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?

Topics: Long-Term Problems

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  • Patrick

    The mediocrity treadmill is an especially dangerous approach for a team like the Pacers. The Lakers or Knicks can afford to slump without much concern, because the free agent yield is so high in those markets. At some point, Herb Simon and management must face the facts and understand that while Indianapolis is a nice town, no superstar is going to come here by preference. Hell, the Pacers can’t even get George Hill, one of Indy’s own, to wear the Pacers on his sleeve with half as much pride as Derrick Rose does for the Bulls. If this organization ever wants to compete for a championship, they must abandon their current “blue collar, gold swagger” ethos, and roll the dice on the high-risk, high-reward Morey-ball approach. In this league, the superstar-or-bust method isn’t the best way to win a championship; it is absolutely, uncompromisingly, the only way.

    • Jack Wright

      This is all absolute bullshit. How about the Pistons from ten (or so) years ago? They were just a team full of solid players; no superstars. Does the championship-winning team usually have a “superstar”? Yes. But it doesn’t always, and there is no rule that says it must. A team full of solid NBA players who play well together and are well coached can have more success than a team with a superstar or two. Don’t tell me it can’t happen, because it can. I can’t stand it when people try to predict the future and then pretend their prediction is fact. What the hell are you people suggesting? That we begin getting rid of our starters so we can start from scratch? Have you people already forgotten how rock solid our starting lineup is? Remember last year? Our starters played just as well the Heat’s in that series. It was our bench that f*cked us. Starting over would be a ridiculous maneuver, especially if our goal is to grab the next “superstar.” There’s not any LBJs coming out of college any time soon.

      My point is, our starting lineup (with a healthy Granger) is still top of the line, just like last year. We have the same freakin’ lineup as we did a season ago. So don’t give me this crap that we’re on a mediocrity treadmill just because we don’t have a “superstar.” I don’t know how to explain why we’re sucking so badly to start the season, but it sure as hell isn’t that we don’t have a superstar. I’d like to ask Vogel why he thinks we’re doing so bad…

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ian-Murphy/1037267155 Ian Murphy

        While I want to believe we can win without a star, a lot of people have analyzed the NBA and have noted that that Pistons team, and the 77 Blazers, are basically the only teams in NBA history that won a title and did not have one of the 25 or so greatest players to EVER PLAY THE GAME.

        I know that sounds crazy but it’s true.

        Last 30 champions:

        Heat (2 times) (DWade, Lebron, Mourning)

        Mavericks (Nowitzki)

        Lakers (9 times) (Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem)

        Spurs (4 times) (Duncan)

        Pistons (3 times) (Thomas for first 2)

        Bulls (6 times) (Jordan, Pippin)

        Rockets (2 times) (Hakeem)

        Celtics (4 times) (Bird, Garnett, Pierce, etc)

        76ers (Dr. J)

        Basically just that one Pistons team is the only outlier, and they had a lot of REALLY good players in their primes (Ben and Rasheed, Rip, Billups, Prince). They had 4 All Stars on that team.
        Anyway, the real point here is that the Pacers should be a competitive .500 team without Danny. It would be different if everyone had posted career highs last year, but in fact, the only guys who did were developing players like Hill, George, and Hibbert. Granger and West were off their career highs. It makes no sense that everyone should suddenly suck.
        I don’t really expect this version of the Pacers to win a title without some serious luck. Right now I just want them to put a decent product on the court.

        • Tenacious D.

          I think calling some of those guys top 25 ever is a stretch, but your point is well taken and one I’ve been trying to make here for a while. No star = no contender. I guess the answer to that is to fire Vogel, right?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=147800283 Jamie Rehmel

      To go along with what Jack has said; I think superstar is a word that is sufficiently arbitrary such that we can make it fit whatever construct we want. I hardly consider Jermaine O’Neal or even Reggie Miller “superstars”, in any real sense, the years when Indiana was most competitive for a championship. The last time the Pacers went to a conference finals Jermaine was averaging 20 & 10 and shooting 43% as a post player. Meh… That’s comparable to Al Jefferson if he had a shooting slump. The year the Pacers went to the Finals Reggie and Jalen were averaging about 18 ppg and weren’t particularly impressive in most other domains. However, Jermaine, Jalen, and Reggie were all parts of great teams. What’s also interesting about Rose, O’Neal, and other cornerstones of very good pacers teams is that they were not drafted by the Pacers but were traded for.

