Photo credit: Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USA
Tune in to a Suns/Knicks game in 2019 and you’re excused if you don’t recognize the game in front of you. In the modern NBA, tanking, or losing “intentionally”, can become a viable franchise plan for future building. Popularized by former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie, tanking has become pop philosophy itself; a legion of rabid Philly fans point to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as proof that God is real and that, while maybe not water into wine, turning Michael Carter-Williams into anything useful is just miraculous. Losing on purpose allows a team to maximize their odds at a top pick. These GMs can excuse putrid on-court performance for the payout later on, arguing that sometimes the only way to the top is digging all the way through rock bottom.
Imagine any other industry adopting this approach. A restaurant could only get the top culinary talent out of college by giving every patron food poisoning. A law firm must lose 85% of their cases to finally snag that Harvard grad. For the NBA, the teams need to sell some hope in the form of young player development: sure, we might lose 70 times, but in those teaching moments, our 19 year old rookie could practice being a player without any stakes attached.
Yet, in these lost seasons, can a rookie actually flourish? If a tree falls in a forest, and the only veteran presence around to hear it is Chris Andersen, can that young phenom still find success? Let’s investigate.
Only the rookies on the league’s worst team will be eligible for analysis. In isolating these players, we can try and measure the tank’s impact on their development. I’ve pulled several impactful stats and scored each player by their z-score, or count of standard deviations from the mean for that stat. For example, Chris Paul has a z-score of 4 for his assist averages in his rookie season, meaning he’s four full standard deviations above the rest of the rookies. All of these z-scores summed together generates one composite score that helps rank our rookies across positions. Data is thanks to the kind folks atBasketball Reference.
Things aren’t too rosy for our collection of rookies on the league’s worst teams. We’re working with forty-two eligible rookies since 2000. For context, Larry Nance Jr. and T.J. McConnell are the two rookies nearest to a perfectly average zero. Let’s first show the distribution of values, where the largest bar will indicate where most rookies end up, and compare that to the histogram of just our tank commanders.
The majority of rookies are average to below average. In fact, the average score in our dataset sits ever so slightly below zero. You’ll see in their distribution of our tanking rookies that they’re skewed a bit more to the left, with their average score at –2.4. They’re heavily congregated toward the negative end of the spectrum.
Is this stat sig?
For my theory that rookies on tanking teams struggle to do well, my hypothesis is that the worst team will produce poor rookies; the null hypothesis is that losing has no effect on their performance. I am using a target p-value, essentially the significance level, of 0.05. This will let us say that 95% of the time, our results are not randomly occurring).
To calculate the p-value of my hypothesis, I’ll need to define these variables. The score we’re measuring is -2.4, as we want to see if the average tanking rookie is worse off than the rest of their counterparts. In the overall dataset, the mean is right around zero, with a standard deviation of 7.3. You’ll see the formula broken out here, as we snag the z-score for this value and produce -0.328: our tanking rookies barely differ from the typical ones, under half a standard deviation worse.
Applying our p-value calculation, helpfully built in a calculator from a Georgetown professor here, we get an abysmal p-value of 0.25, far above our p-value cutoff and an indicator that our theory does not hold up statistically.
Being a rookie on the worst team in the league does not necessarily mean you’re doomed for failure, but it certainly doesn’t help. I’ve found some fun examples to showcase the variety of potential outcomes. Within this group, we can identify some fun outliers and doomed casualties of the losing debacle.
Unaffected by the chaos
For these three rookies, the turmoil of a losing season did little to stop their growth and success. Our top three scores are Nene Hilario (a 17-65 Nuggets team in 2003), Carlos Boozer (a 17-65 Cavs team also in 2003), and Gilbert Arenas (a 21-61 Warriors team in 2002). Boozer and Nene ended the season sixth and seventh in rookie of the year voting, per Basketball Reference, and were named to the first and second All-Rookie team for that season. The Arenas scoring is a bit of an exciting surprise, however. Arenas did not place in the rookie of the year rankings or in the all-rookie team.
Yet, his total statistical profile tells the story of an efficient scorer contributing meaningfully to his team’s bottom line. His leap to stardom would happen in year two, jumping up to over 18 points per game and winning the Most Improved Player in his second season. Our rookie modellng shows his potential, despite his surroundings.
Run over by the tank
For every Nene, there’s another Denver rookie failing to find their footing in the league. Our bottom three guys are Junior Harrington, (Nene’s teammate in 2003), Jamal Crawford (a 15-67 Bulls dumpster fire), and Nikoloz Tskitishvili, also part of the abysmal Denver team in 2003. Tskitishvili was a top five pick, an infamous bust, and unfortunately one of the worst rookies in my entire dataset. His graph points almost entirely to the left.
Tskitishvili produced a 37.4% true shooting rate in his rookie year, 3 full standard deviations below his colleagues.
Poor Crawford. He struggled here but still managed to carve out a career as a hyper-enteraining, score-first combo guard with unbelievable handles. Show me a more devastating fake than the move he pulled on Kirk Hinrich.
After gathering all of these players, I did find three guys that I wanted to call out specifically. Jahlil Okafor ended his rookie season with a score of 4.7, incorrectly indicating that he was set for a contributing role. Instead, his empty stats hid defensive liabilities that nearly ended his career.
Kemba Walker couldn’t save a 7-59 Bobcats team, but he salvaged some positivity. He cobbled together a 2.5 season score. As for his fellow rookie in despair, Bismack Biyombo ended at nearly -6 on the year.
My all-time favorite find? Look no further than the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks, owners of a 15-67 record. Their first round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo scored -2.33 in our rookie rating system. Giannis was perhaps too deferential on offense, demonstrating a ridiculously low usage rate. Yet, you see the hints of his gamebreaking abilities. His block, steal, and rebound rates, while drawing fouls consistently, power so much of his present success.
For fellow fans of tank commanders like the Knicks, hope isn’t all lost. Some rookies in bad situations thrived, some never found their footing, and others followed a bit more circuitous route to competency. In future posts, I’ll look at how the 2018-19 class is faring so far.
Check out the list of all eligible rookies here.