If you’re not talking constantly about tanking right now, then what’s wrong with you?
Chatter about teams losing intentionally in order to improve draft status has taken over the league this season. And one person that seems a little sick of it is Sam Presti. Talking with Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, he said this:
“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,” Presti said. “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.”
A few thoughts:
I’m in complete agreement with Presti about the league being so receptive to the discussion. The NBA seems to have really taken the bait. But then again, there’s a lot of movement about it and with tanking essentially being a black eye on the league’s product, they probably take it very personally.
Howard Beck of Bleacher Report wrote about this in a terrific column, and said it well:
Let a free agent walk? You must be tanking. Trade your high-priced veterans? You’re tanking. Oddly, no one made the same accusations in 2009-10, when teams were madly clearing cap room to chase LeBron James. The real concern is not what teams did last summer, but what they will be doing the next two months. True tanking is about manipulating the roster you have: “resting” veterans, promoting fringe prospects and otherwise messing with the game plan to make winning less likely.
This is not to say that teams haven’t considered the draft in their planning. They would be foolish not to. But the allure of the draft did not suddenly warp every team’s agenda, or induce teams into questionable decisions.
So here’s the test I put to a dozen team executives over the last few months: If this draft were considered poor, or even average, would the so-called tanking teams have made the same moves last summer? Would we view them as simply smartly rebuilding? The answer I got from every executive was “yes.”
I think this tanking discussion has become so clouded and saturated, that I’m not sure people are even talking about the same thing anymore. I think there are two kinds of tanking — organic tanking, and actually-losing-on-purpose tanking. And within this whole debate, those lines between the two have been blurred. I don’t think there are that many teams that have some kind of conspiracy within their organization, starting with the owner and going to the coach, to try and lose the game they’re playing that night. Like Howard said, that they’re pretend-resting players that they’re handing terrible players heavy minutes on purpose or designing a gameplan to intentionally suck that night. That’s absurd to me. It could be happening. But I don’t believe it.
I absolutely do think that some teams intentionally field a roster that doesn’t have much chance to be successful. And Presti knows all about that. The then-Sonics absolutely would’ve fallen into the “tanking” category after he traded Ray Allen, let Rashard Lewis walk and bottomed out to build around a bunch of 20-year-olds. The plan was apparent, and while the situation for the Sonics/Thunder was unique because of the relocation, meaning one fanbase was apoplectic and the other was just excited to have basketball, everyone bought in.
And that plan is exactly what Presti is lauded for with other front offices trying to mimic it. Everyone agrees he did a wonderful job and now there’s a contender built for the next 10 years. But guess what: He tanked. It wasn’t an intentional process, but instead, an organic one. The Thunder built a roster full of inexperienced players that needed playing time to improve. So losses were natural. The team and players wanted to win games, but losing was also completely fine because it fell within the plan. If anything, Presti screwed up and did too good of a job drafting and developing, because the team won 50 games in year three of the plan, getting too good too soon. The Thunder probably could’ve used one more year in the lottery to land another player to develop, and it also meant guys like Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden were up for contracts that Presti probably never anticipated he’d be paying.
Another thing about the outcry around tanking: If you’re not doing it, then what are you really doing? Take the Atlanta Hawks for example. What have they been doing the last 10 years? They’ve been stuck in NBA purgatory, winning enough games to be decent, but never truly being good enough to contend. And while the playoffs are a goal for everyone, winning an NBA championship is the point of the whole thing. Know how you win those? With transcendent players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and such. Know why teams tank? Because they’re hoping some guy in the draft is going to be that. So if anything, if your team is genuine about trying to win titles, you should be all aboard with tanking and less about them pulling a Pistons and spending cap money as they mindlessly win 30 games every season and draft the No. 10 overall player.
But like I said, that’s what I mean in the difference between naturally tanking and having a top-down mantra to intentionally lose. What the 76ers are doing know is horrific, but isn’t one year of misery and embarrassment worth it if they get Andrew Wiggins and he’s an NBA legend? I have no doubt that Sam Hinkie and the Sixers are planning to lose. But they’ve also got a team full of young players — one a potential building block in Michael Carter-Williams — and they’re giving him heavy minutes with development and improvement in mind, losses be damned. Plus, they have assets out the butt for the future. Cap space, draft picks, and on. That’s the path to building a contender in today’s NBA, outside of getting lucky and landing one of the four or five franchise-changing superstars in free agency. The only team that has built a contender counter to one of those two methods is the Pacers, and that’s because they nailed two draft picks in the late lottery and developed both players into stars. That can be done, but it’s just less likely.
The whole Presti mindset has always been about having a plan, and a vision. Teams like the Knicks who preach “win now” and give away draft picks for crappy veterans and toss all cap space for a shot in the dark only to be stuck in purgatory. What good is that? Ask yourself: Who would you rather be right now — the Knicks or 76ers?