The NBA's president of basketball operations, Rod Thorn, acknowledges that losing games in the name of better draft picks -- commonly known as "tanking" -- is "definitely a strategy" for front offices.
"I don't look at it as tanking," Thorn told ESPN.com during an interview for TrueHoop TV record on the Friday of All-Star weekend in New Orleans. "I look at it as I don't want to be at this level here. I may have to get worse to be good. It's definitely a strategy and more and more teams are looking at it."
Thorn says "more and more teams are looking at" trading away players as a way to improve. "We're not very good right now," he says, explaining teams' thinking, "but in a couple years we're going to be pretty good if we get lucky in the draft."
The 2014 draft is projected to be one of the best in years with a half-dozen or more prospects -- Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid among them -- with All-Star potential. While the draft lottery randomizes the draft among non-playoff teams, all in all each loss improves a team's likelihood of a high pick. Teams like the Bucks, Magic and 76ers, for instance, have cap space they could use in trades or free agency to improve the roster right now, but none are expected to make moves to maximize wins now.
NBA vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe, like Thorn a former NBA general manager says this approach fits with widespread NBA thinking: "Be up. Be down. But don't be in the middle. That's the thing that I think fans need to realize. Guys are trying to win. General managers want to win. I've been through a season where we didn't win many. Rod also. It happens to everybody. That's miserable. Nobody likes that. You want to win games. But really the one thing I want to point out: It is a strategy."
In the first major press conference of his tenure as commissioner, on Saturday, Silver addressed tanking by saying "my understanding of tanking would be losing games on purpose. And there's absolutely no evidence that any team in the NBA has ever lost a single game, or certainly in any time that I've been in the league, on purpose. And, to me, what you're referring to I think is rebuilding."
But Silver appeared to define tanking as something players or coaches might do -- evidently giving a pass to the general managers Thorn and VanDeWeghe discussed. "If there was any indication whatsoever that players or coaches somehow were not doing their absolute most to win a game, we would be all over that," said Silver. "But I don't believe for a second that's what's going on. I think we have the most competitive players in the world, the most competitive coaches, and I think they're doing everything they can to win games."
Silver did, however, suggest the league is considering changes to address tanking: "The very purpose of the lottery is to prevent there from being an incentive to lose games. And so to the extent that incentives aren't entirely aligned, we'll look at the lottery again. We have adjusted it several times over the years, and we'll adjust it again if necessary. But we'll see. We have a competition committee, that's one of their mandates, to continue looking at that. But I'm not overly concerned right now."
Not to mention, it's fun! The NBA's young players include an embarrassment of promise -- not just "plenty years left" stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but also James Harden, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and so many others. This year and every year for the foreseeable future, the playoffs will feature one amazing showdown after another. Hats off to all involved.
So, it's time to rush out and buy a ticket to a game, right?
"Listen, I do feel badly for fans," said Jeff Van Gundy, on the phone to The Herd from San Antonio on Wednesday. "I feel awful that we make them watch back-to-back games that often turn out to be, you know, low-energy affairs. I think the league has to eliminate back-to-back games, or at least reduce the number."
So sometimes you'll see a team that's mailing it in.
But what about if you go and see a primo team, a team thick with stars, like the Heat? You'd be safe then, right?
That's a little tricky, too. "Their performance over the last couple of weeks has been totally substandard, when it comes to championship focus and effort," Van Gundy said of the defending champions. He pointed out that this is hardly the first time the Heat have mailed it in. "Now last year they also were in a point of struggle, until they ripped off that 27-game winning streak."
In other words, there are times the Heat are the best team in the land, but it's in fits and starts, not every game. They save their best efforts for certain moments, and the regular season is iffy.
That's also true of many good teams, including last year's other finalists, the Spurs. They frequently sit their best players for part or all of regular-season games, in the name of rest -- something that's emerging as a trend among cutting-edge teams.
And, evidently, with good reason! Yet again this season, stars who play long minutes, going hard all regular season, seem to be getting hurt at a bummer of a rate. Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are all out for extended periods. Dwyane Wade is in and out of the lineup. Eric Bledsoe, Kemba Walker, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday are needle-moving players who are on the shelf.
It has been a decade since a team won a title with its top players playing heavy minutes, and that's a reality that contending teams wrestle with all regular season. As much as Erik Spoelstra may want to delight fans by playing Wade every night, doing so evidently hurts his team's chances in the postseason. What would you do if you were in his shoes?
And of course, we haven't even yet mentioned the biggest problem with the regular season: A lot of the teams don't even want to be there. Every season many teams have front offices who hope the entire 82 games go by in a flash, having created intentionally putrid rosters designed to lose now, with an eye on draft picks. This season, for a lot of teams, culminates not in title hopes, but in lottery hopes. The tankapalooza is on.
Injuries. Fatigue. Forced rest. Intentional losses. Buy a ticket to a regular-season NBA game, and there's an excellent chance one or more of these factors will keep you from seeing the best basketball in the world.
There's a unifying theme, there, though. A root cause: Too many games.
