Tanks, But No Tanks

Dec 15, 2014; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor (15) shoots a free throw in their game against the Elon Phoenix at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 15, 2014; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor (15) shoots a free throw in their game against the Elon Phoenix at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports /

Surely there are some Hoosiers who got to work yesterday, logged onto ESPN, and checked the Indiana Pacers box score with a strange sense of relief. A two-point loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles had to be gut-wrenching for a team that was still-feisty despite an awful 1-9 stretch.

But for many of the fans, there is only one stat that matters: The number in that loss column.

This has become conventional wisdom in the NBA. If you are going to lose, then lose. It is better to bottom out and rebuild through the draft lottery than to get stuck on the “mediocrity treadmill” of seventh- and eighth-seeds with little chance for substantial growth. Even Magic Johnson, a ruthless competitor in his playing days, subscribes to this theory. Rooting for your own team to lose might make grandpa shake his head at the Christmas get-together, but if your team does not have a shot at the title, it is the difficult-but-pragmatic approach to long-term success.

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Except that it’s not.

This belief is rooted not in practicality, but an investment in American sports’ most important commodity: hope.

Take the NFL, for example. One of the primary reasons why the NFL is so popular, despite the horrific realities the sport thrusts upon its fans in ever-increasing volume, is parity. With the strict salary cap and the physically brutal nature of the game, any team has a chance to turn into a contender, no matter the market or even what happened the year before. This parity simply does not exist in the NBA.

The last 25 NBA championships have been distributed among just eight franchises. Some dynasties were built primarily around the greatness of a destiny-altering lottery pick (see: Jordan, Michael). But most, especially the more recent ones, have been the result of spending on the right players at the right times. Whether your team rebuilds or reloads, whether your team is in a major market or a small market, whether your franchise cornerstone is a top-five pick or an unheralded dice-roll who panned out beyond belief, perhaps the most critical piece to the sort of long-term success needed to build just one championship team is a strong front office.

This is a difficult concept to accept. It devalues the romantic elements of the game that we love. It complicates the role of the sport as an escape from reality and its myriad injustices. Most importantly, it exposes the silver-lined, karmic notions that get us through the darker times of fanhood.

Let’s assume that having the worst record at the end of the year guarantees the top draft pick (which it obviously doesn’t). Let’s even assume that the player drafted first overall is guaranteed to live up to his potential as a future Hall-of-Famer (which is often not the case). The best-case scenario would have to be LeBron James to Cleveland, right? And while James took the Cavs to places they could not have even imagined without him, the front office could never quite put the right pieces around him to bring home a championship. LeBron had to go to Pat Riley, an enormously successful coach and executive, to earn his long-awaited hardware.

Another example that is often included in the argument for tanking is San Antonio, who stumbled into Tim Duncan in 1997 and kick-started an almost unprecedented run of success. It is true that, without that draft pick, the Spurs are unlikely to be where they are today.

But equally important to drafting Duncan was keeping Duncan. During the summer of 2000, the Magic nearly assembled a “Big Three” of Duncan, Grant Hill, and Tracy McGrady. While Hill and McGrady joined team Mickey, Gregg Popovich and David Robinson were able to convince Duncan to stay. This is one of the great “what ifs” of the NBA, and an excellent example of the importance of executive acumen – not only draft picks, but how you handle and build around and communicate with said draft picks. It’s comforting to view the Spurs’ success through the luck of landing Duncan, because any franchise can get lucky. The reality, of course, is that this luck had to be paired with great business, great drafting, and great coaching to get the results the Spurs have produced over the past couple of decades.

And just as how the Spurs did not find success because they tried to lose in ’96-97, teams stuck in mediocrity are not there because they are trying to win. They are stuck because they are trying to win with the wrong players. There is nothing wrong with winning 40 games and sneaking into the playoffs – unless that 40-win team is riddled with bad contracts. Again, this is not an issue of the team’s performance, but the front office’s performance. And the competency of a front office does not change through the lottery.

While the argument against tanking seems to come from the Joe Morgan School for Analytics-Hating and Nerd Bashing, the numbers seem to support my case. Of the 51 teams that have finished with 20 wins or fewer since the ABA merger, only one claimed a title within the next five years.

The Pacers are not going to win a championship this year. They are going to compete. The East is bad enough that the Pacers could scrap its way to a playoff spot despite being not really good at shooting or passing. Many fans will call this stupid and stubborn and short-sighted. And they will be wrong. Not just because of the ethical issues of purposefully sabotaging a product that people pay for, but because it does not have the direct, positive long-term effect many assume. Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard have had successes and failures, like any front office team. But they have demonstrated vision, quality decision-making, and just the right amount of patience. That will be more important to the Pacers’ long-term success than the next year’s draft pick, whether it is the fifth or the twelfth.

One of the romanticized cliches about sports that I actually buy into is the idea that sport reflects culture. Many an Englishman, when asked to describe the difference between us and them, has identified a sense of hope and optimism that just isn’t there on the other side of the Atlantic. This seems to permeate our sports fanaticism in interesting ways. If you’re born a Sunderland fan in England, that’s just sort of your lot in life. You will support that team with passion, but you are cynical and guarded enough to know that your team is not and will not ever be Man U. That’s not good enough for us. We need to feel like we are supporting a winner. And if not a winner, a team that, through smarts and pluck and work ethic, can become a winner. And while we watch in rapt awe the spectacle on the field and on the court, believing deeply in the meritocracy of competition, true fates are being decided by millionaires in suits, during business meetings phone calls and mountains of mundane paperwork.

What could be more American than that?