The NBA tanking debate is a complex one

Steven Paice Roar Guru

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    The NBA Draft in New York (Image: Flickr)

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    Tanking. It means something different in sports around the world.

    In the AFL, it explains why clubs book players in for surgery early, and experiment with mixing rosters with different positions for different players.

    In the NBA, it is clearing salary cap space, playing rookies far more than teams should and sharing the minutes around.

    The aim, at heart, is to finish lower on the ladder, to increase the chances of gaining draft players for future seasons.

    In the mid-1980s, the NBA acknowledged that teams were trying to improve their draft position and trying not to win and put in place the draft lottery, aimed at introducing a degree of risk when teams choose to mail the season in and aim for the next college or high school star.

    But teams still continue to take a gamble and tank. This year, the Bucks, Sixers and potentially a few teams have decided the lure of Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker is worth the risk in a draft that look as fruitful as any recent class (although maybe ESPN plays a role in promoting that).

    So you tank to improve your chances of getting the No.1 pick, and first claims to the best young player from the college and high school stocks. Seems simple enough.

    The good
    The San Antonio Spurs tanked in 1996 and their reward was arguably the greatest power forward in history: Tim Duncan.

    The basketball gods smiled on them and the methodical franchise has made the most of this over the past 15 seasons, being arguably the most consistently successful side in US professional sports.

    And in 2002 Cleveland had its heart set on the local kid from Akron, one LeBron James. We know how that has turned out, although Ohio haven’t borne the fruits of this tanking and James’ inglorious exit created emotional scenes unlike those we have seen before.

    The bad
    While those two tanking efforts were rewarded with arguably two of the best 10 players in the history of the game, there are numerous examples in the last 20 years of the No.1 pick gone wrong.

    Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, Andreas Bargiani, 2013’s Anthony Bennett (showing signs of life in the last week, but let’s keep him here for now)… we are talking some serious busts here.

    So these extremes aside, why do teams tank? Why not plan for a three-to-five year run at the title, and progress step by step towards that ultimate goal?

    Today’s NBA promotes tanking. The league today has a handful of title candidates headlined by elite top-end talent, but too many franchises, a diluted talent pool, means a bunch of middle of the road teams are faced with a simple question: do we have the resources to attempt to contend for a title via a cheque book (Brooklyn) or do we take our hit, look to actively trade players for picks, and put out what amounts to a D-League roster (Philly)?

    Are Philly better off putting everything into coming eighth, making the playoffs and getting swept in the first round? Or playing the kids, trading for draft picks and selecting more kids?

    Tanking seems like the right way to go, because they can.

    The NBA’s role
    At a stretch, you could say the NBA recognises and accepts a degree of tanking. In a diluted league, there are less marquee match-ups between legitimate playoff teams and financially incredible television deals.

    When a team contending for the title takes the opportunity to rest ageing stars at the end of a long road trip, how does the league react? They fine the coach $250k for bringing the game into disrepute for daring to embarrass TV executives.

    If the league promoted a more even, high quality league they would have more games of a standard worth national TV coverage. Instead we see teams not always interested in winning and, in extreme circumstances, comfortable with losing.

    Think about that for a minute – players being paid millions of dollars on teams trying not to win games. Has Tim Donaghy taken up a head office role?

    What does that say about the integrity of the league? And its reputation? Should the NBA be answerable for allowing teams to not try?

    If you listen to the whispers, Adam Silver and his buddies recognise that tanking exists and are considering introducing The Wheel.

    The bottom line
    Whether or not that is the case, one fact remains indisputable – the gap between the good and the bad in the NBA is widening. If an All-Star is leaving one team, he is not going to a weak team.

    Stars are more and more likely to join forces in the attempt of becoming a super team. The Miami ‘Big 3’ may well become the model around which success is built, and in turn the poor teams become worse and worse.

    Those poor teams have a small window to compete and it comes in the main part via the draft. The vicious cycle may well continue once the star rookie comes out of contract, but who can blame teams for not trying to win and getting some short term joy with young talent?

    They just need to hope they draft a Duncan rather than a Brown… and if they don’t, they just start all over again.