The NBA’s tanking chicken and the tanking egg

Feb 10, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 10, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

This isn’t going to be another moral screed about tanking. I am neither one of those people appalled by it, nor an evangelist for it. As near as I can tell tanking is… wait for it… a way to try to get better. Which can have seemingly terrific results, as in the case of the 76ers, or so far pretty bad ones in say Orlando or Lakers-ville.

Instead this is a column about something much more ouroboric – that is, whether the idea that tanking was the best way to rebuild when you feel like your team can’t compete wasn’t caused by the situation at the time it caught on, but instead may have led to one in which it seems quite likely to be true. Walk with me a ways, why don’t you?

Let’s start with this: the idea that the so-called “mediocrity treadmill” is bad is….bad. I know what you’re thinking. It’s good, actually! But you’re wrong. I’m sorry to have to tell you this in front of so many people. I didn’t ask for an audience when I write columns. It just happened.

The thing is “mediocrity treadmill” is the most pejorative possible way to describe having a lot of medium-valuable assets to make moves with. The years before the Boston Celtics won an NBA Finals in 2008 were avowedly mediocre, for example, fluctuating between 45 wins in 2004-2005 to 24 in 2006-2007. But, between having a veteran star in Paul Pierce that guys wanted to play with, and a zillion assets like Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff and others, the Cs had a stable full enough to trade for both Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

The Detroit Pistons were the same. They were almost the definition of mediocre in 1999-2000, going 42-40, but when Grant Hill said he was leaving they managed a sign-and-trade for Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins. They took a step back for a year but in 2002 they traded Stackhouse, Brian Cardinal, and Ratko Varda for Rip Hamilton among others, signed Chauncey Billups, and drafted Tayshaun Prince. They then went on a run of six Eastern Conference Finals and two NBA Finals, one of which they won. For years and years, people said the Dallas Mavericks should blow it up, that Dirk didn’t have “it,” that they needed to start from the beginning, and between 2007 and 2010 they went from winning 60 games most years to averaging 52. It turned out, however, that all they needed was Tyson Chandler.

In more recent times, the Houston Rockets were supposedly locked into the “mediocrity treadmill” death spiral between 2009 and 2012, winning an average of 39.6 games a year but wouldn’t you know it, the collection of assets that allowed them to finish ninth in the Western Conference three years in a row was the exact same collection that allowed them to trade for soon to be runner-up MVP James Harden.  The Utah Jazz spent four years in this supposed “purgatory,” averaging 36.5 wins between 2012-2016 and finishing ninth, 15th, 12th, and ninth, but they also spent it putting together an extraordinary young core through the late lottery. I don’t know if they can keep it together, but if they can I think they’re not very far from being one of the best teams in the league.

The thing is, and it’s not a very complicated or secret thing, there just are a lot of ways to get better in the NBA and none of them are very good. Tanking is one way, trading is another, signing is another. They all have their risks and their benefits, and the fact that no one can really know for sure how anything will work out makes them, in many ways, equivalent.

Or, rather, they were equivalent for a very long time, and might be so again. But, they’re not now and that’s not a complicated or secret thing either, it’s that any strategy you pursue has to be measured on how likely it is that it will lead to you competing for an NBA title. Obviously, that is a relative measure, that is, your hopes of success through team-building are relative to how good the best teams are and how reasonable it is to think you could get at least almost that good.

Obviously, today, it is almost impossible to imagine any team being as good as the Warriors, Cavaliers, or Spurs because of their super-abundance of talent. This has been talked to death, and it is only worth noting in this context that two years ago, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers, both stunningly talented teams, tied for second in the Western Conference and there was no reason to think they weren’t real threats.  The Clippers blew the original 3-1 lead to the Rockets in a seven-game Western Conference Semifinals and while the Warriors did take them in five games in the WCF, games one and two were four-point and one-point losses respectively and it certainly could have been 3-1 Rox after four. Since then, it has been a totally different era of basketball.

Since team-building strategies do indeed have to be pursued relative to expected outcomes, tanking has never made more sense than it does today. The dominance of a couple teams makes the one where you invest in a more distant future seem like the best way to go, while adding a little talent to talented teams seems futile. If they’d waited one more year, I bet there’s no way that Memphis plops down roughly seventy-five million a year to Mike Conley, Chandler Parsons, and Marc Gasol. For most of the last twenty years, that would be a very impressive core. But it’s probably a waste of ink.

The question is, however, whether tanking might not be just a smart response to the current situation but have been partially responsible for it. After all, the more it seemed to front offices that there was indeed no sense in being mediocre, as we have seen long before that was true, the fewer teams competed for top free agents.

Of course, part of the concentration of talent in just a few places today has to do with the personal proclivities of today’s crop of basketballers, the zeitgeist so to speak — but fewer good teams still means fewer options and fewer teams trying to Pistons or Celtics or Rockets their way to a top team means fewer teams trying to prevent hyper-concentration by being both an appealing destination and putting in the effort to make their case. Whether, in an age in which Paul George only seems to want to play in Los Angeles or with LeBron, and Kevin Durant only with Steph Curry, I can’t say. What I can say is that what is normal, in a given era seems normal to pretty much everybody.

The famous “Process” took a long time. That’s the whole point in trusting it. No one would ever say “trust the minute rice” — by the time you got around to it, you’d be eating delicious rice. As far as anyone can tell, it has come to fruition. Nothing, of course, has been demonstrated yet but it seems clear at least that it was one good way to build a team. I don’t think anyone before has built a core with that much potential, whatever it turns into.

Next: Who was the first NBA Superteam?

The question is whether it now seems like the way to build a team, among a certain section of the basketball watching populace, because it always was or whether it was one way but is now the way because of present realities. And, if the latter, the question is did that happen because circumstances conspired, or whether its own popularity helped create those circumstances. All I’m saying is the second possibility is more likely than it might, at first, appear.