Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy is possibly Shakespeare’s most famous verse; in NBA boardrooms a variation of that verse, “To tank or not to tank” entices NBA columnists to snivel blithely the conventional wisdom that there is nothing more noble than sacrificing short-term success for long-term gain.
The opining in favor of tanking is faux-counterintuitive. NBA GMs are lauded upon making moves that ensure the competitive viability of their team is lower than the “fresh” rating of the Lone Ranger on Rotten Tomatoes. Many say general managers should be applauded for “looking to the future” and that fans should “get behind this effort,” the team will “be better off in the long run.” Really? Let’s take a trip down Tank Lane:
- The Philadelphia 76ers won the right to draft Allen Iverson in the 1996 NBA Draft. Iverson transformed the Sixers, but ultimately, the most memorable moments of his time in Philadelphia is “we’re not talking about a game, we’re talking about practice.” There is considerable debate on the legacy of Iverson in Philadephia.
- The Boston Celtics famously tanked in order to get the first pick in 1997 so that Tim Duncan would be the next great Celtic. The San Antonio Spurs meanwhile endured a snakebit season and rightfully earned the honor of drafting Duncan. The Celtics were stuck with Rick Pitino, Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. Two of the three were shipped out less than 50 games into the 1997-98 season, and it was not the guy slathered in hair gel.
- The Cleveland Cavaliers shamelessly tanked in order to draft native son, LeBron James, whose time in Cleveland is spectacular with the only thing missing is an NBA title. However, considering the aftermath of “The Decision,” Cleveland possibly earns a reputation as a good place to start a career but not the place to achieve lasting glory – an idea that is surely planted in Kyrie Irving’s head.
- The Celtics are joined by the Memphis Grizzlies in Tankville 2007 – except the first two picks go to the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle SuperSonics! The Celtics apparently are done with this idea of tanking and decide that they’ll just trade for All-Star players culminating with the draft day deals of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
Four examples of the most prominent tank jobs in recent memory and the only one that could be considered moderately successful was the Sixers with Iverson. So now the Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats decide to sign Zaza Pachulia, O.J. Mayo, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. The hand-wringing follows: the Bucks should tank and try to get Andrew Wiggins, the Hawks should rebuild instead of signing Millsap,and why are the Bobcats doing anything but stockpiling draft picks?
Let’s examine a statistical reality: The worst record in the NBA has only a 25 percent chance at obtaining the first pick in the draft. For those incapable of arithmetic, that means there’s a 75 percent chance that the team with the worst record will NOT obtain the first pick in the draft. Take the cases of the Celtics and Grizzlies in 2007 – neither team obtained the first two picks! Six years after the 2007 draft, both the Celtics and Grizzlies are better off for not having their shameless success of failure rewarded: the Celtics won the NBA title in 2008, went to the Finals in 2010 and are currently engaged in an earnest effort at rebuilding. The Grizzlies have gone from being an NBA laughingstock to contending for the Western Conference title in the last few years. The idea of losing on purpose or excusing losing creates a culture within a team that is toxic and ambitionless.
The Cavaliers and Magic are the tragic byproducts of the tanking mentality. The Magic have won the lottery three times since its inception – Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber (later traded to the Golden State Warriors for Penny Hardaway) and Dwight Howard. The Cavs won the lottery twice and drafted Irving thanks to the Los Angeles Clippers. Orlando has made two NBA Finals appearances (1995 and 2009), but is largely irrelevant. Orlando is a small NBA market and the team has a tradition of being a “trampoline” – a place for young stars to establish themselves then flee. The NBA’s revenue sharing mechanism, salary floor, cap, minimum and max deals allow all teams to compete for talent. Teams who cloak their desire not to compete in economic terms are disingenuous and looking for reasons to enable the culture of losing that pervades their team. Some examples of hapless NBA teams with an entrenched culture of losing or excusing losing: Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards, Los Angeles Clippers (yes, I know with Chris Paul and Doc Rivers they’re trying to shed that label, but until results are seen they must remain on this list) and the New York Knicks (reason no. 1: Dolan, James). Around the world of sports some other teams include the Chicago Cubs, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, Seattle Mariners and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Let’s return to the players that initiated the spillage of conventional wisdom from most NBA observers: Pachulia, Jefferson, Mayo and Millsap. The Bucks, Bobcats and Hawks spent significant money on these players, but none of them are signed longer than three years, and in the cases of Jefferson, Mayo and Pachulia the third year is a player option. Keep that information handy. There are four clear tiers of teams in the Eastern Conference. The first tier are championship contenders: Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls. The second tier are solid playoff teams: Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. The third tier are fringe playoff teams: Bucks, Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, maybe the Bobcats and Cavaliers. The fourth tier are the no-chance teams: Celtics, Magic, Sixers and Wizards (although depending on circumstances they could launch themselves into the third tier). The second tier teams are hopeful that some sort of implosion (injury, team chemistry, LeBron deciding that he’s sick of doing everything and watching Bosh and Wade ride his coattails) will vault them into the first tier. Currently there’s no formula for the Nets and Knicks to be title contenders. The formula follows for the third tier teams. There’s really no hope for fourth tier teams. The third tier might be the most intriguing.
