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Stop Banking on Tanking

Ask yourselves, Knick fans, how good would this team be?

  1. Andrew Wiggins
  2. Jabari Parker
  3. Karl-Anthony Towns
  4. D’Angelo Russell
  5. Ben Simmons
  6. Brandon Ingram
  7. Markelle Fultz
  8. Lonzo Ball
  9. Deandre Ayton
  10. Marvin Bagley

I submit that they’d be very good but not great.  We don’t have to use too much imagination to figure it out, because some current NBA teams have more than 1 of those players. The Wolves, for example, have Towns and Wiggins.  With Towns and Wiggins, the Wolves are out of the playoffs.  Let’s stipulate that Simmons and Russell would be an upgrade over Rose and Teague, and that having Deandre Ayton coming off the bench would be a major talent upgrade.  How much of an upgrade? I’d say enough to bump them from being out of the playoffs, to a middle-tier playoff team, behind Golden State, Houston, Denver, and OKC.

Uh, Kraver, why are you talking to Knicks fans about a random group of 10 players who will never be on an NBA team together, let alone the Knicks?

I’m glad you asked.

That group of 10 players is not random at all.  It represents the top 2 picks in each of the previous 5 drafts. In other words, if a team somehow “succeeded” at tanking so magnificently – tanking better than any team has ever done anything in the history of teams doing a variety of things – that it found a way to get the top 2 picks in 5 straight drafts, this is the group of players it would have wound up with.

So, let’s keep going.

How good is that group of ten? (I’m putting aside issues of “fit” and judging by the talent.)

The Lakers also have two of those players: Ball and Ingram. They’re the 8 seed, at the moment.  Nobody on the list above approaches LeBron James, and it’s not clear that anyone is much better than Kyle Kuzma.  But let’s say the collective upgrade in talent would bump the Lakers into the first tier out West, still behind Golden State and possibly others.

Lastly, the Sixers have two of those players: Simmons and Fultz. They’re currently a 4 seed. Nobody else on the list above is better than Embiid or Jimmy Butler. The cumulative collection of 8 players probably represents a talent upgrade over the best 8 players on the Sixers’ current roster along with Simmons and Fultz, but it’s not a major upgrade.  They’d still be around the same team.

Got that?  If some team had managed to tank at an impossibly “successful” level, and somehow figured out a way to get the top 2 picks in each of the last 5 drafts, it wouldn’t have a championship team.

Thus, I respectfully submit that the various Knicks fans whom I hear rooting against their beloved ‘Bockers are misplacing their energy.  Tanking is no guarantee of anything – at least not anything good.  If you try to lose, the only guarantee is that you’ll lose. If you want to win, then I respectfully submit it’s worth trying to win.

Granted, I don’t have a secret formula that can make the Knicks good.  Let’s be realistic.  It’s a 30-team league, so if your team wins one championship every 15 years, it’s ahead of the curve. And lots of the other teams are run by competent folks, not to mention that they’re starting with more talent on the roster than the Knicks have. I’m just a dude with a blog that only 3 people read, and I don’t claim to have the secret formula for success for the Knicks.

Plus, I recognize that turning this ship around won’t be easy.  The Knicks are 10-33 as of this writing.  I’m not suggesting they should trade young players and draft picks for veterans, in the hope of running off a 23-game winning streak just to get back to .500.

What I’m suggesting is that losing is not a great path to greatness. The Knicks are 102-187 since the start of the 2015-16 season. I respectfully submit to all my “pro-tanking” friends that the problem with the Knicks isn’t that they’ve been winning too many games recently.   If you think they haven’t been bad enough for long enough yet, then we’ll agree to disagree. For the rest of this season, I don’t suggest that they move mountains to pick up a few extra wins.  But, longer term, if you still find yourself rooting for losses at this time next year, I think you’re pursuing the wrong strategy.  While I don’t claim to know the secret formula for success, what I do claim to know is that championship teams win much more than they lose. The more you lose, the further away you are. If your team is trying to lose, it’s foreclosing some of the only options for improvement. If you’re  bad, you’re unlikely to land a star free agent, because the best generally look for good teams to join. And, if you’re bad, you’re largely out of the trade market for an impactful player, because impactful players hardly ever get traded for draft picks. So, if you’re bad, your only reasonable hope to get better is to do it through the draft. And that rarely works. (See the list of ten players, above.)

