Jared Wade: Who Wants to Watch the Mediocrity Treadmill?
After nine games, Indiana has the second-worst offense in the league. Scoring only 92
points per 100 possessions, the Pacers are only bested in impotence by the winless
Washington Wizards. Things went from bad to worse this week, when the Pacers lost
on their home floor despite holding the Toronto Raptors to five fourth-quarter points,
then completely mailed in a game in Milwaukee.
At a 2011 conference dedicated to sports statistics, Kevin Pritchard coined — or at
least popularized — the phrase “mediocrity treadmill.” This NBA phenomenon, which
in broad terms is created by the rules governing salaries and player movement, is
something he suggested should be avoided at all costs. Its premise is simple: there is
no point in trying to put together an average team, so if you can’t shoot for the stars
then you should burn down your team and bury it underground.
Try to be great or try to be horrible, those are the only two ways to compete.
The problem with being average is that it is very expensive to do so and it
necessitates locking many middling players into long-term guaranteed contracts. And
in the process, you lose not only a legitimate shot to compete with the league’s elite
teams but also all financial flexibility to improve your team. So if you can’t acquire a
few truly great players who can carry you to a title, you should just liquidate the
roster and stock up on draft picks and young, improving players on rookie contracts
(which the collective bargaining agreement keeps artificially cheap no matter how
talented they are). The salary cap just doesn’t permit you to sign enough middle-of-
the-road, $8 million-per-year players to field a contender, so you need to bottom out,
clear cap space and retool the roster around a few highly productive players who earn
$15 million and a few more who make under $5 million.
The Pacers, much to the chagrin of most national basketball writers I have seen
discuss the subject, refused to bottom out. They have tried to take the mediocrity
treadmill route. Rather than admit their early millenium run was over and falling to
bottom of the standings — like the Heat, Nets Grizzlies and Timberwolves — the Pacers
haven’t won fewer than 32 games in any season since 1989. (It should be noted that
when Pritchard discussed the mediocrity treadmill at that MIT stats conference, he had
yet to be hired by the Pacers in any official capacity.)
One of the suspected motivations for the Pacers’ refusal to bottom out — and the one I
subscribe to — is that the franchise quite literally couldn’t afford to. After the Brawl, the
team’s fanbase was so turned off, so disgusted that those in power believed that a string
of sub-25-win seasons might lead to financial losses so large that it might force to owner
to sell. At worst, the result — especially if no Deron Williamses, Marc Gasols or Kevin
Loves were acquired, which is always a risk — could be the end of the Pacers in Indiana.
Or, less bad but still unacceptable, the franchise could get bad and stay bad for years
while owner Herb Simon took eight-figure financial losses each year for a decade as he
watched his team spiral the drain of irrelevance and futility.
Thus, their decision was at least understandable if still unpalatable. The on-court result
wasn’t pretty (Troy Murphy was second on the team in shots one year), but last year’s
attendance figures did start to show that the team’s paying fanbase, many members of
which swore off the team forever during the Jail Pacers era, was growing.
Coming into this season with high expectations, it looked like the Pacers had outrun the
mediocrity treadmill. Maybe they couldn’t beat the Heat, but they seemed to have a legit
shot at making the Eastern Conference Finals, and they would certainly once again be a
product worth watching.
But something funny happened on the way to the bank: The Pacers may have become
terrible...CONTINUE READING AT 8p9s