The Least Interesting Team in the NBA

Posted on September 17, 2007 by


In sports we tend to talk about the teams and players that are “interesting.” Today I want to focus attention on the “less than interesting.” Specifically, I wish to address the question: Which NBA team is the least interesting?

To answer this question we need two ingredients.  We need to define what we mean by “interesting” and then we need to measure what we are defining.

Defining “interesting”

For starters, let me just say what I am not talking about.  This is not about style of play.  Some sports fans prefer offense.  Others prefer defense.  The focus of this column is on neither preference.

What I am talking about is “interesting” outcomes.  For example, teams that contend for an NBA title year after year are certainly “interesting.”  So the least interesting team cannot be the San Antonio Spurs.

Winning, though, is not the only way to get attention.  Very bad teams can also be “interesting.”  Very bad teams in the NBA are in the best position to secure a favorable lottery pick.  And though the lottery does not always treat the very bad very well, we still focus our attention on the very bad because we think it’s these teams that have the best shot at players like Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James.

In sum, down the stretch run of a season there are two story lines: Who is going to contend for a title and who is going to contend for the number one draft choice (and perhaps future titles)?  

Measuring “interesting”

Okay, I have defined “what is interesting”.  Given this definition, a team is “not interesting” if it cannot contend for either a title or the number one draft choice.  In other words, hovering around average year after year is not very interesting. 

To see which teams are “hovering around average”, I looked at how often teams were one standard deviation away from the mean (41 wins) in the NBA.  The standard deviation of wins in the NBA since 1973-74 is 12.2 wins.  So a team that wins fewer than 29 games or more than 53 is more than a standard deviation away from the mean.  Such teams are either working towards the number one draft choice or contending for the title.  The teams that fall between 29 and 53 wins, though, are generally not in contention for either titles or number one picks (and yes, I am aware there are exceptions to my simple rule).

Identifying the “Least Interesting”

Alright, we have a definition.  We also have a method for measuring who fits the definition and who does not.  So let’s answer our question.  Which team is the least interesting in the NBA?

Table One: A Ranking of the Least Interesting Teams in the NBA

Let’s start with the most interesting team.  Over the past twenty years the San Antonio Spurs have been at least one standard deviation away from 41 wins on sixteen different occasions.  In fourteen of these seasons, the team was contending for a title.  So the Spurs have generally been interesting and good.

At the other end of the spectrum we see four teams.  Milwaukee, Boston, Cleveland, and Houston have each been the anti-Spurs.  Each of these teams has been within one standard deviation of 41 wins for 16 seasons.  In other words, these franchises have each only been interesting four times.  I think one would argue that contending for a title is more interesting than contending for the number one pick.  And of these four, Milwaukee is the only one never to contend for the title in the past twenty years (although they did consistently contend prior to this time period).  Consequently, I am giving the title of “least interesting team” to the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Bucks Drive to Be Interesting

Okay, now that I have offended everyone in Milwaukee, let me point out that we tend to find the teams we follow “interesting.”  For example, I am a Detroit Lions fan and after a lifetime of investing emotionally in this sorry team I find even their consistent failures “interesting.”  Still, I don’t expect non-Detroit fans to find the Lions to be “interesting.”  In much the same way, I don’t think fans of the Bucks should be surprised if people not in their group – i.e. fans of the Bucks – don’t find their team “interesting.”

Now that I have clarified my comments, let’s see if Milwaukee is doing anything to make life more interesting for fans of this team.  Two years ago this team won 40 games, which was the fifth time in seven years this franchise had finished with 40, 41, or 42 victories.  Yes, not bad.  But not too interesting either. 

Last year the Bucks were more interesting.  The team only won 28 games, which put them in lottery contention.  Unfortunately, the lottery balls bounced differently and the Bucks ended up with Yi Jianlian. Before we look at where the Bucks are going with Jianlian, let’s look at how this team declined from 40 wins.

Table Two: The Milwaukee Bucks in 2006-07 and 2005-06

Table Two notes how the performance of returning players changed as well as the impact of the players added and lost across the two seasons.  Only five players were on this team each season.  Of these, Maurice Williams clearly improved.  Michael Redd, though, got hurt and hence offered fewer wins.  And Charlie Bell just offered fewer wins. Still, the summation of what the returning players did was not much different in 06-07 from what these players offered the season before.

So clearly the key was the players the team lost.  Jamaal Magloire, T.J. Ford, Bobby Simmons, and Joe Smith were all a bit below average in 05-06.  Still these four managed to produced 15.1 wins in 2005-06.  In 06-07 the Bucks did add Ruben Patterson, who surprisingly led this team in Wins Produced.  But after Patterson, all the other additions combined to produce -0.2 wins.  And hence we see why this team became quite a bit worse.

This summer the Bucks have replaced Patterson – who produced 8.7 wins in 2006-07 – with Desmond Mason – who produced -2.3 wins for the Hornets last season.  So this is not a move in the right direction. 

When we look at the rest of the roster we see three above average players: Andrew Bogut, Williams, and Redd.  None of these players managed to post a WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) of 0.150 or higher in either 05-6 or 06-07.  As noted in the discussing the Pareto Principle, 20% of the Association players produced 80% of the wins.  From a team’s perspective, this means that your best three players tend to produce the majority of your victories. 

For the Bucks this tendency is bad news.  Milwaukee’s best three players are not that great.  Consequently, it’s hard to see this team becoming “interesting” in a good way in 07-08.

Of course, if Mason keeps producing in the negative range and Jianlian can’t produce much in the minutes he supposedly was guaranteed, the Bucks could be “interesting” in a bad way.  And although that might generate a few stories next April, it’s probably not the outcome that will be most interesting to fans of Milwaukee.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say