Tanking does exist in the NBA.
There's no way around that truth, unless you want to semantically argue the subtle difference between rebuilding and actual tanking. But even then, good luck building a case for the Philadelphia 76ers' current futility and general manager Sam Hinkie's decision to trade both Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner for pennies on the dollar.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is one of those who would like to make the argument, and he did as much during the Boston College Executives Club of Boston luncheon in early March. As relayed by Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe:
I think it's important to clarity what we all mean by tanking. Where I grew up tanking meant the coach and the players or some subset of that group were intentionally trying to lose a game. I don't think that's going on anywhere in the NBA and I would take action immediately if I thought it was.
What is going on is rebuilding. And we have a system right now that incentivizes teams to rebuild. There's a sense that you're better off rebuilding in some cases from scratch than remaining mediocre. Now I am concerned even if it's a legitimate strategy that there's a perception out there by many people that it's not. There's an awful lot of chatter out there in the land and I continue to hear the 'T' word. So I think it's my obligation to address it.
Silver has addressed "the 'T' word" countless times during his brief run as the man in charge of the Association, and all of his quotes have been variations of the same theme.
Essentially, Silver is trying to throw aside the notion that tanking is problematic by equating it to rebuilding. Tanking, in his mind, means intentionally losing a game and not making personnel decisions that lower chances of winning.
And interestingly enough, the NBA's leading executives just seem to think the whole concept is funny.
First, there was Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (h/t NBC Sports' Dan Feldman):
NBA commish Adam Silver, speaking at BC event, notes two Canadians on Celtics roster. C's owner Wyc Grousbeck shouts, "Wiggins next year."— Kevin Armstrong (@KevinGArmstrong) March 12, 2014
The timing of that clearly indicates that Grousbeck was joking, just as he presumably was when he and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive accused each other of tanking during the same conference.
Now Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti wasn't as humorous when he spoke with NewsOK.com's Darnell Mayberry, but he still brushed aside the notion of a tanking epidemic:
Oddly enough, I think it’s a narrative that was created to tweak the league office, and they are showing to be quite reflexive to it. I’m actually a bit surprised they have fed into it and devoted so much public energy to it given the lack of evidence. The records of the teams in the bottom four of the league are in line with those over the last 20 seasons. If anything, they are actually slightly above those averages. I’m missing the epidemic on this, really. I would hope we’d focus our attention on a lot of the great things our players are doing and that the league has in place now. Maybe we can get to the five-point shot in the off-season.
Presti's viewpoint is certainly an interesting one, and there are parts I'd both like to rebut and affirm.
Contrary to what the OKC GM implies, the league should be addressing anything it perceives as an issue.
"As Silver said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston," writes Brett Pollakoff for NBC Sports, "If the fans perceive it to be a problem, then the league needs to address it."
But as for the in-house concerns over tanking? Well, Presti hit the nail right on the head. The records of the worst teams in the league aren't particularly egregious (although the Philadelphia 76ers seem to be on a quest to change that), and no teams are overtly putting forth less effort on the court.
Managerial decisions to lessen chances of winning in a desperate search for future success will always exist.
Grousbeck knows this. Presti knows this. Silver probably knows this too.
So long as the league continues to offer up opinions on the subject—which, once more, it should be doing if it's perceived by even a small portion of the general public as problematic—those in-the-know executives will keep snickering and making snide remarks.
Time may be a flat circle, according to True Detective's Rustin Cohle, but so too are tanking discussions.