It has become a truism over the past few years that you want your team to be either very good or very bad. This is not quite true. You want your team to be very good. It's just that sometimes being very bad is the easiest way to become very good again. This has led to the phenomenon of tanking. in which teams jettison many of their useful players in order to gain as many high draft picks as possible to expedite the rebuilding process. The popularity of this strategy has led many to miss the forest for the trees and argue that rebuilding teams need to trade all of their good players in order to become as bad as possible in order to get as many favorable draft picks as possible.
What are the differences between 55 win NBA teams and 35 win NBA teams? The principal difference is multiple well above average players, an awkwardly constructed phrase that I will continue to use for the rest of this post. This may seem obvious, and it should be obvious. Last year, the Central Division champion Indiana Pacers had four well above average players; West, Hibbert, George, and Hill. Their mediocre Central Division counterparts, the Milwaukee Bucks, possessed two such players; Sanders and llyasova. This is a useful simplification, but stating the problem in this way clarifies a General Manager's goals. A General Manager should do whatever possible to acquire as many well above average players as possible.
This brings us to the Philadelphia 76ers. I have seen multiple arguments, some in jest and some appearing to be in all seriousness, that Sam Hinkie does not want the team to win and that the Sixers would be better off losing these games. To which I say, poppycock! The reason the Sixers are winning is because Thaddeus Young is great, Michael Carter-Williams has looked fantastic, and Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner have been incredibly efficient. Granted, the latter probably won't last very long, and the Sixers winning streak will disappear at the same time, but what happens if Thad Young and Michael Carter-Williams are good enough to drag this team to 25 wins? If that is the case, then Philadelphia knows that it has two young, well above average players to build around at the "cost" of moving from #3 to #5 in May's hypothetical lottery (more on this later). That is a trade-off that most teams would make in an instant.
What Sam Hinkie did not do was keep his mediocre veterans. Jrue Holiday is a slightly above average player who was valued at two lottery picks by another General Manager, and the Sixers were happy to oblige them. The team chose not to resign average to below average players like Dorrell Wright and Nick Young, nor to replace them with other veterans, but to give cheaper, higher upside youngsters like James Anderson, Tony Wroten, and Arnett Moultrie shots at regular playing time. If Anderson, Wroten, and Moultrie bomb, then they can be easily replaced. If even one of them can play, then Philadelphia has found another young, cheap, productive player who will be a major part of the rotation when the team is ready to compete. Giving playing time to players you know are not good, such as Nick Young and Damien Wilkins, is a good way to lose games. Giving playing time to unknowns like Wroten and Moultrie also usually results in losses, but provides a lot more upside and chances to find hidden gems.
The types of players who should be avoided by 'tanking' teams are average and nearly average players. One or two well above average players and a host of D-Leaguers are not enough to lift a team to mediocrity. One or two well above average players and a host of nearly average veterans on two and three year deals are enough to lift a team to 35-45 wins, significantly lowering a team's chances at a future All-Star in the draft and eating through the team's cap space. To position a team for the future, one or two well above average players on long contracts and enough cheap replacement players to lose 50-60 games seems to be the ideal set-up. It is also essential to this process to sign and acquire young players, who can be expected to improve, rather than players who will not be as productive when the team's draft picks begin to contribute.
The recent Marcin Gortat trade illustrates the differences between players who rebuilding teams should keep, such as Thaddeus Young and players who should be traded, like Gortat. Let's formulate some criteria.
1.) Will the player be under contract when the team starts to turn it around?
2.) Will the player still be in his prime when the team starts to turn it around?
3.) Is the player well above average?
4.) If yes to 1&2&3, can the returning assets be reasonably expected to turn into a better player(s)?
If all goes well, Phoenix will be an attractive destination beginning in the summer of 2015, when the team should have loads of cap space and at least a half dozen young first round draftees. Gortat is a free agent this summer and will be 31 when Phoenix starts to become competitive again. Right now, he is slightly above average and can't be reasonably expected to be a well above average member of the Suns when things turn around. By these criteria, it was a good trade.
On the other hand, consider Thaddeus Young. The Sixers have the potential to be competitive as early as next year, and if their picks work out, should be a very attractive destination with lots of cap space by the summer of 2015. Young can't leave until the summer of 2015, when he will only be 27. He is a well above average player right now, and there's no reason to think he won't be as productive for the next five years. Unless they get blown away by an offer, there is every reason to think Young could be part of the next good Sixers team. On the other hand, Hawes and Turner are much more replaceable, average and below average respectively, and both see their contracts expire at the end of the year. Unless the Sixers front office has a reason to think that either Hawes or Turner has dramatically improved this year, trading each for an asset, such as a draft pick in the twenties or thirties, is completely defensible.
Draft picks are incredibly important for teams, and contract length is one of the primary reasons for this importance. Draft picks give teams up to nine years of player control. If a team gets a well above average player through the draft, they get the player at a huge discount for four years and often at a favorable deal for the next four or five, before the player has a chance to leave. Free agent contracts give a team three to four years of control at market value, often giving a player the choice to leave before the rebuilding process is completed.
The difference in draft position between a really horrible team and a bad but frisky team, with one or two well above average players, is smaller than most think. The worst team in the league has a 25% chance at the number one pick and a 21.5% chance at the number two pick. By completely tearing down, a team will, on average, have the third pick. On the other hand, the team with the fourth worst record, usually with around 25 wins, has a nearly 40% chance of moving into the top three, and will most likely end up with the fourth or fifth pick. In other words, the difference in average draft position between a 10 win team and a 25 win team is usually only a couple spots in the draft. If the team is constructed of only above average players and scrubs, then the 25 win team has a massive head start on the rebuilding process, often possessing the equivalent of two extra lottery picks.
Every city wants the next LeBron. Even if a team goes 0-82, there is a three in four chance that they will not receive the number one pick. Furthermore, these roster decisions must be made a year before the draft. At that time, nobody really knows who the number one pick will be or how good the current projected number one pick actually is. Remember when Shabazz Muhammad was the next Kobe Bryant? Most number one picks have not been MVP candidates, and is a 5-10% chance at the next LeBron, Duncan, or Anthony Davis worth gutting a franchise? That's why, instead of "Riggin for Wiggins", the Sixers, Magic, Suns, and other bad teams should be focused on acquiring and developing players who will be key parts of their next 55 win team, instead of looking to lose games, no matter which top ten pick they end up using.