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April 4, 2012
Treadmill
Breaking the Cycle of Mediocrity

by Neil Paine

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At Freakonomics and the Wages of Wins (twice), Dave Berri, Arturo Galletti and Andres Alvarez argued that the Portland Trail Blazers erred by overtly trying to leave the "treadmill of mediocrity (tanking the season in order to eventually obtain a star via the draft). Although it has long been believed that the worst place to be in the NBA is the mediocre 37-45 win range, where you have no hope of contending for a title and never draft high enough to acquire a franchise-altering star, Berri and company found that really good (55-plus wins) teams rarely become such via a tank-tastic season. Only 29 of 150 really good teams won 29 or fewer games four years before; most were already really good beforehand, illustrating the NBA's core problem with competitive balance: the good teams stay good and the bad teams stay bad.

Of course, this information isn't all that informative to a team on the treadmill. A team like that isn't already really good, and it needs to know how best to get to contender status--by staying on the treadmill and incrementally improving, or by blowing things up and starting from scratch via the draft. To answer that question, let's first look for textbook examples of treadmill teams. To that end, I searched for every team in the salary cap era (1985-present) that had three consecutive seasons of 37-45 wins per 82 games, the kind of mediocrity that defines the treadmill. There were twelve such teams (lumping together teams that had multiple consecutive qualifying seasons):

Let me stress that the goal of every team should be to win a championship, or at least realistically contend for one. A true "treadmill escape" would entail making the Finals or coming close in the Conference Finals. With that definition in mind, did any of these teams actually escape the treadmill in a meaningful way?

Stayed On Treadmill
Team                            Post-Treadmill Ceiling
1990-93 Indiana Pacers          Lost Finals (2000)
1985-87 Utah Jazz               Lost Finals (1997, 98)
1997-99 Minnesota Timberwolves  Lost Western Conference Finals (2004)
1999-04 Seattle SuperSonics     Lost Western Conference Semifinals (2005)
1990-93 Atlanta Hawks           Lost Eastern Conference Semifinals (1994, 96, 97, 99)
2002-04 Milwaukee Bucks         Lost Eastern Conference First Round (2006)
1989-91 Golden State Warriors   Lost Western Conference First Round (1992, 94)
Blew It Up Team Post-Treadmill Ceiling 1996-98 Washington Wizards None (High draft pick: No. 1, 2001) 2000-03 Orlando Magic None (High draft pick: No. 1, 2004) 2005-08 Washington Wizards None (High draft pick: No. 1, 2010) 1985-89 Washington Bullets None (High draft pick: No. 4, 1995) 1992-94 New Jersey Nets None (High draft pick: No. 7, 1997)

Two of the seven teams who stayed on the treadmill ended up making the Finals and losing. Not coincidentally, those two already had their stars--Stockton/Malone and Miller/Smits--in place during their final treadmill year, stars that were acquired with via the draft. All but Malone was a top-13 pick. Another team on the list, the Kevin Garnett-led Timberwolves, eventually went to the conference finals, although they lost in six to a Lakers team that in turn lost in five to the Pistons in the finals. As for the rest, they failed to reach even those modest heights. Meanwhile, three of the five teams who blew it up landed the first overall pick, to mixed results. Orlando hit a home run with Dwight Howard, the jury is still out on John Wall, and Kwame Brown was/is a functioning bust. Since none of these teams won a championship, and the sample is small anyway, it's not clear which path best leads to contention. But the data says every team who stuck with the treadmill without an existing young star failed to come anywhere close to a ring.

Perhaps more informative, though, would be a look at the NBA finalists in the lottery era. Did their best players come from the types of picks you'd get via tanking?

