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Mythbusting: Mediocrity is fine!

Frederick M. Brown

The point of this article is that being mediocre is not actually worse than being bad.

Supposedly, the worst thing you can be is mediocre, a moderately expensive team that isn't good enough for the present and doesn't have a plan for the future.

I'll argue here, that this contention is based on false premises. That, actually, worse than being mediocre is...well, being worse.

It's not a popular view. Most people who feel otherwise will probably not be convinced.

Hey, twitter! I guess this is my #unpopular opinion!

The other day, I had a twitter discussion with Liberty Ballers' @Michael_Levin and Brewhoops' @brewhoop (the man himself! Also known as Frank Madden). The subject was extending Larry Sanders, but it quickly became a series of car metaphors. Only natural, of course.

Michael suggested that by extending Larry for more than he was worth the Bucks were losing the flexibility they need to make the long climb up the Eastern Conference. Frank, arguing that not spending the money necessary to keep an important part of the franchise for the sake of having more money to spend on x was a mistake, compared it to selling your BMW to 40k to "go nuts" at a Kia dealership.

Michael countered that that BMW would be stuck in traffic forever, the danger of losing your flexibility on guys who aren't quite the right guys.

Both great points, and in a way, both good for the team represented. The Sixers need, now, to be the masters of flexibility and the Bucks, fresh off an exciting season, are looking to take the next step forward.

I think what the Mavericks learned these last two offseasons, what is in my opinion not talked about nearly enough in strategy circles, is that if the Chris Pauls, or Deron Williamses, or Dwight Howards of the world don't like what you have in the garage, it does not matter whether you have Kia or BMW money to spend.

The other day Tom Ziller wrote a column where he expressed this point extremely well, something I've been trying to do for two years. It inspired me to try again.

The suggestion I'm going to make is that unless you think you're getting your next superstar through the draft, there is no reason to ever be bad.

This is against what most people think, these days. The paradigm, as Ziller points out, is what he calls "The Presti Plan". That's the plan to get rid of big contracts and old players and stockpile high draft picks as a shortcut to building a great, cheap core. It's named after Sam Presti, the GM who turned around the then Seattle Supersonics by drafting Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden in quick succession. These days, it's what everyone wants to do.

Two things are funny about the Presti Plan. First of all, it is absolutely true that the great teams of recent vintage did get at least one super important member of their core through the draft. The Miami Heat got Dwyane Wade, the Mavs got Dirk, the Lakers Kobe, the Celtics Pierce, the Bulls Jordan, the Rockets Hakeem, and that covers basically everybody, except for the Pistons (who drafted only Tayshaun) since 1991. But you notice anything weird about that list? Do you?

How bout this: Every. Single. One. of those guys was drafted before 2004. Not a single star drafted after 2003 has won a championship with a team that was built around him. Let that sink in.

In fact, the only guy who won a championship as an important enough player on the team that drafted him in the last ten years is Andrew Bynum, drafted 10th in 2005. Not that it matters, but Bynum played hurt in both championship runs, averaging 6.3 and 3.7 in one, 8.6 and 6.9 in the other.

So the way I see it there are four options. Either teams built this way, most likely the Thunder, but also teams like the Wolves, the Cavs, the Wiz, are going to start winning championships soon. Or this strategy is out of date -- not a bad guess, since every non-Presti player worth building around, with 5 or more years experience in the league, is on a new team. Or it's a strategy that takes at least a decade to show a profit. Or the only times that it works is when you get a Kobe, LeBron, Dirk, Duncan or Olajuwon. Or somehow trade for a LeBron.

Calculating the odds of which one of these is right is basically the most important question in the NBA. I'll tell you this, though. Study after study has shown how awful people are at actually calculating odds. Here's three studies that I found just in a casual google search.

My brother argues that rebuilding, rather than never working, in a way always works because it can always keep going until something happens. He has a point. But it sure is hard to find a way to calculate the odds of even being a contender for a deep playoff run that doesn't involve astronomical luck and many years. If you figure that you not only have to get the right draft pick, you have to get it in the right year, and that being off by one or making one wrong guess can scuttle the whole thing, the odds end up getting pretty long.

Because I promised you two things about the Presti plan that are funny, and this is the other one. Imagine an alternate reality in which, instead of the #2, #4 and #24, and #4 picks three years in a row, imagine the Thunder did even better (were even worse) and ended up with the #1, #3 and #23 and #3 picks. That obviously could have happened.

