The secret to winning in the NBA

The following is from Alexander “Lexie” Barza. Lexie lives in Boston where he does marketing for The Cambridge Institute of International Education. He spends his free time playing with basketballs, data, and words (in no particular order). He appreciates the WP metric because it is based on data, not hunches or what “looks” right. Oh, and also because it’s the only metric that accurately reflects just how overrated Antoine Walker was. For those who like Twitter (and isn’t that everyone?), Lexie can be followed at @docoolstuff.

Winning in the NBA seems quite simple: all teams have to do is acquire and employ productive players. Of course, this is harder to do than it seems. For one, most NBA teams do not properly evaluate talent, leading to the misallocation of limited resources (draft picks, cap space, minutes, etc). Additionally, many productive players never even make it onto the open market due to the rookie draft and contractual incentives that discourage players from changing teams. Finally, history is littered with examples of teams that tanked in order to acquire a “can’t-miss” prospect, only to receive a pick that is worse than what they’ve “earned” or to find that the prospect they drafted did indeed miss. Throw in the unpredictability of injuries and it’s clear that acquiring and employing productive players is more challenging than teams would like.

But what if there was another way to win more regular season games that, while not as impactful as employing stars, was far easier, cheaper, and more controllable? Surely NBA decision makers, being the rational actors that they are, would recognize this strategy and use it to their benefit? If you think the answer to this question is “yes”, you’re probably reading the wrong blog!

So what is this overlooked, easy, cheap, and controllable tactic that could enable teams to win more regular season games? Simply put, it’s to avoid giving any meaningful minutes to really bad players, particularly to veterans who aren’t likely to improve.

To accomplish this goal, a team simply needs to reallocate all the minutes it’s currently giving to unproductive players. In theory, this reallocation may sound feasible but tricky, given that every other rational team should be competing for the same limited group of productive players. In reality, this trade would be remarkably simple, since NBA talent evaluators inaccurately measure productivity, leaving a ripe field of underplayed, attainable players just waiting to perform average or better.

Furthermore, teams don’t even need to uncover hidden gems to win more regular season games: simply reallocating their wasted minutes to average or even slightly below average players would lead to an increase in win totals! And yet, a quick scan of recent NBA history indicates that even in the information age, almost every team is guilty of employing players who should only see the floor in case of emergency.

As a quick and dirty way of capturing the extent to which each team has allowed unproductive players to sabotage regular season success, I looked at data from the 14 seasons spanning 1999-2013 and summed each team’s negative wins produced over that time. This data certainly doesn’t serve as a complete reflection of a team’s decision making competence and there is the occasional (rare) justification for playing unproductive players (e.g. rookies, trade bait, garbage time, etc). However, this data serves as a decent proxy for revealing just how many wins are given away by people whose job security depends on their ability to win games:

Negative Wins Produced from 1999-00 — 2012-13
Rank Team Sum of Negative Wins
1 LAC -46.89
2 CHI -40.25
3 CLE -39.17
4 WAS -38.54
5 OKC/SEA -38.30
6 ORL -37.81
7 TOR -37.65
8 ATL -37.00
9 MIN -36.53
10 CHA -35.79
11 UTA -35.76
12 NOP/CHH -32.60
13 BRK/NJN -30.56
14 NYK -29.67
15 MIA -29.06
16 GSW -27.33
17 PHO -26.38
18 MEM/VAN -25.43
19 POR -25.39
20 SAC -24.78
21 PHI -23.20
22 DEN -22.27
23 BOS -22.14
24 IND -19.32
25 LAL -17.36
26 DET -16.80
27 MIL -16.64
28 HOU -16.39
29 DAL -14.27
30 SAS -8.89
Average: -28.41
Total: -852.17

Some brief highlights before moving on:

  • Over the past 14 seasons, Clippers’ players have produced ~5.5% of the NBA’s negative wins. An average team would have produced ~3.3%, or -28.4 wins.
  • One player — Andrea Bargnani — is responsible for 59% of Toronto’s negative wins.
  • The Bobcats have only been in the NBA since 2005, but thanks to some very unproductive players, they still finish in the top 10.
  • Utah’s 11th in negative wins, but the Jazz are also 6th in W/L% as well, because they’re good at playing their star players.
  • Milwaukee’s only 27th in negative wins, but they’re also only 17th in wins produced. They’re good at not playing unproductive players, but not great at acquiring and/or playing really productive players.
  • The Spurs finish last in negative wins. This is like traditional golf scoring, so that’s a good thing! San Antonio has only produced about 1% of the NBA’s negative wins.

For even more fun, I generated a scatter plot comparing each team’s negative wins produced and their overall win percentage. What you see is a strong correlation that, although is to be expected for a number of reasons, nevertheless accentuates how the most consistent winners (San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, etc) not only acquire good players, but understand the value of not giving away wins via the employment of bad players:

To summarize, it’s important to recognize just how much a team loses by choosing to play very bad players, particularly veterans who aren’t likely to improve. Instead, these minutes and roster spots should be given to young players with potential. Moreover, since we know that fan attendance is tied to wins, teams that give away wins are also choosing to give away money.

Nevertheless, there are clear limits to the gains a team could achieve by redistributing the minutes given to poor players. Realistically, teams need star players to win, particularly in the playoffs when wins can be largely attributed to your top 5 players. However, in a competitive league where playoff seeding (and home-court advantage) can come down to one or two games, it’s amazing to see that NBA decision makers consistently throw away wins by choosing to play horrible players.

– Lexie

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