Friday, August 16, 2013

More Tanking: Reason #104802 Why It's a Bad Idea

It's all in the math, kids. You should have paid more attention in Data Management

The tanking issue has been talked to death this offseason, so the obvious move was for me to spill more ink over this much-maligned strategy. I'll spare you the rehashing of arguments; you can read up on the anti and pro arguments (as they pertain to the Raptors) on your own time. 


If you want the Raptors to tank this're probably an idiot. I don't say that to insult your intelligence. It's just that the strategy of tanking is pretty stupid, and it's especially stupid for this year's version of the Toronto Raptors.

But fine, let's say you want to tank. Let's say you want to intentionally make the team really bad to land some ping-pong balls. How bad do you have to be, and how many ping-pong balls would you get?

Let's evaluate (skip to the jump!)

First, let's create our budget. If you believe the draft reports, the next upcoming NBA draft will be loaded with future all-NBA'ers. Multiple future all-NBA'ers. It's going to be one for the history books. Pick your favourite draft class; '84, '96, '03, whatever. It's going to be like that! 

And one of the prospects is Canadian?! Maple boners up!

Okay, let's step back into reality for a second. I'm no draft expert by any means (I hate college basketball; it's on at the same time as NBA basketball, which is much better; why would I want to watch two teams worse than the Charlotte Bobcats play for little-to-no stakes), but there are a lot of things to consider.

First, none of these dudes have declared for the 2014 draft just yet. Not even one. A lot of things can happen between now and the draft; they could get injured, they could flop, they can decide to opt out of the draft, etc etc. It's too early to make any definitive statements (don't count your eggs).

Second, if so many excellent players are coming for this draft, the extra competition might dissuade them (or at least their agents) to enter the draft. Why? Consider this; the difference in the salaries of the number one pick, as compared to the number 5 pick is a whooping 35%! Parlay this difference over the duration of the rookie scale contract (4 years, assuming all options are picked up), and it represents a difference of 5+ million. 

But let's put all that aside for the sake of argument, let's assume that there will be FIVE franchise players in the next upcoming draft. Five is a lot; there are ~10 franchise players in the NBA at any given time.


Let's set the goal at landing a top-five pick (yes, I know that it's very possible that one of those golden-geese slips through the top-five, but then you're arguing against tanking). How can you land a top-5 pick? Consider the following odds (per Wikipedia):

The odds of landing a top 5 pick drops lower than 10% after the 8th seed (by reverse seeding), so let's just set the bar there. However, if you're really insistent on getting a top-5 pick, you probably wont be satisfied unless you have the 5th seed. But hey, since we're already stretching it, let's just play with the idea of 8th or better.

How shitty do you have to be to be 8th or worse? I've compiled the average records of the bottom-10 teams over the last five years. They are below:

Okay, so you'll basically have to win less than 29 games to get a bottom-8 record. This is tricky enough in a normal year, but this should be extra difficult in a year where so many teams are poised to tank (or at least be horrible). 

But at least we now know what the goal is (per tanking). In order to have a 10% chance (or better) at a top-five pick, the Raptors need to win less than 29 games next season. With that in mind, let's see what they'll need to do to achieve this feat.

THE COST (jettisoning players)
With the help of Arturo Galletti, I've estimated that the Toronto Raptors, as currently constructed, will win ~47 games when healthy, or ~40 games if things go haywire (due to injuries). You can look over that estimation here. Let's just split the difference, and say that they'll win 43.5 games next season. How can we trim that to 28, or lower?

Simple subtraction; 43.5 - 28 = 15.5. We need to trim 15.5 wins from this roster. How can we do that? Let's look at each player's projections below:

Option 1: Trade away Gay and Lowry (~0% chance at top-five; ~10% at most)
Okay, boom. This is easy; just jettison Lowry and Gay! Their contracts are expiring anyway! This could totally happen! Tank!

Except, what would they bring back? If it's just cap space and draft picks, you're covered, but what if they bring back actually productive players? Plus, their raw win numbers are a product of their WP48 and minutes played. Their minutes will have to filled by someone (~70 minutes per game between them). 