Then imagine them drafting the guys who were drafted at those spots instead of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden. The paradigmatic Presti plan would look like this, instead: Greg Oden, O.J. Mayo, Kosta Koufos and Hasheem Thabeet.

Now, don't waste time in the comments telling me that obviously they'd draft other people. Obviously they'd draft other people. Three of those guys are centers, for one thing.

But if you believe the difference between Sam Presti and four other teams drafting at exactly the same spots in exactly the same years is genius versus idiocy rather than skill versus less skill, well ... Let's just say I doubt it. And let's say the difference between hitting on Kevin Durant and whiffing on O.J. Mayo isn't exactly as obvious as it seems in retrospect.

Drafting a Kobe-or a Durant-really is the surest way to build a team. But if one team gets one chance every 7 years, it's still not actually a strategy. You can get an Andrew Bogut-to say nothing of an Andrea Bargnani-all kinds of other ways.  Just ask the Warriors and the Knicks.

So here's the point I'm finally ready to get do. We could do case studies, and that's worth doing. I'd say Houston shows that tanking isn't the best way to get stars, you'll say OKC is, etc., etc. But for now, let's keep it simple.

Of the three ways to improve an NBA team, drafting, trading, and signing, are you at a comparative advantage or disadvantage if you're a 15 win team or a 40 win team?

The answer is obvious. 15 win teams have nothing to trade. They may have money but no one who wants to take it. Every veteran worth his salt in the league has said these words at some point: "I don't want to be part of a rebuilding team". 15 win teams are also so long from getting good that by the time they're finally almost ready, maybe they can't keep LeBron anymore, maybe they can't keep Harden. I know. Very hypothetical.

Ironically, if the Presti Plan never wins OKC a title I guarantee you it'll be because it was too Presti.  We're, as a basketball intellectual society, at the absolute apex value of nothing, where the blank canvas of talent yet to be developed, players yet to be signed, young guys yet to be drafted is, right at this minute, at the highest value it'll ever have. Higher, even, than James Harden. Which is probably too bad for those guys, though we'll see.

Just for fun, if the Thunder had gotten the #6 pick each of those years, they'd have ended up with Yi Jianlian, Danilo Gallinari and Jonny Flynn. Again, not that they would have-they wouldn't have--but the things that we have control of in this world are so often less than they hope we'll be.

It's probably true that maxing out your cap space for 40 wins is the worst thing you can do. Not because either paying a lot of money or being mediocre are themselves bad but because it almost certainly means you're paying everyone way too much money, like the Villanueva-Gordon Pistons.

But being mediocre with some cap flexibility, some assets to trade, some ways to stockpile picks if you want to go down that road, some big pieces to move in a salary dump or to use when someone else wants to make one, like the supposedly capped-out, mediocre Nets did earlier this year?

Way, way, way better than being bad and throwing the dice on draft picks and the hope that for some reason someone will want to sign with you. Way better. Empirically. Scientifically.

There's a huge difference between paying more than some players are worth to have some players and some flexibility, rather than no players and lots of flexibility, and paying WAY too much for players who aren't NEARLY good enough and having no flexibility and no players. That's probably obvious. And having more money to spend isn't inevitably better than not having more money to spend. Because money is worth what you can get for it. And having 25 mil instead of 18 to spend isn't worth 7 mil more, it's also worth exactly what you can get for it.

if that's LeBron and Bosh, neat. But it's probably Monta and Jose, and oh, if they had that extra five mil, maybe Oden after all. And incidentally, if it's LeBron and Bosh, sometimes it turns out it doesn't matter how much money you have to spend. Says the team that's added Ray Allen, Mike Miller, and Greg Oden over the last few years, while the Bobcats were paying Ben Gordon 13.2 mil to play 20 a game.

And all this is In addition to the fact that, as Cuban pointed out in his recent missive, that the Mavs, and any other team, trying the Presti plan today, would have to get in line behind 7 or 8 others.

That's the thing about perfectly adequate teams trying the "Presti Plan". The evidence is bad. The odds are small. AND you have to get in line.

The point is, the Sixers are doing the right thing. But so are the Mavs. And so, probably, are the Bucks, for what that's worth. We've become, I think, very bad at measuring the odds. You're better off staying decent and hoping for one big break.


(PS.  Not to be rude, but PLEASE don't waste everyone's time in the comments thread by pointing out that Dirk wasn't technically drafted by the Mavs or Kobe by the Lakers or whatever. If draft day ends and you've got a guy, that counts).