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The NBA's Mediocrity Treadmill Since 84-85

Fans from around the NBA consistently warn against their teams ending up on the treadmill, when the team is nowhere near contention but is also not in a position to strike it big in the draft lottery. The Toronto Raptors of the past and present are a good example, as are this past season’s Milwaukee Bucks. Mark Cuban and Kevin Pritchard have both spoken out publicly against the treadmill.

Conventional wisdom goes that if a team isn’t cut out to be a legitimate contender, although no one seems to agree as to exactly what a contender is, that team should hope to be utterly horrendous. Acquiring additional chances in the NBA Draft Lottery can land a superstar like Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan or LeBron James, all of whom went first overall. Barring a total win, teams with picks #2 and #3 can still land great players. Examples are Alonzo Mourning, Jason Kidd or Kevin Durant at #2 and players like Grant Hill, Pau Gasol, Al Horford or James Harden at #3.

What hasn’t received adequate attention is how often teams end up on the treadmill. Are teams good at avoiding it? Should they even want to? Any discussion has to start with what the treadmill is – and isn’t.

Defining the Treadmill

In terms of duration, I’ve defined the treadmill as having to last at last three consecutive seasons. This removes teams that happened to have a couple mediocre seasons in a row, as well as teams that had either a glimpse of the big time or a glimpse of high draft pick territory. Whether for better or for worse, I’ve also decided to define the treadmill according to win-loss record.

Why I’m not defining it by playoff success: As tempting as that is, it fails to account for notable outliers in the jump from regular-season expectations to postseason glory. The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, for example, dominated the league with 67 wins but fell in the first round to the 42-win Warriors. Those Warriors were far more of a treadmill team than those Mavericks were – they just won a seven-game series. Picking a team like the present Denver Nuggets, who have fallen in four consecutive first rounds, but have been consistent 50-game winners, reveals a strong team built for contention with an unsatisfying record on the big stage. That’s disappointing but it isn’t mediocre.

Why I’m not defining it by playoff seeding and/or draft pick: These two criteria are essentially the same. They both compare the team in question to the teams around it. This causes problems when accounting for the (dis)parity of a conference in any given season. In the early 2002 Eastern Conference, for example, the decent but not great New Orleans Hornets finished 44-38 yet got the fourth seed, complete with home-court advantage in the first round. In that season’s Western Conference, the 50-32 Timberwolves rode Kevin Garnett to the fifth seed, having to play on the road in a hostile (57-win) Dallas environment in the first round. Two seasons later, those Hornets would be .500 with Jamal Mashburn sidelined permanently while the reloaded Timberwolves would capture the #1 seed. A similar comparison may be made between the 2008 Hawks and Warriors, which finished 37-45 and 48-34 respectively, yet it was the Hawks that made the playoffs. In a strange twist of fate, the Warriors drafted before the Hawks in the 2008 Draft despite having won eleven more games.

Why I’m not defining it by management decision-making: Sometimes acquiring a veteran player is considered a run for a title. Sometimes doing the same is considered a treadmill move. Sometimes standing pat is considered developing young talent. Sometimes doing the same is considered inviting a treadmill. This is far too contentious to code with any accuracy whatsoever.

What I came up with is three versions of the treadmill, designed to roughly correlate to fans’ differing expectations. The first, the Strict Treadmill, is defined by a team winning anywhere from 30 to 40 games. These teams often draft in the 10-14 range. Any team that wins 29 games or less is sufficiently bad the word “mediocre” no longer describes it. Any team .500 or better will at least be sniffing the playoffs in a typical conference in a typical season.

The second, the Moderate Treadmill, is defined by a team winning anywhere from 30 to 45 games. These teams often make the first round but are eliminated. The floor of 30 games is kept. Teams winning 41-45 games are not typically seen as contenders, barring extensive injuries during the regular season and corresponding sterling health during the playoffs.