      What is more, one of the many problems with the “bottom-out for high draft pick” strategy is the unlikelihood you actually draft an elite player. For example, when Michael Jordan retired the Bulls were in the land of mediocrity for a long time. This was true DESPITE the fact they had many top 10 draft picks. In ‘99 they drafted Elton Brand #1, ‘00 Mihm 7 & Fizer 4, ’01 Curry 4 & traded for Chandler 2, ’02 Jay Williams 2, ’03 Hinrich 7, ‘04 Gordon 3, ’06 Aldridge 2, ’07 Noah 9, ‘08 Rose 1. It was 07 before they got passed the first round of the playoffs and 2011 before they reached the conference finals. Meanwhile, the Lakers have won many championships in the last 15 years or so with players they traded for serving as cornerstones of their franchise.

      Even if the Pacers drafted some super-star talent, what’s to say he would actually stay. Orlando has been screwed over TWICE by elite talent. The Cavs were lucky enough to draft a local kid whose personality disorder and sense of entitlement led him to Miami.

      The NBA is built on a faulty system which essentially guarantees that a handful of cities will realistically compete for championships most seasons. It makes the thought of participating as a fan increasingly uninteresting. The Pacers having a high draft pick and fortuitously drafting a great player is not going to change that.

      • http://twitter.com/8pts9secs Jared Wade

        This isn’t an entire defense of bottoming out (since it’s not something I proselytize like many other NBA writers do), but Cleveland and Orlando had 7 and 8 seasons, respectively, out of their first-overall picks and made three Finals appearances combined.

        Drafting someone doesn’t allow you to retain them for their entire career, but the way the CBA works — especially now — the player either has to (a) stay (if the team wants him to) for 7-8 years, or (b) risk injury in a fifth (non-rookie contract) year playing on a below-market-value, one-year deal to earn unrestricted free agent status. If they don’t do B, which nobody of any contender-defining importance has ever done, then the team has full choice over whether or not the player is in their uniform for at least 7 years.

        • lil-bang

          The interesting thing with this is that, (from what I’ve heard), most NBA players don’t reach their prime until year 7 or 8 (probably because most are 19 when they come in the league, another topic to be debated). So a team really gets to see a players full potential (if they keep him the 7 years) to determine whether or not to keep them. Sounds like the NBA might have actually got something right in the CBA. Bet this is the second biggest topic next CBA discussions (behind owner/player share percentage.)

    • Tenacious D.

      If we drafted better, that would help. Kawhi Leonard is already as good a player as Hill and he’s on a rookie contract. Yes, Jack, an ensemble cast can sometimes win during a period when no superstar dominates the game as the Piston did when Shaq and Kobe unwisely parted ways. However, I do not see a Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tashaun Prince, or Chauncey Billups on this team. Those guys were hard-nosed ballers. It was the Pacers who destroyed these world champs on their home court the night of The Brawl. I fully believe the Pacers could have won it all that year and we did not have a “superstar.” The league only has a handful of supertars in any given year anyhow. However, during the 2004-05 season, Ron Artest was 8th in the league in scoring. JO was 10th. Jax was 37th. That the real deal. That’s what makes you a contender. We have no one on this team of their calibre. No one.

      • kemosabe

        I agree. Can you imagine this team with Jrue Holiday and PG instead of Hans and PG? Also, taking another low level guy like Plumlee over high upsdie PJIII…knowing full well that they weren’t going to play Plumlee anytime soon. Just ridiculous.

        • Tenacious D.

          You’re right. Our drafting strategy is a disgrace. Although we seem to be committed to not employing a true ball-handling PG under any circumstances. (Get ready for DC to torch us tonight.) I guess the answer to that problem is to fire Vogel, right? By the way, did anyone see Barbosa filling in nicely for Rondo in a big-time game last night? I remember when he wore blue and gold.

          • Jack Wright

            yeah DC really torched us, lol. Hill is a fine point guard. He’s top notch actually, because not only can he distribute decently (yes, he needs to improve, but he clearly is), but he can create his own shots and shoot the ball well. and yeah, I wish we still had Barbosa, even though he was a letdown in the playoffs.

        • http://www.facebook.com/joebetzii Joe Betz

          Jrue can score, but I don’t think Hans can be discounted for what he brings–hustle and the ability to get to the line (and win a game for the Pacers with his defense). You can’t teach size and hustle–you can get a scorer comparable to Jrue in free agency or through the draft / development (Lance is not Jrue, but he has been a pleasant surprise this season)

      • Jack Wright

        Really? I see all those guys on this team. West and Hibbert = Wallace and Wallace. Granger = Prince. PG = Rip (That’s a stretch, but if Paul George would start improving for heaven’s sake, that should be an easy one.) George Hill = Billups (If you disagree with that one, I don’t think you realize how good George Hill is.) So I actually think the two teams are extremely comparable.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ian-Murphy/1037267155 Ian Murphy

          Hey man, I love the Pacers and I like all the players you named. But they are no where NEAR as good as those guys. Especially not at their peak like they were that year. Rasheed that year had a PER of around 18, and was one of the best defensive players in the league. Ben Wallace averaged over 12 boards a game and won defensive player of the year 4 times during that stretch and 5 times all-first team defense. Granger and Prince I agree, Granger, and PG=Rip is fair. But Billups=Hill is ridiculous. Billups had a PER of 19 and was also an excellent defensive player. And that wasn’t even close to his best year (a couple years later he had over 23). Hill’s career high is about 15.
          Of course they also had Larry Brown as coach which helped too.

