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“Tanking” Just Isn’t a Big Deal

Nate Duncan explains why the NBA’s alleged “tanking” epidemic is overblown and changing the system is a bad idea.

Nate Duncan

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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.

Nate’s Notes

  • 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:

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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