Tanking in the NBA is Perpetuated by the System

Adam Silver
Adam Silver
NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive answer questions from the media during halftime of the game between the Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors at Sleep Train Arena Ed Szczepanski USA TODAY Sports

Going through the motions. Due to Adam Silver’s recent declaration that tanking is nowhere to be found in his NBA, I’m left with little choice but to rephrase what’s become the theme to the 2013-2014 NBA season.

That’s right; while franchises and personnel people continue to put their worst foot forward regarding the product they put on the floor, the commissioner and people like him responsible for protecting the league, are finding it increasingly more difficult to spin an ugly tactic prominently brought to light by the most anticipated draft class in recent memory.

Tanking, by definition, is to lose intentionally. Under normal circumstances that would entail players performing – or not performing – on the field, in the arena, or in this case, on the court to the best of their abilities in the interest of winning.  However, in the case of this year’s NBA, it’s not the players’ lack of effort that’s in question, but rather the high-level executives responsible for putting those players in the best possible position to win.

The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t interested in winning. The Celtics weren’t interested in winning to start the year. And the Los Angeles Lakers are no longer interested in winning the remainder of this season. These are not the opinions of the uneducated, but more so facts concluded based on personnel moves prior to and during this NBA season.

The Celtics traded away the heart and soul of their team, key parts to its construction, and their highly successful coach last summer.  The Sixers drafted a player with their first pick who they knew wouldn’t see the court this season, traded away their only All-Star prior to the season, and shipped-off their most productive players mid-season.  And the Lakers…let’s just say there’s been less than a sense of urgency to get MVPs Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash back in the lineup.  The aforementioned are not rational decisions made by people interested in winning games now, but part of a strategy built around the notion of trying to win at a later date.  These teams realize their place in a league consisting of “haves” and “have-nots,” and understand the best way to get from one to the other is to acquire through the draft, one of the elite players necessary to win in the modern-day NBA.  The question isn’t whether or not they’re losing with a purpose, but rather whether or not doing such is good form, and if there’s anything the league can do to curtail something their system perpetuates by nature?

I’m a “winner.”  That’s not to say that personally I’m “better,” but rather that I believe it’s important for the sake of culture, perception, and karma (yes, I’m that guy) to do everything in your power to win every time you step into the competitive arena.  That’s not to say I don’t understand the rationale behind what the “tankers”…errr…teams going through the motions are doing, but that I believe that putting your best foot forward all the time, rather than merely when it’s convenient, will ultimately result in success in whatever it is you’re doing.  If you’re in a position so desperate that losing is your only way out, you’re there not based on circumstances or chance, but as a result of what you as an organization have or haven’t done in the past.  You should focus more on what you’ve been doing wrong, rather than doing “wronger” in an effort to get it right.

The Lakers paid an aging and broken-down Kobe Bryant too much money, the Celitcs hung onto their antiquated core too long, and Philadelphia…they should be in some sort of sports prison for the amount of ineptitude they’ve displayed over the last decade.  But rather than cop to the ill of their ways, they’re offered a relative get-out-of-jail-free card compliments of the league denying any wrongdoing.

That’s right, it’s the system that’s perpetuating this “rebuilding.”  At last month’s Sloan Conference (The Star Trek Convention of the NBA), ex-Toronto Raptor GM Bryan Colangelo admitted to tanking, saying “…I wanted to establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that.  But I wanted to do it in the framework of playing the young players, and with that comes losing.”  He went on to say that he’d never suggested to the players or coaching staff that he wanted them to lose, but I think such a message is implied when you’re putting players on the court that outsiders, as well as those within the organization, know full well have zero chance of competing.  And that’s the hole in the “rebuilding” theory.

You may not be directly telling players to lose, but you’re indirectly suggesting it’s okay based on a system that suggests to the people within it; that losing is the best course of action.  And that’s not healthy for the league, and more importantly the fans that are paying full-boat during a season or seasons of losing with no guaranteed payoff.

And there are no guarantees.

Countless top-4 draft picks have failed to measure up, and there’s no way to undo what would then be a failed venture by a franchise “building for the future.”

Call me a romantic, but I think there’s value in winning.  If you want to get better, do better.  Draft intelligently, add pieces through free agency, and manage your salary cap with an eye towards the future rather than a blind one to the past.  You need good players to win in the NBA, there’s no denying that, but good organizations do it by building on success, not on the rubble of a self-inflicted wound.

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Wade Evanson
Wade Evanson spent the first half of his post-college career trying to make money playing golf, and ever since merely trying not to lose it. He's parlayed his writing acumen, coupled with his life-long love of sport into an occupation of telling people "how it is"...in a loveable/entertaining way.