The Myth of Tanking and Why It Has No Place in the NBA
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Since when has losing been a recipe for success?
Michael Jordan may know of one instance, but that same principle certainly does not apply to building a winning basketball team.
Just look at Jordan's Charlotte Bobcats.
The fact is that the worst thing an NBA franchise can do is lose. Players, coaches and fans want to win. Winning increases morale, raises fan interest, aids rapport between the coach and players and attracts free agents.
Losing, of course, has the opposite effect. It frustrates players, coaches and fans. It creates divided locker rooms, harms team chemistry and thus leads to more losing on the court. It gets coaches fired, star players traded and discourages free agents from signing.
Victories breed victories; defeats breed defeats.
When put this way, it sounds rather obvious. Yet a different way of thinking has entered its way into NBA front offices, and more and more teams are jumping on board.
The NBA's "Tanking" Epidemic
Once seen as taboo, tanking has become a disturbingly trendy strategy amongst NBA franchises.
Before going into this any further, one thing must be clarified, and that is that tanking isn't wrong or ill-advised under all circumstances.
During the latter portion of the NBA season, if a team is out of playoff contention, losing a few extra games and securing a higher draft pick is not a bad idea.
That, however, is not the epidemic the NBA has on its hands. This new level of tanking is far deeper than that.
Rather than a team giving up on a season and looking for a silver lining late, teams are giving up on seasons before they even begin.
And by teams, I don't mean players and coaches—I'm talking about front offices and ownership.
From the Boston Celtics to the Phoenix Suns to the Philadelphia 76ers to the Utah Jazz and so forth, an alarming number of front offices are not even trying to put competitive products on the floor in 2013-14.
There are several reasons for this—including saving money and reaping revenue-sharing benefits—but the main incentive is the widely-hyped 2014 draft class.
It's not as if there's absolutely no benefit that could come from this. After all, to return to Jordan for a second, the Chicago Bulls wouldn't have won six championships had they not finished 27-55 in 1983-84, thus earning the No. 3 pick in the draft.
But for every Michael Jordan, there's hundreds of Sam Bowies. And considering that Bowie was drafted ahead of Jordan, losing more games doesn't greatly increase a team's chances of finding the next Jordan.
Whilst embarking on these crapshoots, owners and general managers are showing no confidence in the players on their roster or the coaches they employ.
This creates unrest, but more importantly, it discourages effort. Players and coaches begin to feel as though no one is counting on them to win, so they disengage.
This can become deeply rooted in a roster and coaching staff, so much so that it ends up canceling out the payoff. These bad and unmotivated teams do earn their top draft picks and select young studs, but these impressionable kids pick up on the losing and indifference that surrounds them.
Talent alone does not create a superstar; young players will not grow into great NBA players and winners when they are surrounded by bad players and losers.
Losing breeds losing.
Despite this, the media's response to this approach has been overwhelmingly understanding. "Absolutely dreadful is a good plan," NBA.com's John Schuhmann writes about the Celtics. The Sixers are "suddenly in a better position to succeed," writes Dan Gelston of the Associated Press.
While whole-season tanking may be increasingly popular and acceptable right now, many NBA franchises seem to understand that losing intentionally is not a viable option.
These teams, however, are met with near-universal ridicule—which is even more disturbing than the tanking trend itself.
In Defense of the NBA's "Middle-Ground" Teams
There is a belief that teams become "stuck" in the NBA's middle ground, and that this is the worst place for a franchise to be.
Take the Dallas Mavericks, for example.
After missing the playoffs this past spring for the first time in 13 years, Dallas decided to go out and upgrade its roster. It brought in Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, giving it a far more potent backcourt on the offensive end.
However, everyone in the media seems to be calling these moves nonsensical and dumbfounding. Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster named Dallas as one of seven teams with a roster "that just (doesn't) make sense."
Because the Mavericks still seem to have no shot at a championship in 2013-14, adding quality players and payroll to their team is seen as something that will only prevent them from landing a future star in the draft. Instead, they should supposedly tear down and rebuild.
There are many reasons why this would be a backwards approach, the first of which being that the organizational foundation is built around winners.
The Mavericks' star PF Dirk Nowitzki was drafted with the No. 9 pick in 1998. Only four players that have been drafted since then have posted a better career-PER than Nowitzki's 23.5.
