One cannot turn a page on the basketball internet this season without encountering a discussion of “tanking.” The implication is that the league has a massive problem with teams intentionally losing games to better their draft picks. It is totally understandable that these pieces proliferate; they are funny.* Moreover, it is fun to try to come up with solutions to this theoretical problem. It is quite amusing to overstate the problem–until the dialogue begins to potentially effect real change that could remove hope from downtrodden teams.
*My personal favorite is Power Tankings.
The “Tanking” Epidemic is Overblown
Make no mistake: the problem is massively overstated. For example, take one recent column in which the Bucks, Magic, Lakers and Pistons were described as “tanking.” This designation simply is not accurate, especially since it alleges “[t]he team’s front office has deliberately weakened the team in an attempt to lose as many games as possible.” The “tanking” Bucks made a number of middling veteran signings last summer in an effort to compete, and have improved their net rating by about five points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break. The “tanking” Magic just beat West contender Portland while improving their performance post-break despite a Western road trip. The “tanking” Lakers recently beat the Thunder and absolutely destroyed the Knicks. The “tanking” Pistons spent boatloads of cash on Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith in what is looking like a misguided attempt to make the playoffs and save Joe Dumars’ job.*
*The Pistons do have a massive incentive to lose now because their draft pick owed to the Bobcats is top-eight protected. Tanking to protect protected picks is a separate problem that absolutely does occur, with the most notable examples being the 2012 Warriors and the Wolves for about five years after they acquired Marko Jaric for Sam Cassell and a top-10 protected first rounder in 2005. However, this sort of tanking could be eliminated by simply allowing only lottery protection on traded first rounders.
Other bad teams are not intentionally losing either. New Orleans owes a top-five protected pick to Philadelphia, yet recently had a five-game winning streak as Anthony Davis has blown up and played through a few minor maladies to boot. Tyrone Corbin has played veterans like Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams plenty of minutes in an effort to save his job, and the Jazz played .500 ball for a solid stretch this season. And don’t forget the Suns, a “tanking” team projected to have the second-worst record in the league that instead could win 50 games.
Season-Long Tanking Has Not Been A Problem in the Lottery Era
There seems little evidence that tanking, aside from being fun to joke about, actually hurts the league’s bottom line. Bad teams in this allegedly tanktastic year are no worse than usual, with all but two teams having already won at least 20 games. Many eras in league history, including the mid-to-late 1990s, saw a much larger proportion of great and terrible teams.*
*This may have been related to expansion that added the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors (who actually beat the 72-win Bulls that year) in 1995-96.
Injuries, poor management and the natural rhythms of the success cycle mean there are always going to be bad teams. Moreover, teams that are hopelessly out of contention at the end of an 82-game slog naturally have less urgency than those gearing up for the playoffs. Bad basketball has always existed, and it will continue to exist regardless of the incentives provided by the draft. This year’s Sixers have been extremely clear about not trying to compete this season, but subjectively, I cannot recall any other team in the lottery era nearly so egregious.* Making massive changes to the system to address the play of one team in one season seems like a massive overreaction, especially when we do not know whether any team will follow the Sixers’ lead to such an extent, or that this strategy will even work for them.
*The Sacramento Kings of the late Maloof era do come to mind, but that was more a function of their dire straits financially than a concerted strategy to tank for draft picks. Bryan Colangelo admitted to “tanking” with the 2012 Raptors, but then went on to describe completely legitimate goals of development and evaluation of young talent rather than intentional losing of games. That team ranked 14th in defense, not exactly the hallmark of intentional losing.
The Sixers Have Made the Right Moves Regardless of Their Own Draft Incentives
For context, it is worth reviewing the Sixers’ offseason. They traded borderline All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected pick in the 2014 draft, a move that was instantly proclaimed a great value by the majority of informed commentators. They also waited to hire head coach Brett Brown until well into the offseason, spawning numerous jokes but ultimately making no difference for their competitiveness this year. The Sixers let all of their (mediocre) free agents walk and signed no one of note, electing to keep their cap space open to facilitate trades later in the year and starting the year below the salary floor.
Although the overall non-compete this year was rather shocking, these moves make sense individually and in the aggregate. Signing some long-term free agents would not have been smart, as they would have had to massively overpay for a player who did not fit their success curve. And would signing short-term free agents really have helped much? It certainly is difficult to think of players who signed one-year contracts who would have been available and willing to sign with the Sixers during the off-season that would have moved the needle much. Had the Sixers signed and kept such players all year, would winning another five games with that provisional crew have been any less abhorrent to Philly fans? In fact, it is very likely that many fans would have complained about wasting playing time on rent-a-players instead of developing the youngsters or getting what they could for the veterans.
Perhaps the real problem is the fact that teams do have some incentive to lose games over the course of the season, which even Adam Silver acknowledged in his Q&A at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. But rebuilding/tanking may well represent the rational course of action even in the absence of an incentive to raise the position of their own draft pick. The Sixers’ trades of Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner are a big part of the reason why they have been historically awful rather than really bad over the last month and a half. But those players were free agents who did not fit the organization’s timetable and would have cost far too much to retain. The Sixers absolutely did the right thing in nabbing whatever assets they could for those players, even if they were mere second round picks. And those trades were further facilitated by the extra cap room the Sixers had preserved.
