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“Analytics” Does Not Compel Extreme Tanking Theory

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LAS VEGAS, NV – DECEMBER 3: Jonathan Marchessault #81 of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrates after scoring a goal against the Arizona Coyotes during the game at T-Mobile Arena on December 3, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mike Tanier has been having some fun on Twitter with Sam Hinkie apologists taking a victory lap for having won one whole playoff round, suggesting that the Philadelphia team that went from last to Super Bowl by actually trying to win might be a better model:

As Sean McIndoe observes, the fact that the Stanley Cup final will be between an expansion team and an aging contender whose window was widely assumed to have closed is another problem for the “completely gut the team if you’re not a clear contender” crowd. I’ll do a more systematic post later this week, but while yes the Cubs and Astros won after tanking, the Eagles and Patriots didn’t, the Rockets and Warriors didn’t, the Knights and Capitals didn’t, etc. etc. And it’s also worth noting that the two teams that tore themselves down to the studs to try to get McDavid or Eichel are both still terrible, and the team that inadvertently backed into McDavid also sucked this year. The idea that multi-year periods of deliberate losing is the only way to build a good team is not actually supported by the evidence, and people who focus on the upsides of tanking tend to ignore the downsides, especially in terms of player development. Obviously, trading assets for futures is often a prudent part of a rebuild, but the idea that you have to be bad for years and years to win is just not true.

This is another good point by Tanier:

Sure, getting better draft picks is better all things being equal. But there’s an underlying assumption behind extreme tanking ideology that there’s no value to any season that doesn’t end in a championship. It would be better, for example, for the Canucks to have slightly improved their draft position and maybe get a late first rounder this year or something and have traded the Sedins rather than keep them for the possibility of the last thrilling moment they in fact delivered. This is a philosophical question — there’s no “right” answer — but I personally find this an alien view. On the one hand seeing great players is a major reason to be a fan, and on the other hand the odds that the marginal return you get for conducting a fire sale will be the difference between you being a championship team and not are remote. Unless you get very lucky, if you’re only in it for championships watching spectator sports seems like a pretty counterproductive hobby.

With respect to the finals, I’ll pick Capitals in 6, but certainly wouldn’t be shocked if the clock never strikes midnight. And they’re a great story in part because they took advantage of teams that still overvalue size and undervalue speed and skill. That’s using analytics right.

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