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.