The promise of buying a ticket to an NBA game is seeing the best athletes in the world at peak performance. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose ... the best players in the world are the league's most precious resource. And they are as well prepared and competitive as humans get. But the facts on the ground are that their best efforts are finite, and 82 games appears to be too many times over a year to ask them to turn it all the way on. Whether limited by injury, fatigue, schedule or strange draft rules that reward losing, the simple fact is that 1,230 regular-season games is, evidently, and increasingly obviously, more than we can reasonably expect the NBA's 400 or so athletes to produce their best. All kinds of players and teams are limited in delivering their best level night in and night out.
One of the worst strategies you can have, in this ultra-marathon, is to go all-out every minute. That, as we'll be exploring more as the season unfolds, is exactly what fans rightly want on any given night, but it's not a good long-term plan in a game where injury avoidance and rest are paramount to title chances.
So, yes, the NBA is in fantastic shape, because of its global fans who delight in the hard work and brilliance of its players, coaches and executives -- and despite the excessive and compromised regular season.
Three wins against legitimate NBA competition does not a contender make, and few understand this better than analytically-driven Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie. That’s why, in spite of all the local and national hype, he might have stop to his own Cinderella story -- if regression to the mean doesn't get there first.
Philadelphia, picked to finish with 20 wins by ESPN's Summer Forecast panel, is off to a perfect 3-0 start. In their season-opener they beat the Miami Heat, sans Dwyane Wade. Then they earned a road win against the Washington Wizards -- without Nene. And Saturday night, they overcame a 20-point deficit to beat the Chicago Bulls. So what if Derrick Rose is still getting into playing shape? A win on the second night of a back-to-back against Chicago is downright impressive.
But what does this all mean? Are the Sixers the NBA’s "Moneyball" Oakland Athletics, on their way to a 20-game winning streak?
Of course not.
They’re not even close to contending with contenders. But as currently constructed they’re not finishing at the bottom of the standings, either. Not with Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young draining 3-pointers, Evan Turner attacking the rim and rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams putting up historic numbers. As strange as it seems, this roster might be too good -- and more importantly, too well-coached -- to lose 50-plus games.
This all puts Hinkie in a tough situation. Winning breeds confidence in a way no other form of training can duplicate. It's good for morale. It's good for development. And it's good for the franchise's reputation.
Every game the Sixers win, though, is a major blow to their most valuable asset: their 2014 first-round pick. Keep the roster together, and they could land in the middle of the pack. That’s not the ideal place to finish with the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes looming.
Given the strength of the 2014 draft class, waving the white flag and blowing up this already blown-up team might be the best path.
That means trading away Turner, who is finally producing like a No. 2 overall pick, but on the final year of his contract. The same goes for Hawes, whose deal also expires after this season. He’s playing defense, hitting 3-pointers, and playing some of the best basketball of his career. And lastly, there’s Thaddeus Young. He was Philadelphia’s most efficient scorer last season and now that he’s added a 3-point shot to his arsenal, he’s all the more attractive to potential trading partners.
It may seem counterintuitive to part ways with the players they’ve worked to build. But their value has peaked, making it the time to deal. Trading away their win-producers will not only yield an extra 100 or so ping-pong balls, but it will also bring in prospects and draft picks, who could develop into cheaper, younger versions of Turner, Hawes and Young.
The plan is to build a championship team; a few early regular season wins, however exciting, shouldn't change that.
The issue was never, to our knowledge, that players weren't playing hard. Nor, generally, is the concern that coaches -- whose salaries tend to hinge on wins -- are mailing it in.
The problem is that GMs and owners are rightly fixated on superstars, who are so very hard to get. And in the name of getting them via the draft, which requires the kind of high pick that comes with big numbers of losses, many a team many a year fields a roster that is nothing close to their best. Cap space goes unused. Winners are traded away in their primes. Strange rosters are deployed. Even injured players come with special value, for their ability to keep a team bad in the short term, while making them better in the long term.
In the name of addressing that, HoopIdea has enlisted the best thinking of all kinds of smart people, even dedicating a week of this past summer to tanking. The best of all that is in the inline box to your right.
And what, out of all that, really mattered? For me it boils down to three key ideas:
- Ditch the draft entirely.
- Keep the fairly hard cap.
- Remove caps on max salaries, so superstars can make any amount.
But don't take my word for it. Consider the awesome insight of Stan Van Gundy, as co-host on The Dan Le Batard Show on Wednesday. You can listen right now here. He's for all of the exact same stuff, it turns out.
I’ve argued for a long time here ... that I think that one of the things that is absolutely killing parity is the individual maximum salary ... so you’re limiting LeBron James in what he can make ... that is the only reason that the Heat can have he, Bosh and Wade together ... if you still had the same luxury tax, the same salary cap set-up, but within that every individual can earn whatever they get in the market, there’s no way you could put three stars together.
Yeah, will a guy sacrifice five or six hundred thousand dollars like some of the Heat guys did to come together? Yeah. Will they sacrifice 15 million a year? No they won’t.
