Excellent Article on NBA Tanking in the Atlantic Magazine

Derek Thompson – for the April issue of the Atlantic Magazine – has a very good article on NBA tanking. Here are a few quotes I want to highlight (although everyone should read the entire article):

  • “From the fan’s perspective, nothing is more frustrating than being average,” (David) Berri says, “because being mediocre gives fans the greatest sense of uncertainty: one day they’re great, and another day they stink.” Yet, as Berri’s analysis shows, the treadmill metaphor turns out to be wrong: Mediocre teams don’t necessarily stay mediocre. Within two years, they’re three times more likely to become elite (winning at least two-thirds of their games) than the lousy squads that locked up the top picks. Developing and effectively deploying current players, making smart trades and judiciously signing free agents, finding good players later in the draft—these patient, sometimes incremental moves appear to work better than tearing things down to try to land a hyped-up superhero in the draft.
  • Warren Buffett once observed: when you bring good executives into a bad company, it’s the reputation of the company that stays intact. Turnarounds aren’t a one-man job in the NBA, either. Bad teams aren’t one great player away from greatness. They’re one great player away from mediocrity. Almost every championship team going back three decades had not one but three above-average starters. To amend Buffett’s construction: when you bring a successful college player onto a bad pro team, it’s the reputation of the team that stays intact. In basketball and in business, big changes are sometimes warranted. But too often, splashy moves are made because they’re splashy—and because making one big bet is easier than making lots of small, hard decisions. The big lie about tanking is that it’s a prudent long-term strategy, when in fact it’s just another get-rich-quick scheme. It invites fans to see spectacular failure as a kind of trampoline that will catch teams at their nadir and launch them into the stratosphere. The truth is boring and simple. In the short term, average teams are more likely to become good, because they’re already closer to being good. The rampant fear in the NBA that mediocrity is a perpetual purgatory elides that crucial detail about purgatory: it’s closer to heaven than the alternative.

Again, go read the entire article.  Nice to see some good writing on this subject.

- DJ

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