The T Word

March 21st, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
The always morally-impeccable Stan Van Gundy

The always morally-impeccable Stan Van Gundy

I’ve loved hockey my whole life, even before I knew basketball.  I played competitively for 15 years until I got fat and lazy after high school, and now I just play in an adult league locally.  Just last weekend, my team was eliminated from the playoffs in a 7-4 loss, one that was disappointing because we all felt like we were just as good as our opponent, if not better.  Unfortunately, they kept throwing one trick at us we just couldn’t do anything about: they had two or three ridiculously fast players, and smartly lined them up on the outsides when in their own end.  From there, once they controlled the puck, they’d simply flip it out into the middle of the ice, counting on their speedsters’ ability to beat our defense to the puck and come in on our goalie unimpeded.  It didn’t work every time, but the strategy was effective enough to result in four or five of their goals and a deficit we just couldn’t overcome.

Do I think this strategy is entirely morally kosher?  No, I don’t.  Was it remarkably frustrating for me to watch a team effectively besmirch the game I’ve loved passionately since I was five years old, just to win a rec-league playoff game?  Yes, it was.  But did they do anything against the rules?  No.  Our league has a specifically constructed set of rules, and using the strategy that best conformed to this set of rules, our opponents beat us.

Those who are metaphorically inclined probably already see where I’m going with this – it’s time to re-classify the way we demean and diminish teams in the NBA for “tanking.”

Let me first be very clear about something: I do not think the current NBA lottery system is the best possible format.  I fully support the movement gaining steam in recent months to re-evaluate the lottery and suggest ways of improving or changing it.1  But in our rush to condemn the evils of tanking in the NBA, I think there’s been a fairly ridiculous backlash against a group that doesn’t deserve it at all – the actual teams involved.

My recent frustration on this topic began during last month’s Sloan conference, during which, in the course of the basketball analytics panel, former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy (he of immeasurable moral fiber, of course) said the following:

“Not what Philadelphia is doing right now, which is embarrassing.  I don’t care, [commissioner] Adam Silver can say there’s no tanking or whatever going on – if you’re putting that roster on the floor, you’re doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose.”

The team-oriented criticism has continued since, even at the same Sloan conference – former Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo’s admission that he consciously attempted to tank the Raptors during the 2011-12 season ignited a whole new series of condemnations.  Even prominent media figures have gotten in on the game, with Grantland’s Bill Simmons taking a shot at my beloved Jazz and their offseason salary-dump with Golden State, calling it “some unabashed 2014 self-sabotage” and criticizing the way Dennis Lindsey, and other GM’s, use tanking as a way to incentivize a fan base for the future and guarantee they retain their job the entire time.

Folks, this is getting ridiculous.  These teams aren’t breaking any rules.  They’re not doing anything different from what other major sports teams have done – sure, not every sport has the same format for player drafts, but do a little research on player shutdowns near the end of the season in the NHL and then try and tell me tanking doesn’t happen there.

Again, I don’t deny that the T word, especially within the current NBA, is a large problem.  I’m encouraged by new commish Adam Silver and his willingness to explore alternatives, and am confident that within the next half-decade or even quite a bit sooner we will see a revised system.  As a larger league issue, it certainly demands our attention – and elements like player development2, age of eligibility and other concerns belong in this blanket conversation.

But blasting the Sixers for their “embarrassing” showing this season, while their new GM is in the room?  This is actively helping the situation?  Or positing that the current Philly team wouldn’t make it past this year’s NCAA Sweet Sixteen, like Simmons did in that same piece – please, Bill, tell me what that’s accomplishing.3

I’m sick of this nonsense, and you should be too.  We, as basketball fans, are witnessing one of the greatest generations of talent ever assembled.  The two headline stars of our league, LeBron and Durant, are forging a competitive back-and-forth not seen since the days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.  Anthony Davis, at all of 21 years old, has us questioning the physical limits of a seven-foot-tall body with the things he does every game.  The Heat won 27 straight games last year, challenging a record streak most figured no one would get within 10 games of.

But we’re spending our time on…the 76ers and their “embarrassing” tank job?  Seriously?  I’m done with it.  I’ll participate in the lottery re-modeling conversations, and I’ll happily welcome the new system when it’s in place, but I’ve had enough of hearing about what a disgrace these teams are just for following the rules in the way they best see fit.  If you can’t stand it, don’t watch those teams – there are 20-25 others in the league, depending who you ask.  League Pass isn’t that expensive.

We’ve got a wonderful league here, folks.  Let’s start focusing on that.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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  1. tc says:

    Hate the rules of the game; not those who play by them. Learning how to use the rules to your advantage is part of the game.

    Some Jazz Martyrs may get a short-lived buzz if the Jazz kill their lottery chances by making up some additional rules. Not me! And, I can guarantee that if the Lakers “out tank” the Jazz and use their lottery star to beat the Jazz then no Utah Jazz fan will be happy.

    Everyone thinks the Jazz let Millsap and Big Al walk so they could tank. The worst thing the Jazz organization can do now is be sucky at tanking. A “bad” rap without the reward–nobody can respect that. Personally, I will have serious doubts about the Jazz organization’s desire to win if they are unwilling to do what rules allow and follow the plan they initiated.

  2. JT McKenna says:

    I haven’t seen anything too terribly bad so far this season as far as tanking goes.

    But what Golden State did a couple of years ago. “Shutting down” players for the season when there was no apparent injury to begin with. That’s dishonesty. Saying that you’re starting 5 rookies in an absolute must-lose game because you want to evaluate them? That’s just lying to our faces when they know, that we know, they’re lying.

    I think that the Lakers are probably lying about Kobe’s injury. A 6 week prognosis stretching out to 18 weeks under the circumstances seems awfully convenient. I figured he wouldn’t be back when it happened in December.

    Tanking is fine, as long as:

    1. The players aren’t in on it and are still legitimately trying to win the games.

    2. They’re not telling lies to the fans and the media. This would include exaggeration of injuries to extend missed time.

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