the Knicks were just idiosyncratic in terms of how they defended the paint. But it is also possible that, for all their defensive weaknesses and warts, they were doing something right in order to limit opponent FGA in the paint. So although we may be strongly suspicious of the appearance that the Knicks defended the paint well in ’07, the data presented here does not categorically rule out the possibility that there was some largely unrecognized but positive component to New York’s interior D that allowed them to limit interior FGA, and thus interior points per 100 FGA, by the opposition.

However, the idea that New York’s atrocious defense of the 3 pointer is linked to their poor interior defensive eFG% seems a bit stronger. Not only is this idea consistent with conventional basketball wisdom, but it is also consistent with league-wide statistical trends in the ’07 season. The worse teams defended the paint in terms of interior defensive eFG%, the worse they tended to defend the 3 point shot. (Of course, correlation does not imply causation, but there are independent, observational reasons for believing that a poorer interior defense could lead to a poorer perimeter defense.) The Knicks had a poor interior defensive eFG% and were among the very worst at defending 3s. So if the Knicks are to shore up their defense of the 3 pointer, it could very well require a fortified interior defensive eFG% (e.g. by way of better shot blocking and quicker defensive rotations). If the team focuses on improving 3 point defense while largely neglecting to focus on bolstering the interior defense, as Thomas’s quote suggests, the returns on perimter D could be fundamentally limited.

Can Curry and Randolph coexist?

I must admit that my initial gut reaction to the Randolph trade was not exactly great. And I still don’t really like it. The obvious parallel here is the disastrous Francis trade, in which the Knicks acquired a talented but flawed player with a huge contract who duplicated almost exactly the skill set of a player already on the roster. Unlike the Francis trade, there is no question the Knicks won big on the talent end of this trade. But is there any hope that Curry and Randolph might coexist any better than Marbury and Francis did? On closer inspection, it’s not as poor a match as your gut reaction might have you think. Not that I’m doing jumping jacks over here, but let me explain.

The immediate concern is that Randolph’s prodigious scoring duplicates what Curry brings to the table. However, the story is not quite that simple. Curry is exclusively a low post player; last season he attempted 79% of his FGAs close to the basket and shot those at a stellar .667 eFG%. On the 21% of his FGAs that were further out, he shot an embarrassing .243. However, Randolph is more of a perimeter player. Last season he attempted a full 59% of his FGAs on jumpers and dropped them in at a .417 clip, which is actually pretty good efficiency on a jump shot for a big guy. (By way of comparison, in Frye’s rookie season he attempted 64% of his FGAs on jumpers and shot an identical .417 clip. The similarity here is actually pretty eerie.) A relatively paltry 41% of Randolph’s FGAs came in the paint, and his eFG% on those inside attempts was .551– good, but not Eddy Curry good.

So there is a relatively natural division of labor here: Curry is exclusively the workhorse in the paint, whereas Randolph has an effective face-up game to complement his effective post game. It is plausible that Randolph could become the more perimeter oriented complement to Curry that Frye was supposed to be while still doing considerable damage in the paint as well. In fact, admittedly having not seen much of Portland over the past few seasons, checking out his youtube clips reveals a player who is surprisingly quick and nimble with an effective face up game and a sneaky knack for scoring. He is not quite the methodical bruiser I had in mind, in spite of his hefty physique. For instance, did you know Zach Randolph could do this? It seems that the offensive talents of Randolph and Curry do indeed have a fighter’s chance of coexisting. If it works out it would be an awfully tough duo to contain.

While we’re comparing the two, Randolph is also a much better passer than Curry. He had twice as many assists per 100 possessions (7.9) and more than 6 fewer turnovers per 100 possessions (11.6) than Curry last season. In fact, contrary to appearances, Randolph’s turnover rate is entirely benign. His turnovers per 40 minutes were only so high last season because of his monstrous usage rate. Compare Randolph’s turnovers per 100 possessions with other high usage big men last season and you find that it’s actually par for the course. Only one guy sticks out like a sore thumb on this list. Can you guess who it is?