          • Jack Wright

            dude, the pistons came out of nowhere that year. it’s not like they were all super amazing. nobody expected them to beat the lakers, let alone make it to the finals. Lmao that you think they were so superior to our starters. it’s actually a pretty decent comparison and should be getting even better, that is if we would start playing like we should be playing. “no where NEAR as good”??? Are you kidding me? Did you watch the playoffs last season? I saw plenty of glimpses of a team that can be great and that can beat anybody. I’m not sure if the Pistons of 2004 or whenever it was would’ve done too much better than we did against the Heat last year. George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, and Roy Hibbert. That’s an impressive starting lineup!! Holy shit that’s a nice lineup!!! We should be dreaming big, not lowering our expectations by saying the Pistons were better! They weren’t that much better!

  • Steve

    Good piece, Jared. But check your grammar. As far as basketball goes, I’m hoping the pacers can take advantage of adversity to better;themselves overall. Maybe having Granger out is what the other guys need to grow up a little bit. I’m already pleased to see Stephenson putting up numbers and Hansbrough has come out to play. But, Paul George and Roy Hibbert need to get their heads straight. Great expectations may have been too much. Hibbert especially, please someone get that guy to his therapist. He’s always been so mentally fragile, thinking back to the Obrien years. Our bench, too, just needs to gel. All these new guys are making me regret getting rid of the old bench. It was SUPPOSED to be a slight improvement but so far they are miserable. Here’s to hoping everything works out…

  • lil-bang

    Can the Pacers win without a “superstar”? I think they can, because I think they have 3 stars(Granger, West, Hibbert) on their team and 2 (George and George) poised to become stars. It’s easy for everyone to start jumping off the wagon (already), but if you actually go back and look at the team it’s not as bad as it looks.

    The Bench:

    Everyone bashing the central office for the bench needs to step back and look for a second. Look at the teams that completely ransacked their lineup in the past couple years and see what they did. Heat took a full year to really play together, Knicks are just now starting to after 3 years (but Amare isn’t playing), and the Lakers aren’t anywhere close to looking good yet. So how do you expect a few misfit bench players to gel right off? It will take some time for this bench to play together, and even longer now that one has to be in the starting rotation. (sidebar-how many actual minutes does the whole bench actually play together in a close game?)

    The Reason the for 3-6? (The starters:)
    The Pacers lost their leading scorer from the past 4/5/6 years, someone has to make up 18 points. The guys who are trying (the other 4 starters) are ALL shooting career lows in percentage right now, its amazing the Pacers have even won a game or even been in all but two, no matter what opponent. The Pacers are actually taking good shots, they just aren’t falling. If West, Hill, Hibbert, and George all hit one more shot a game (which still doesn’t even get them close to their career averages) the Pacers would have 8-10 more points a game and the band wagon would fuller than ever. Hibbert missing 2ft “bunny” shots will pass.

    Frank:

    Frank has improved by letting the hot hand stay in the game until it is no longer hot.

    Last year he took West and Granger out of a couple games in the 1st quarter despite having 10-20 points and them not returning until 4 minutes left in the half.

    Frank has somewhat improved in the final play call but it still needs more. He is getting the ball in the hot hand (most of the time), but isn’t making great play calls. Worst one was against Toronto, got the ball to Hill (right choice made last 4 shots), but wrong play (Hill hadn’t hit a jump shot all night, why draw up a jump shot for him?)

    Lot of season left, lets just hope its not a LONG season ahead…GO PACERS!!!

    • lil-bang

      When I say star above for the Pacers players, I am not saying superstar, but I mean guys who are above average and can have good games against good teams consistently.
      A superstar to me is someone who can turn on “unstoppable mode” nearly every night (not many of these guys in the league)- David West is the only guy on our team that I think can come close, but not every night. Granger and Hill have shown signs of it shooting some games but only spurts. Hibbert and PG I don’t think have shown this at all. But they play well enough all around they are above average and they feed off the rest of the team.

      • Jack Wright

        i understood what you meant about stars, and i agree. and i hope PG and hill reach that level like i think they can

  • http://www.facebook.com/joebetzii Joe Betz

    We wouldn’t be having this discussion about mediocrity if Granger were healthy. The Pacers have lost the bulk of their games by less than 3 points. That said, the urgency that is needed to put the Pacers in the best position without DG this season is absolutely needed. I’ve heard rumors of DJA starting at point, GH at the 2, and George at the 3….could be interesting.

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