Who Wants to Watch the Mediocrity Treadmill?

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.

The on-court performance speaks for itself so far this year, and the fans haven’t really been coming out. As Anthony Schoettle of the Indianapolis Business Journal notes, it is probably too early to worry about two sparsely attended games in early November against the Wizards and Raptors. But what if the Pacers don’t get much better, and stay locked into (fully now, with the contracts handed to Roy Hibbert and George Hill this summer) the mediocrity treadmill? Who is going to come watch a .500 Pacers team with no stars and, now, none of the “all for one, one for all” promise they’ve shown the last two postseasons against the Bulls and the Heat?

Here is how Schoettle talked about the early attendance numbers.

Yes, it’s early. Very early. However, attendance through the first three home games isn’t encouraging.

Bankers Life Fieldhouse was packed with 18,165 fans for the Saturday night home opener against Sacramento Nov. 3, but then only 12,036 fans showed for the second game against Washington a week later. A Saturday night game with the Fieldhouse a third empty has to concern Pacers executives.

The team’s third home game against Toronto on Tuesday, Nov. 13, drew just 11,947. Clearly, the mid-week games are going to be a difficult sell this year—especially if the team’s offense doesn’t improve. Even ardent Pacers supporters have to admit it’s been painful to watch.

In fairness, the Pacers’ first three home opponents haven’t exactly been big draws with mega stars. But Pacers officials have to hope more fans will start coming to cheer for the blue and gold, not merely to see opposing stars.

The Pacers home attendance average this season is 14,049, which trails last year’s average of 14,168. If the Pacers can get Granger back in January and make another playoff run, attendance will likely go up.

Yes. It’s way too early to be overly concerned. It’s not even Thanksgiving and I’ve always maintained that nothing I watch before I’ve had my first leftover turkey sandwich actually matters.

But have you seen these first nine games? They have been close to unwatchable.

So if the team doesn’t look significantly better by New Year’s, the attendance issues will likely remain, and nobody will be able to continue to blame a fanbase that is missing out on good basketball. And if that happens, at some point, you have to ask: What was the point of trying to stay mediocre for so long? Just futile exercise on the treadmill?

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Tags: Long-Term Problems

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