Similarly, the Sixers should not have drafted, say, Ben McLemore instead of Noel simply because he was due to miss much of the year. Noel was considered a possible number one overall pick, and may well have been a steal at number six.
The Sixers made the right moves, and these moves were probably correct even without the lure of a higher draft pick from losing games this year. Look at baseball, a sport in which “tanking” has never been discussed and the importance of draft position has only recently become readily acknowledged. Baseball teams have long traded away free-agents-to-be for future assets, avoided signing mediocre veterans and opened up time for younger players. This allows the organization to evaluate what part of the future these assets can play even knowing it could lead to more losses in the short-term. The nature of sport, and perhaps of life, is that short-term pain is often necessary to secure long-term gain. This is true regardless of draft incentives.
Hopelessness Is a Far Greater Evil Than Tanking
One of the big arguments behind the rush to curb “tanking” is that it is bad for the bottom line. Fans of downtrodden teams pay darn good money for these tickets, and it is a crying shame they have to watch an inferior product! But the actual decline in win percentage of lottery teams in their last 30 games is almost imperceptible. And nobody has ever complained that baseball has long increased the size of its rosters in September and let non-major leaguers play many of the innings that month. By definition this decreases the quality of play, and teams that play minor leaguers in these situations cannot be trying their hardest to win, yet nobody seems to have the slightest issue with this developmental tool. Still, NBA tanking decriers need a moral justification, and ostensible decline in quality of play provides it. But the quality of play argument really is a red herring.
Nonetheless, accept for the sake of argument that the quality of play does decline a bit because teams are not trying as hard to win. One of the ideas that has supposedly gotten traction with the NBA is the wheel idea proposed by Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren. In this system, each team would get a top-six pick every five years, and know what pick it would have for the next 30 years regardless of record. Let’s say the wheel were implemented, and due to the fact it would curb “tanking” a team like the Sixers tries harder to win and alienates its fans a bit less. They sign a couple of one-year free agents, hold onto them all year and win 25 games instead of 17.*
*I do not buy that fans would be any more interested to see a 25-win team with veterans who definitely won’t be on the team next year as opposed to a 17-win team with players who at least could be on the team next year, but again for the sake of argument I’ll accept the premise.
Now imagine the Sixers had the 25th, 23rd, 14th and 11th picks in the next four drafts. The wheel has resulted in an incremental retention of fan support over one year, but the Sixers now have no top-10 pick coming. This hypothetical Sixers team sure seems pretty unlikely to compete anytime soon. Making it much harder to improve over the long-term (and moreover, to sell at least the possibility of improvement) is far worse for bad teams’ bottom line than the dubious proposition that they may alienate fans by not trying their absolute hardest to win individual games in a lost season.
*Draft picks are even more important to bad small-market teams now that the new CBA has changed the cost and impact of the luxury tax on all NBA teams.
Any Changes Should Be Limited
On a macro level, the NBA’s system works to create cycles of success as teams compete and then rebuild. This cycle is what separates American professional sports from their counterparts in other countries, where the richest teams invariably rule the roost year after year.* The draft is a key part of providing hope for the worst franchises in the league and ensuring that only the most mismanaged remain in the doldrums for too long.
*Consider European soccer or basketball. With few exceptions, the same few teams are in competition every year unless a rich new owner becomes involved.
Major changes to prevent the tanking “problem” may work to that limited end, but they would likely create far more problems than they would solve. As Mark Cuban said, “The law of unintended consequences never stays silent.” If teams continue to do what the Sixers did this year, and if it is truly deemed a problem, a number of far simpler solutions exist. The league could slightly re-weight the lottery, or perhaps decree that teams finishing below a certain win total are ineligible for the number one pick to encourage at least a baseline level of competition. But a massive change that failed to preserve a reasonable relationship between losing and high draft picks would create far more problems then it would solve.
- One of the more amusing trends this year has been the evolution of more corpulent older wings as stretch fours. Hedo Turkoglu, Caron Butler, Paul Pierce and Marvin Williams have taken on this role despite the fact they are not particularly impressive rebounders at this stage. Honorary inclusion goes to Omri Casspi, who despite his youth has put on a few pounds since he entered the league.
- I noted over the weekend that coming out early from college isn’t so much about the second NBA contract as it is the third. A player who comes out at 19 gets his second contract at 23 and can get a third contract while still in his prime at 27 or 28. A 22-year-old gets his second contract at 26, and may be done with major long-term contracts by the time he is again a free agent at 29 or 30. Stu Jackson informed me that NBA players are well aware of this fact:
“@NateDuncanNBA: Coming out early isn't even so much about the second contract as it is the third. NBA players call it "two tract shawty"
— Stu Jackson (@StuJackson32) March 30, 2014
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.