For example, if you bring back league average players, you'll be getting 12 wins back (70 MPG*82 games*0.100 WP48/48 minutes). That's not going to work.

Okay, maybe you bring back really shitty replacement level, filler contract players. Except, would you be happy for that return? Just filler guys for Gay and Lowry? Remember, we gave up a first rounder for Lowry, and an expiring + Ed Davis for Gay. You're cool with squandering all that for 10%? Sure, don't make decisions on sunk cost, but goddamn that's a horrible return.

Option 2: Trade away Fields, Novak and Johnson (~10% chance at top-five)
Fine, let's not throw away Lowry and Gay. Let's just toss out some of our productive vets. What about trading away Johnson, Fields and Novak. That's 16.5 wins right there. We'd be at 27 games! Tank!

Except, what's the market for Fields? He's definitely too expensive/shitty to not get a bad contract/salary back. Novak might net you a 2nd rounder, or a middling prospect, but that's just 2.5 wins. 

Worst of all, this scenario would involve trading away Johnson (who is on a really reasonable contract for 2 more seasons). Ask yourself this; can you realistically expect a first-rounder back for Johnson? I know UM fleeced the Knicks for Bargnani, but that's the exception, not the rule. Also, Johnson is arguably the team's best player. Throwing him away for a 10% chance at a top-five pick is a little silly, no?

There's also the returning players. That's important. They'll likely bring back ~7 wins back (if they're average), which would only bring the Raptors to 34.5 wins, which wouldn't even be a bottom-10 pick (thus, ~0% chance at getting top-five).

Option 3: Fuck it all; trade Lowry, Johnson and Gay (~1% at top-five, max ~100%)
Okay, you've played the YOLO card. You've traded away Lowry, Johnson and Gay (all for players who won't produce this year; average players nets you ~12 wins back, which only brings you down to 30.7 wins, which is outside of the bottom-10). 

This brings the Raptors to ~17.7 wins, which is right around what you need to get the worst record in the league (thus, 100% chance of picking in the top four). Except, you've had to trade away Lowry, Gay and Johnson for absolutely nothing (in the short term; you can presumably only get filler + draft picks back, but you're unloading 30+ million dollars of salary so it's unlikely).

Option 4: Trade JV, Johnson, Lowry and Gay for nothing (~100% chance that every Raptors fan giving up on the team, and life)
Let's not even go there, but yeah; definitely a top-five pick.


So there you have it. Assuming that you want a top-five pick, the Raptors need to win less than 29 games next season to get a 10%+ chance at one. In order to do that, the Raptors would have to trade away a bunch of assets (and in most cases, get nothing in return) to get below 29 wins. 

If that's what you want, then you go ahead. Personally, I'm going to pass on the tanking. There better be five Lebron James's in this draft class, because otherwise the cost of tanking is just too great. 


  1. Not to mention the cost of, you know, sucking for multiple years

  2. I think Raptors fans did more research about tanking than the rest of the league LOL. The team that finished the season with the worst record—and therefore, the best odds—has only ended up securing the No. 1 pick twice in the past 22 seasons. And since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, five No. 1 overall draft selections have gone on to win the NBA Championship with the team that drafted them. Pro-tankers keep saying that end goal is championship and I get that but there are so many models on building a contender that doesn't include tanking. On RealGM there are people who are "Wiggins or Die Trying" and they are not looking at other prospects (so much for deep draft) Wiggins might end up not being First pick and they don't care. That scares me. They criticize people who want to see Playoffs, saying that ATL, Cavs, Washington are better than us and they are all in a playoff run. Well guess what? That's what it means to compete. No one will roll over and guarantee us a playoff spot. It makes thing more interesting and makes me wanna cheer for Raptors. They want to runaway from competition now what will happen when we are contenders? Opps we don't have Lebron lets start over again? Geez. Sorry if I'm ranting.

  3. Lol, no worries andrey. I get that it's frustrating when people push for tanking for this raptors team.

    Guys like us realize how important and how valuable a number one pick is. We also realize the opportunity cost of getting one, or trying to get one.

  4. Sorry - I've had problems posting on here in the past (from an iPad).

    Unfortunately the Raptors are no longer set up for tanking, thanks to Masai. Let's try the calculation another way: the average player is 0.100 ... and a team full of average players will have 40 wins in the season.

    The solution to lose games is to put out a bunch of players who are <0.100 and play them lots. With last year's Raptors this would have meant playing lots of, in order: Andrea Bargnani, Terrence Ross, Alan Anderson, John Lucas (and of course Mikael Pietrus, Linas Kleiza, Sebastien Telfair), Aaron Gray, Demar Derozan and Rudy Gay. That team would average around 0.020.

    Notice anything about these names? Masai got rid of all of them except for Ross, Gray, Derozan and Gay. He replaced them with Augustin, Hansborough and Novak, players in the 0.100-0.130 range and Byucks who will likely be as good!!

    We still have a chance to be below average: it relies on playing lots of Demar, Rudy and Terrance (hoping they stay at their historical average, of course) and keeping Amir Johnston, Kyle Lowry and Quincy Acy glued to the bench (maybe a fake injury or two would help)?

    To be truly awful we would need to acquire another 'losing star' like Andrea Bargnani (or to a lesser extent Demar and Rudy). If we could swing trades for Michael Beasley, Ben Gordon, Kevin Seraphin and get Andrea back we'd be allstar losers!

    Unfortunately for the tankers, we no longer have Colangelo as GM. He made the best tanking move ever by trading Calderon (.230) and Davis (.200) for Rudy Gay (0.060) ... let along hanging on to Bargnani (-0.140).

    We have the wrong GM now. Time to put tanking to bed. The best we can hope is to finish 10th or so through riding the shoulders of Gay and Derozan ... with Masai not trading them to set up for a rebuild next year!

    1. Sorry to hear about your tech issues with the blog. Thanks for sticking through it, and for reading!

      You're definitely right; the chance to tank left with andrea's Pasta commercials. He was truly awful. Read this, if you're not squeamish.

      But honestly; even if the numbers are wildly wrong, the Raptors would still have to win less than 25 games to get a 55%+ chance at a top-5 seed. 25! That is hard to do!

  5. The math on this makes sense, but there are a lot of things you left out.

    What is your goal for the Raptors? Just to make the playoffs or to seriously contend for a title?

    With the roster built the way it is you can't realistically expect them to contend any time soon. Even if Lebron did leave Miami, They aren't close to the same level of talent as the Pacers, Nets, Cavs etc..

    The average age at the start of the year of the players who will significantly contribute (Lowry/Derozan/Gay/Amir/Jonas/Novak/Ross/Buycks/Fields) to the team is 25 so they aren't as young as some people may think considering that includes 21 and 22 year olds Ross and Valanciunas.

    I think we can all agree that it will be nearly impossible for this team to attract a top level free agent, so how do you add talent?

    The way to build good teams for a long time in the new CBA era is to get lots of good young players on cheap contracts. Valanciunas including this year only has 3 years left before they can can extend him. If Pekovic just got 5/$60 you can assume JV is going to get damn near the max so there goes a significant chunk of your cap space for potential free agents.

    1. I really don't see it as black and white as you do. It's not that if they don't dismantle their team, then they can't be competing. That's simply a fallacy.

      I ask you this, just as a simple exercise. Did the Heat tank for picks? Nope. Did Dallas tank? Not at all (they had a string of 10+ seasons of 50+ wins). Did the Lakers tank? No. Did the Spurs tank? They did not (David Robinson was hurt for the season when they got Duncan). Are we so entirely convinced that tanking for a top pick is the model for champions?

      Anyway, here's why it's not black and white; the roster is flexible. It can change. If we manage to unload Gay (say, to Phoenix for a 2015 first rounder + expirings), it frees up cap space (and it really won't affect wins all that much). Extending Lowry makes a lot of sense. With that 19 million in cap room from Gay's departure, the Raptors can sign free agents.

      But you disagree that Toronto can't attract a free agent. Ask yourself; is this just a narrative drilled into you, or is it truth? If it's truth, offer some arguments and some evidence.

