Tanking is nothing new in professional sports. In the NBA, it’s older than Juwan Howard if that’s possible. I was a Chicago Bulls beat writer when they intentionally blew games to get Hakeem Olajuwon and wound up with Michael Jordan instead. More recently, the Cleveland Cavaliers tanked to get LeBron James.
Even Lamar Odom tanked to get Kim Kardashian. Or maybe it was the other way around.
But this season the league has witnessed more tankers than a Stolt fleet. I won’t name names, Milwaukee Bucks, but by count, at least a half-dozen hopeless, desperate teams called it a season months ago. We’ll know who they are for sure before the trade deadline this month, by which time front offices will have decided whether to trade assets for more Ping Pong balls in the draft lottery or, you know, actually try to win games the rest of the season.
“That’s the catch-22 of the tanking philosophy,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said the other day. “When everybody in your conference except for two teams, three teams, is tanking, then you still got to play all those games and someone has to win them. So it makes it a lot more difficult to make a decision (to become a seller).”
What does is say about the league that so many teams don’t give a rat’s behind about the final score at the moment? To take it a step further, what message does it send to the season ticket holders who have paid an average of $51.99 to watch deluxe Developmental League games this season? Sorry, we expect our team to suck this season and can’t do much about it, but relax, we’re gonna find a young stud to bail us out after this nightmare is finally over. Now that will 52 bucks please. Enjoy the game!
Most of us understand the concept even if we don’t wholly endorse it. It takes star power to win big in this league, and mid-market franchises in particular find it difficult if not impossible to attract name talent in the open market. Then again, what accomplished veteran wants to sign with a predominately young team that has no postseason aspirations? That leaves the draft and trade as their only options. So it has become popular for general managers to dump assets, lose a bunch of games, improve draft statuses then hitch futures to kids who may or may not pan out in the future.
The result is a glut of deadbeats such as the last-place Philadelphia 76ers, who are in the midst of an extended tryout camp at the moment. As head coach Brett Brown told me the other day, “We put in so much time, I’m not going to walk away from that. We’re going to continue to teach shooting techniques and look at shot charts and flights of balls and (the position of) hands and feet. We’re going to dedicate time to so we can flush people out and access who we want to keep. This year is about development. That’s what we want to do – we want to uncover people who have a chance.”
Since 2005, the first year of the so-called “One-and-done” era, there has been one exceptional draft. That was the Class of ’08, which had Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert among the first 17 selections. At the same time, every one of them has encountered a serious health problem recently, and it won’t come as a surprise if at least one has a shortened career.
The next draft will be off the charts, we’ve been told. Draftniks assure us that as many as seven impact players will be available, which explains why so many teams have taken the bait. Yet as the college season enters the home stretch, we’ve seen little to suggest that there’s even one potential franchise player among them. It’s almost certain that one or more of the lottery candidates will stay put for a second season, which means the tankers will get less bang for their balls.
Now tell them what they’ve won, Don Pardo . . .
Is he Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker, 18, the consensus No. 1 pick? Physically, the 6-foot-8, 241-pounder may the most NBA-ready among the group. The Chicago native can score, plays smart and works hard. Before you call him The Next LeBron, though, be advised that he’s not a great defender and his shot comes and goes like the weather in his hometown. Word out of Durham, N.C., is that he’ll return to college for one more season.
Or Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins, an 18-year-old freshman? The 6-foot-8, 200-pound beanpole has exceptional length, excels on defense and is hell on wheels in the open court. He’s also passive in the halfcourt offense, where a lot of the NBA game is played these days. Some see another Scottie Pippen, but I envision a more athletic Luol Deng.
Kansas center Joel Embiid, 19, the best big man on the board at the moment? The freshman also is rough around the edges, foul-prone and a liability at the free throw line. You say Hakeem the Dream, but I say you’re just plan dreaming. He might opt out of the next draft as well.
Eighteen-year-old Dante Exum, the Australian combo guard whose stock has been on the rise in recent months? Scouts like his quickness and versatility, but his jump shot needs work. (Do I detect a trend here?) At 6-foot-6, 188 pounds, there also is some doubt about his ability to withstand the rigors of an 82-game season.
Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, 19, who’s said to be a prototype power forward? The 6-foot-9, 225-pound grinder is a rebound-turnover machine, another Paul Milsap to some, the next Derrick Williams to others. He has struggled against conference opponents lately.
Marcus Smart, the Oklahoma State point guard? The 6-foot-4, 225-pound sophomore has the physical tools and leadership ability to take the next step. The 19-year-old isn’t much of a shooter – 42 percent in the field, 73 percent at the free thow line at last check– and he may lack court vision for the position. He already has the reputation as a flopper.
See any can’t-miss franchise-changers here? Thanks, but no tanks.
At least organizations had the decency to wait until after the All-Star break before they called it quits back in the day. In 1984, after an overtime victory had dropped the Bulls into the fifth hole in the draft order, head coach Kevin Loughery and general manager Rod Thorn finally had enough. From that point on, Loughery made even more bizarre personnel moves than usual in fourth quarters. The plan became so obvious that the fans and media began to wonder out loud if the organization wanted to win at all.
“That question is very insultive,” Loughery told us in his best Brooklynese after another forgettable loss one night.
Loughery never did say whether the charge had merit or not, but he didn’t have to, really. The Bulls dropped 14 of their final 15 games and moved up to third in the draft order. The free-fall wasn’t enough to reel in Olajuwon, who was the first one off the board, but in Jordan, they received a lovely parting gift. Charles Barkley was selected two picks later and John Stockton went 11 picks after him. By the time the four future Hall of Famers were drafted, they were 21 years or older and had spent at least three years in college.
So the question remains, is it better to roll the dice in a crapshoot at the expense of the on-court product, or is it wiser to promote a culture for success even if all the pieces aren’t in place yet?
Consider the Phoenix Suns, who were dog breath last season. Rather than bank on a halfcourt prayer, new general manager Ryan McDonough made a bunch of shrewd moves that have them in the playoff chase ahead of schedule. They also have stockpiled draft picks – as many as four first-rounders in the next draft — which will provide plenty of options in the future.
Then there are the Cavaliers, who are are Exhibit A for false hope. They’ve had a pair of No. 1’s and a pair of No. 2’s in the last four drafts, and here’s what they have to show for them: One discontented All-Star in Kyrie Irving, one border-line starter in Tristan Thompson, one sixth man in Dion Waiters, one bust in Michael Bennett and zero playoff appearances. That was enough to get general manager Chris Grant fired this week.
Now the Cavaliers have high hopes for the draft once again, and I’ve got two words for them when they get there.