When the Low Road is the Long Road
A number of players on "better than expected" teams have come up in discussions this week of "should they dump this guy?" The most extreme pro-tanking position suggests (in a Modest Proposal sort of way) that teams might be better off if they could simply waive players with real value in order to make them a few wins worse in order to get a slightly better chance at one of the top picks in this year's bumper crop. Most wouldn't go that far, but the suggestion that for example Orlando should take the first deal they get offered for Arron Afflalo is appealing to many.
Without deep-diving too much into the merits of Afflalo the player specifically, I don't really agree with this point of view. In many cases, it is true that the quickest way to get really good again is to get really bad with the boon of a top 3 draft pick serving as a franchise's Dead Cat Bounce to an extent. However, the farther you have to fall, the longer the fall takes. To put it another way, in my mind Orlando trading a player like Affalalo for minuscule value (early 2nd round picks or late firsts) would reduce the franchise's long term equity rather than increase it.
To illustrate why, I looked at every draft pick from 1995 (the first year of where the Grizz and Raps drafted bringing the league to 29 teams) to 2009 to give draftees the benefit of their full rookie contracts before evaluating. Here's the summary of what I found:
- Busts - player never became a contributing rotation player for longer than a season or two, whether through sucking, never leaving Europe or injuries
- Rotation players - guys who were consistently among the top 7 or 8 of NBA teams with some allowances for team quality (less contributions were required to be considered rotation for good teams than bad)
- Good Rotation players - roughly speaking, above average for players who fit the above category
- Stars - the top 15% or so of rotation players
I weighted heavily towards the players early years, so player like Anthony Parker or P.J. Tucker who never contributed to their original drafting teams, finding success in Europe and then returning to the NBA as solid starters were still classified as "busts". Some players were put half in one cat egory and half in the next if they were borderline, and injuries definitely counted, because if we're counting the good look of winning the lottery and/or drafting well for the position, we also have to include the bad luck of Brandon Roy, Yao Ming and now apparently Derrick Rose's health problems. As a final caveat, this is of course historical data, this year's draft could indeed be a black swan confluence of talent, but even in the greatest collection of top end talent in a draft in recent memory, the Lebron Draft of 2003, one "sure fire franchise player" busted, spawning the Enlightened Fandom Movement in the process. And doing so spectacularly:
In any even, Afflalo probably falls on the border of the yellow and green bars above. In order for dumping/trading him to make sense, the combination of the increase in draft "band" alongside the on court value of the player likely selected with the incoming pick need to exceed that, otherwise the Magic would be lighting value on fire. In their specific instance, they are probably a little bit not quite bad enough for an outright firesale to make sense, but as the draft position of the incoming pick increases it starts to become more attractive. Without seeing the details of a floated trade, I don't want to go too far into the weeds of trying to make a "worth it or not" call, especially given the intentional loose framework of the draft outcome categories, but keeping in mind both the extremely top-heavy nature of the draft AND the fact that the probability of a pick crapping out is surprisingly high in any case should give teams and fans pause before launching productive players on reasonable contractors from the ejector seats. Besides, if teams are really serious about increasing their tank equity, I have a better solution that increases their long term prospects even further by helping them lose now giving up nothing: