There are some who advocate for the Chicago Bulls to tank the rest of the season, an undertaking which requires precision. Here’s a blueprint to do so properly.
Overall, the goal of tanking isn’t to lose as much as possible; it’s to place the team’s future at a higher priority than its present. That means the process isn’t to get silly and trade away every player who is worthwhile, tell the coach to bench the starters or ask the players to throw games. It’s to make your team's long-term prospects better, not just to have your draft slot move up.
Adding a better rookie doesn’t guarantee anything, and the draft can become overstated, especially when fans have given up hope on a title. It’s important Bulls fans don’t get too bogged down in cheering for losing for the sake of losing. That’s not tanking; it’s quitting.
Tanking with Integrity
Deliberately losing has repercussions beyond something merely karmic. Sabotaging the competitive integrity of a team may have the intended effect of allowing the team to lose more, but it also has the unintended consequence of destroying the team’s reputation.
Free agents aren’t going to come running to play for a team that throws in the towel at the first sign of trouble. Any professional athlete worth his salt hates losing and isn’t going to play for a franchise that embraces it.
Competitors want to win, regardless of the circumstances. That includes the players presently on the Bulls roster, as expressed by Joakim Noah when asked about fans who wanted the Bulls to tank, per Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago:
What do I say to those fans? I don’t say nothing to those fans. It’s all good. You’re allowed to have your opinion. It’s just ... that’s not a real fan to me. You know what I’m saying? You want your team to lose? What is that? But it’s all good.
Do you really think we talk about it (tanking)? No way, man. No way. We don’t talk about those things. It’s like it’s so far from our reality. You know what I mean?
We play for a coach [Tom Thibodeau] that’s ... it’s difficult. It’s difficult every day. We grind hard every day, and we give it our best effort every day. You know we’re playing Orlando, they’re down three guys -- we’re fighting. It’s different to have an opinion when you’re, like, watching it from your couch compared to when you’re out living it every day.
Taj Gibson agrees:
Those people, if they were in our shoes, they wouldn’t just lose. The majority of time people just have their opinions and that’s fine and dandy, but they’re not on the court and they’re not giving their heart and soul into this game the way we do. I respect their opinion, but we’re not going to do that.
So, to be clear, referencing tanking here has nothing to do with what’s on the court or even on the bench. Go tell Tom Thibodeau that he shouldn’t play his starters so the team can lose. I double-dog dare you. And I strongly suggest bringing earplugs when you do.
The art of tanking is to calibrate losing with the team’s future. Moves that better the team long-term, but hurt it short-term are forgivable. But moves that have no effect but improving the team’s draft status will taint a team’s rep.
Here are a couple of moves the Bulls could make, and one to avoid, that follow that guideline.
Don’t Rush to Trade Kirk Hinrich
As Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher reports, there have been rumors that Kirk Hinrich is being considered as one of the top point guards who could be traded before the trade deadline. The Bulls can help the tanking effort in multiple ways by keeping him around.
First, the closer to the trade deadline, the more his price should go up, as teams become increasingly desperate for that last piece that can help them in the playoffs.
Second, holding out gives the impression that they’re at least trying to win. That helps with the image.
Third, Hinrich hasn’t made much of a difference while on the court. If anything, the Bulls appear to be worse.
Meanwhile D.J. Augustin is steadily improving. He’s averaging 11.1 points and 6.1 assists per game off the bench. He’s shooting better than Hinrich from two (40.5 percent to 38.4 percent) and from three (36.9 percent to 30.0 percent).
Due to the ever-changing lineup as a result of injuries, it’s impossible to do any kind of responsible on/off analysis, but the offense sure seems to run better with Augustin in. His 5.7 assist per game off the bench since becoming a Bull leads the NBA among reserves. Chicago could actually get better by trading Hinrich and making Augustin the starter.
Doing the best thing for losing while looking like you’re trying to win is the brass ring of tanking.
Granted, if the Bulls can get a decent offer for Hinrich, they should go for it, but until then, they should be content to keep him. His contract expires at the end of the season anyway, so worst-case scenario, they don’t get another second-round pick and lose more games.
Rush to Trade Mike Dunleavy
Mike Dunleavy is a different story. He is playing well enough that teams might be willing to bid more for his services. Dunleavy is shooting 47.3 percent from two and 41.0 percent from three on the season, but that’s including a shaky start as he adjusted to a new system.
Since New Year’s Eve, he’s been ridiculously hot, knocking down 57.1 percent of his threes while averaging 12.8 points. According to the previously referenced Bucher report, the Houston Rockets have an interest in Dunleavy because he also has the ability to play as a stretch 4.
As Bucher states, acquiring Dunleavy helps the Rockets because it allows them to hold off on trading Omer Asik until after the season, when they can presumably get more back for him.
Additionally, Tony Snell has started to emerge since Luol Deng was traded, hitting on 40.0 percent of his threes and 48.8 percent of his shots overall. Trading Dunleavy opens up the way for Snell to step into the starting lineup and develop.
While trading Dunleavy would be generally characterized as a “tanking” move, it would also be regarded around the league as the right move. It gives the Bulls the chance to get something back for the future, while also opening up the way for one of their most promising young players to continue to improve. Therefore, it wouldn’t have an element of taint to it.
Don’t Trade Taj Gibson at All
Gibson’s name hasn’t come up in any trade rumors, but it comes up in my Twitter timeline and in the comments section of my articles all the time from Bulls fans. Gibson is in the first year of a four-year, $33 million deal. Trading him in a salary dump would give the Bulls enough money to afford a max player during the offseason.
There’s a certain amount of logic to this, but to do so now would be foolhardy. It’s better to play out the season before even considering it, so it shouldn’t be considered as a tanking move.
First, Noah has had long-term problems with plantar fasciitis, which fortunately has not flared up this year. Part of the reason for that is his minutes are down from 36.8 per game last year to 33.2 this year.
In turn, part of the reason for that is Gibson is playing more minutes. He’s playing 28.2 this year compared to 22.4 last year.
That’s even more minutes than when he started in his rookie year. In fact, it’s nearly as many as the starting power forward, Carlos Boozer, is playing (30.2). Some of those extra minutes are Gibson at the 5, and some are alongside Boozer, with Boozer at the 5. Either way, Gibson’s extra court time is getting Noah more rest time.
Which tank move should the Bulls make?
If you trade Gibson, his quality minutes are going to disappear. Any guesses who those minutes are going to fall to? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Boozer. If the Bulls trade Gibson, Noah won’t just taste the agony of defeat; he’ll experience the agony of the feet.
Additionally, with the Bulls appearing to be intent (and rightly so) on using their amnesty on Boozer this summer and having no guarantees that Nikola Mirotic, their coveted draft-and-stash power forward currently playing in Euroleague, will come next year, trading Gibson could turn out to be a big risk.
The Bulls could expose themselves to having only one big man under contract next year. With the time it takes to learn Thibodeau’s defensive schemes and his propensity to bench players until they figure it out, Noah could experience the fallout of a Gibson trade well into next season.
That’s a lot to risk without any assurances it will pay off with the return of a big-ticket free agent.
If the Bulls were to make such a move, it would be far more prudent to delay that decision until the offseason. Then they can be surer of Mirotic’s decision, what free agents might actually sign if Gibson were traded and whom they get in the draft.
Any benefit to trading Gibson will still be there in the offseason, but the risks will be a much more known commodity.
It’s easier to be an armchair general manager than a real one. It’s easier to holler tank than to actually tank. Losing games while keeping your team’s future in mind is a narrow wire to walk. If the Bulls front office follows these guidelines, though, Chicago will lose more games, build for the future and give the illusion of not tanking.