Sunday, October 28, 2012

Season Preview and Other Thoughts

The NBA is back! At JPO, we have been watching the league’s doings with a half-dreamy and half-jaded eye since the Heat hoisted the O’Brien trophy last June. The coming season will be exhilarating, as the Heat try to repeat (which would constitute a ninth NBA championship ring for Pat Riley and a third for Dwyane Wade, quietly pushing the latter up the list of all-time great shooting guards); the Lakers try to unite four Hall of Famers for the second time in a decade; young players like Curry, Wall, Cousins, Irving, and Davis seek to fulfill their potential; and mid-tier teams like Chicago, New York, Indiana, Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver, and the Clippers aim to either leap to greatness or possibly dismantle their roster. For the record, I like Miami to win the title again in a rematch with Oklahoma City.

I want to address a distressing trend that continued this summer, however. For years several commentators have cried for the contraction of weak NBA teams that are generally terrible year after year, like Charlotte, Minnesota, or Golden State. The nature of basketball –- a 5-on-5 game potentially dominated by one side that fields the two best players -– makes it easy for a couple squads to collect most of the treasure year after year, and very hard to build a winning team, because the number of dominant studs (perhaps 10 or 15) is very small relative to the pool of all pro players (around 500 who are either rostered or hoping to regain a roster spot during a given season). Thus, the NBA sees the widest variance of results of any of the top North American sports leagues: the best two or three teams regularly win 75% or 80% of their games, while the worst teams win 20%. In baseball, say, the best team wins 60% of its games (winning 100 of 162 regular-season contests is a rare and historic achievement). Pro football often sees superlative (14-2) or putrid (2-14) records, but -– because (1) aggregate talent is more evenly matched in an 11-on-11 game, with separate platoons for offense and defense, and (2) non-guaranteed contracts make it easier for management to manipulate the roster each offseason -– the correlation of success from one season to the next is relatively weak. To consider the NFL’s NFC Central division, Green Bay finished 15-1 in the 2011 campaign and now is 4-3 in 2012. The Detroit Lions, which started last season 10-5, subsequently lost 6 of 8 games in calendar year 2012. The Chicago Bears were 8-8 in 2011 and now stand at 5-1; Minnesota was a lousy 3-13 last year but has started this season 5-2. (The low sample size that comprises the NFL regular season –- only 16 games –- contributes to the seemingly sharp swings of performance from one year to the next. Within a given NBA season, many teams might experience something like a 3-13 stretch and a 5-2 stretch.)

If a few NBA teams could be eliminated and their best players handed to middle-class squads like Utah, Milwaukee, or Atlanta , the league might have greater equity of talent distribution, which would make more games 50-50 affairs. This past summer saw several trades that amounted to the fruits of a putative dispersal draft: Orlando dealt Dwight Howard and Most Improved Player Ryan Anderson, Phoenix contributed Steve Nash, Atlanta shipped out Joe Johnson, and Houston gave away all their veterans. And lo, the Magic, Suns, and Rockets are poised to be terrible this season; few fans aside from locals in those metropolises would mind if the teams disappeared. This experiment might be worthwhile if it helped some fringe playoff teams rise above their past mediocrity. But the recipients of these players were mostly not playoff hopefuls or the near-contenders like Memphis and Indiana mentioned above; rather, it was championship-caliber squads who swelled their ranks with top guys. Boston picked up former Finals starter Courtney Lee in a one-sided trade, Los Angeles added likely Hall of Famers Howard and Nash for only the weak-kneed Andrew Bynum and future draft picks; Brooklyn (née New Jersey) added Joe Johnson to a roster that already included past All-Stars Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace; and, just yesterday, Oklahoma City took perennial 20-point scorer Kevin Martin and two future lottery picks off Houston’s hands. (To be fair, Houston picked up budding star James Harden in the trade, so the deal was fair, but the Rox will struggle for a couple years with a bevy of young players. 22-year-old Harden similarly struggled in the Finals last spring.)

Let us consider Las Vegas’s odds** on particular teams to win the 2013 NBA championship:
  • Miami – 9:4 (31% chance)
  • L.A. Lakers – 11:4 (27% chance)
  • Oklahoma City Thunder – 17:4 (19% chance)
  • Boston Celtics – 16:1 (6% chance)
  • Chicago Bulls – 16:1 (6% chance)
  • San Antonio Spurs – 16:1 (6% chance)

  • The Clippers have roughly a 4% chance in this scheme, and every other team has yet slimmer odds. If I am a typical parochially-oriented fan and my favorite team’s chance of a championship is consistently less than 5% (and the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs have hogged those odds tables for the last five years, while the Thunder will likely receive generous odds for the rest of this decade), why should I care? It is clear that without at least two All-NBA-caliber talents on a squad, a team’s goose is headed straight for the roaster. The Detroit Pistons of 2004 are commonly presented as the rare starless team that won a championship and managed to sustain contendership for several seasons, but they featured Ben Wallace (four All-NBA selections), Rasheed Wallace (four All-Star selections), and Chauncey Billups (five All-Star selections and three All-NBA selections).

    If a team cannot snag a Hall of Fame-level player via draft or free agency, it has little hope of winning. Consider, for example, the Toronto Raptors. They won the NBA’s top draft pick in 2006, when the best players available were Andrea Bargnani, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and Randy Foye. Had they won that pick in 2003 (James, Wade), 2004 (Dwight Howard), 2005 (Paul, Bogut, Williams), 2007 (Durant or even Oden, who likely could have seen a promising career with better medical treatment), 2008 (Rose, Westbrook, Love), or 2009 (Griffin), the Raptors might be building a championship squad now. They have never been able to draft a superstar, instead choosing secondary stars like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh who could not alone lead the team to relevancy and left the cold climes of T.O, barren of basketball lucre, at the first opportunity. The Raptors’ poor draft timing was not the “fault” of the organization, but the result is just as maddening. But that’s basketball, right? It’s a five-on-five game and a couple top guys are necessary and nearly sufficient to win. That has been true since Russell and Cousy clambered across the parquet in Boston .

    A few prescriptions have been thrown out to prevent too much clustering of talent: a “franchise” tag, as the NFL uses, to deny free agency to one star per team (but this seems arbitrary and mean); financial incentives like the “luxury tax” to discourage high aggregate team salary (but the threshold for punishment has been set high enough relative to individual salaries so that three great players can still comfortably sit on one team’s payroll); and removing the cap on individual salaries. It is this final step that I am beginning to favor. Without an individual cap (the “max” rule), LeBron James would command at least $30 million in an open bidding war instead of $16 million. Adding Dwyane Wade next to him would put aggregate salary close to $60 million just for those guys, and even if the luxury tax line were retained at its current level (around $70 million) rather than reduced, no team could field a profitable and effective squad around these two players. Stars like James and Wade (or Durant and Westbrook) might agree to take a small bit less than $30 MM for the organization’s benefit, but the haircut would not be enough to make the union of two of these guys feasible. 

    So those are my thoughts on an owners' agenda for the next collective bargaining round in a few years. The union would likely oppose this, because with the total nominal dollars of league-wide player salary essentially fixed by the CBA (it is a linear function of revenue, which no clever agent can do much to change), increasing salaries for a few superstars would mean a reduction of salary for everyone else.

    At any rate, let's play ball! =========================================================
    **These are not necessarily Vegas’s best guesses of probabilities, but rather the lines that bring in equal money on both sides of the respective bet. Perhaps bettors with parochial allegiances consistently over-rate their team’s chances, inflating the Vegas odds above the “true” value. I mention this largely to explain why the numbers sum to over 100%.