NBA Teams "Stuck in the Middle" Do Better Longterm than Teams in the Cellar

NBA Teams "Stuck in the Middle" Do Better Longterm than Teams in the Cellar


NBA Teams "Stuck in the Middle" Do Better Longterm than Teams in the Cellar

Earlier today, Jason McIntyre called the Bulls’ decision to trade Jimmy Butler a smart one. The basic idea is that the Bulls were stuck in the middle class of the NBA with Jimmy Butler, so it was better to completely tear it down and start over.

On this point, we do not agree. Yes, there are some superstars that are only available at the top of the draft, and they can increase a team’s chances of winning a championship. They are still the exception and not the rule. Butler — who was just 27 last year — is better than you realize, and on a Hall of Fame track. The Chicago Bulls just traded him for the equivalent of unknown and middling parts.

But we can test whether tearing it down is really such a great strategy. First, let’s look at the last 20 years of teams to reach the NBA Finals and see where they were 3 years, 6 years, 9 years, and 12 years prior, just to get a sense if going to rags really helped gain riches.

Not a surprise, but more than half the teams to reach the Finals had at least 45 wins at the 3-year, 6-year, and 9-year mark. Winning organizations tended to lead to greater success. In the short term, there were 33% of the finalists who were at 34 or fewer wins three years before the Finals appearance, but if you take out LeBron James (first with Cleveland, then signing with Miami when they had a brief down stretch after a title, then again with Cleveland after the organization collapsed following his departure), it drops the numbers greatly.

What about looking at teams that kind of fit the two models — one where teams were stuck near the middle for a stretch, and another where they collapsed and bottomed out? Here is every team since 1998 that has either won between 35 and 45 games (the middle) or had a stretch of three straight years with 29 or fewer wins.

The teams in bold are teams that reached a Conference Final within 8 years, after the third straight season meeting the condition (either being in the middle or at the bottom).

The really bad teams that bottomed out have so far given us three that reached a conference Final within 8 years (out of 19). The best among them is the Cavaliers, who rebounded because of one the best players in NBA history decided to return home. The others are Dallas, who improved after new owner Mark Cuban took over and reached a NBA Final eight years after their bad stretch, and the Memphis Grizzlies (a team that has been near the middle).

The teams stuck in the middle for three straight years are 50% on reaching a conference final within eight years meanwhile, with Indiana joining the group next year.

That list would not tend to support a view that “tear downs” are great for business. Teams that fall back briefly, hit on one pick, and re-emerge can succeed. But those are generally teams with an established culture of winning that have one bad year. Most fans have visions of greatness with early NBA picks but the reality is there are a lot more cases like the Kings of the last decade than a team hitting on the next LeBron.

Yes, sometimes you have to go young to see what you have and sacrifice some wins now, but good teams generally establish a winning philosophy. You have to have great players, but we’ve seen plenty of teams draft a great player and lose them because the team wasn’t good enough. It takes more than one to win, and having a place people want to play, because you’ve shown competence in winning, is the best course.

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