YEAR  CHAMP BEST_PLYR  ACQ ORIG PIK | RNRUP BEST_PLYR  ACQ ORIG PIK
1986  BOS   L.Bird     DR  BOS   6  | HOU   H.Olajuwon  DR  HOU   1
1987  LAL   M.Johnson   T  LAL   1  | BOS   L.Bird      DR  BOS   6
1988  LAL   M.Johnson   T  LAL   1  | DET   I.Thomas    DR  DET   2
1989  DET   I.Thomas   DR  DET   2  | LAL   J.Worthy     T  LAL   1
1990  DET   I.Thomas   DR  DET   2  | POR   C.Drexler    T  POR  14
-------------------------------------------------------------------
1991  CHI   M.Jordan   DR  CHI   3  | LAL   M.Johnson    T  LAL   1
1992  CHI   M.Jordan   DR  CHI   3  | POR   C.Drexler    T  POR  14
1993  CHI   M.Jordan   DR  CHI   3  | PHO   C.Barkley    T  PHI   5
1994  HOU   H.Olajuwon DR  HOU   1  | NYK   P.Ewing     DR  NYK   1
1995  HOU   H.Olajuwon DR  HOU   1  | ORL   S.O'Neal    DR  ORL   1
-------------------------------------------------------------------
1996  CHI   M.Jordan   DR  CHI   3  | SEA   G.Payton     T  SEA   2
1997  CHI   M.Jordan   DR  CHI   3  | UTA   K.Malone    DR  UTA  13
1998  CHI   M.Jordan   DR  CHI   3  | UTA   K.Malone    DR  UTA  13
1999  SAS   T.Duncan   DR  SAS   1  | NYK   L.Sprewell   T  GSW  24
2000  LAL   S.O'Neal   FA  ORL   1  | IND   J.Rose       T  DEN  13
-------------------------------------------------------------------
2001  LAL   S.O'Neal   FA  ORL   1  | PHI   A.Iverson   DR  PHI   1
2002  LAL   S.O'Neal   FA  ORL   1  | NJN   J.Kidd       T  DAL   2
2003  SAS   T.Duncan   DR  SAS   1  | NJN   J.Kidd       T  DAL   2
2004  DET   B.Wallace   T  WSB  --  | LAL   S.O'Neal    FA  ORL   1
2005  SAS   T.Duncan   DR  SAS   1  | DET   R.Hamilton   T  WAS   7
-------------------------------------------------------------------
2006  MIA   D.Wade     DR  MIA   5  | DAL   D.Nowitzki   T  DAL   9
2007  SAS   T.Duncan   DR  SAS   1  | CLE   L.James     DR  CLE   1
2008  BOS   K.Garnett   T  MIN   5  | LAL   K.Bryant     T  LAL  13
2009  LAL   K.Bryant    T  LAL  13  | ORL   D.Howard    DR  ORL   1
2010  LAL   K.Bryant    T  LAL  13  | BOS   R.Rondo      T  BOS  21
-------------------------------------------------------------------
2011  DAL   D.Nowitzki  T  DAL   9  | MIA   L.James      T  CLE   1

KEY: FA-free agent, T-trade, DR-draft.

Of the 26 NBA champs since 1986, 16 were led by a player the team acquired via the draft. Five more were led by players (Kobe, Magic, Dirk) not technically drafted by the team they won it all with, but nonetheless players who had never played for another team in their careers. Of those 21e teams, eight were led by No. 1 overall draft picks, ten by top-two picks, sixteen by top-three picks, and seventeen by top-five picks. These are the players you hope to get by tanking. To drive the point home further: Only four NBA champions in the last 26 years were led by players selected outside the top six picks in the draft.

When you look at the runners-up, there appear to be some hope for the anti-tanking brigade. Eight of those teams were led by players whom they had not originally drafted or obtained via draft-day trades, with seven coming via mid-career trades. Also, 11 runners-up were led by players drafted outside the top five picks.

