All that’s left is the class-action lawsuit. What’s happening in the NBA is nothing short of consumer fraud, the sports equivalent of a steakhouse eliminating all Wagyu beef, replacing it with ground chuck contaminated by E. coli and still charging Wagyu prices. The Philadelphia 76ers have so nakedly and disgustingly gutted their roster for tanking purposes, they’d be on Joe Lunardi’s LAST FOUR OUT list for the NCAA tournament.
Yet for an upcoming home game against the nearly-as-woeful Utah Jazz — some night on the town, huh? — the Sixers still are charging full, pre-tank prices. Never mind that they haven’t won since late January while their coach, Brett Brown, wonders publicly if they’ll win again this season. A center-court ticket 10 rows back remains $170. Row 17 will cost you $145. Twenty-three rows behind the basket, a lousy vantage point, is $60. “TOGETHER WE BUILD,” the franchise slogan urges.
UNITED WE GOUGE, I would add.
If front offices choose to tank — that is, consciously weakening rosters so they lose enough games to improve their positioning for an optimum draft pick — the shameful white flag should be accompanied by a dramatic slash in ticket prices. It’s criminal to market a professional sports team within a market, make it apparent that you’re trying not to win and still expect to command the same revenue stream. In the estimation of Stan Van Gundy, the former Orlando Magic coach who now analyzes the NBA for the NBC Sports Radio Network, at least five teams are tanking.
“The obvious example is Philadelphia. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Orlando is tanking,” said Van Gundy, ratting out the team that fired him. “Milwaukee didn’t start the season tanking, but they certainly are now. I don’t think Utah is trying to win. I think New Orleans started out trying to win, but with the injuries they’ve had, they haven’t had an opportunity so they’re not going to rush back guys like Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday. That’s what goes on. Don’t bring (injured) guys back quickly, slow down their recovery process, all of those things that enable you to lose more games.”
Which, of course, impugns the integrity of organized competition. If more teams are tanking than ever — and I would include the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the built-in alibi of an injured Kobe Bryant but also know Bryant could be playing right now if they weren’t trying to tank — it’s due to a long-held perception that the June draft will be one of the deepest in history. As we’ve seen during the ongoing college season, there is no certainty the best players will be game-changers on the next level. The player who most seems NBA-ready in terms of talent and maturity, Duke’s Jabari Parker, loves the college experience enough that he might stay another season. Kansas’ ballyhooed Andrew Wiggins has been up and down and must be considered a raw project. Same goes for his teammate, 7-footer Joel Embiid. Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart lost credibility with a temper issue, including his two-handed shove of a Texas Tech fan.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the 76ers, for instance, from dumping Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline, then buying out the talented veteran they received for Turner, Danny Granger, for $500,000. Having won 15 games before the great purge, the Sixers aren’t in danger of plummeting to the worst regular-season record in NBA history, a distinction owned by the 1972-73 Sixers, who went 9-73. But after 15 straight losses, and with only two NBA-legitimate players in Thaddeus Young and rookie Michael Carter-Williams, they might blow away the league record for consecutive losses owned by the 2010-11, post-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost 26 straight.
Truly, they might not win another game this season. “All the time, I tell them that. This is the truth,” said Brown, plucked off the Gregg Popovich coaching tree. “If we don’t play better transition defense and don’t share the ball, then we have some problems, that is a fact. Because I think there is wins in that locker room if we get back in transition and we just have a chance to guard and we play together.”
Understand that Brown is not the one trying to tank. Ownership and general manager Sam Hinkie are orchestrating it. If circumstances fall right, the Sixers would own two picks in the top 10, but those who live by the tank also can be die by the tank. At present, the New Orleans Pelicans would have to relinquish the No. 1 pick sent to Philadelphia when they acquired Holiday, in a trade last summer that launched the Sixers’ tank job. But with injuries to Holiday and Anderson, the Pelicans have played so poorly that they might finish among the league’s worst teams and own a top-five pick after the lottery, which would allow them to keep the pick because it is top-five protected.
Such maneuvers can be the difference between a team becoming a serious playoff team for years to come or a lengthy sentence inside the league’s mediocre-to-lousy jail. Such maneuvers also are cancerous to the meaning of sport. Tanking is one of the biggest issues on the docket of the new NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, who also knows he must push aggressively for a requirement forcing players stay in college at least two years. That way, with a minimum age of 20 instead of 19, top prospects would be more polished entering the league, and the college game would improve because the one-and-down crowd would have to stay on campus an extra year and actually discover the university book store.
Everyone has solutions for tanking. “Don’t give teams extra ping-pong balls by the more they lose,” Charles Barkley said, per ESPN Radio. “Just give every team in the lottery one ball. That would be the easiest way to handle it.”
Silver knows there’s a problem because economists, always present in negotiations between the league and the NBA players’ association, point it out. They tell him, “You have it all wrong. Your incentives are completely backward. You’ve created an incentive for teams to be bad.”
So? “I’m open to taking a fresh look at it. We’ve experimented to change things. … The chatter about the notion of tanking concerns me from a business standpoint,” he said.
Translated, he knows maximum ticket prices still are being charged for self-sabotaging garbage operations. Thus, any team that is tanking should be required to make a formal announcement to its suffering fan base, then reduce prices to appropriate levels.
Or, just let everyone in for free.