Losing to Win in 2007

Posted on January 31, 2007 by


The Grizzlies Make a Move

The Grizzlies in 2005-06 were led in Wins Produced by four players: Pau Gasol, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, and Eddie Jones. In the off-season, Battier was traded for Stromile Swift and Rudy Gay, two players who one would not expect to offer the production of Battier. Gasol was also injured while playing for Spain during the World Championship, and hence missed the start of the 2006-07 season. And apparently Eddie Jones also started the season injured. Given the loss of three of its four best players, the Grizzlies quickly sank to the bottom of the NBA.

Over the past few weeks, though, Gasol has returned from injury and is producing at the same pace he offered last year. Jones, who started the year playing very badly (again, probably due to injury), has posted very good numbers in January. His per-minute Win Score this month has been 0.255, a mark well above average for a shooting guard.

For Jones to play well is no surprise. In twelve NBA season he has produced 105 wins and posted a Wins Produced per 48 minute [WP48] of 0.167. Yes, he did play very badly in the first couple of months of the season. But after missing a few games at the start of January he came on in the latter half of the month with numbers quite similar to what Jones had offered throughout his career.

Clearly with Jones and Gasol healthy and producing, the Grizzlies were posed to start winning a bit more frequently. Yesterday, though, the Grizzlies decided to waive Jones. Why would the Grizzlies suddenly decide to waive a player who appears to be healthy and ready to help this team win games?

Losing to Win

Let’s go back to last April when the Memphis Grizzlies faced the LA Clippers. The loser of this game knew it would draw the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The winner would take on the Dallas Mavericks. Although there is evidence neither team played their very best players as much as they could, Memphis managed to play a bit better and won the game. Their reward was a sound thrashing by the Mavericks in the first round. The Clippers defeated the Nuggets and performed well enough in the second round to be considered potential title contenders this year (a forecast that one should not have made after the team signed Tim Thomas, but that’s a story for another day).

The waiving of Eddie Jones suggests that the Grizzlies have learned the lesson taught last April. Sometimes losing today is better for your team tomorrow.

Why would the Grizzlies want to lose now?

The key is the NBA draft. A few days ago a reader of The Wages of Wins Journal – Erich Doerr – sent me his analysis of the college performance of players expected to be available in the 2007 draft. The analysis suggested – as many have already guessed –that there are some extremely talented players available in next year’s NBA draft. To have the best shot at this talent, though, you need to lose today.

To see the talent available to the NBA’s losers, consider the following table, where the per-minute Win Score of fourteen college players ESPN thinks might be lottery choices is reported.

Table One: The Performance of Potential Lottery Choices in 2006-07

The per-minute Win Score is calculated with data from this season (which I downloaded from ESPN.com today). These results were compared to the college performance – at each position — of players taken in the first fifteen choices of each draft since 1994 (specifically, college performance is the per-minute Win Score for the last year each player played in college).

As one can see, Kevin Durant is currently posting numbers that are 0.134 above the per-minute college numbers posted by small forwards from the past thirteen drafts. To be more specific, Durant is currently posting numbers that are better than any small forward taken in the top 15 slots since 1994. Second on the list if Greg Oden, followed by Al Horford and Joakim Noah. Each of these players is offering much more than the average player at their respective position.

The analysis provided in Table One is hardly necessary for people paying attention to the NBA draft. Most analysts expect each of these players to help their future NBA employer win games. The only problem is that you can’t get these players if you win today.

The Predictive Power of College Performance

It should be emphasized that college performance does not correlate perfectly to professional productivity. Since 1994, there is a 0.69 correlation between a rookie’s per minute Win Score in the NBA and what that rookie did his last year in college (assuming the rookie played at least 500 minute his rookie season).

What this means is that it’s likely that Durant, Oden, Horford, and Noah – based on what we have seen so far in 2006-07 – will be productive NBA players in 2007-08. But that’s not guaranteed. Likewise, players at the bottom of the above list – Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, and Darrell Arthur – are not guaranteed to be unproductive NBA players. Still, one might ask how players who are supposed to be “good” in the NBA could play relatively poorly at the college level.

Losing to Win, Again

Would NBA teams reduce their chances to win today to land a player like Durant or Oden?

As mentioned in The Wages of Wins and last May in this forum, one of the best recent articles written in the field of sports economics was “Losing to Win: Tournament Incentives in the National Basketball Association.” by Beck Taylor and Justin Trogdon. This paper, which appeared in The Journal of Labor Economics in 2002, offered evidence that before the institution of the draft lottery, non-playoff bound NBA teams actually played to lose towards the end of each season. And when the lottery introduced weights to give the worst teams a better shot at the best talent, there was again evidence that bad teams lost more than you would expect even bad teams to do.

So when I see the Grizzlies cut Eddie Jones, and the Sixers cut Chris Webber, I immediately suspect that the focus of these teams has shifted to the next draft lottery. Sure, maybe there are other reasons for these players to be cut. But the leading article of faith in economics is that people respond to their incentives. And when we see the quality of players available in the 2007 draft, bad teams today have a clear incentive to enhance their “badness” this season.

– DJ