Hello all, I'd like to take a moment to address a touchy subject that's near and dear to my heart: tanking. ESPN, the arbiter of all modern things sports recently ran some articles on tanking. Here they are:
First ESPN article
Its one of those things that you read, and you want to strangle the media for such half-witted analysis. You wonder why, in a world with people who can truly analyze things, a bunch of half-wits sit down at their computer for five minutes and churn out stuff like that. Bad teams are bad because they make bad decisions. There's a news flash for you. Show of hands, how many warriors fans, over the years, have come to that conclusion?
Tanking is a part of the sport, in the sense that even the "bad" teams with "dumb" ownership have figured it out: losing games, and lots of games, is the quickest way to acquire a franchise player. Don't hate the player, hate the game. While I agree that, in theory, rewarding the best run teams with higher draft choices may be good, I have to ask some obvious questions:
-how do you define "better run"? The article makes the argument that the better run teams make better choices that lead to better results. Okay, but what if being "best run" means seeing the system for what it is, and losing a boatload of games (and possibly getting fired)? Was Pritchard (who was let go by the Blazers) smart or dumb? I ask because everyone in the basketball universe told him to take Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, and he took Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. It seems dumb now, but back then, it was a no-brainer. Running the blazers into a playoff team, year after year, didn't get Pritchard fired, it was that one decision. In short, ESPN does what ESPN always does; present a problem that everyone knows exists, make some vague generalizations about how great it would be if things weren't that way, and then, proceed to not offer any concrete proposals for fixing the problem. If I wanted that, I'd watch congressional hearings on C-SPAN.
Okay, so let me say for the record that I am opposed to tanking. Lots of warriors fans openly root for it, but I do believe there are benefits that only winning games can bring. That doesn't change one crucial point (a point ESPN doesn't make, because it would expose the networks's own hypocrisy):
ESPN, the fans, and everyone celebrates star players. If you don't have a star, or are actively trying to acquire one, your the subject of scorn and ridicule. ESPN rewards organizations that win rings, not ones who are merely "good enough". You never hear ESPN talk about the champion Pistons, a team that won it all without a bonafide "star" (i will concede they played in a down year for stars, but they did win it all) and who won it all with smart decisions, good teamwork, and stuff. Such things are not rewarded. ESPN put the Monta Ellis trade, which I rank as the second best trade the warriors have ever made, and is what "smart" teams do, on their list of perpetual warrior's blunders. ESPN believes in the star system, because it would help their own narrative (and TV ratings).
Okay, so we've established that you if you have a star, and you trade him, you lose that trade, that's why no one trades them unless they have to. I find the Monta Ellis trade to be one of the single most ridiculous media fabrications I've ever run across. You read what the local media was saying about it, and they were all supportive (I don't think I read a single bad local opinion in the press about the trade) you read what the national media says, and its a different story. I don't get it. The media hated on Ellis while he was a warrior and the instant he's moved, they hated on the warriors for moving him. Why? Because they got a good deal?
If there is one thing in the entire NBA that, if you have it, you don't ever, ever trade it, its top of the line big men. Its the planet principle, the number of guys that large is a small company, the number of guys that large who can actually play is microscopic. The warriors gave up talent (Ellis, a promising young big who plays defense in Udoh, and they took on a year of a bad contract. That's a lot to give up.) but what they got in return was basketball gold: a top of the line center. There is nothing that can catapult a team back into relevance like solving the biggest black hole in the game. They may have to wait until next season till he actually plays, and this is a gamble that could easily blow up in their faces. That's life. If you have to gamble to take on a center who is in his prime (Bogut is 27) then you do it. Don't be timid. Don't be shy. Just do it.
ESPN, believe it or not, has a point: too many teams are trying to copy the OKC model without understanding why it worked. What ESPN fails to realize is to figure out why and how other teams did get good, or how other teams stayed good. This fundamental lack of understanding is dis-heartening. If your an average team, and you want to trade for a star player under contract to somebody else (you aren't getting one in FA, star players only go to great teams, or the knicks, these days.)you have to have one thing: assets. Assets can take any number of forms, but they all bear the same hallmark: they're largely acquired through the draft. The only asset that isn't is expiring contracts. The warriors were able to get Bogut because they had assets Milwaukee wanted. They had Epke Udoh (the #6 overall pick, on a cheap, rookie deal) and Monta Ellis (who is somewhat rare in being a guy who had substantial trade value despite having an expensive contract) and they had a big expiring contract (Kwame Brown). It took that level of asset leveraging to pry Bogut out of Milwaukee. Its no easy task, but if Bogut stays healthy, I guarantee you the lineup of Bogut-Lee-whoever at SF-Thompson-Curry if he can stay healthy, will do a lot of damage in the west next year. Injuries are the major concern for that team, if it can stay healthy, making the playoffs is a real possibility.
OKC got lucky in the draft, because they were prepared, four times. However, even with those four "hits" OKC was not going to ever win a championship. It took a shrewd trade to bring in the final piece: the Boston Celtics trading them Kendrick Perkins. How did the Thunder manage to pry an in his prime center out of the Celtics' grip? Because A) Boston didn't want to pay Perkins and wanted to avoid the lux tax (a pretty poor decision, IMHO, I'd have parted with Ray Allen if it meant hanging on to Perkins) and B) OKC had assets the Celtics wanted (Jeff Green doesn't seem like much now, but he was a former #5 overall pick).
I would agree that smart teams tend to win more games (pretty obvious, huh?) but is there a sustainable model for an NBA team to follow to success rather than "lose a bunch of games and hope you get lucky"? Yes, I think there is, good asset acquisition and good asset management is the name of the game. I've been pretty pleasantly surprised by how ahead of the curve warrior's owner Joe Lacob is on this front. One of the things that I think would massively help the bottom feeders, maybe even more than talking about re-ordering the draft, would be to create a true minor league system (won't happen, reason why rhythms with "funny") that could focus on development, and, creating assets for trade. That's why I thought the Richard Jefferson trade was also a good move: acquiring draft picks is crucial to this strategy. If you do your scouting homework, draft picks, even late round ones, could be turned into serviceable players, and serviceable players, on cheap contracts, have trade value that you can parlay into star, or near star players. I think Lacob wanted to go the Free Agency route to build his team quickly, and got a (I hope) rude awakening. That's not how the system works. If you play in FA, the kind the warriors could get are overpriced, and that's only going to set you back.
Bottom line, I would agree that tanking is a problem, and that's its never a good thing, but there are systemic reasons for why it happens, some of which are perpetuated by ESPN. Sometimes, I really do think that the front offices of half the league aren't trying to win games (and I don't mean not trying to win now I mean not trying to win ever. The CC warriors were that team.) and that is a shame. Rightly or wrongly, they've sold their fans a magic bullet, and when that bullet doesn't come up (you didn't win the lottery this year, tank again and try your luck next year, you have to get that star player before anything else) fans can blame stern and the conspiracy against their team for losing out on the pick. In some ways, I agree with ESPN's premise, but I think they're analysis is far too simplistic and they don't offer a single real solution.