The NBA tanking debate is a complex one

Steven Paice Roar Guru

By Steven Paice, Steven Paice is a Roar Guru

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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.

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    The Crowd Says (16)

    • February 17th 2014 @ 11:32am
      Ian Whitchurch said | February 17th 2014 @ 11:32am | ! Report

      “Why not plan for a three-to-five year run at the title, and progress step by step towards that ultimate goal?”

      The thinking is because in the NBA three pretty good players dont match one superstar and two kinda OK players – and in any case, if you have one superstar then the odds of getting a second one in a trade or free agency are much, much better.

      I also think you’re wrong in this – in the NBA, it is clearing salary cap space, playing rookies far more than teams should and sharing the minutes around.”

      Lets use a specific example – the Milwaukee Bucks point guards, Luke Ridnour and Nate Wolters.

      Luke Ridnour is a veteran point guard. He’s been kinda OK for ten years or so. Nate Wolters was a second round pick – pick 38 in 2013.

      The point of playing Wolters more and Ridnour less isnt to clock up losses for a higher draft pick, it’s to develop a young point guard.

      • Roar Guru

        February 18th 2014 @ 2:56pm
        Steven Paice said | February 18th 2014 @ 2:56pm | ! Report

        Thanks for the feedback Ian, while it is only one example the Bucks example raises a fair point. What I would ask is would they be developing Wolters if they werent comfortable with settling deep in the lottery?

        • February 18th 2014 @ 4:47pm
          mushi said | February 18th 2014 @ 4:47pm | ! Report

          I thought the Bucks were actually one of the few teams that weren’t tanking but were legitimately bad?

          I don’t think using their decisions is a good one for discussions around tanking

          • Roar Guru

            February 18th 2014 @ 9:48pm
            Steven Paice said | February 18th 2014 @ 9:48pm | ! Report

            So who would you suggest is a good team to discuss Mushi? Philadelphia? Orlando? Boston?

            • February 19th 2014 @ 7:52am
              Ian Whitchurch said | February 19th 2014 @ 7:52am | ! Report

              The benefit for the Bucks punching minutes into kids isnt the lottery – frankly, it’s an appalling year to tank, as theres about 6 players who are all decent prospects this year, and no one single ‘must have’ Oscar/Wilt/LeBron/Larry player.

              The value is simply turning those kids into usable pieces in a contending NBA side.

              Me, I’d prefer to have Smart or Exum *and* a Nate Wolters who is a decent backup PG and a Giannis who is a decent wing than to have a Embiid or a Parker and be clueless as to if Wolters and Atentokoumpo can play at top level.

            • February 19th 2014 @ 10:15am
              mushi said | February 19th 2014 @ 10:15am | ! Report

              I’d say the list of teams that have openly tanked all year is pretty short – Sixers and Magic?

              The Celtics seem stuck in between with a foot in each camp undecided if they cut salary or age.

              Bucks definitely behaved like a team that was gunning for an 8th seed it just turns out they sucked and Larry Sanders was just pretending to have matured to get some cash.

              As Ian higlights the bucks are more in the “finding out what they have”.

              but then the whole concept of “tanking ” where is the line drawn. By trading anyone for future assets of cap flexibility or draft choices under any scenario you are making a sacrifice now for greater benefit in the future decision. By that definition just about every team in the league has tanked.

    • February 17th 2014 @ 12:06pm
      Avon River said | February 17th 2014 @ 12:06pm | ! Report

      ‘Tanking’ is variously a furphy or a legally vague term (speaking AFL here) and of itself does not explain anything.
      When a club is working on a 2-4 year plan of list development and player retention (the stars) and having a premiership window then all this explains ‘tanking’ and not the other way around.

      Just as star players may be rested for the last 5-10 mins of a game safely won or undoubtedly lost – so as to focus on next week and to give the kids more of a go – so too this can be extrapolated out for one season to the next (for teams clearly out of finals contention).

      The whole tanking debate then unfairly focusses on the percieved rewards offered by the draft. That though is only one part of the bigger picture. For the AFL by far the greater issue was the priority draft pick that further muddied the water.

      None of which should prohibit teams for sending a guy off early for surgery to focus on next year and a full preseason – the absence of which could do more harm even than playing hurt the rest of the current season. List management.

