Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Should the Hawks Be Tanking?

The Hawks' four-game winning streak and the resulting appearance of articles like this one from John Hollinger entitled "Look Who's Contending Now" (a statement that hasn't been made about the Hawks this century, but it now creeping out of the keyboards of writers without full frontal lobotomies) has caused us ton examine the question of whether the Hawks should be winning at this stage.

In a comment to my post yesterday about the Hawks, LD opines that the Hawks should not be winning right now:

Count me among those who think the Hawks' winning streak is a bad thing. It's not lottery position they're costing themselves, it's having a lottery pick at all. They lose their own pick to Phoenix if it's not in the top 3. With Indiana looking like they'll make the playoffs, that means the Hawks only pick in the top 14 will be their own, and they'll only keep it if their ping pong balls put them in the top three. From the results of the last week or so, they've gone from having a 12% chance at the top pick to less than 8%. While that seems like a de minimis shift, the chances of getting the 2nd or 3rd pick also drop. A week ago, the Hawks were tied with the Bucks, Bobcats and Sixers with for the third worst record, and only a game or so behind the Celtics. Now, they're behind two of those teams (Praise Iguodala). So their chances of having no pick at all in the lottery have increased from somewhere around 60% to closer to 80%. I think when the issue isn't having "a worse pick" but rather having "any pick", winning meaningless games late in the year is even worse. Now would be a good time for a Pacers collapse though - so the Hawks could snag Acie Law with the 14th pick.

I am certainly not one of those people who is averse to rooting against my favorite teams. I've been rooting against Michigan's basketball team for just about this entire season because I didn't want them to get a meaningless #10 seed in the tournament, a result that would have been a failure when the program was living up to expectations, but would now be treated as the equivalent of UCLA winning eight straight titles because of the depths to which Michigan has fallen as the result of bad coaching. Tommy Amaker's resume going into this year made it abundantly clear that he is a below-average basketball coach and Michigan will never win consistently with him. Thus, for the long-term health of the program, Michigan needed a bad enough season that Bill Martin and Mary Sue Coleman would be forced to fire him. Hopefully, 8-8 in a lousy Big Ten and not even being on the bubble will be sufficient, but you never know. I digress.

With that background out of the way, I am decidedly in favor of the Hawks continuing to win games, even if that decreases the chances of the team retaining its first round pick. If you assume counter-factually that the Hawks would have lost the last four games instead of winning them, they would have a 13.75% chance of winning the lottery, whereas right now they have a 4.3% chance of winning it. Thus, their winning streak has cut their chance of winning the lottery significantly, but keep in mind that their chances of winning the lottery were very small to begin with, even if they kept losing and finished with the third-worst record in the NBA. The NBA structures the lottery odds in such a way that the incentives to tank a season are not that great. Also, with four additional losses, the Hawks still would only be 1.5 games worse than Milwaukee or Charlotte, so their margin for error in retaining the 13.75% chance would be minimal.

More importantly, the Hawks are currently at a stage of rebuilding in which they don't really need more young players. I'd be an idiot to say that they couldn't use Greg Oden or Kevin Durant (although the latter would force them to deal Marvin Williams or Josh Childress at a cut rate, not that this would be a terrible problem to have, given Durant's talent). That said, the rest of the players in the Draft are good, but not so wonderful that they would change the Hawks' fortunes significantly. This is all about Oden and Durant and the Hawks' shot at either of them goes from long to longer by virtue of the recent winning streak.

Set against that marginal change in the odds is the fact that the Hawks' young players need to learn how to win. The young nucleus of Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Zaza Pachulia, Marvin Williams, and Josh Childress needs to develop confidence. Johnson's calf injury has turned out to be a blessing because the other young players are forced into greater roles with Johnson out and they're learning that they are capable of filling those roles quite well. This is a significant development for the team. With the teams in front of them all in various stages of free fall, a playoff bid isn't out of the question and that would be a major development for these players and this franchise. It's been so long since the Hawks were on top of the sports radar in this town for anything good. A strong finish to the season would change that. A strong finish would also make the team more attractive to players on other teams in the NBA, so the Hawks wouldn't have to overpay dramatically to acquire future Joe Johnsons. The team needs 1-2 established players more than it needs talented 19-year olds.

