Friday, 1 November 2013

Food for Thought on the NBA's 'Tanking' Debate

Embarking on a season where a handful of teams look hopelessly destined (and content to be so) for the lottery, with zero postseason aspirations, there has been some noteworthy, timely discussion on the subject of 'tanking', being satisfied with losing games, and the now-commonplace method of building through the draft. ESPN's Chad Ford (via ESPN Insider) recently assessed the extent to which he believes teams qualify for the tanking label, throwing the Phoenix Suns and the Philadelphia 76ers atop his "rankings". Ford asserted that the NBA is littered with franchises who "want to lose a lot", based on the knowledge that "NBA GMs are calling the next draft the best in a decade". The chief lottery prizes are anticipated to be Canadian Andrew Wiggins and fellow freshman Kentucky's Julius Randle. League executives may value the talent of this upcoming draft at historic, near unprecedented levels, but with the team who holds the honour of the NBA's worst regular season record only assured of a 25% chance of the #1 overall pick, and so much more (player development, team culture, health, roster balance, coaching etc.) at stake in the game of drafting franchise-altering talent, is the tanking strategy truly worthwhile?

Forward-thinking, forthright Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban expressed his opinion on the matter of team-building, and just how the Mavs have approached the issue under his guidance. Cuban addressed the idea of allowing your team to "lose a lot of games so you have a chance to pick the next Kevin Durant, John Wall or Kyrie Irving or Blake Griffin et al", while reminding his audience that the formula cannot be that simple - there remains the inherent need for the players to develop, and for them to be appropriately surrounded by a supporting cast capable of contending for a championship. Interestingly, the Mavericks' owner also raised the prospect of many teams following a model, or a set strategy, and that, on the flip side, "it creates opportunities for those who have followed a different path". Cuban's views are, as usual, candid and worth considering, and raise further questions about the finality, certainty, or lack thereof, within the NBA's contemporary managerial manifesto.

A recent example of executive decision-making that remains relevant to this discussion is the Orlando Magic's decision to trade Dwight Howard prior to his contract expiring, and the talent level that the franchise received in return. Orlando flatly rejected the chance at receiving either of former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bynum, raising suspicions that Magic GM Rob Hennigan intentionally received an underwhelming (short-term) offer with the hope of improving the team's draft position. In the wake of the transaction, the Magic were widely projected to be the 'losers' of the trade, headed for a certain regression in the win column. A collection of All-Stars switched jerseys and Orlando held the desired commodity and centrepiece of the discussions, yet the organisation's returns consisted primarily of inexperienced young players, rookie, and future assets. All three major pieces of the deal (not arriving in Orlando) - Dwight HowardAndrew Bynum, and Andre Iguodala - have since departed their trade destinations, significantly altering any forecasts associated to the original agreement. Orlando finished 2012-13 with a league-worst record of 20-62, subsequently earning the 2nd overall selection in the draft and taking Indiana guard Victor Oladipo with the pick.

Dave Berri of analysed the historical outcomes of repeated losing seasons and high draft placements, setting the bar for basketball ineptitude at 25 wins or fewer. Berri reviewed the win totals of those teams in the years after their subpar seasons, revealing that "nearly 90 percent of teams that win 25 games or fewer are not contenders five years later". The piece discusses the trend of teams attempting to avoid the "mediocrity treadmill", while debunking myths that the NBA's draft lottery is starting place on the championship map, and concluding that "losing is not a winning strategy in the NBA". Berri's discussion also raised the prospect of teams lodged in the window of 34 to 49 wins in any given season (labelled "mediocre" for the purposes of his piece) are better placed than those who are wholeheartedly embracing the race to the bottom.

Another, different perspective on the subject emerged courtesy of Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, who also refuted the idea of tanking, and insisted that his franchise would not be taking that route. Jordan clarified his thoughts on the tanking model, declaring, "If that was my intention I never would have paid Al Jefferson $13 million a year." The Bobcats, lost in the abyss of NBA irrelevance and holders of a 62-168 win-loss ratio in Jordan's three seasons as owner, are desperate to shed the label of being perennially incompetent, and would seemingly welcome a season in the range of 34 to 49 wins, to use Berri's scale.

With so much speculation and anticipation hovering over the 2014 NBA Draft and the potential prospects, this season is bound to prove an exhibition in team management, and team building strategy.

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