If you want a fascinating vantage point into the yin and yang of the competitive spirit, all you have to do is take a look at four NBA teams this season who share one thing in common: they are all not very good.
However, while it may be true that no member of this off-key quartet will be raising a championship banner this year, two of them are fighting with the ferocity and urgency of Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Their spirited fight–which ironically is not entirely voluntary because their past bad trades demand it–reminds me of what makes professional sports great and what the future of the NBA should be about: franchises doing all they can to win all of the time.
These four teams here with rosters not ready for prime time are the Nets, Kings, Lakers, and 76ers. While the Nets and Kings are doing everything they can to win, the Lakers and the 76ers are engaged in an art form that has been crafted to perfection in the recent NBA: tanking.
Tanking is when a front office purposely fields a team that will lose a majority of its games, with the end goal of securing a high draft pick. It has become such a reality in the modern NBA that no team can really criticize the practice, because they have probably done it themselves.
Even the Warriors recently did it in 2011. They finished that season 5-22 because their upcoming draft pick was top 7 protected, meaning if they finished with the 8th worst record they would have to give it to the Jazz. Voilà! The Warriors barely nudged into the 7th worst record on the last day of the season and they then picked Harrison Barnes the following season. Tanking can be very beneficial for a team and actually a good long term strategy. But is this what the NBA really wants?
These last couple of seasons the 76ers have taken tanking to a level never seen. They have been doing it nonstop for a while and there is no end in sight. The 76ers front office has even tried to give their tanking strategy some bravado and swagger: they actually named it. They dubbed their continual losing “The Process“.
That’s right, this perpetual state of ineptitude is affectionately referred to by 76ers executives as “the process”–as if something clever and strategic is taking place. But let’s be honest here: the 76ers may need the help of a process engineering consulting company, because now even league executives are calling it “a failure”. This must be difficult for the 76ers brass to process!
The Nets and the Kings, by contrast, are doing the opposite of tanking. They are trying. They may have rosters that could merit a tanking strategy, but from the ball boy to the owner they all want to win every possible game. That’s because these teams get absolutely no benefit from being bad, because they either traded away their future draft picks or given other teams the right to switch picks with them. In fact, the more they lose the more humiliating it is for all of them because another team may actually benefit from their poor play by getting the draft pick they would otherwise have received.
Hmmm…feeling bad about losing, shouldn’t that be a given in professional sports? Seeing what happens when non-superpower teams really want to win is in itself interesting. Take the Nets: here we are still weeks before the All Star Game and they already fired their coach and GM in a desperate attempt to salvage their season and turn things around. In addition, even before this their effort was turning heads, in November the Nets took the undefeated and uninjured Warriors to overtime in Oakland. It turns out that when bad teams are put in the position of needing to win every game possible, it is gripping and entertaining stories emerge.
The NBA looks like a more fun place without tanking. But before figuring out a potential remedy, it is worth the time to understand how tanking has become engrained into so many layers of the NBA.
Next in Part II: Trading future picks is like running up credit card debt, and the NBA sure likes their credit card.