player usage rate TO / 100poss
Nowitzki 26.8 8.3
Garnett 25.2 9.9
Bosh 23.8 10.5
Brand 22.3 10.9
Boozer 24.9 11.2
Randolph 30.2 11.6
Gasol 23.3 11.6
J. O’Neal 25.8 11.9
Duncan 25.5 11.9
Shaq 26.3 12.1
Yao 29.9 13.2
Stoudemire 22.5 14.2
Curry 23.1 17.7

All this means that Randolph is the more versatile, and ultimately superior, offensive option even though he does not dominate the low post like Curry does. This may explain why Randolph’s usage rate has been consistently higher than Curry’s over their respective careers. Defenses have a harder time denying Randolph possession because of his more diversified game, which could be important for the Knicks given that guards not named Jamal Crawford have sometimes had difficulty feeding Curry the ball. Randolph does not need a guard to feed him in the low post in order to be dangerous, which is key in late game situations.

What about defense? By reputation, Randolph is a slouch. It doesn’t help his case that last season he blocked as many shots per 40 minutes as Nate Robinson. (Yes, you read that right.) But here are his defensive +/- numbers since 02/03:

season defensive +/-
02/03 +5.8
03/04 +2.0
04/05 -2.8
05/06 +1.5
06/07 +1.7

As always, +/- is an imperfect tool that is difficult to interpret. But nonetheless, over the past 4 seasons a relatively consistent pattern emerges for Randolph. His defensive +/- suggests that on average his teams have been better defensively when he’s off the court, but only slightly so– by less than one basket per 48 minutes 100 possessions. However, all of those teams since 03/04 have been in the bottom third in defensive efficiency, which qualifies the interpretation of the +/- numbers. What they suggest is that Randolph isn’t so bad on defense that he makes an already poor defensive team much worse. That isn’t quite the same as concluding that Randolph is even a passable defender. On the other hand, it maybe suggests that Randolph won’t make the Knicks worse on D than they already are. But is he bad enough that he could drag down a defense that is otherwise average or above average? I don’t think the existing data allows a firm conclusion on that question one way or the other. It’s clear that he is not a stalwart on D but it’s not clear if his weaknesses are relatively benign, entirely prohibitive, or somewhere inbetween.

At least the guy is a terror on the boards. He was among the league leaders with a 17.6 rebound rate, which figures to bolster New York’s existing strength in rebounding. The Knicks are already an elite offensive rebounding squad (2nd in the NBA last season), and Randolph should help improve the defensive rebounding (11th). A front court of Randolph (17.6), Lee (20.7), and Balkman (16.4) could be genuinely dominant on the glass on both ends of the court. And of course this is the one area in which Randolph clearly and uncontroversially complements Curry.

So setting aside for now the inconvenient truths that Randolph comes with a huge contract and a history of jail time and punching opponents and teammates alike… he may not be as poor a fit on the court for the Knicks as you thought on first glance. Now, if we could just trade Eddy Curry for Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, then we’d really be cooking.

Reconstructing the Draft

In the last post I argued that the NBA draft is not broken, despite recent complaints about the manner in which it gives bad teams incentive to tank and the manner in which it does not always distribute talent evenly according to record. In fact, in the lottery system there must a tradeoff whereby these opposing flaws are balanced against eachother. Most would agree that it is not acceptable to let tanking run rampant by assigning draft order strictly by record, or to disregard team needs by assigning draft order completely randomly. The trick is to find the best happy medium by considering the severity of each flaw and weighting the system accordingly.

I do believe that the current balance of power between tanking and equitable distribution of talent enforced by the draft lottery is a pretty good one. The system does a good job of reducing the competitive advantage to be had by tanking while simultaneously distributing talent more or less according to need.

Still, that doesn?t mean that the system is perfect, and there has been no shortage of interesting discussion regarding various ways in which the draft ordering process could be improved. (My favorite move so far, suggested independently by John Hollinger and our own Mike K, is to determine draft order by team records around the All-Star game, rather than at the end of the season, in order to discourage tanking.)

Without further ado, allow me to throw my hat into the ring. My plan has 3 independent considerations. It all adds up to a somewhat complex plan that departs from the lottery process entirely, so something like this will not be implemented by the NBA any time soon. However, any one of the three components suggested here could be individually incorporated into the current lottery system, and I think they all make good sense.

