Avoiding the treadmill of mediocrity and more from Sloan

BOSTON — During the Basketball Analytics panel at this weekend’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made the curious statement of saying when Dirk Nowitzki retires he hopes the Mavericks will be bad. Like really bad. Cleveland Cavaliers bad.

“The worst position you can be in the NBA is to be mired in mediocrity,” Cuban said. “Your best chance to rebuild is to get the next Blake Griffin in the draft. You have to find that guy, and chances are you need a top-three pick.”

Former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard referred to it as “the treadmill of mediocrity,” meaning you’re just good enough to sneak into the playoffs with an eighth seed and a first-round loss, only to get a middle first-round draft pick that never allows you to truly rebuild.

Although it was questioned whether Cuban could really swallow super bad seasons, perhaps a franchise’s five- or 10-year vision should include a couple of rebuilding years. This is obviously the case for a Minnesota or a Sacramento, but maybe even a team like Dallas when looking at the landscape of the next decade should plan on being bad sometime down the road.

I found Pritchard’s comment so interesting because the Suns are squarely on that treadmill. They don’t seem to have a championship move in them, yet as long as Nash is around and they’re healthy they should be a playoff team.

Even down the line if they handle the post-Nash transition well they may have enough quality players like Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat to be near the bottom of the West playoff picture but never good enough to be a contender.

That’s the issue with locking role players into long-term guaranteed contracts, especially since it was brought up how many championship teams of the last few decades had a Big Three of some sort, but it more and more makes me wonder how the Suns will get even one of those stars.

The Suns should not be content to ride the treadmill, and this could be the offseason that it makes sense to fall off and hit the floor.

Computers: The future of coaching?

Tarek Kamil’s presentation “2061: A Sports Odyssey – How Technology Will Redefine Competition in Sports” brought up the interesting concept that coaches will be marginalized in the future because it will be ridiculous to think a human mind can process all the scenarios that a machine can and thus make the most logical coaching decisions.

This goes back to the question of gut vs. data in coaching, but in theory a coaching staff should be using the numbers to put all his players in the best potential positions for success.

Kamil sees coaching taking on more of a teacher and relationship management role with the Xs and Os left to the machines.

On one hand this would take some of the fun out of sports, as we love these games so much because of the human element in that anything can happen. If machines are making routine decisions by the book, not only could this be predictable but it could rob us of some of the spine-tingling moments that make sports so fun.

More Cuban

Cuban said there can’t be a straight Moneyball approach to basketball since “there are so many different options” in the sport, which is especially the case in terms of lineups. Baseball is largely a sequence of series involving a batter against a pitcher, but how different NBA lineups affect each other is much more difficult to crack.

The Mavs owner also said he leans heavily on impact rating (basically how an individual player impacts the outcome of a game), particularly at the end of games.

Final conclusions

I found it interesting that 20 of the 30 NBA teams employ a statistical analyst of some kind, including the Suns, who have Steve Ilardi consulting.

I’m not sure what the other 10 teams are waiting for as they are being left behind in determining the best ways to evaluate players and the best ways to analyze lineup decisions.

But the NBA is a copycat league and soon all teams will understand the metrics that most influence wins, although there may be too many factors going on during a game for a Holy Grail stat to ever be perfected.

Instead trends should be analyzed. For example, adjusted plus/minus can be very variable year to year, but if Steve Nash is consistently at the top of the league in this category it makes a statement.

A decade ago we were largely constrained by the confines of a box score, and still some coaches and organizations are scared to look too far beyond that.

Now it’s clear that pace relegates points per game as a useless stat in favor of offensive and defensive efficiency, and shooting efficiency should be valued more highly than volume scoring.

But as Cuban said, “You’ve got to think about where you’re going next.”

During the next decade answering some of the questions posed at Sloan before other teams do could be as important to winning as clearing salary space for a max free agent.