      Cap management isn't my forte, but I'm pretty sure you can sign a free agent with the cap room, then extend JV and go over the cap. It's not either/or.

      thanks for linking to your blog. I read your article. It doesn't present much other than anecdotes. Thanks for linking to it, but I'm not convinced.


      Look back at the Raptors rosters of the past 5 years. Can you tell me that it's stayed steady and constant? Right, so why assume this one is set in stone like we're the Spurs or something?

      Personally, I'd shop Gay for long-term assets and extend Lowry right now (while his price is down).

      And you missed the point of the article. Look over the odds again. Look at how many losses you need to rack up just to get a 10% chance at a top 5 pick. How deep, exactly, could this draft possibly be?

    2. First of all I dont like the word "Tank". The Raptors have to rebuild, and the easiest way to do that is by being bad and getting high draft picks you either keep or flip to get players in their prime, like what the Nets did for Deron, the Celtics did for KG/Allen etc..

      The Heat did not tank but were bad enough in 2002 to a franchise changing player in Wade, which led to the Shaq trade, then they smartly only acquired players who's contracts expired in 2010 to get Bron and Bosh

      When the Raptors start drafting like SAS then yeah that's a viable argument.

      Yes, the FA thing is a narrative but there is some truth to it. Its a small sample size but the Raptors; safe for Hedo, have never actually signed any major FAs in their history, yeah they've kept their own major pieces for a while but never have gotten better through free agency. Let's say they were to move Gay too, in 2014 which major free agent is realistically leaving their team and more money on the table to play with Lowry, Derozan and JV

      The roster is not set in stone, but they dont have very many attractive assets right now. I'd say Lowry's expiring contract, Amir and Jonas are the only things that would get them anything significant in a trade.

      They could sign someone then extend JV to go over the cap but that's likely to put them in the tax threshold. They are one of the highest paying teams this year already

      I get the point of the article and its extremely difficult to be bad and lucky enough to get a top 5 pick but with the roster they currently have, in my opinion at least, its a lot harder for them to contend

    3. I like rebuilding too. Tanking is highly specific. Rebuilding is much more fluid and flexible. Given that you also prefer rebuilding, you should also see it as more than black and white. It's not either/or.

      There's a fallacy in your argument. Most top players are drafted with a very high pick, but that doesn't mean it's the only way to get one. Top players move all the time. Who are the three top players in the league right now? Lebron, Durant and Paul. Two of those players have moved.

      The Spurs are fantastic with their drafting. No doubt. However, it's not kebuke and magic. Can the Raptors copy some of their strategies? I hope so.

      There's yet another flaw in your FA argument. What does it take to sign a major FA? Three things; cap room, OK from ownership and desire to sign with the team by the FA. You're assuming attributing the lack of free agency activity solely to the third factor, which is inaccurate.

      Anyway, I'm not saying that we'll land a guy like Lebron. Those players are in such high demand that money becomes a non-factor. The opportunity to win becomes the most important factor (because the system selects for hyper-competitiveness and they have external financial incentives for winning).

      You're right. The roster is pretty devoid of assets. That's exactly why the Raptors should focus on acquiring and maximizing their assets.

      The tax threshold is a concern, but almost every competing team is in the luxury tax. It's not like we're going to wade into Lakers/Nets territory.

      Anyway, thanks for the read.

  6. Also I'm curious to know what you think they should do with Lowry and Gay (assuming he opts out of his deal). Are you really comfortable with this roster moving forward for the next 3-5 years? If not why would you not start to rebuild with what could be a special draft class

  7. Burn of the century:

    Andrew Wiggins tells the media in May that he wants to stay one more in college!!!


    1. LMAO. Totally possible. Why don't loaded draft classes come very often? Because there's only one of each draft slot. If someone who can usually get a top-5 pick, but will be relegated to the mid-teens this year, why declare?

      Obviously that doesn't apply to Wiggins (who knows; we're talking about a 18 year old). Still, food for thought.