The Bucks, Hawks, Raptors, Pistons and, for sake of argument, the Bobcats and Cavs are all teams that have legitimate playoff aspirations. In competing for the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds there is an understanding the playoffs are probably one round and out. Take the implosion formula, and all of a sudden the second round becomes a possibility. Because the makeup of the Nets and Knicks is so nebulous there is a chance one of the two teams could falter and that opens up a higher seed for the third-tier teams. Furthermore, for third-tier teams there’s more to gain by attempting a playoff run than dismantling. If their seasons turn out atrocious, all teams have assets to deal if they decide to embark upon rebuilding. These six teams are admittedly at a crossroads, but the probability of things breaking in their favor is too great to abandon competitiveness. The gains from a playoff run are increased revenue, visibility, and other NBA free agents deciding that maybe Milwaukee or Cleveland isn’t NBA purgatory, but rather an up-and-coming chance. Fortunately for the Bucks, Hawks and Bobcats, after 2-3 years they will have a better idea of whether the future is competing for titles or watching the new-look Celtics destroy the league en route to banner 18 (your humble writer’s hope).
Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom zealots seem to believe that if a team is not a tier 1 or 2 then blow it up. That means 10 teams would be competing for futility with seven of those teams being lottery teams jockeying with the seven worst teams in the Western Conference for the privilege of drafting Andrew Wiggins. Factor in the 75% chance of not obtaining the first pick begs the question why dismantle if you don’t have to.
Now is the time to look at the Bucks, Bobcats and Hawks on a case-by-case basis to determine if the decisions to entertain third tier competitiveness are proper.
“In fact, it’s pronounced ‘mill-e-wah-que’ which is Algonquin for ‘The Good Land.’” – Alice Cooper
The Bucks are the NBA’s current whipping boy for not tearing apart the team and rebuilding. The Bucks presented an offer sheet to Jeff Teague (the Hawks have since matched ensuring Teague spends the next four years in Atlanta) – presumably to coax Brandon Jennings into accepting their qualifying offer – and they’re currently in the process of finalizing deals with Zaza Pachulia, O.J. Mayo and Carlos Delfino. Various NBA experts have pilloried the Bucks for these signings and the drafting of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The raw, young Greek prospect supposedly wants to play in the NBA immediately, but by all accounts is not ready for NBA action. The Bucks are clearly retooling, attempting to entrench themselves firmly into the second tier of the Eastern Conference. The purveyors of conventional wisdom castigate, scorn and ridicule the Bucks’ retooling. The team has no hope of winning an NBA title, their division or making a run into the playoffs beyond the first round, ergo they should flush the whole team and attempt to go 0 – 82 in order to ensure a 25% chance at having Andrew Wiggins start at guard and be surrounded by 14 other scrubs in 2014-15. They will tell you this is the best chance the Bucks have at winning.
This type of ideology is dead wrong.
If the Bucks decided to tank, ultimately they would have a shot at some success in Wiggins’ third year, 2016-17, earning a low seed and by Wiggins’ fifth year, 2018-19, the Bucks would be in a position to win a title. The conventional wisdom crowd would say the above set of circumstances is an achievement and would propel the Bucks to relevancy instead of the Bucks remaining a third-tier team for another two years. The Bucks have some items in their corner. First, the signing of Pachulia leaves them with five big men (Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh and John Henson being the others) – the NBA puts a premium on size and even with the Heat winning consecutive titles, the only plausible presumption to stop Miami is to arm your team with large men to clog the interior and force LeBron and his minions to operate solely on the perimeter. The signing of O.J. Mayo provides the mercurial young guard a chance to be the leading scorer; there have been flashes of talent, but it is indisputable that Mayo yearns to dominate the ball and dictate the offense. Jennings will round out the starting five and provide a complement to Mayo’s offense. If all goes extremely well, the Bucks could challenge for the five-seed (maybe even the fourth), but there’s no way they beat Chicago and Indiana to win the division. Is it possible that this Bucks team could consistently beat the Knicks and Nets? Absolutely. The big solution for the Bucks is to fix the coach and arena situations as these resolutions would provide an anchor for the franchise to build from.