The third, the Expanded Treadmill is defined by a team winning anywhere from 30 to 49 games. These teams may draft in the late lottery but may also be perennial first-round exit teams that never put together a real run. Teams winning 46-49 games are not typically seen as contenders but may claim high seeds in weak conferences or prove sufficiently pesky that more vaunted teams may not want to play them. This definition of the treadmill is typically reserved for those fan bases, like the Lakers’ and Pistons’ in the 2000s, that expect greatness.

What the Numbers Say

Below is a chart of each team’s treadmill time since the inception of the NBA Draft Lottery in 1985. The chart is also available here, with the first tab showing the frequency of treadmill seasons and the second tab showing when each treadmill stay occurred. The 1984-85 season is the first considered, which coincides with the arrival of David Stern as commissioner.

General notes:

- The numbers under the 3, 4 and 5+ columns for each team indicate how many times a team has been on a treadmill of that many seasons since 1984-85.

- The number under the Total column indicates how many total seasons since 1984-1985 that team has spent on that type of treadmill.

- Current franchise names and locations are used. (e.g.: Sonics show up under Oklahoma City)

- Whenever a season’s year is given, the year given is when that season’s playoffs were played. The 1984-85 season is given as “1985” and so on.

- When considering lockout-shortened seasons, treadmill records are interpolated within the schedule by winning percentage. This results in the following:

Strict: .360-.499
Moderate: .360-.539
Expanded: .360-.599

Houston and Utah are currently on an expanded treadmill, with Houston’s addition of Dwight Howard likely to break their streak. Milwaukee is currently on a strict treadmill.

Each treadmill’s median is also its mode, the way it worked out.

  Strict T-Mill (30-40) Moderate T-Mill (30-45) Expanded T-Mill (30-49)
Team 3 4 5+ Total 3 4 5+ Total 3 4 5+ Total
Hawks 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 1 1 0 7
Celtics 1 1 0 7 1 1 0 7 0 1 1 13
Nets 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 12
Bobcats 1 0 0 3 0 0 1 5 0 0 1 5
Bulls 2 0 0 6 2 0 0 6 1 0 1 9
Cavaliers 1 0 0 3 1 0 0 3 0 0 1 8
Mavericks 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nuggets 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 0 2 0 8
Pistons 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 0 1 0 4
Warriors 0 1 0 4 1 0 1 8 1 0 1 9
Rockets 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 0 2 0 8
Pacers 0 0 1 5 0 1 1 11 1 0 2 15
Clippers 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 1 1 0 7
Lakers 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 6 1 1 0 7
Grizzlies 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Heat 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 5 0 0 1 5
Bucks 1 0 0 3 1 0 1 8 0 1 3 19
Wolves 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 2 0 0 6
Hornets 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 1 11
Knicks 0 1 0 4 0 1 0 4 0 0 1 5
Thunder 0 1 0 4 0 1 0 4 0 0 1 8
Magic 1 0 0 3 1 1 0 7 1 1 0 7
Sixers 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 6 1 0 1 11
Suns 1 0 0 3 1 0 0 3 1 0 0 3
Blazers 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 8
Kings 1 0 0 3 2 0 0 6 2 0 0 6
Spurs 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Raptors 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 0 2 0 8
Jazz 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 2 1 0 10
Wizards 0 1 0 4 0 2 1 15 0 2 1 15
Mean   1.7333   4.4333   7.8
Median   0   4   8
Mode   0   4   8

Some of these treadmill appearances are more relevant than others. Management teams change. What one general manager believed wholeheartedly, another may reject. Franchise locations also change. For example, I highly doubt the Thunder front office is at all worried about resurrecting the treadmill of the mid-‘80s Seattle SuperSonics. To show when each team was on each treadmill, I’ve added a list of each team’s treadmill appearances since 1984-85.