In the end, this is really more of an emotional issue for me than anything else. I went to ten games in 2004-5 when the Hawks won 13 all year. I went to 19 games in 2005-6 the Hawks won 26. I've lived through the never-ending rebuilding process. Now that the process is finally starting to bear fruit, I'm simply incapable of not enjoying the team playing well. Maybe that means that I'm being irrational about the negatives of the Hawks winning four in a row, but I'm having a hard time divorcing myself from the excitement of a bunch of young players maturing into the sort of players that we all hoped they could be. (I'm really thinking of Josh Smith here.)

All that said, my experience as a Hawks fan requires me to recite one of my favorite exchanges from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at this stage:

Walter Donovan: As you can now see, Dr. Jones, we are on the verge of completing a quest that began almost two thousand years ago. We're just one step away.

Indiana Jones: That's usually when the ground falls out from underneath your feet.


Joel said...

While the thought of getting an Oden/Durant is tantalizing, I have to agree with you here and say that this nucleus winning games is more important at this juncture.

Besides, with the Hawks draft luck, we'd either end up w/ a pick in the 4-13 range that goes to Phoenix or the #3 pick and end up w/ yet ANOTHER raw prospect that is likely a few years away from contributing at a high level (this includes Noah, the freshmen Wright).

What is interesting to me is how the hell this is happening without JoeJ. The team was awful earlier in the year when he was out, they were awful for the past month WITH him, what does this say about the makeup of the team that you can take away the only consistent, star-quality player for a few games and they proceed to play their best ball of the season? I got to think this (as with many of the Hawks problems this year) comes down to coaching.

LD said...

I'm not sure if I was clear enough earlier, and the numbers aren't as readily available, so let me try to clarify a little...

1) In isolation, the recent wins giving the Hawks a smaller chance at getting the first overall pick, I agree, isn't really worth it that much. The difference between a 1 in 8 chance and a 1 in 25 chance isn't incredibly great, since the odds are long to begin with.

2) That said, every additional win does come at a cost. Last night's win pushed the Hawks from 8.8% chance at winning the lottery to 4.3%. One win doubled the length of the odds. Again, those numbers are only for winning the number one pick.

3) My main point, and the real reason why I think the Hawks' wins right now are somewhat detrimental has less to do with getting that #1 pick, but more to do with getting the #3 pick. I'll take it step by step:

(a) Say the Hawks don't win another game the rest of the year and finish with the worst record in the NBA. In terms of getting the #1 overall pick, the Hawks would have the best chance of anyone, but still only a 1 in 4 chance. That's a positive thing, but I'm not sure the most positive thing. The biggest benefit of having the most ping pong balls in the lottery is that the worst team in the league can finish no lower than 4th in the lottery. And the odds of the worst team falling out of the top 3 are minuscule. Basically, three times teams with significantly longer odds would have to luck out. Again, since the Hawks lose the pick if it's not in the top 3, the chances of the Hawks keeping the pick this year (by finishing top-3 in the lottery) if they ended up with the worst overall record are pretty high. Finding the exact numbers is very difficult, but I'd estimate it's above 95%.

(b) The same thing applies were the Hawks to finish with the second worst record. Second worst record means the Hawks could finish no worse than 5th in the draft, and that requires the same three teams with worse chances than the Hawks finishing 1,2,3 in the lottery and the worst team in the league hitting that 4th spot (which has a minuscule chance). Basically, it requires the tiny chance in hypo (a) above to occur, AND for the team with the second best odds not to be one of the three to jump ahead of the worst. So the chances of the Hawks as 2nd worst in picking 5th are extremely low (1% I'd guess). The chances of the Hawks picking 4th (and losing the pick) after having the second best chances at winning are also low. That would mean that two teams from below the Hawks got lucky and ended up in the top 3 (as well as the team with the worst record). The odds of this happening are quite long since the teams behind the Hawks already would have long odds to move into the lottery, and that would have to happen twice. I'd guess the odds of the Hawks (as the second worst team) falling out of the top 3 to be about 10-15% tops. So I'd guess an 85%-90% chance of keeping the pick.

