The Charlotte Bobcats came into existence in 2004. At the conclusion of the next five seasons, the Bobcats finished out of the playoffs and hence earned a trip to the NBA's lottery.
After all of these lottery picks, the Bobcats finally made the playoffs in 2010. That Bobcat team -- the best in franchise history -- only won 44 games and failed to win a playoff game. Nevertheless, this squad was the highlight in the brief history of this team.
Two short years after this epic campaign (epic by Bobcat standards), Charlotte has posted the worst season in franchise history. In fact, with a winning percentage of only 0.106, the 2011-12 Bobcats were the worst team in NBA history.
If we look at what happened to Charlotte's roster, it is easy to see why this team became so bad so quickly. Back in 2009-10 the Bobcats were led by the following players (Wins Produced numbers taken from theNBAGeek.com, explanation of Wins Produced offered here): Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Nazr Mohammed, and Tyson Chandler.
Two issues we should note about the Bobcats in 2009-10:
- Only one of these players -- Raymond Felton -- was a lottery pick selected by the Bobcats.
- These six players produced 41.7 of the team's wins in 2009-10. In sum, the "epic" Bobcats were really about these six players (this is common in the NBA where most wins are produced by a minority of the players employed).
Rather than build upon the meager success of these six players, Michael Jordan -- who began calling the shots in Charlotte in June of 2006 (and is now the owner) -- decided that one year without a lottery selection was enough. And to get back to the lottery, these six players were sent elsewhere. And in return, the Bobcats received the following players (transaction details here): Matt Carroll, Erick Dampier, Eduardo Najera, Dante Cunningham, Sean Marks, Joel Przybilla, Morris Peterson, D.J. White, Corey Maggette and Bismack Biyombo.
In 2011-12, Dampier, Cunningham, Marks, Przybilla, and Peterson didn't produce any wins for the Bobcats because all five players had left the team (and in return, the Bobcats apparently received nothing). And the players who stayed didn't offer much more. Biyombo, White, Najera, Carroll, and Maggette played more than 4,000 minutes for the Bobcats but combined to produce less than two wins.
Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler -- an above-average player through most of his career -- led the Knicks with 13.3 wins in 2011-12 (after producing 11.5 wins for the World Champion Dallas Mavericks the year before). And Gerald Wallace produced 7.4 wins for both the Nets and Blazers. Had the Bobcats simply kept these two players (two players the team did not find in the NBA lottery) -- and found a collection of players who could produce just 15 more wins -- the Bobcats could have avoided the lottery in 2012 entirely. Certainly with Chandler and Wallace the Bobcats wouldn't have been the worst team in NBA history.
Unfortunately, the Bobcats chose to take another path. And the operative word is "chose." The Bobcats intended to get bad so that they could be good. Or at least, that's the story they tell.
Losing now to win later -- or tanking -- is simply not a good strategy. In general -- as I noted in this forum in March -- title contenders in the NBA tend to arise from teams like the Bobcats in 2009-10. Very awful teams -- like the Bobcats in 2011-12 -- tend not to become good very quickly.
What tends to happen to awful teams is that they take a ride on the lottery treadmill. This ride works as follows:
- Team takes a player in the lottery.
- As economic research indicates (research detailed in Stumbling on Wins), high draft picks tend to get more minutes than their productivity justifies. In addition, rookies tend to be below-average NBA players.
- Giving extended minutes to a below-average player makes it likely a team will end up back in the lottery again.
- With the lottery pick the next year, the team selects another player who -- as a rookie -- gets more minutes than his below-average production indicates.
- And giving that player more minutes increases the odds the team will once again be back in the lottery.
And so it goes.
The following table gives one a sense of how frequently teams find themselves on the lottery treadmill. Since the lottery was instituted in 1984, the following teams have found themselves out of the playoffs -- and hence in the lottery -- for five or more consecutive seasons.
Golden State (twice)
LA Clippers (three times)
The above list includes 18 of the NBA's 30 teams. So this seems to happen to quite a few teams (and one of the missing teams -- the Toronto Raptors -- had three runs of four years). Five teams -- Golden State, Sacramento, the Clippers, Minnesota, and Washington -- have had more than one run on the five-year treadmill.
Meanwhile six franchises -- the LA Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons, and Miami Heat -- have never gone more than three seasons in the lottery.
What do these six franchises have in common? Typically people think success in the NBA requires that a team be in a large market and/or have large payrolls. Although the Lakers fit this description, the Spurs, Jazz, and Pistons are hardly large market teams with big payrolls.
If location and money aren't the answer, what's the key? Let's briefly talk about the Spurs in 2011-12. The players who produced the most for this team included Kawhi Leonard (non-lottery first round pick in 2011), Danny Green (2nd round pick in 2009), Tony Parker (late first round pick in 2001), Manu Ginobili (late 2nd round pick in 1999), Tim Duncan (first overall pick in 1997), Tiago Splitter (late first round pick in 2007), and Matt Bonner (second round pick in 2003).
Yes, Duncan was a lottery pick. But he is no longer the player he once was. The Spurs are now led by players who were not taken in the lottery. And three of the Spurs six most productive players were second round picks.
The success of the Spurs suggests the key to building a winning team in the NBA. It really is quite simple. Acquire -- and keep -- productive players. These productive players can be found in the lottery. And they can be found elsewhere in the draft. Teams can also acquire productive players in the free agent market and via trade.
However one does it, acquiring -- and keeping -- productive players is key.
Unfortunately, the Bobcats current strategy required the team to let its productive players win games for other teams. So now fans of the Bobcats get to watch this team run on the lottery treadmill. And as the above table indicates, this can be a very, very, very long run.
That run can be somewhat shorter if a team gets lucky. Certainly the Bobcats hoped to secure the number one pick in the 2012 draft and the rights to Anthony Davis. But the NBA's lottery system only gave the Bobcats a 25 percent chance of getting this pick. In other words, the short-cut the Bobcats hoped for would require a good deal of luck.
In sum, here is apparently the Bobcats strategy: Give up productive players for the hope that you will get lucky and be given an even more productive player.
Hoping to get lucky may be a good plan if you are in a bar on a Friday night. But it is hardly a credible plan for a business organization.
Unfortunately, fans of teams on the lottery treadmill seem to have little else to pin their hopes upon. And when luck doesn't happen, the run on the treadmill -- which the powers-that-be in Charlotte seem to love -- just continues.
A version of this blog was first published on Freakonomics.com.