Treadmill Team Start Finish Seasons
Expanded Atlanta 1990 1993 4
Expanded Atlanta 2007 2009 3
Moderate Atlanta 1990 1993 4
Expanded Boston 1993 1996 4
Expanded Boston 1998 2006 9
Moderate Boston 1994 1996 3
Moderate Boston 1998 2001 4
Strict Boston 1994 1996 3
Strict Boston 1998 2001 4
Expanded Brooklyn 1992 1996 5
Expanded Brooklyn 2003 2009 7
Moderate Brooklyn 1992 1996 5
Moderate Brooklyn 2007 2009 3
Strict Brooklyn 2007 2009 3
Expanded Charlotte 2007 2011 5
Moderate Charlotte 2007 2011 5
Strict Charlotte 2007 2009 3
Expanded Chicago 1985 1987 3
Expanded Chicago 2005 2010 6
Moderate Chicago 1985 1987 3
Moderate Chicago 2008 2010 3
Strict Chicago 1985 1987 3
Strict Chicago 2008 2010 3
Expanded Cleveland 1994 2001 8
Moderate Cleveland 1999 2001 3
Strict Cleveland 1999 2001 3
Expanded Denver 1993 1996 4
Expanded Denver 2004 2007 4
Moderate Denver 1993 1996 4
Expanded Detroit 1998 2001 4
Moderate Detroit 1998 2001 4
Expanded Golden State 1989 1991 3
Expanded Golden State 2003 2008 6
Moderate Golden State 1989 1991 3
Moderate Golden State 2003 2007 5
Strict Golden State 2003 2006 4
Expanded Houston 1987 1990 4
Expanded Houston 2010 2013 4
Moderate Houston 2010 2013 4
Expanded Indiana 1990 1994 5
Expanded Indiana 2001 2003 3
Expanded Indiana 2005 2011 7
Moderate Indiana 1990 1993 4
Moderate Indiana 2005 2011 7
Strict Indiana 2007 2011 5
Expanded LA Clippers 1990 1993 4
Expanded LA Clippers 2005 2007 3
Moderate LA Clippers 1990 1993 4
Expanded LA Lakers 1992 1995 4
Expanded LA Lakers 2005 2007 3
Moderate LA Lakers 1992 1994 3
Moderate LA Lakers 2005 2007 3
Expanded Miami 1992 1996 5
Moderate Miami 1992 1996 5
Expanded Milwaukee 1988 1992 5
Expanded Milwaukee 1997 2000 4
Expanded Milwaukee 2002 2006 5
Expanded Milwaukee 2009 2013 5
Moderate Milwaukee 2002 2006 5
Moderate Milwaukee 2011 2013 3
Strict Milwaukee 2011 2013 3
Expanded Minnesota 1997 1999 3
Expanded Minnesota 2005 2007 3
Moderate Minnesota 2005 2007 3
Expanded New Orleans 1992 1994 3
Expanded New Orleans 1999 2003 5
Expanded New Orleans 2009 2011 3
Expanded New York 2001 2005 5
Moderate New York 2002 2005 4
Strict New York 2002 2005 4
Expanded Oklahoma City 1985 1992 8
Moderate Oklahoma City 1985 1988 4
Strict Oklahoma City 1985 1988 4
Expanded Orlando 2000 2003 4
Expanded Orlando 2005 2007 3
Moderate Orlando 2000 2003 4
Moderate Orlando 2005 2007 3
Strict Orlando 2005 2007 3
Expanded Philadelphia 1987 1989 3
Expanded Philadelphia 2002 2009 8
Moderate Philadelphia 2004 2009 6
Expanded Phoenix 1985 1987 3
Moderate Phoenix 1985 1987 3
Strict Phoenix 1985 1987 3
Expanded Portland 1985 1987 3
Expanded Portland 1994 1998 5
Expanded Sacramento 1995 1997 3
Expanded Sacramento 2006 2008 3
Moderate Sacramento 1995 1997 3
Moderate Sacramento 2006 2008 3
Strict Sacramento 1995 1997 3
Expanded Toronto 1999 2002 4
Expanded Toronto 2007 2010 4
Moderate Toronto 2008 2010 3
Expanded Utah 1985 1988 4
Expanded Utah 2002 2004 3
Expanded Utah 2011 2013 3
Moderate Utah 1985 1987 3
Expanded Washington 1985 1991 7
Expanded Washington 1996 1999 4
Expanded Washington 2005 2008 4
Moderate Washington 1985 1991 7
Moderate Washington 1996 1999 4
Moderate Washington 2005 2008 4
Strict Washington 1988 1991 4

Observations

As with seemingly almost any study, there were a lot of expected results and a few interesting surprises. Here are a few I found particularly notable:

Strict (30-40 wins)

- 17 of the league’s 30 teams have not been on the strict treadmill at any time in the past 29 years.