The Bucks last had a good coach when George Karl roamed the sidelines at the Bradley Center. Larry Drew provided underwhelming results during his three years in Atlanta, the farthest advancement by Drew’s Hawks was the conference semifinals in 2011 where the Hawks enacted Operation Shutdown against the Bulls. Suffice it to say that Drew is not the right coach to extract the best out of Mayo and Jennings. The Bradley Center is the same age as the Palace at Auburn Hills (Pistons) and the soon-to-be-demonlished Sleep Train Arena (Kings). The only two arenas older are Madison Square Garden (being renovated) and Oracle Arena (set to be demolished when the Warriors move into their new San Francisco digs). There is no history at the Bradley Center, rather it is an arena that lacks the charm of Indiana’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse or the amenities of Dallas’ American Airlines Center. The Bucks have great fans, the latest evidence of the charm of Bucks’ fandom was the “Fear the Deer” campaign and the antics of Squad 6. The Bucks have a few pieces ready, and the idea that for two years the team can remain competitive is plausible and proper. The Bucks as presently constructed will not win an NBA title, but could advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs. The Mayo and Pachulia contracts come off the books in two years, three if the players pick up their options. In the meantime, the Bucks can rebuild, acquire assets, patiently develop Antetokounmpo while waiting for the right moment to make their move – similar to the plan of the Houston Rockets. No one is arguing about whether Daryl Morey was wrong about resisting the urge to tear down the post-Yao and T-Mac Rockets.
“I’ve always liked Atlanta. And not just for the strip clubs, but the shopping and the food.” – Jon Stewart
Mike Budenholzer has the chance at being the next Tom Thibodeau. Budenholzer spent his career in San Antonio learning at the feet of the master, Gregg Popovich. Pop’s lessons will surely come in handy, especially since Atlanta is lucky enough to have secured the talents of Al Horford. Horford is a two-time NBA All-Star and in 2011 was named to the All-NBA third team. Horford has built a career of being a great contributor, last season’s double-double average proved the talented Dominican as the key part of the Hawks’ revival. The Hawks started the offseason courting Dwight Howard, but few people expected Howard to sign in his hometown and the Hawks quickly struck by bringing Paul Millsap into the fold. Millsap’s game is similar to Horford’s, the two are excellent teammates and it appears that the Hawks expect a complementary relationship.
That’s why the talk during the draft about how the Hawks should rebuild is clueless. Why waste a talent like Horford with the blind hope of obtaining a sexy lottery pick? Millsap’s two-year deal is a stroke of genius. In two years, the Heat will be over the hill, LeBron could even be out of Miami as soon as next summer. The Bulls and Pacers may have a one-to-two year window in which they could beat Miami and claim the NBA title. The 2015-2016 season could very well be the year the Hawks perch themselves atop the standings in the Southeast Division and battle with the rebuilt Celtics (your humble columnist holds out great hope apparently) for Eastern Conference supremacy. The 2014-15 offseason is when Millsap will be a free agent, and the Hawks seem content to hold onto cap space and allow Dennis Schroeder a chance to develop. The Hawks know that if the upcoming season turns out to be a disaster then playoff teams will burn up Danny Ferry’s cellphone minutes intending to acquire Millsap. The favorable nature of Millsap’s contract allows the Hawks to be perpetual players over the next two years in the draft and in the hunt for the playoffs. Letting Josh Smith take his talents to the Motor City was yet another stroke of genius. Getting an enigmatic player out of town allows the players who have proven to be solid contributors to expand their operating space and enter into the fullness of their talents. Horford had been blocked by Joe Johnson and Smith. Millsap will do a great job augmenting Horford’s production. The fascinating aspect of the Hawks development is their new coach.