I will use the term ?draft score? to refer to some number assigned to each team that determines draft pick ordering. A higher draft score amounts to a higher draft pick. One can think of the current system as assigning draft score purely as a function of team winning percentage, with some weighted randomization introduced by the lottery process. I follow the basic convention of computing draft score by team winning percentage, but suggest 3 modifications.

1. Take conference into account

One of the much-bemoaned consequences of the 2007 lottery is that it seems to have exacerbated the imbalance of power between the Eastern and Western conferences. The West has already been significantly better than the East for years now, and now they are adding not one, but two players who are unanimously held to be franchise talents. It seems as if, before you know it, the East?s top 3 playoff teams will be on a par with the West?s bottom 3. (Actually, sadly enough, it is arguably only the presence of the Pistons that definitively falsifies that statement this year.)

What is going on here? One contributing factor is that, because of the competitive imbalance that already exists, records across conferences are not directly comparable. A .500 record in the West indicates much better team quality than does a .500 record in the East, for example.

Draft seedings should take this disparity into account by adjusting each team?s draft score according to the average quality of its opponents. One method by which this might be accomplished would be to make draft score a function of RPI rather than overall winning percentage. In brief, RPI is a function of a team?s own record, the record of the team?s opponents, and the record of the team?s opponents? opponents. RPI was originally developed so that NCAA teams could more readily be compared, but it can serve our purposes here as well.

Observe the rankings for the NBA?s 10 worst teams by win % and RPI for the 2007 NBA season (t-N indicates that a team was tied for rank N):

win % RPI rank change
Memphis
Boston
Milwaukee
Seattle
Atlanta
Minnesota (t-6)
Portland (t-6)
New York (t-7)
Charlotte (t-7)
Sacramento (t-7)
Boston
Memphis
Milwaukee
Atlanta
Charlotte
New York
Seattle
Portland (t-8)
Philadelphia (t-8)
Indiana
+1
-1
0
+1
+2
+1
-3
-2
+3
+3

The effect of ranking by RPI is to shift a number of Eastern conference teams ahead in the line, while also knocking back teams in the Western conference like Seattle and Portland. (But, also note that God-awful Memphis still manages to stay near the top of the heap.)

I have to admit I am not intimately familiar with how RPI works, and it may be that there are superior formulations that control for quality of competition. Nonetheless, whatever the measure turns out to be, something along these lines should be implemented so that teams? rankings are not obscured by how good (or bad) their opponents are. The current system is biased towards perpetuating the pre-existing competitive imbalance between conferences.

2. Take within-season consistency of play into account

Creating a draft score by team record (adjusted for opponent quality) is good and dandy, but there are still some lingering issues. One is the specter of tanking. Another is the anomalous case where a team?s record takes a nose-dive due to injuries to key players in midseason.

For both tanking and freak injuries, we might want to deduct points from a team?s draft score because the team record is artificially driven down by foul play or mere circumstance, rather than purely reflecting the team?s overall quality. (Presumably we want to distribute talent in order to compensate for talent-deprived rosters rather than to compensate for bad luck.) And in both cases, the tell-tale sign that should manifest is that at some point in the season, the team in question begins to lose at a higher clip than it did during the rest of the season.

The basic idea, then, would be to counterbalance the draft score credit given for overall poor play with a draft score penalty for periods of time in which the team played significantly worse than their season average. There are a number of ways the spirit of such a provision might be implemented. For instance, we might split the season into 10 equal segments (throwing out the last 2 games) and calculate a team?s RPI in each segment. (Using RPI or a similar measure should control for variation in the quality of opposition faced in each segment.) For each 8 game segment in which the team?s RPI is below its season RPI, deduct points from the team?s overall draft score by an amount proportional to the difference between season RPI and segment RPI.

A provision like this would directly work against tanking. When a team tanks, there is a period of time in which it plays significantly worse than its usual pace. The effect of tanking on a team?s overall record would result in a gain of some extra draft score points. However, the sudden dip in quality of play would result in a loss of draft score points. Ultimately, the tanking game simply wouldn?t pay.