But as a rule, most Finalists were not good before their best player's arrival:

Year  Team Best Player      ACQ  BEF
1986  BOS  Larry Bird*       DR  29
1986  HOU  Hakeem Olajuwon*  DR  29
1987  LAL  Magic Johnson*     T  47
1987  BOS  Larry Bird*       DR  29
1988  LAL  Magic Johnson*     T  47
1988  DET  Isiah Thomas*     DR  21
1989  LAL  James Worthy*      T  57
1989  DET  Isiah Thomas*     DR  21
1990  POR  Clyde Drexler*     T  46
1990  DET  Isiah Thomas*     DR  21
1991  LAL  Magic Johnson*     T  47
1991  CHI  Michael Jordan*   DR  27
1992  POR  Clyde Drexler*     T  46
1992  CHI  Michael Jordan*   DR  27
1993  PHO  Charles Barkley    T  53
1993  CHI  Michael Jordan*   DR  27
1994  HOU  Hakeem Olajuwon*  DR  29
1994  NYK  Patrick Ewing*    DR  24
1995  HOU  Hakeem Olajuwon*  DR  29
1995  ORL  Shaquille O'Neal* DR  21
1996  SEA  Gary Payton*       T  41
1996  CHI  Michael Jordan*   DR  27
1997  UTA  Karl Malone*      DR  41
1997  CHI  Michael Jordan*   DR  27
1998  UTA  Karl Malone*      DR  41
1998  CHI  Michael Jordan*   DR  27
1999  NYK  Latrell Sprewell   T  43
1999  SAS  Tim Duncan*       DR  20
2000  LAL  Shaquille O'Neal  FA  53
2000  IND  Jalen Rose         T  52
2001  LAL  Shaquille O'Neal  FA  53
2001  PHI  Allen Iverson*    DR  18
2002  LAL  Shaquille O'Neal  FA  53
2002  NJN  Jason Kidd         T  26
2003  NJN  Jason Kidd         T  26
2003  SAS  Tim Duncan*       DR  20
2004  LAL  Shaquille O'Neal  FA  53
2004  DET  Ben Wallace        T  42
2005  DET  Richard Hamilton   T  50
2005  SAS  Tim Duncan*       DR  20
2006  MIA  Dwyane Wade*      DR  25
2006  DAL  Dirk Nowitzki*     T  20
2007  SAS  Tim Duncan*       DR  20
2007  CLE  LeBron James*     DR  17
2008  LAL  Kobe Bryant*       T  53
2008  BOS  Kevin Garnett      T  24
2009  LAL  Kobe Bryant*       T  53
2009  ORL  Dwight Howard*    DR  21
2010  LAL  Kobe Bryant*       T  53
2010  BOS  Rajon Rondo*       T  33
2011  MIA  LeBron James       T  47
2011  DAL  Dirk Nowitzki*     T  20
NOTES: ACQ--How player was acquired
(FA-free agent, T-trade, DR-draft);
BEF--franchise's wins per 82 games 
in season before player's arrival;
*--indicates the player went to
Finals with his original team.

Teams who were led to the Finals by players they drafted (or otherwise acquired before their NBA debut) averaged just 31.3 wins per 82 games in the season prior to acquiring the player, and that number is skewed by teams like the 1989 Lakers, who were already good when acquiring James Worthy with Cleveland's 1st-round pick. 27 of the 39 finalists (69.2 percent) who were led by original-team players had 33 or fewer wins the year before picking up their star. 21 of the 39 (53.8 percent) won 27 games or fewer, and 13 of the 39 (33%) won 21 or fewer. Simply put, the vast majority (75 percent) of NBA Finalists acquire their stars via the draft or draft-day trades, and the majority of those players came to the team after a tank-worthy season.

It's always possible to build a team in a different way--look at the 2004 Pistons, for instance--but that formula has produced just 13 finalists and five champions in the last 26 seasons, and five of those (four from Shaq, one from LeBron) were the result of a player being lured by an attractive free-agent destination. Moreover, only five of the last 52 finalists were in the treadmill zone (37-45 wins) before acquiring their best player. It seems clear from the data, then, that it is in fact necessary to be bad (winning 27 or fewer games) to acquire a player capable of leading your team to the finals someday.

Neil Paine is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Neil by clicking here or click here to see Neil's other articles.

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