  8. Toronto is not a good FA destination. Vince, T-Mac and Bosh all left here to go to bigger markets in the States. We cant even keep our own talent, let alone entice someone else's talent. Unless you're in the market for shitty Turkish druggies. Canada is a joke in the U.S. If competing with the Wizards for 8th seed is your goal then you deserve to be laughed at and abandoned. You actually want to spend the next year of your life watching Rudy Gay run on a treadmill? You're the idiot. Your model is based on the assumption that the current roster will win 47 games?! And without Lowry/Gay/Amir they'd still win 30? Do you watch basketball or just look at stats? And your comment about NCAA is not even worth a response. First and last time I will visit this site.

  9. So basically we trade away Lowry and Amir and we should lose about 16 more games. Gay is worth 5.5 games.

    1. Yes, but someone is stepping in and filling those huge voids, and those players are bringing back players too. If they're any decent, they'll bring back wins.

  10. William,

    Well, you know my feelings on this. My first problem is your estimate of how many wins the Raptors will win. 47 wins is about 8 more than I would predict with this team, and so far, ESPN, SI, Hoopsworld and SB Nation have all predicted the Raptors will finish out of the playoffs.

    One major problem with your estimate is you're looking at it in isolation. Wins don't occur in isolation. They come at the expense of other teams. And a lot of those teams the Raptors will have to beat to get to that 47 wins have improved far more than the Raptors have. Also, players don't necessarily account for the same number of wins every time. The system the players play in, the chemistry with the teammates, and other variables creep in, as well.

    Lastly, you don't mention what the ultimate goal of the team is. Is it to win 47 games? Is it to become a contender?

    Another major problem I had was one that is oft repeated by people making anti-tanking arguments. THat there are already so many teams tanking, so there's already too much competition. The problem is, it's simply not true. There are only a small handful of teams that appear to be tanking, and in fact far more teams (and a lot of current lottery teams) have made major improvements in order to try and make the playoffs, so many that the East looks far better than it did last year.

    As for the trades that would have to be made, I think you know my opinion. The idea should be to get back draft picks and prospects, neither of whom would make a positive impact in the win column. And if they do have to take back a contract, they should take back a player with minimal impact. It's not as if it can't be done.

    As constructed, the Raptors roster cannot vie for a Championship, and they simply don't have the assets to be able to improve enough to be anything more than a mediocre team. The math for tanking shows there is a decent chance to come away with an elite player, if you finish low enough. THe math also shows that a team without an elite player has almost no chance of winning a Championship. It also shows that most teams have almost no chance of acquiring an elite player outside of the draft.

    Remember that math can also back up tanking.

    1. You're definitely right. There is no reliable projection system for NBA performance. There really isn't. I even mentioned that in my article.

      However, there isn't a perfect model for predicting weather either. The Weather Network isn't always right, just like the Farmer's Almanac isn't always right. It's about which system has the best projecting power. The wins produced model explains 95% variation in wins in retrospect (as in if you tally the total wins produced of a roster, and compare it to their actual roster, it's 95% correct on aggregate). No offense to ESPN/SB Nation and SI, but they can't boast that type of accuracy.

      Right, wins don't happen in isolation, and nobody is claiming that they do. Projecting is very difficult. You're definitely right.

      The goal for every franchise is supposed to be to challenge for the title. Yes, I think the Raptors should build with that idea in mind. I don't see how this relates to winning 47 games.

      The East looks far better? Really? What about the West? Who is worse than the Raptors as of right now?

      Okay, getting draft picks is good. Getting draft picks for overpriced assets like Gay is also good. However, can we really make these pie-in-the-sky expectations for our players? I agree; maximize our assets. If the right deal is there for the taking, make it. Ironically, I'd love for Ujiri to trade Gay for an expiring Calderon + Davis.

      Look man, when I present an argument, I try my best to bring evidence. You're making a lot of claims, so I'd like to see something backing it up. The math for tanking is certainly not conclusive; for every OKC you have the Bobcats (MKG, Zeller, Biyombo).

      And you're wrong. Who are the three top players in the league? Lebron, Durant and Paul. Two of them changed teams. Top players move.

    2. For some odd reason, I thought you we're commenter "marc".