The arena in Atlanta is new as is the coach. The Hawks eschewed the trend of hiring a coaching retread and hopefully will allow Budenholzer to grow into the role of head coach. There is no better place than San Antonio to learn how to run an organization and no better coach than Pop. Budenholzer worked his way through the Spurs’ ranks and emerged for years as Pop’s top assistant. The experience of dealing with a great player such as Tim Duncan and watching how the Spurs adapted their style each year to the demands of the NBA is one of the great stories of endurance. The Spurs have been the NBA’s highest achieving team over the last 14 years. Laker fans will grouse and claim the five titles in that same time span eclipse the Spurs’ achievements, but the Spurs have been innovative and mastered winning in a small market. Atlanta is a larger market than San Antonio, but lacks the same intensity of the fans. If Budenholzer has learned the lessons of building a team from Pop then expect the Hawks to be a serious player over the next few years – Millsap’s contract is clear evidence that the Hawks are not throwing money around just to make a splash but are systematically committed to emulating the NBA’s best example on how to build a dynasty.
“A hornet’s nest of rebellion.” – Gen. Charles Cornwallis
The Bobcats head into their final season with the promise of changing names to their self-serving moniker of their original owner in 2014-15 along with a history of abject failure. Fortunately, Michael Jordan can’t make things worse! Jordan the owner is the polar opposite of Jordan the player; he destroyed Kwame Brown, his desire to be the focal point of attention combined with his belief that he could will a team of has-beens and never-wases to a title bordered on irrational self-belief. Irrational self-belief is what made Jordan the player so successful, and it appears that as the Bobcats owner he’s starting to understand that it’s impossible to will a team to a championship. The first smart move by Jordan was applying to change the team’s name back to the Hornets once the New Orleans edition adopted the Pelicans. The Bobcats have one season of playoff entry. The Bobcats are attempting to build a future in stages, they’ve yet to find a coach that is a galvanizing presence on the bench or a coach that’s an expert in developing young talent. Starting with the draft they have made some intriguing moves that indicate Jordan’s interest in having the franchise be competitive as soon as Charlotte regains the Hornets.
Drafting Cody Zeller is a start. Zeller’s size and athleticism in tandem with his high basketball IQ should enhance the offensive firepower of the Bobcats. The signing of Al Jefferson gives the Bobcats three years of great offense and lousy defense. The Utah Jazz boasted the largest variation in defensive efficiency depending on whether Jefferson was on the floor. Jefferson can score, Zeller can score, but analysts debate his defensive prowess – suffice it to say he’s probably an improvement over Jefferson. The conventional wisdom would have the Bobcats continue to be, well, the Bobcats. Jordan drafted well in June, signed Jefferson to a three-year contract and has many young pieces in place. Jefferson’s acquisition can place the Bobcats in contention for that eighth seed – no small accomplishment for a team that set a record for having the worst regular season record in the NBA only two years ago. The Bobcats need to gain positive momentum for the eventual name change.
Pundits will argue that drafting a talent such as Andrew Wiggins will erase the bad memories of the Bobcats while forcefully bringing back the Hornets. Again, if the team is tanking then there is no fan interest. Charlotte has been down this road before. During the lean years of the Hornets and right before the move to New Orleans, the crowds in Charlotte were so sparse that casual conversation between fans was audible to players on the floor. Yet there remain good feelings in Charlotte about the Hornet nickname. The Hornets are associated with Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Muggsy Bogues. The Hornets’ Starter jacket from the early 1990s still gets play in far-flung corners of the internet. There is greater positive brand identity for the Hornets than the Bobcats – and the Hornets left town insidiously! The Bobcats ideal season would be to excite the crowds and build that positive momentum. A successful season means the team is the Hornets-in-waiting, not the Bobcats. The Bobcats are losers, not lovable losers, but losers. Jefferson and Zeller give the team gravitas. Here’s another reason that Jefferson and Zeller are needed: As of right now, the greatest player in the history of the Bobcat franchise is Gerald Wallace. The same Gerald Wallace that the Celtics are likely looking to move for assets when they can. There isn’t a team in the NBA that needs to do the opposite of tanking more than Charlotte – for brand identity, for the future, and because it’s just sad to watch something Jordan is involved with look so pathetic.
To sacrifice the present in pursuit of a draft lottery where the chance of missing out on Andrew Wiggins is 75% under the best of circumstances is ludicrous. The Bucks, Hawks and Bobcats all stand to gain more in the next few years by aggressively pursuing the third-tier status. The signings of Pachulia, Mayo and Jefferson extend into the next three years, and Millsap into the next two. If these teams find themselves in awful situations close to the trade deadline, these contracts are not awful for a contender to take, or for a lottery team desperate to accelerate its rebuilding process. There is never any guarantee of success regardless of which plan is pursued. What is true is that there is no greater way to alienate fans than to force a poison pill down their throat only to never gain access to the medicine alleviating said poison.