The Lottery Treadmill and “Hoping to Get Lucky” is Not a Business Plan

The term “treadmill of mediocrity” has crept into the vocabulary of some NBA fans recently. The term – introduced by former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard – doesn’t seem to have much empirical support (as noted in this forum HERE and HERE and HERE).

There is another treadmill, though, that teams seem to frequently run on.  The “lottery treadmill” – characterized by a team making repeated trips back to the NBA’s May lottery drawing – has trapped more than half of the NBA’s teams across the past three decades.  And that is the subject of my latest for Freakonomics.

The post – which is admittedly too long (more than 1400 words) – focuses primarily on Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats.   But as is noted, the Bobcats are not the only team that keeps making repeated returns to the lottery.  The Bobcats, though, are explicit in their argument that the lottery is key to their long-run strategy.

As I noted, though, success in the lottery is primarily due to luck.  And as the post noted:

Hoping to get lucky may be a good plan if you are in a bar on a Friday night.  But it is hardly a credible plan for a business organization. 

Proponents of the “hoping to get lucky” plan seem to focus on the Oklahoma City Thunder.  The Thunder (or Seattle SuperSonics) made four trips to the lottery from 2006 to 2009.  These trips yielded Mouhamed Sene (who is out of the league), Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.  Two of these players – Durant and Harden – led the Thunder in Wins Produced in 2011-12. 

But Oklahoma City is also helped by Serge Ibaka, who was not a lottery pick.  Players like Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha (a late-lottery pick of the Sixers in 2006) are also important (Westbrook tends to be a bit overrated).  In addition, what if the Thunder would have been really lucky in 2007? Had the Sonics won the lottery in 2007 would they have passed on Greg Oden and taken Durant?  I suspect that the part of the reason the Thunder are one of the NBA’s top teams today is because they were not quite as lucky as they would have liked to be in 2007.

So perhaps the business plan should be “hope I get lucky, but not that lucky”?  Again, that doesn’t seem like much of a plan.  And if your team is hoping for luck, maybe you shouldn’t be hoping they will be successful anytime soon.

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