(c) Were the Hawks to finish with the third worst record, here's where the chances of retaining any pick at all drop precipitously. Were the Hawks to finish with the third worst record, they'd have the third best chance at the #1 pick. At worst, the Hawks would pick 6th - but that's a very small chance. That would require that three teams from 4-14 in the lottery landed the 1,2,3. The odds of that happening are extrememly low (I'd guess in the tenths of percents). The third worst team picking fifth has a similarly low chance (2 teams from outside the top 3 end up in the top 3 - a low percentage number comes up twice out of three times). But the third worst team picking 4th is a much more likely occurrence. All is needed is for one team outside the top 3 to slide into the top three to bump that 3rd team (assuming the #3 team doesn't move up). About 40% of the balls are outside the top 3 for the initial (first pick) draw. So there's probably just slightly better than a 60% chance that the team finishing with the third worst record remains in the top 3.

(d) If the Hawks were to finish with a record outside the top 3, the chances of them sliding as a result of other teams are very small (and progressively smaller the better the Hawks record, since the numbers of teams behind them and their respective chances at moving into the top 3 are smaller and smaller). But the chances of them moving up are also small. From the 4th position (as of right now, and this changes with each team's wins and losses, and can be altered by teams with equal records), the team has about 10-12% chance of getting the first pick (the current 13.75% is really a result of two teams tied for third). Their chances of getting the second pick might be better or worse, depending on who gets the first pick. If the team with the worst record overall gets the first pick, then the Hawks at #4 worst would have a slightly better chance at moving up to the second or third slot (since all the balls for the worst team would be removed). If a team behind the Hawks wins the first pick, the chances of getting the second pick from that 4th slot drop significantly (since teams 1,2,3 are still there with all of their balls remaining). Basically, if the first two picks go to plan, the Hawks at #4 would have a decent chance of moving up one spot and keeping the pick (maybe 20-25%). If the first two picks do not go to plan, the Hawks would have a poor chance of moving up one spot and keeping the pick.

And every slot lower the Hawks end up makes it that much more difficult not just to slide into the #1 slot (and we know the percentages there), but also to slide into the #2 or #3 slot.

Here's how I come out on this:

Benefits if the Hawks keep winning: [slim] chance at playoff spot; value of the pick to be sent to Phoenix drops (making the JJ deal slightly better); intangible benefits of playing together and growing as a team.

Benefits if the Hawks were to lose more: better chance at #1 overall pick; better chance at #2 overall pick; better chance at #3 overall pick; better chance at rolling over the pick to send to Phoenix until next year (when the pick might be outside the lottery or low in the lottery - in either event a "worse" pick than this year).

The Hawks are, as you get at, in kind of an odd position in this draft though. It's one of the most talented drafts in years, but at positions that the Hawks have been building at already. Oden would be a major paradigm shift for the Hawks, and maybe Noah or Horford could help. But the rest of the top 6-7 expected are all players the Hawks don't necessarily need (unless they reached for a big man or Acie Law). Being at the top of the draft for the purposes of improving the team by drafting a player, I think I agree, isn't that important to the Hawks, in the abstract. Were the Hawks to tank a little, end up with the third pick, I don't think Brandan Wright or Julian Wright would help all that much. They could go for Noah or Horford (both possibly a reach). But they could also trade down 3-4 spots and pick up another pick or maybe a player (not that I'd expect Knight to do that - he'd probably make a promise to Josh McRoberts or something). But having the #3 pick is a lot better than Phoenix having the #6 pick.

Sorry about the length.

Joel said...

For what it is worth, if i had to lay money on what goes down w/ the Hawks this year, I am taking the "play slightly under .500 ball the rest of the way, end up w/ the 6-9th worst record in the league and lose our draft pick this year" option. It's a lock basically.