In sum… Wanna win? Then start winning.

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We frequently hear that basketball is evolving to a position-less game.  We hear about “combo guards,” “stretch 4’s,” and “modern centers.”  Well, I’m here to tell you that the game isn’t changing as much as popular opinion would have you believe.  Yup, me, the guy with three readers and no credentials, here to tell you that those folks with credentials and large audiences are wrong.

To examine whether the positions are changing, we should start by defining what the positions have historically been.  We often take for granted the idea that a starting 5 includes a PG, SG, SF, PF, and C, but it’s harder to define each of those positions than many would think.  I, the guy with three readers and no credentials, will try…

Traditionally, point guards did more passing than scoring.  They were asked to control the tempo of the game, and maximize the talents of their teammates, more than they were asked to score.  At the other end of the spectrum, centers had most of their impact near the basket – on offense, scoring from the low post, and on defense leading their teams in blocked shots and rebounds.  Some of them could shoot capably from the perimeter, but they only very rarely ventured far away from the rim.

In between, the roles were less clear.  As I’ve blogged previously, I’ve been watching hoops for many years, and I have no idea why anyone acts as if there’s a major distinction between a shooting guard and a small forward. I also don’t see a major distinction between a power forward and a center.  To the extent I can explain it, the best power forwards are generally more versatile than the best centers, but the best centers are more dominant.  Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Dirk Nowitzki were all excellent players, whom nobody thought of as centers. (Apologies, Dirk, for referring to you in the past tense, but anyone who’s seen you try to run up and down the court recently knows that it’s appropriate.) Shaq, David Robinson, Hakeem, and Ewing were also excellent players, whom nobody thought of as PFs. The guys who are both versatile and dominant are sometimes thought of as PFs and sometimes as Cs (Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis).

Even accepting that the lines between some positions are not always clear, I think most basketball fans would stipulate that the following players fit the mold of their respective positions, and played those positions at a high level:

Point Guard: Isiah Thomas (the one from the ’80s), John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups, Tony Parker.  (I’d include Magic Johnson, but he fits into no molds for anything.)

Shooting Guard: Reggie Miller, Joe Dumars, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili

Small Forward: Scottie Pippen, Dominique Wilkins, Paul Pierce

Power Forward: Pau Gasol, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber

Center: Shaq, Dwight Howard, Ben Wallace, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo

I haven’t classified LeBron (I guess he’s a 3?), MJ (a 2?), or Tim Duncan (a 4?), which starts to lead me to believe that if you reach a certain level of performance you don’t have a position.

Get to the point, Kraver.

Ok, will do…

The point is that traditional positions aren’t gone at all.

Mike Conley, Chris Paul, Goran Dragic, and Kyle Lowry are traditional point guards.  Patrick Beverly, Lonzo Ball, and Ben Simmons – all starters on teams currently heading for the playoffs – might not be traditional point guards, but they sure ain’t shooting guards.

Klay Thompson, JJ Redick, Khris Middleton, CJ McCollum, and Danny Green are among the shootingest shooting guards we’ve ever seen – all heading for the playoffs.

Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Tyson Chandler, and Clint Capela are all traditional centers on teams heading for the playoffs.  Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic are centers playing meaningful minutes on arguably the most surprising team in the league. Marc Gasol is holding down the middle for a surprisingly competitive Memphis team.  And, there’s Joel Embiid, who shoots more 3’s than we’re used to seeing centers shoot, but is grabbing 13 boards and blocking 2 shots per game, while shooting 48% from the field.  He’s a center.

I still can’t articulate how small forwards are different from shooting guards, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that Kawhi, Giannis, Paul George, Danilo Galinari, and Jayson Tatum fit the mold of traditional small forwards – to the extent there ever was a mold.

Certainly, there has been some evolution.  We have centers who shoot 3’s, and we have guards like Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry, who not only average double-digit assists, but who do it while taking 20+ shots per game.  But, that’s what it is – an evolution, not a revolution.  The best teams still balance their lineups, with a guy who creates for others, a guy who protects the paint, a guy who attacks the rim, a guy whose primary skill is outside shooting, and a guy who… uh… specializes in whatever it is that power forwards specialized in.

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