As noted here, one of the themes to be explored this season is that a dangerous trend is developing in the NBA, where a belief that championships are the only achievements worth celebrating has led us to undervalue competitiveness. One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is the prevalence of “tanking,” whereby teams are purposefully not as competitive as they could be in the short term, on the belief that it will maximize their chances of winning a championship in the future.
As a fan of the game, interested in seeing the league – not just my favorite teams – be good, I have a number of issues with this. This line of thinking, which accepts being terrible as an acceptable “means to an end,” takes fan loyalty as a given. To use the Sixers as an example, it assumes that Sixer fans have infinite patience, and are going to remain interested in the team over many years of lousiness. It also assumes that the Sixers have no obligation to the overall product the league is putting out; no obligation to contribute to making the league itself more interesting to the casual fan who isn’t predisposed to watch basketball all the time.
As a fan of the game, I have a gripe with those assumptions. We live in a world where people have multiple options for how they spend their time and money (making it harder for the NBA to attach a casual fan’s attention), where people move between geographic regions regularly (diminishing their connection to the team they grew up rooting for), and where people can access information about all teams almost equally (further diminishing the likelihood that they remain loyal to one team that is terrible for years). The Sixers are assuring that there’s at least one game on the calendar, each night they play, that a casual fan would have no interest in watching. I recognize that the Sixers are pursuing tanking to an extreme degree not matched by other teams. Even other teams that tank, though, are testing the loyalty of their fans and hurting the overall game, while not as dramatically as the Sixers.
In any event, for now, I’ll put aside whether tanking is good for the game, and assume that it’s an acceptable means to an end for a particular team to follow. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t work. Even assuming that a team’s only obligation is to maximize its chances of winning a championship “soon” – as opposed to, ya know, not being pathetic for multiple years – it’s not a good strategy. Look at the standings from the last 3 years: 2013, 2014, and 2015. The same teams miss the playoffs over and over! The following teams have missed the playoffs each of the last three years: Philly, Detroit, Orlando, Utah, Minnesota, Sacramento, Phoenix. Two others were in the playoffs in 2013, then fell into the lottery and show no signs of getting out; Denver and the Lakers. One of the teams that was able to pull itself out caught lightning in a bottle: Cleveland. Others who have been in the lottery at least once in the last three years hardly lit up the playoffs during the other years: New Orleans, Charlotte, Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee.
It’s easy to say that the same teams are in the lottery every year because they don’t know how to draft. But look at who they’ve picked, and it becomes clear that they often aren’t drafting “busts.” DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, Andrew Wiggins, Victor Oladipo, and Gordon Hayward were all drafted by one of the teams that’s been in the lottery each of the past three seasons. None of them can be considered a bust. Anthony Davis is certainly no bust, yet he’s now in his fourth season and New Orleans has no playoff series wins to show for it.
There’s more to be explored here, but to wrap this up for now there are a few reasons why the same teams wind up in the lottery over and over:
1. Players who can make a bad team competitive are extremely rare. LeBron joined a terrible Cleveland team and made them instantly competitive. Carmelo joined a terrible Denver team and had them in the playoffs every year he was there. To different degrees, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Steph Curry, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, and Derrick Rose all deserve credit for doing that, but in today’s game that’s about it. Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant joined teams that were going to be good without them, but let’s give them credit for belonging in this class, too. Let’s throw in Durant, Westbrook, Lillard, and Aldridge, even though it’s not clear exactly who deserves credit for the success their teams had. That’s 18 guys. In a 30 team league. Over a looong period of time – Pierce, Kobe, Garnett, and Duncan have each been in the league for about 20 years. Yet people think it’s sensible for a team to make itself purposefully bad in the short term on the expectation that it will make you good in the long term? I don’t get it. Seems to me that, if you’re purposefully bad in the short term, the only guarantee is that you’ll be bad in the short term.
2. When you’re bad, you’re drafting to “hit a home run.” When you’re competitive, on the other hand, you’re drafting for someone to fit into a structure that works. Just about all of the good teams have guys they drafted outside the lottery. Consider Kawhi Leonard on the Spurs and Draymond Green on the Warriors, to illustrate. Those guys are great – in the roles they’re being asked to fill. There’s no evidence, however, that they could make a bad team good. It’s not a knock on them, just an illustration of why it makes more sense to get competitive rather than stock up on ping pong balls in the lottery. Even look at my man Kristaps (what, you don’t think Kristaps is hanging out with losers who sit around blogging while stuffing their face with Doritos?) to illustrate the point; he’s exceeding anyone’s reasonable expectations, and the Knicks are suddenly 8-6, after being atrocious last year. But as good as KP6 has been, he’s only averaging 13 points and 9 rebounds. If he wasn’t on a team with Carmelo putting up 23 and 7, Knick fans would have much less reason to expect some success in the near future.
