Two Paths to the Bottom of the NBA

By Julian Ryan

On draft night June 28th 2013, Sixers GM traded away All-Star Jrue Holiday for the sixth overall pick (which became Nerlens Noel, who is yet to play a minute in the NBA due to a pre-existing torn ACL) and a top-5 protected 2014 first round pick. At the trade deadline this season, Hinkie traded away starters Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner for second round picks, Earl Clark and Danny Granger. Clark has since been waived, and Granger was bought out of his contract. After starting 12-21, they have since gone 3-27 and just posted one of the worst months in NBA history.

The Milwaukee Bucks approached last offseason quite differently, signing Larry Sanders to a four year $44 million extension and shelling out $46.2 million on the godly talents of O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia and Carlos Delfino. At the time, the moves were panned for, as Simmons described it, their “eternal quest for 40-42”. However, the Bucks have fallen way short of those giddy heights as the team languishes at 12-47 this season.

These two teams are now the primary contenders for the most lottery balls in one of the best draft classes in a while, but their methods of getting there could not be more opposite. The Bucks made bad choices and need help from a top pick to get competitive again; the Sixers are taking advantage of a system which incentivizes poor play.

Looking at the arc of the team’s regular seasons shows this all the more clearly. I compared each team’s wins projections simply from looking at current win percentage and scaling it up for the rest of the season to their Pythagorean wins projection. The latter was formed by adding the team’s current wins to their expected wins for their remaining games based on their point differential, weighting the previous 10 games more heavily. Neither method adjusts for strength of schedule.

76ers Season

Philadelphia has been consistently outperforming its Pythagorean projection, likely as a result of its above average performance in close games. It is 8-3 in games decided by less than five points and 4-1 in OT. What is clear as day though is that the Sixers have gotten worse over the course of the season. Running a regression of Pythagorean Expectation on game number we get a negative coefficient of -.0954 with a low standard error of 0.028 strongly implying significance. This can be interpreted as on average the Sixers getting worse by 0.1 wins every game over the course of the season. This is likely a combination of regressing to their true selves after a 3-0 start including win over the Heat and also Hinkie dredging the team of any and all starting NBA talent.

Bucks Season

The Bucks on the other hand have raised their overall Pythagorean projection over the course of the season. Sure the team is bad, but that was the result of some terrible player evaluation decisions and Larry Sanders not being the monster he was last year. This is not the profile of a team tanking but rather of one trying to improve over the course of a season and win NBA games. They are still three games back of Philadelphia, but are now projected for about 22 wins overall, compared to a dismal 17 for the 76ers.

Of course, Hinkie’s strategy may pay off in the long run. Michael Carter-Williams is in the running to be the first non-top 10 pick to win rookie of the year in a while; Nerlens Noel was likely a steal at sixth in the draft; the Pelicans way overestimated their ability so Philadelphia now has two great picks in this year’s draft and this happened making the Pelicans even worse.

However, this lack of competitiveness is startling to observe. NBA teams should be trying to win and not be currently playing at a true talent level of an 8-win team according to Pelton. The Bucks suck but have at least tried to win. The Sixers appear to be tanking in the most explicit way possible, and no fan wants to see that. Adam Silver has shown openness to other types of NBA draft, including the wheel, and as the league moves forward, it must find a system which helps the bad teams that need assistance to be competitive without incentivizing tanking.

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