On Quality Losses and Advanced Tanking Theory

Most Citizens of Clips Nation know that these last two games would have been celebrated as nothing short of perfection on this blog last season.  They had everything you could want for a team not making the playoffs -

  • Competitive and exciting basketball against quality opponents;
  • An undermanned Clipper squad showing pride and great effort;
  • Lots of opportunity for young players to assert themselves (and EJ in particular coming through in spades);
  • Coveted L's contributing a little more to the ping pong ball odds in the draft lottery.

In the end, losing in the final minute was a terrific outcome.  Particularly in the case of the Detroit game, where Gordon was able to deliver multiple times on crucial possessions in the final minutes and even got a good look at the buzzer, there's just very little downside to losing those games.  The only thing that would have been better would have been a healthy Mike Taylor starting at the point guard.  And yet, as I've mentioned in some comments, I'm not willing to go into full tank mode on this season.  Here's why.

Although the Clippers are massively short-handed right now, this team is in a different situation than last season's edition.  Whereas Brand and Livingston were only going to play a significant number of games in the most wildly optimistic scenario, none of the Clippers current crop of injuries are particularly serious.  It makes it all-the-more annoying that so many players are missing so much time, and the comments from MDsr about agents influencing their clients to stay out a little longer (essentially accusing his players of feigning injury, which seems unwise to me but whatever) are also disconcerting.  But there are still 48 games left.  Surely we're not expecting or hoping that Kaman or Randolph or Baron will miss 30 more games.  So while last season's Clippers had a legitimate 'short-handed' excuse to soften the losses pretty much all season, that's not going to be the case this year - at least I'm hoping it's not.

You also have to take a realistic look at the perceived benefit of piling up the losses.  Specifically, what good did it do for the team last season, and what good is it likely do to this season?

For all of their carefully executed futility, the Clippers ended up picking seventh in the draft.  They finished tied with the Knicks for the 5th worst record with 59 losses, but dropped one and a half spots when they lost a coin toss to New York and Chicago beat the lottery odds and leap frogged everyone.  They really, really tried to make up some ground late in the season, and were within one loss of the third worst record.  But it turns out teams like Minnesota, Memphis and Seattle/OKC were (and are) really, really bad, and it's just not easy to be as bad as them.  Meanwhile, looking northward in last year's standings, the Clippers could have won 8 more games and not changed their draft position.  What would 8 more wins have done for the quality of my life?  For my hair line?  (And really, isn't this all about me?)

It seems that a very similar scenario is shaping up this season.  Certainly in the Western Conference, it's difficult (and depressing) to imagine a healthy Clippers team finishing behind the likes of OKC, MIN, MEM or SAC.  And the way things are going in Oakland, the Warriors are much more likely to remain in the tank all season than the Clippers, with or without Monta Ellis.  So I've got the Clippers pretty much locked into 10th in the West, at least emotionally.  It's too painful to contemplate them being worse than five very bad teams at the end of the season, and to imagine them rising any higher is to imagine them competing for the playoffs, which is just silly.  The Clippers currently have a winning percentage of .285 and 9th place Utah has a winning percentage of .571.  Do the math.  Show your work.  Pencils down.

So even though the T-Wolves have won 3 straight and passed the Clippers in the standings last night, that's temporary.  The Clippers have every reason to expect to be better than they are, and the Wolves have a long way to go.  Trying to be worse than Minnesota is a very, very bad plan.

Still, there are a handful (really, two hands full for Homer Simpson) of uninspiring teams in the Eastern Conference, and how the Clippers finish relative to them will also change the lottery odds.  Eight Eastern Conference teams with losing records currently have better records than the Clippers.  Every one of those teams LA catches takes some of our precious ping pong balls.  (By the way, two of those 8 teams with losing records would make the playoffs if the season ended today - I'm not clear on why everyone keeps talking about how resurgent the East is.)

So even if you accept that the Clippers are locked into the 6th worst record in the West, you're still looking at somewhere between 7th and 13th worst overall depending on how they finish relative to the mediocrities of the East.  Realistically, the Clippers are going to finish somewhere between 7th and 13th - they'd have to play incredibly badly to finish worse, and they'd have to play incredibly well to finish better.  Of the two, I'd rather they play incredibly well.

And the draft is looking pretty weak at this point.  Ricky Rubio is targeting 2010, Blake Griffin will likely be a good pro, but will be long gone unless the Clippers get very lucky in the lottery, and I'm just not sold on anyone else.  The way it stands now, the Clippers might be in a position to draft a local combo wing in the late lottery (Demar Derozan) instead of a local combo guard in the mid lottery (Jrue Holiday).  Meh.

There are inherent advatages in winning games.  For one thing, it's more fun for everyone.  Now, I don't subscribe completely to the theory that losing always breeds losing.  The cycle can clearly be broken, and Eric Gordon is not going to be ruined by a tough rookie season.  After all, Rajon Rondo won 24 games his rookie year and was the starting point guard for the NBA champs his second season.  Kendrick Perkins averaged fewer than 35 wins per season in his first 4 years in the league.  Losers magically become winners when they start alongside future hall of famers.  BUT, developing the ability to win games is a vital skill.  Eric Gordon and Al Thornton will be better pros sooner when and if they learn how to win close games - and conversely the Clippers will be a better team when and if their players figure out how to finish.  So there's a value in winning games this season, even if the playoffs are long since out of reach.  Confidence and momentum can be built up for next season.  Vital experience can be gained.

There are strategic ways to approach this.  As Citizen Zhiv pointed out, the Clippers have conveniently been forced into discovering that Eric Gordon is their best perimeter scorer.  If Cat Mobley hadn't been traded, if Ricky Davis hadn't been hurt, we would not have seen EJ's breakout nearly this soon, if ever this season.  He's now averaging 16.5 as a starter, while shooting a solid percentage.  Would he even have been starting if Davis hadn't been hurt?  Who knows, but it's safe to say that he'll still be starting and playing big minutes even after Ricky comes back in four games, which is a luxury for the Clippers - they get to develop the young guy AND have their best shooting guard on the court at the same time. 

I think there are similar situations for DeAndre Jordan and Mike Taylor (when Taylor is healthy, that is).  Jordan has been forced into significant game action by all the injuries, but I'm not advocating that he start ahead of Zach Randolph on a fully healthy Clippers squad in the future.  I would, however be in favor of using DJ over Brian Skinner in the event of foul trouble or other issues that require the team to reach beyond Camby/Kaman/Randolph.  Has Skinner been that much more effective than DJ this season?  Not that I can tell.  So let's continue developing him as the situation allows it.  And Taylor needs to get more minutes at the point guard than Jason Hart, that much is clear.  Hell, if Baron Davis can't make a few more shots, maybe the team should be starting Taylor when his hand is healed.  It's tough to argue that he'd lose more games than Baron has so far.

At any rate, I can't get into rooting for losses this season, despite the body of research on Advanced Tanking Theory.  There's still a long way to go, and there's no reason to believe that the team won't be fully healthy for the bulk of the remaining games.  I expect them to play .500 ball or better when they are healthy and to provide a reason for optimism going into next season.  They'll still get a lottery pick in what is shaping up to be a crap shoot of a draft. 

So for the time being, there's really no downside to winning.  The team has my permission not to lose.

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