Why teams should try and get on the treadmill of mediocrity

In 2010 the Portland Trail Blazers let General Manager Kevin Pritchard go. Doing so would imply they did not believe in his management techniques. Yet oddly, they seem to be following some of his points that he made after leaving the Blazers organization. At Sloan in 2011 Pritchard added a term to the lexicon of basketball management — “The treadmill of mediocrity

The basic concept is a team that is not a contender needs to tank to become a contender. The worst thing to be is a perennial playoff team that isn’t a contender. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. In fact, when Pritchard provided this term Mark Cuban agreed quickly. So did Michael Jordan, who proceeded to dismantle the only playoff team in Bobcats history (we assume in the hopes of making it a contender). The resulting team is one of the worst teams in history, with no signs of contending in site.

The team that fired Pritchard, because they didn’t like his views, have latched on to this idea. However, Dave Berri decided to tackle this problem in his most recent Freakonomics post: You Don’t Need to be Bad to be Good in the NBA

Let’s say a team wants to be a contender in the NBA. What type of team would they want the season before? The conventional wisdom might state they’d want to be a bad team so they could have more flexibility and better draft picks. Surely, this would be a better option than simply being mediocre. But what did the data say? Dave looked back over the last 150 “contenders” (55+ win teams) and here are their best options in order:

  • Already be a contender
  • Be a good team (playoff caliber team)
  • Be an ok team.

The best option for being a great team is overwhelming to be already a great team! Being on the cusp of breaking out is just slightly better than being in the treadmill of mediocrity. However, once a team gets more than a season out being on a good team is the best option for improvement in the future (outside of already being a great team.) By the time we get four years out we see being on an OK team is about as good for a team’s fortunes as being a 50-54 win team. However, all of these options are much better than being on bad (20-29 win) teams to terrible (< 20 win) teams.

A team that tanks to get a good draft prospect is simply not in good shape. There’s many reasons for this. The odds a rookie will be great are low. Bad teams often have multiple problems to fix. Frankly, it’s a much better scenario to have a few good players on a team lacking depth.

It’s odd that the Blazers decided to fire Pritchard and are choosing to follow his advice. In fact Dave sums it up best:

But if you are close – like the Blazers were – your best bet is to find one or two more players that will get you into the promise land.  Based on the data, giving away one of your most productive players for the hope of something better is simply not a very good strategy.  And given what we see from the history of “excellent” teams, the Blazers – if they are reduced to a team that is not good enough to win 40 games in 2012-13 – are now that much further from finding excellence (and making Henry Abbott happy).

So the next time your team makes the playoffs and you hear someone say that next season they need to tank if they ever want to really compete? Well, if you really want to compete, you had better hope your front office doesn’t take this advice.

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