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
NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong
Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.
The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.
Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.
Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).
In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.
In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.
Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.
Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.
“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”
Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.
“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.
When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.
“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”
Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.
Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.
Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”
Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.
After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.
“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”
As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.
Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.
Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.
“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”
The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.
NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players
Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.
January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.
Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.
These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.
Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.
1. Willie Reed
The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.
The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.
This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.
2. John Jenkins
Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.
He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.
Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.
3. Anthony Bennett
Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.
Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.
This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.
4. Bruno Caboclo
Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”
Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.
Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.
Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.
NBA Daily: Capela’s Injury is a Massive Setback for Houston
Clint Capela’s thumb injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Spencer Davies looks at the massive loss, who may get opportunities and what moves the Houston Rockets could make in response.
James Harden has a real challenge on his hands.
The Houston Rockets’ remarkable stretch from mid-December to the New Year behind the reigning MVP helped put them back in the middle of the playoff picture.
But he had a right-hand man—the same right-hand man who has emerged as a dominant two-way interior presence over the last three years under Mike D’Antoni—and that is Clint Capela.
Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Capela would be out for at least the next month with ligament damage in his right thumb. There’s a chance that the 24-year-old big man could get a second opinion from a hand specialist following the MRI he took Monday.
Before sustaining the injury in Orlando, Capela was having a career season with the Rockets on the offensive end, significantly up-ticking his previous year averages to an impressive 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in over 34 minutes per game.
At the bottom of the barrel in defensive rebounding (and 29th in total rebounds per game), Houston already struggles on the glass as it is. However, they are doing a solid job of preventing their opponents from crashing the boards. Taking Capela out of the equation hurts because of his fundamental ability.
According to NBA.com, the Rockets rebound the ball as a team 89.9 percent of the time when Capela boxes out under the basket. He averages six of them per game and the vast majority of those are coming on the defensive end. It’s a simple part of the game, yet such an important aspect for a group that struggles in that area.
With Capela sidelined, Houston loses its rim protector. While it may be true that he’s not having as much success as last year defending in the paint, he is one of only four players in the league seeing at least seven attempts per game within five feet or less. More importantly—anywhere on the floor—the Swiss center is a top five shot contester among all of his peers.
Offensively speaking, Harden might be the most disappointed. He and Capela have developed an incredibly impressive two-man game through the Beard’s ability to finish at the rim.
Using the pick-and-roll to their advantage, the opposing big often chooses to help his man cover Harden, leaving Capela there for the easy high-handoff. It’s a play this duo has literally executed at will, and it’s been made deadly over the last few seasons.
Couple that with the athleticism and precision both have—few teams stand a chance at stopping it. And, back to the battle of the boards, Capela pulls down five offensive rebounds per game and provides second chance opportunities consistently.
If you don’t get the picture, we’ll leave it at this—the Rockets have to do something to keep up in a crowded Western Conference. The postseason hunt cannot solely rest on the shoulders of Harden. He has accomplished unfathomable feats in his career and was the NBA’s 2017-18 Most Valuable Player, but this is another type of challenge.
Houston’s players are dropping like flies. Sure, Chris Paul is on the mend and likely to return soon, and the same could be said of Eric Gordon, but there is little depth in the frontcourt . They’re down to Nene, Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as men in the middle. The rest are versatile forwards with the ability to play multiple positions, but not the one they need desperately at the moment.
We all know what Nene is capable of. That said, he’s not going to play 34 minutes per night at his age. In fact, the veteran has only eclipsed the 20-minute mark four times total in the last two seasons. There’s no doubt that he’ll give Houston a solid boost in spurts, but that’s likely not sustainable throughout the entirety of a game.
This writer is curious to see what Chriss does with the opportunity in front of him. It is fair to say that his athletic ability matches, or even supersedes, Capela’s, so the alley-oops will be there for him. However, these important questions remained unanswered: Can he screen? Can he rebound? Can he take the challenge?
Chriss was a top 10 draft pick not even three years ago. There’s a ton of potential that can be tapped into here. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they’re going to need to see growth and development quickly with little leeway for mistakes. They probably can’t depend on a raw 21-year-old prospect to steadily produce the way Capela has.
Hartenstein offers more size than both of those two and has played in 22 games this season. Still, he has only appeared in one contest since December 3. Hartenstein has taken advantage of his floor time, but the sample size is extremely small. Again, not nearly enough to fill the Capela void.
There are a few names out there that Houston general manager Daryl Morey could pursue.
Purely out of speculation, Bulls center Robin Lopez might be a good fit for a veteran squad and the organization is reportedly refusing to negotiate a buyout, so that may be worth paying attention to.
Hawks big man Dewayne Dedmon has quietly put together two impressive seasons in Atlanta. He’s a consistent player who fights for rebounds and gives a solid effort on the defensive end. And an extra attractive quality for D’Antoni—his expanded shooting range. John Collins has stated his own case for extra playing time with stellar play, so Dedmon probably won’t fit into the plans too much longer.
Tristan Thompson is giving his all with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He just returned from a foot injury and is getting back to the pre-injury version of himself. The 27-year-old is matching his career-high in points per game and is grabbing a career-best 11.2 rebounds per game to boot.
Like Capela, he is a monster on the offensive glass and excels at the fundamentals of the game with pick-and-roll situations and box outs. The only drawback to Thompson is his hefty, fully guaranteed salary, but he’s only on that deal for this year and the next.
With Cleveland looking to take on “bad” contracts with future assets attached, the Rockets should most definitely consider moving Brandon Knight or some other package along with a pick or two.
This is just a matter of spitballing a few names that might fit the bill for Houston. Heck, even if it’s a minor depth move, going out and getting an underutilized player like Skal Labissiere in Sacramento would make a difference to ensure the others aren’t winding themselves down with a huge increase in playing time.
Whatever the Rockets decide to do, the road to the playoffs has become a whole lot bumpier. Harden is going to have his work cut out for him LeBron James style a la 2017-18. We’re all anxious to see how he responds to such a challenge.
The past is the past—and CP3 was incredible for Houston last postseason—but it sure would be nice to have Montrezl Harrell around now, wouldn’t it?