3. When you’re bad, you’ve eliminated other ways to make yourself good. The best
free agents generally aren’t leaving their team to join a bad team. And superstars 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 item #1, above.)
Enough outta me for now. All of this will be explored further this season. For the moment, the point is simply this: Forget trying to wind up with the magic ping pong ball. Wanna win? My suggestion is to try winning, for starters.
Thoughts? Hit me up.
Other than the Sixers, who else among the playoff-missers could be characterized fairly as “tanking”? What if some franchises just don’t get it–because of limited resources, bad management, disinterested fan base? With the lottery system revamp, any geek with a calculator should be able to tell management that playing for ping pong balls isn’t a good strategy. So maybe “tanking” is being conflated with “poorly run” or “unlucky” or “indifferent” in this analysis.
@ Steve Alford’s Kid, I guess you weren’t listening to sports radio in NY last year, when folks were mad every time the Knicks made a game competitive, because they were in a race for the Knicks to be as bad as possible as quickly as possible.
Also, the Lakers have been, to some extent, tanking. I acknowledge that there isn’t always a bright line. But if we define it loosely as “a team not making every effort to be as competitive as it could be now, while stopping short of unreasonably restricting its flexibility in the future,” then the Lakers are there. They essentially pushed Pau Gasol out the door without any veterans who could come close to replacing him, and focused their offseason moves on adding high draft picks who weren’t ready to contribute. Sure, Gasol left as a FA so it’s unclear how responsible the Lakers were for it, but it’s not like the Lakers moved heaven and earth to get him to stay. He was benched for large parts of his final season there. And sure, maybe they simply misjudged Randle and Russell. But, if you’re pushing out productive veterans, and replacing them with 19-year-old rookies, that’s some degree of tanking. For all I know, Randle and Russell might turn out to be great years down the road, but right now the Lakers are terrible and there’s no indication that they’ll be competitive any time soon.
You’re right – tanking is never the right way to go, however, let’s look at the top 3 teams in the NBA right now. Not sure if they got extremely lucky or their scouting department is just superior to others…
Spurs – landed Duncan when they didn’t have the best odds in the lottery. Stuck with what everyone thought to be an average coach in Popovich (he was fired previously). I like to think picking Parker and Manu was smart scouting. But Kawhi – the 15th pick! He couldn’t shoot a lick in college and now he’s almost a 50% 3 point shooter. He’s the best defender in the league and probably a 1st team all NBA player. The Spurs (mainly Pop) deserve tons of credit for developing him, but they got a little lucky right? You’re telling me 14 teams looked at Kawhi and said, eh he’s not that good, but the Spurs scouts knew something else? I don’t believe that. Of course Pop gets the most out of nobodies (fat Boris, Patty “lights-out” Mills and BOGAN) and that is HUGE, but the Spurs aren’t the dynasty that we have come to love without a ton of luck.
GSW – Curry fell to them at 7 in the draft. The Wolves picked 2 POINT GUARDS ahead of him (Kahn). That was ridiculous when it happened and still ridiculous. And no one thought this little Davidson shooter was going to be this good…no one. And Draymond – 2nd rounder who really freaking competed but had weight and height problems. Turns out he’s the absolute perfect fit for this Dubs team. And you’re totally right – no chance does Draymond make a terrible team great, but on this Dubs team, it’s the perfect harmony. Again – lucky?
Cavs – besides for the obvious luck of Lebron being born in Cleveland and feeling the need to bring a championship to his hometown, they’ve won the lottery how many times? 4 – which has netted them Lebron, Kryie and Love (via Wiggins). (Sidenote, because I know you hate Love, – there’s a lot of talk about what he can’t do, and that’s very valid – below average defender, can’t rim protect, sometimes hangs out on the 3 point line too much, etc. But let’s talk about what he can do – he’s a double double machine, excellent defensive rebounder, excellent passer and elite stretch 4 on offense (which is quite possibly the most important position in today’s NBA). Oh and his basketball IQ is well above average. All this talk about trading Love is nonsense.
My point is – I don’t know. But I do know that tanking is clearly not the right strategy, but not tanking is also not going to get you there. Maybe my point is – luck plays more of a role than we’d like to think?