    • February 17th 2014 @ 3:05pm
      Jerry said | February 17th 2014 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

      Why not make it the number 1 pick goes to the team with the most wins after playoff elimination?

    • Roar Rookie

      February 18th 2014 @ 1:48am
      Norfolk said | February 18th 2014 @ 1:48am | ! Report

      Ehhh fabricated problem. It’s an entertainment business. If they wanted every club striving for titles, there’d be relegation, no draft or salary cap.

      • February 18th 2014 @ 9:29am
        Ian Whitchurch said | February 18th 2014 @ 9:29am | ! Report

        With Leeds United of being a great example of that.

        You know there is a code where clubs bounce cheques so frequently there are written procedures for when they become insolvent !?

      • February 18th 2014 @ 9:41am
        mushi said | February 18th 2014 @ 9:41am | ! Report

        How would that mean every club could strive for titles?

    • February 18th 2014 @ 11:26am
      astro said | February 18th 2014 @ 11:26am | ! Report

      I really believe tanking doesn’t exist. Its a media term, which I think should be more accurately called ‘rebuilding’ which is entirely valid for a franchise to do. If you have a team swamped with expensive contracts and inefficient players, what other choice do you have but to rebuild…

      But the reasons I don’t think tanking exists are:

      1. the notion that” teams trying not to win games” exists…this is complete nonsense.No team goes sets out to lose. These are competitive guys, playing elite level competition and being paid millions. The idea that a team would co-ordinate everyone from coaches to players to ‘lose’ is insane.

      2. the draft is an unknown…as you say, getting a high draft pick doesn’t promise anything. Look at the Bobcats. Teams picking anywhere in the draft have the ability to find great players. You sight the Spurs as an example of ‘good’ tanking because of Duncan, yet forget to mention drafting Parker and Ginobli late in the draft, as being equally important reasons behind their success. Same for Leonard.

      3. this years draft is unusual to say the least…this is such a deep draft that more teams than usual are looking to rebuild through it than normal. That and the fact that future drafts are expected to be weak, means that teams looking to rebuild are trying to do so now. This gives the impression that a huge number of teams are going backwards when they are only do so in the short term…the gap between good and bad will reduce significantly after next year.

      Finally, the concept of ‘super teams’ or stars joining up as in Miami, I also think is flawed. Two of the top teams this year, OKC and Indy, are prime examples of this concept not ringing true. Neither took this approach, and are now very successful. Also, there’s a stack of evidence to suggest that Miami are more an exception than the rule simply because one of the Big 3 is Lebron. Teams like the Knicks, Rockets and Brooklyn have tried, and for the most part, failed.

      • Roar Guru

        February 18th 2014 @ 3:00pm
        Steven Paice said | February 18th 2014 @ 3:00pm | ! Report

        Astro, the comment on it being a media term is a valid point. As for teams trying not to win games, while competitive players don’t go out to miss shots and play All-Star calibre defence the argument that some franchises are not enamoured with winning cannot be ignored.

        Take for example this link where an unnamed GM admits to planning to tank the season.

        If the source is to be trusted, this article is damning and raises tanking/rebuilding as a very real issue.

        As a basketball fan and purist I hope that you are right, and that the gap between good and bad becomes smaller and smaller from next season onwards.

        • February 18th 2014 @ 3:46pm
          astro said | February 18th 2014 @ 3:46pm | ! Report

          Wow, interesting article! I guess the phrase “losing organically” sums it up…And I agree that that’s a bad situation for the league.

      • February 18th 2014 @ 11:27pm
        Slam Dunk Tim said | February 18th 2014 @ 11:27pm | ! Report

        I agree with all your points astro. It’s takes more than one star to make a team a contender, Phil Jackson said to win a championship you need 3 All-Star quality players on the team.
        Pro ballers have got to much on the line to be tanking: their reputation as a player, endorsements, future earning potential.

    • February 18th 2014 @ 4:58pm
      mushi said | February 18th 2014 @ 4:58pm | ! Report

      The issue is that you yourself have inferred that winning is more about championships and season long tallies than individuals games.

      So you can’t logically believe that and believe that you shouldn’t be allowed to sacrifice wins today for more wins in the future and a greater chance at a championship?

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