Friday, March 30, 2007

In the Tank

All sports are based around one fairly simple premise: it’s better to win than to lose. Both sides in competition are trying to do the same thing (win), which leads to the competition that makes sport. At least, in theory. But a funny thing happens at the end of a season. Suddenly, teams have an interest in losing as many games as possible. Yep—draft position. The NBA is in something of a crisis right now, as Boston, Memphis, Milwaukee, and a few others are engaged in a full-on race to the bottom. This situation leads to a few questions. First: is this even a problem? And second: if it is, what can be done about it?

This NBA season is particularly unique. After a putrid draft class last year, we’re looking forward now to the deepest draft in decades. The thirtieth pick this year could end up being more valuable than the tenth pick last year. And, of course, the two crown jewels are perched atop the lottery at numbers 1 and 1A: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. When you throw in a current NBA climate in which there are about four legitimately good teams, you create a climate in which losses become a badge of honor, the only surefire way to improve for the future.

Is this bad? Unfortunately, yes. Every idea, every rule, every consequence of a sport assumes the same given—that it’s better to win than to lose. If you tackle a guy at mid-court, the resulting foul/ejection/suspension is designed to make it harder to win in the future. When the Wolves try to pay their players under the table, the punishment hits them in the wins column. But if a team doesn’t want to win, what do we have left? Nothing.

If these leagues existed in their own little bubbles, maybe this wouldn’t matter. But the NBA exists as product to be consumed, first a foremost. And really, the best product is winning basketball. So in theory, tanking should be bad strategy, along with being bad for the “integrity” of the sport.

But basketball-as-business and basketball-as-sport often do not mesh, and this is one of those cases. If you’re one of those teams at the bottom of the league, struggling to win games as it is, why not take a run at the bottom? Especially this year, with two rock-solid locks and a plethora of other useful NBA players, the potential rewards are huge. Teams have every incentive to write off the rest of the regular season and look to the future. Especially in basketball, where one player can make an extreme difference, landing one of those top two spots could vault a team upwards into playoff contention (especially in the pathetic East).

But can we, the outsiders, sacrifice an entire regular season? Only the heartiest of basketball fans can stomach forty games of benchwarmers without changing the channel. It would be in the best interest of the NBA if they could motivate even the worst squads to play hard to the bitter end, letting the chips fall where they may. That’s the theory behind the lottery in the first place, but it clearly does not go far enough. But what else can be done? People mention throwing out the current lottery and giving every non-playoff team an equal shot at the top spot. Surely this would eliminate the possibility of tanking, but it also goes to far in eliminating the crucial concept of getting the best picks in the hands of the worst teams. Bad teams can be crippled by their own incompetence, but the system itself shouldn’t place teams in a continual losing cycle.

I don’t have a good answer to this problem. In all likelihood, what we have here is a situation in which the interests of individual teams and those of the league as a whole are two separate and any solution would be worse than the current system. But there’s something about seeing Ersan Ilyasova playing crunch-time minutes that just doesn’t seem right, you know?

John Sharkey always plays out the slate at

1 comment:

WV said...

I totally agree that the tanking thing needs to stop, like last year when the Twolves had Mad Dog hoisting treys in the season finale so we'd guarantee our lottery protected pick. With them, the reason we have to protect it in the first place is because of McHale's incomptent personnel decisions but then as a result, we get to watch a team try to lose.

And as I type this I see Ricky Davis just won it in OT...well, maybe they're not tanking as bad this season. But still.
--Pulling A Blyleven