- Of the 13 that have, 11 of them have been on it only once.

- Of those 11, 7 were on it for three years, 3 were on it for four years, and only Indiana was on it longer.

- Indiana’s run on the strict treadmill was in lieu of rebuilding. They drafted Paul George during this time.

- The only two teams that have been on the strict treadmill more than once in the Draft Lottery Era are the Celtics and Bulls. These teams have combined to win eight of the past 29 NBA Championships.

Moderate (30-45 wins)

- Only six teams (Nets, Hornets, Blazers, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Spurs) have never been on the moderate treadmill in the Draft Lottery Era.

- Of the 24 teams that have been on the moderate treadmill, 15 have been on it only once.

- Washington spent 1980-1991 on the moderate treadmill, as well as 15 of the past 29 seasons.

- The Bobcats’ and Wizards’ best stretches in the Draft Lottery Era are part of moderate treadmill runs. The Wizards’ 45 wins in 2004-2005 is the best mark for either team.

Expanded (30-49 wins)

- The only teams that have not been on the expanded treadmill during the Draft Lottery Era are the Mavericks, the Grizzlies and the Spurs. The expanded treadmill happens to almost everyone.

- The Blazers’ expanded treadmill run from 1994-1998 included five straight playoff appearances with no season under 44 wins. This is a treadmill run only in the absolutely most technical sense of the term.

- The Nets are perhaps the ultimate proof as to why the expanded treadmill should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Their seven-year expanded treadmill run in the ‘00s started with a Finals appearance.

- Similarly, Boston’s nine-year expanded treadmill run from 1998-2006 included an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.

- The Hawks’ expanded treadmill run from 2007-2009 included seasons of 30, 37 and then 47 wins, the type of progress not associated with the treadmill.

- The Bobcats’, Raptors’ and Wizards’ best stretches in the Draft Lottery Era are part of expanded treadmill runs. The best seasons any of these teams has had are the Raptors’ two 47-win seasons, which occurred during different expanded treadmill runs.

- The Bucks have spent 19 of the past 29 seasons on some form of treadmill. 

What Can We Make of This?

Whether the treadmill is the bane of a fan’s existence or the sign of a team that just needs a few lucky bounces is anyone’s guess. What is apparent, and that should surprise no one, is that the league’s blue-chip franchises can make either the treadmill or tanking work excellently, whereas the less successful franchises have poor outcomes either way. The Celtics, Bulls, Pacers and Blazers have all rebuilt on the fly to create teams that have had deep playoff runs. The Wizards, and their predecessor Bullets, have effectively been on the treadmill for decades. The Spurs and Mavericks have avoided the treadmill by being too good to land within it, whereas the Grizzlies have had a feast-or-famine existence since their inception.

The turn-of-the-millennium Clippers amassed gargantuan amounts of lottery talent yet never achieved a playoff berth to show for it. Conversely, the fire sale of the Thunder in the late 2000s is the largest direct cause of their enormous successes in recent years. Complicating matters, that same fire sale helped the Celtics to a championship – the same Celtics which, prior to a sole season of tanking, had spent nine straight seasons on the most liberally defined treadmill! For teams like the Raptors and Bobcats, the treadmill would actually signal an uptick in their win totals.

One thing is for sure: the treadmill is somehow both more and less common than some might think. While teams tend to fall within the 30-49 win range, as would be expected in such a competitive league, the dreaded never-ending stream of late lottery picks is uncommon. As painful as uncertainty can be, maybe whether a team lands on the treadmill isn’t the most important indicator of its future success.

Matthew Gordon reads way too many books.

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