Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the various MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panels is how frequently they give rise to, one would hope, a future paper or panel.
Earlier this week I wondered if quants had numbers to determine the merits of conceding blowouts as soon as a game is, statistically-speaking, over. And yesterday, my mind was all aflutter about whether team's should think of developing new head coaches in the same way they develop young players.
Towards the close of yesterday's basketball analytics panel, Mark Cuban and Kevin Pritchard showed their cards in terms of fast-tracking a franchise rebuilding project.
Cuban confessed that once Dirk Nowitzki retires he expects the Mavericks to lose, and, if he gets his way, they'll lose badly. Kevin Pritchard seemed to agree and introduced a new term into our lexicons: "the mediocrity treadmill."
TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
There is no championship future for a middling team that is stuck in the embattled space between those who struggle to make the playoffs and those that struggle and miss. Cuban has no desire for the Mavericks to be such a team. Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan recently defended trading Gerald Wallace to the Portland Trailblazers by saying, "We don't want to be the seventh or eighth seed." The Bobcats have been, at best, mediocre, and so perhaps we can interpret his statement as one owner casting his philosophical lot with Cuban and Pritchard.
But before we go and make assumptions, the first question that deserves an answer is whether the mediocrity treadmill actually exists?
Once there is a definitive answer to this question, the conversation shifts to the relative merits of mediocrity and, if one so desires, how to best bypass mediocrity and move into an era of winning. If you're stuck on the mediocrity treadmill, how do you get off? What do the numbers suggest is an appropriate amount of cap clearing? What balance should one seek between acquiring veteran free agents and acquiring draft picks through a combination of losing and house cleaning?
We make all sorts of assumptions based on these questions, but what do the numbers say?
Earlier today Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck suggested an in-house study that provides a baseline for team's who want to win championships. “We looked at the last 25 NBA champions. Twenty-four out of twenty-five were won with a big three concept - three all-stars." Grousbeck further defined his study by qualifying his big three as one player who is among the fifty greatest of all time and two all stars.
But it's not clear that all NBA owners mind walking the treadmill, year after year, season after season. Grousbeck is not Donald Sterling. Sterling, for example, seems entirely content to walk and walk and walk so long as the tread is lined with money. He's trying to turn a profit, and winning is a secondary concern. The Clippers are a team on the rise, but this is has little, if anything at all, to do with Sterling. The arrival of Blake Griffin has forced Sterling's hand.
But there are other teams -- the Bucks and 76ers come to mind -- that seem stuck in the middling tier. Is the opportunity of playoff revenue enough to offset the malaise of mediocrity?
Assuming teams have three, five and 10 year business plans in place -- plans that are designed to produce a team that is profitable at the box office and successful on the court -- should they pencil in a losing season or two as part of their plan? Some would describe this approach as a species of tanking, but that's not at all fair to Cuban and it misses the point, which is, after all, employing strategies that are more conducive to winning. If the data demonstrates that a strategy of temporarily embraced losing is actually a likelier fast-track to greater success, why would the sports public discourage stepping off the mediocrity treadmill as a smart long term strategy of team building. Losing, in this sense, is not only a path to success but, if viewed from above, a service to fans.