The NBA is Back: Tank You Very Much

Although the Celtics and Lakers are perennial powerhouse NBA teams, both are entering this season with patchwork rosters.  To make things worse for them, the best player on each team–Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rando—are both currently out after having surgery.  And like a steak in front of a hungry dog– in next year’s draft sits the best prospect since Lebron James: Andrew Wiggins.

The Celtics already have been repositioning their doghouse closer to this steak.  During the offseason, they traded away future Hall of Famers Keven Garnett and Paul Pierece and received average players and draft picks in return.  Was this done for a playoff push this year?  The picture above is of Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, mustering up a huge smile while introducing three of the non-superstar players they received for superstars Garnett and Pierce.

The Lakers, on the other hand, have a few very good veterans like Pao Gasol and have signed the top talent available such as Chris Kaman.  They appear focused on the goal of  trying to win this year.  However, what will happen if they start the season slowly, and Wiggins gets closer and closer to being just a ping pong ball away?  The 76ers are also in the mix.  They traded away All Star Jrue Holiday and drafted an already injured rookie who has a huge upside but who may not play this season.

The term “tanking” refers to purposely losing games in order to gain a higher position in the draft.  Could tanking really happen in the NBA?  Did the Warriors tank in 2011 to position themselves for the 2012 player draft?  The answer is a resounding yes.

I’m not breaking news here by saying that the Warriors purposely tanked the 2011 season.  You can read the details in Business Insider.

How did the tanking take place?  In 2011, the Warriors never instructed their players on the floor not to try their hardest.  Instead, the savvy minds in the Warriors’ front office executed a long term growth plan that any venture capitalist would be proud of—and just came at the price of some wins that season.  They did this by implementing a full blown off the court tanking strategy, which included some interesting roster moves.  Remember who was their starting center during the last few weeks of that season?  A guy who played a grand total of 18 games in his NBA career:  Mickell Gladness!

Who would have ever thought how much he would contribute to the gladness of the Warriors today.

Before 2012, the Warriors had made the playoffs only once in the past 18 years.  The Warriors had ample incentive to tank in 2011.  Their first round pick for the upcoming draft had been traded away to Utah but was “top seven protected”, meaning that if the Warriors finished with one of the seven worst records in the league they would get to keep their first round pick.  If they did keep the pick, their debt to Utah would then be shifted to either the 2013 or 2014 draft.

Well, in 2011 with about 25% of the games left in the season, the Warriors were doing OK and were on the verge of having a better record than seven other teams.  But the team took care of that: they finished off the year going 5-22!

This collapse enabled them to keep their pick and in the 2012 NBA Draft, with the seventh pick, the Warriors drafted Harrison Barnes and went on to make the playoffs.  As a result, their trading partner Utah received the 21st pick in the 2013 Draft from the Warriors. Wow!  This turn of events could not have been planned any better!  Oh yeah, the plan.

The Warriors used all the tools available to an NBA front office in 2011: trades, adherence to player health, and waiver wire pickups.  It’s just that in this case, the tools were used to field a loser of 22 of their final 27 games.  That year the Warriors traded a healthy Monte Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut who did not play for the remainder of the 2011 season.  Bad deal for 2011, but good deal for today with Bogut playing so well.  Then during the stretch drive of 2011, they sat Stephen Curry and David Lee on the bench with minor injuries. I wonder if these injures would have kept them out of meaningful games.  Enter Michael Gladness.

Before their alleged tanking took place, the Warriors were purchased for $450 million in 2010, and by August of 2013, the value had increased to $800 million.  Not only did the Warrior owners experience a windfall, but last year the Warriors fans got their own windfall: the first playoff basketball since the “we believe” 2006 season.  Now the mantra at Warrior camp is “we belong”, referring to the rosy future.

Perhaps in the not too distant future for an NBA giveaway night, instead of tee shirts, a team will give the first 10,000 fans to show up toy tanks with their team logo on them?

As a Warrior fan, I’m glad they did this.  This doormat of the NBA over the last 20 years has finally made good.  The Warriors did not do anything illegal, and this tanking is just one of many reasons why the fortunes of this franchise have changed.  They have made excellent draft picks, hired good coaches, and signed great free agents.

Why is tanking a problem in the NBA and not other sports? The NBA is the only major sport that has a draft lottery, which was instituted specifically to prevent tanking!  The answer is that in basketball,  because there are only five players on the court in basketball, just one superstar—20% of the team!– can make a huge difference.

Tanking appears like a win for everyone: the team, the fans, and the community.  It’s just not good for the future of the game. The basis of any professional sports is that both teams try to win every game. Without that expectation, the NBA loses a lot of credibility?  The League should look at what long term consequences tanking can have on the NBA.  Maybe the league should outlaw lottery protected picks in future trades.

Today, The Lakers and Celtics are both in prime tanking position.  It will be interesting to see what happens with both of them.   If the Lakers give Jack Nickelson a uniform, it probably means they are focused on next year, not this one.   If the Celtics trade Kevin Garnett and Paul Piece away, it probably means they, too, are tanking.  Oh yeah, they already did this.

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