Likewise, teams would not benefit just because of bad luck with regard to injuries. For instance, the Knicks played at a .500 pace for much of the season, but fell off sharply at the end due to injuries to key players like Lee and Crawford. Thus, the draft ranking that they ultimately received was out of whack with the type of team they were for most of the season, before mere circumstance intervened. Had they actually been able to use it, the 9th pick in the draft arguably would have been a slightly unfair reward for the Knicks. Deducting points from the Knicks? draft score by an amount proportionate to the degree to which that injury plagued late season swoon was below season-long standards would have resulted in a more equitable draft positioning.

One legitimate worry about this idea is that it might discourage teams from improving as the season goes on, because (using the specific implementation described above) such improvement would raise the team?s season RPI and thus increase the penalty incurred for those portions of the season with RPI lower than season RPI. An easy solution would be to give teams bonus draft score points for improving over the course of the season. Alternatively, depending on how the idea is specifically implemented, the concern mentioned here might not be salient enough to give sufficient incentive against improvement in the first place.

3. Take between-season consistency of play into account

This idea suggests that draft considerations should not be given solely on the basis of one season?s outcome. Some teams are bad for a long, long time, and for whatever reason find it difficult to crawl back to respectability. Other teams are new additions to the non-playoff club, fresh off of some period of years of relative success in the league and now on the inevitable downward trend, e.g. due to losing players to retirement or free agency. Still other teams have been good and still are good, but are just coming off one unusually bad season because of key injuries or other unfortunate circumstances. (I?m looking at you, 1996-97 Spurs.)

Should each of these types of teams be given equal draft standing? My intuition says no. For the sake of parity and for the sake of the quality of life of all those long-suffering fans, I would say that a .300 team that has been bad for years should get better draft prospects than a .300 team that has fallen from the grace of a recent playoff run (all else being equal). And both of those teams should get better draft prospects than an elite team that just stumbles to .300 for one season due to unfortunate circumstances.

The basic way to implement this consideration is as follows. Calculate a team?s draft score for the most recent season. Then add draft scores from some set number of previous seasons, weighting draft scores from each previous season less heavily the more distant in time they are. The cumulative draft score for each team is what determines draft ordering. For instance, a team?s cumulative draft score for the 2007 season might be something like DraftScore(2007) + (0.4 * DraftScore(2006)) + (0.2 * DraftScore(2005)).

One obvious rejoinder to this idea is that some teams are just disasters and don?t deserve the extra help; they?ve been this bad for this long simply because of horrendous management. The latter day Clippers and current day Hawks come to mind. But these especially poorly run teams teams would not be differentially benefited so long as the number of previous seasons used in the calculation of draft score were kept reasonably low, e.g. 3 years. Even teams that are run well inevitably suffer periods of 2 or 3 years of pain before beginning to recover when times get tough. The main idea is to give these teams that are ?between eras,? so to speak, a little more consideration than teams that have just completed an era, or teams that are still in the middle of one.

Is the NBA Draft Broken?

With the dust of the 2007 NBA lottery beginning to settle, two lines of complaint are fresh in the media and fans? collective consciousness:

1. Something is wrong with the draft because it encourages tanking.
2. Something is wrong with the draft because the top picks do not always go to the worst teams.

The implicit irony in the whole situation is that these flaws are not independent. At one end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (2) by assigning draft order strictly by record. But this system maximizes worries about (1) because it gives every non-playoff team every incentive to do their very worst.

At the other end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (1) by assigning draft order completely randomly, say by pulling all 30 team names out of a hat one by one. But this system maximizes worries about (2) because it completely disregards the notion that talent should be distributed according to need.

It seems unrealistic, then, to expect a draft system to eliminate all worries about both (1) and (2); rather, some compromise between the opposing injustices must be struck based on the relative ?moral? weight we assign them. In this case, we can?t both have the absolute greatest taste and the absolute least filling, but we can at least try to find the best balance.

So we must ask, then, which is the graver sin: to encourage teams to tank, or to risk giving the riches to the already rich (or, at least, the lower middle class)? In my mind, it?s no contest. It is worse to fail to give the best talents to the teams that most need them.

