Monday, December 9, 2013

The Secret Ingredient to Consistently Winning in the NBA

To consistently win games in the NBA, team decision makers must follow a seemingly simple recipe: acquire and employ productive players. However, for a variety of reasons, this recipe can be hard to execute. For one, most NBA teams do not properly evaluate talent, leading to the misallocation of valuable, limited resources (draft picks, cap space, minutes, etc…). Additionally, many productive players never even make it to the open market since league rules not only stipulate that new players must enter the draft, but also incentivize players to re-sign with their current teams via contractual favoritism. Moreover, NBA history is pockmarked with examples of teams who tanked in order to acquire a sure thing prospect, only to receive a picks that is worse than what they’ve “earned” or to find that the “can’t-miss” prospect they drafted did indeed miss. Throw in the unpredictability of injuries, and it’s clear that acquiring and employing productive players is more difficult and less controllable 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 they are, would recognize this strategy and use it to their benefit…right? If you’re nodding “yes” right now, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.

So what is this oft-overlooked, easy, cheap and controllable tactic that could enable teams to easily add regular season wins to their totals? 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, however, 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 13 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 decision makers whose job security is closely tied to their ability to win games:

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 employ very bad players, particularly veterans who aren’t like to improve. These teams waste valuable, limited resources in the form of minutes and roster spots that at a bare minimum should be given to unproductive 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 minutes given to poor players. Realistically, teams need good 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 NBA decision makers consistently give away valuable wins by choosing to play horrible players. 

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