Tank. That four-letter word has become a major annoyance to Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association. We’re seeing teams, from ownership down, caring more about resting star players and drafting future ones than in winning games now.
Fans are furious. Most notably those who bought season tickets to the Philadelphia 76ers thinking they were building around Michael Carter Williams, last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year. So midway through the season the Sixers traded Williams for another draft pick, like they don’t already have more than they can count.
“I think what happened in the case of Philadelphia,” Silver said recently, “this notion, ‘be bad to be good’ . . . when it gets reduced to a tweet. . . a headline, I understand the reaction.”
But he hasn’t done anything about it, even though the Sixers have been tanking since 2013, when they traded their All-Star 23-year-old point guard, Jrue Holiday.
It’s not just the Sixers who have a credibility problem. The Denver Nuggets, who also are out of the playoff picture, appear to be going for maximum ping-pong balls by resting some of their starters, although neither the players nor the coach, Melvin Hunt, are in favor of the move.
Even the best of teams, West-leading Golden State and defending champion San Antonio, are in the tank much of the time, with their star players skipping road games.
It’s not that coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich are intentionally losing games. But at this point in the season, with a playoff berth certain, their main interest is having players fresh and healthy for the only season that really counts, the postseason.
Basketball has the problem of all sports and indeed all businesses: trying to make as much profit as possible without cheapening the product and thereby alienating customers. There are hard choices. NBA teams can sacrifice the future for the present or vice versa.
With the overlong preseason (thinking ever more globally) and elongated postseason (where the TV megabucks are made), the regular season is squeezed, with teams playing ever more demanding schedules, sometimes four games in five nights.
Having covered the NBA and major-league baseball in Atlanta and Houston, I felt the NBA is far more grueling than baseball. Yet no one questions an All-Star baseball player getting a night off – home or road.
But far more than the NFL or MLB, the NBA is a league of stars. Fans buy tickets to see Steph Curry or Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. What they’re seeing now comes close to being bait-and-switch.
The NBA culture is changing. Players used to want all the minutes they could get, leading to more points and acclaim. But now, many veterans seek rest, so they have mileage left for the playoffs. When Cleveland coach Dave Blatt said it was imperative that his team not slip from its second seeding in the Eastern Conference, LeBron James differed, arguing that team health and chemistry are more important than seeding. “We got to be healthy during the playoffs,” he said.
Blatt said the league needs to adopt “a schedule that allows guys a little bit of recovery time and gives us less need to forcibly rest guys.”
There’s much resistance in the league office to stretching out the season so the Finals get played in July. There’s even more resistance to reducing the 82-game schedule and giving up four or five nights of revenues so players can have more time for recuperation.
That issue is only part of the larger problem: The NBA has a long tradition of tanking. Even teams that want to win tend to let up on defense when they’re on the road. I’ve long felt the NBA is basically a carnival in which the regular season counts little. After games, you rarely see players being very upset about losing. It only gets serious in the playoffs. Until then, tanking in all its forms is acceptable to many.
The Gen. Patton of NBA tank commanders was the late Ray Patterson. In 1983 the president of the Houston Rockets sought the worst record in the West to obtain a coin toss for draft rights to 7-4 Ralph Sampson.
The Rockets won the toss for Sampson, who Patterson said would be “the player of the century.” Although knee injuries would prevent Sampson from achieving his potential, he was Rookie of the Year for a playoff-caliber team. But Patterson still saw a tanking opportunity as he met during the All-Star break with owner Charlie Thomas and coach Bill Fitch.
They plotted a way to lose enough games to set up another coin flip, which could bring Hakeem Olajuwon (then spelled Akeem), already a local favorite as a Houston Cougar. To reach their goal, the Rockets dedicated the second half of the season to building stats for soon to retire Elvin Hayes, 36. “Elvin has to get his minutes,” they would say. In one overtime game, the gasping Hayes played 50 minutes.
In the end, Hayes got his 50,000 career minutes – exactly — and Patterson, father of University of Texas AD Steve Patterson, won another coin toss. Olajuwon joined Sampson for a Twin Towers alignment that brought a Western Conference championship in 1986. With Olajuwon, though without Sampson, the Rockets would win two NBA championships.
Two weeks after the Olajuwon draft, the NBA lowered the tanking incentive by introducing its ping-pong ball lottery system. The thinking was that nobody would be tanking because having the worst record gave you much less than a 50% chance of drawing the top pick.
But the tanking continued, because, as Kerr pointed out, “There’s a big difference between drafting 7th and 14th.”
Basketball is not like football or baseball where a third-round pick might be as good as a No. 1. The NBA draft doesn’t even HAVE a third round. The worst place for a team to be is the so-called “no-man’s land” in the middle between bad and good, where you have little chance of either playoff success or a high draft pick. Phoenix, for example.
In 1997 the Spurs held out their best player, David Robinson, long after he was apparently recovered from injury. Thus they fell deep into the lottery and emerged with the No. 1 pick, Duncan, setting up the franchise for four championships.
In most years the lottery is not especially promising, but this one is an exception. As LA Lakers great Magic Johnson observed: “Last year’s draft there were no superstars. This year there are three or four of them, and we need to get one of them.”
So the NBA finds itself plagued by its losing teams diving for draft picks while its top clubs are acting like a health spa. There are even times when a playoff team tanks in order to achieve what its coach may regard as a more favorable matchup of personnel.
This is not the way to generate fan enthusiasm. There are so many benefits to losing that you wonder if any teams right now are trying very hard to win every game they can.