Think about it. Because playoff seedings give most teams a reason to remain competitive throughout most of the season, tanking only takes hold for the bottom third of the NBA universe, the part that wasn?t good to begin with. Furthermore, tanking is a tricky game because you can?t be too obvious about it, which in turn limits the extent to which you can actually tank in an effective fashion. The most effective tanking strategy would be for a team to play its five worst players for all 48 minutes of every game, but of course public pressure against deliberately losing prevents teams from deploying anything nearing such a fail-safe tanking method. For the same reason, any outright directives to coaches or players to, you know, not try so hard are taboo– in the not unlikely event that such explicit directives are leaked to the media, you?re sitting on a PR disaster for the ages. Likewise, funny business about who plays how many minutes can only be brought into play in the latter stages of the season without raising too many eyebrows.

So, in reality, what tanking comes down to is this: a handful of the NBA?s worst teams may decline to play a handful of their better players for a handful of games (or fourth quarters) in the last third or quarter of the season. Sure, in principle it violates sportsmanlike ethics, but in practice it doesn?t seem too outrageously bad, does it? Fans of said tanking team only have to sit through play over the final stages of the season that, on average, is marginally worse than the poor play they had already been sitting through all season. As compensation, in the short term they get to see their team?s youth play and in the long term their team gets marginally better prospects for a better talent in the draft. In the grand scheme of things, this may not be ethically ideal, but it does not strike me as a huge quandary either. It is maybe on a par with a poor-salaried cubicle worker striking back at the system by stealing office supplies every now and then– a regrettable attitude that is antithetical to the ideals of the profession, but which nonetheless entails relatively benign consequences.

On the other hand, failing to give the neediest teams the best new talent is, in the NBA world, a crime of the highest order. In basketball, one singular talent can be the difference maker for a franchise for over a decade, as Knicks fans know all too well. A team?s legacy and place in basketball history, as well as an entire basketball era in the lives of thousands of current and yet-to-be fans, may depend on the team securing that singular talent. These are the things that make basketball, as a sporting institution, go ?round. And in a just world we?d like for those wellsprings of basketball life to go to the teams and fans that have longest been deprived of them.

So, if we must strike a compromise between a system that encourages tanking and a system that encourages equitable distribution of talent, it should certainly hedge considerably toward equitable distribution of talent.

But, strangely enough, I?m not so sure that the current system really is broken. The implicit social constraints on just how much a team can tank limits just how many wins a team can shave from its record, and the way the lottery system works ultimately limits the impact of those shaved wins on draft standing. In an ESPN Insider article written back in March, John Hollinger figured that a tanking team is liable to drop at most 5 games due to its (socially constrained) tanking efforts, which on average boosts a team?s chances at the top pick by only 6 percentage points. That is the best case tanking scenario; most are not even that dramatic in terms of wins sacrificed or percentage points gained.

Likewise, the current system does a reasonably good job of allowing for equitable distribution of talent. There is a fairly considerable amount of volatility at the top, but only true bottom feeders are really in contention. (Although the 3 worst teams all dropped out of the top 3 slots this year in an already infamous upset, it is hard to argue that the teams that managed to move up are substantially less needing or deserving of those top picks.) And, because only the top 3 picks are up for lottery grabs, it is ensured that a lottery team will select no lower than 3 spots below its ranking according to record, which is an effective way to limit the volatility of the lottery process and ensure equitable distribution of drafting opportunities across the map.

On the whole, the system seems reasonably well balanced, given the inherent compromises that must be made. An argument can be made that the system should be tweaked to either further discourage tanking or to assign draft order more systematically according to record, but I get the feeling that calls for such tweaks are overreactions to extraordinary circumstances. Where have these complaints been the last 10 years? So much attention has been called both to tanking and to the worst teams losing the best picks simply because there is so much talent at the very top of this draft class, and thus so much at stake. This is a historically unusual situation that, because of its potential to alter the NBA landscape for the next 10 years, makes the injustices on both sides of the current lottery compromise seem more pronounced, more unjust, and more in need of change. But to shift the compromise and change one injustice for the better is to change the other for the worse, and it?s not clear that, on the whole, the system isn?t already settled on a reasonable balance.