Dallas' coach Rick Carlisle first became an NBA head coach in 2001. The only man with more coaching wins since then is Gregg Popovich.
Mark Cuban bought the Mavs in 2000. Only the San Antonio Spurs have won more games in that time.
To ask these people to suddenly accept losing is unrealistic. To condemn them for trying to win is absurd.
A counterargument to this is that the Mavericks are going to lose whether these men want to or not, and that the best way for them to get back to winning is by losing more.
This argument crumbles just as fast as the original one.
Let's say Dallas didn't sign Ellis and instead traded Dirk for a young player with potential; thus losing enough next season to land a top-five draft pick. What are the chances that the player they trade for or the one they draft will ever be even close to the player Dirk is?
The question is rhetorical, but the answer, if you're interested, is about four in 150.
So, considering that anything less than another Dirk-level player will not push the Mavericks towards another championship, staying in the "middle ground" is not delaying Dallas' return to title contention.
The presence of a winning culture and Hall of Fame leader, however, are not the only reasons to commend a team for trying to be competitive.
Let's go back to Jordan's Bobcats.
All that the Bobcats franchise has ever done is lose, draft poorly and lose more. Then, this summer, they signed Al Jefferson, one of the NBA's best offensive big men. He gives the Bobcats a player who can actually lead them to victories, something the franchise has barely experienced.
Yet somehow, the prevailing media response is one of harsh criticism—since the Bobcats are still not a playoff team, adding Jefferson is only costing them money, blocking their youngsters and taking them out of the running for the top draft pick.
Excuse me while I dry heave over my keyboard.
First of all, the Bobcats have avoided this "problem" for every offseason in forever. Since when has unlimited playing time turned their youngsters into stars? Since when has their top draft pick turned into a franchise player?
Moreover, why does the adding of a very good player in Jefferson suddenly ruin their ability to draft a star? If Charlotte lands the No. 7 pick next year and pairs him alongside Big Al, it's not only possible—but likely—that their youngster will fare better than the No. 2 pick would fare playing alongside Bismack Biyombo.
The Bobcats may not make the playoffs next year, but they'll be much improved. Their young players will gain a sense of what winning feels like in the NBA and will become better for it. The team's culture and future outlook will improve, which will make it a more attractive destination for future free agents.
They'll also still have a draft pick, which is far more crucial than where that pick falls.
The Health of the NBA
If that convinced you that Dallas, Charlotte and other teams that are trying to win are in fact doing the smart thing, pretend for a minute that it did not.
Even if there were benefits of tanking, it still has no place in the NBA.
If every team that was not fighting for a championship was tanking, then there would be about 17 teams bottoming out.
If you think that would make for a better league, you may be the type of person whom must be reminded that 17 is over half of 30.
While this is extremely hypothetical and hyperbolic—I do not expect the tanking trend to ever reach this point—it shows why the pats on the back that these teams are receiving should instead be slaps on the wrist.
Not only does making losing the objective destroy the integrity of the game, it undermines the NBA's weighted lottery system.
The NBA introduced a weighted draft lottery in 1990. The worse a team was the previous season, the better chance they had at one of the top three picks in the draft.
This was intended, of course, to increase competitive balance. But the recent trend of intentionally poor roster construction and whole-season tanking has made a mockery of this system.
If the NBA wants to correct this problem, doing away with the weighted lottery may be the solution.
The Celtics play in one of the nation's biggest markets, willingly got rid of two Hall of Fame players along with one Hall of Fame coach and did not attempt to fill those voids with the best possible replacements. The Mavericks play in a smaller market, kept their Hall of Fame player, their coach and tried diligently to put the best team on the floor for their fans.
Why do the Celtics deserve a better chance at the top pick than the Mavericks?
The original draft lottery was unweighted, and was created in 1985 to discourage a then-budding trend of tanking. If the NBA went back to that original system, every team would be encouraged to win.
This is not ideal—it would punish the genuinely bad teams—but it would certainly be better than watching a league in which roughly 10 teams a year are constructed with no intention of winning.
So cheers to you, Mavs and Bobcats. Bravo, Atlanta Hawks. Well done, Detroit Pistons. In a league where losing has suddenly become fashionable, you've kept your fans, players and coaches in mind this summer.
Best of all, your team will be better for it—not only this season, but in the long run.
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