This is not as radical as it sounds. It wouldn't cost owners extra -- total combined player compensation is fixed to a percentage of the league's income regardless. It would just mean more money for LeBron James and top producers. Which would, of course, mean James' team would have far less money to offer the likes of Andrew Wiggins. In other words, owners get essentially fixed costs, while Wiggins doesn't go to the team that best performs the strange dance of appearing terrible. Nor does he head straight to capped out teams in L.A., New York or Miami. He'd go to the team he wanted to go to, which would probably be similar to the team with the most money to offer him. The teams with the most cap space is a crude approximation of the league's worst teams.
This could work.
Some of what Dudley had to say on tanking:
- "Last year in Phoenix, I mean, they didn't use the word 'tanking' but we were out of the playoffs, it was over. ... We tried different lineups. Why did we try different lineups? Well, because we wanted to see what guys they were going to keep this year, which they basically have kept no one so far. So you try different lineups knowing that the consequences, if you lose, well, it’s fine because it helps you. They never said, 'Hey, let’s tank.' Charlotte Bobcats, they never said, 'Let’s tank.' But the actions you do, it kind of insinuates it. And we understand it because you want a higher pick. You’re going to try and tell me instead of winning five or seven extra games you lose out on Andrew Wiggins but yet you are still the bottom of the barrel? No, you’re going to want to get the worst. So I don’t blame the GMs. I blame the system, how it is set up."
- "How I would do it? I would make it equal percentages for every non-playoff [team]. ... [Now] if you have the worst record, you get at least a top-four or -five pick. So no matter what, in this draft, imagine when LeBron, Carmelo and Wade were there that year. If you were one of the worst teams you were guaranteed at least LeBron, Wade, Melo or Bosh. You were going to get a superstar. And that’s what they think this draft is going to be like. So I would put the other 11 teams all equally so it makes teams have to go out and play to try to win for their teams. I mean, how it is set up now, if I was a GM, me personally, if my team could not make the playoffs or win a championship, why would you not tank with how the system is now?"
- "I’m just surprised that someone would come out and say it so blatantly, the only thing is they just did it anonymously so, in a way, they still were a coward about it. We understand that’s it. And, to be honest with you, it’s very tough with the system how it works. Because, let’s just be honest, if you’re a Charlotte Bobcats, you’re a Milwaukee Bucks, you’re a, I don’t know, another team like that, how do you get a superstar? Is any superstar going to go there? Because it’s not like you can offer him more money. It’s not like it's baseball where they say, 'Hey, you know what, I want this guy, I’ll give you $30 million more than the Knicks.' So how do you get those guys? They’re not going to come there and you trade them, if they are in the last year of their deal, the only thing they are going to say is, 'We’re not going to sign the extension.'
The one bummer: This season also promises to feature a lot of teams that simply can't hang.
Rosters that are ill-prepared to compete will also be featured heavily, mostly because the upcoming draft promises to be a great one. More than a few teams could be better right now, but are going into the season keeping cap space even though they could sign free agents and keeping cheap coaches even though Stan Van Gundy or Phil Jackson could make a difference. These teams are prepared to collect extra losses in the name of increasing their odds for a top pick.
This is worth addressing, if you're the NBA, because what's happening goes beyond long-term planning, which is smart and strategic. Going into any contest hoping to lose ... that's counter to everything we love about sports.
Economists who specialize in sports have been contributing to TrueHoop all week (thanks to the handiwork of Kevin Arnovitz, who made that happen). They don't agree on how the system could be better. But they do agree that the current system is flawed, specifically in that it does too much to reward losing.
The whole idea of a lottery is to keep teams from intentionally pursuing losses by making it uncertain which team will get the top pick. There are various reasons to listen to economists, of all people, on this.
One of the biggest: They have studied it! Two serious studies show that the current version of the lottery simply doesn't do what it's supposed to do. (It was much better, ironically, in 1985, before they "fixed" it.)
Teams are still, evidently, losing games in the name of better picks.
But here's the kicker: Although the handouts to bad teams are too generous, those handouts are insufficient to make teams better anyway. It's like the worst of both worlds. We're polluting the league with intentionally crappy teams, who are dead set on getting Andrew Wiggins. But for the most part, even getting Wiggins won't be nearly enough to make a long-term loser into any kind of winner.
That's not because Wiggins isn't all that. It's because even the best young players often aren't enough to free a poorly run franchise from the millstone of repeated bad decisions.
And that reality, I'd argue, is made worse, and not better, by the league's efforts to help.
What makes a team bad?
- We've been told that small-market teams are the victims. But in a 30-team NBA, the 2013 conference finalists ranked as follows among the nation's biggest markets: 49th (Memphis), 36th (San Antonio), 26th (Indianapolis) and 16th (Miami).
- We've been told team revenue is the key, but are fans of any teams more frustrated right now than those following the revenue-rich but stuck-in-neutral Knicks and Lakers?
- Is it about owners with deep pockets? The Blazers, Nets and Kings have some of the richest owners but are not popular picks to win titles anytime soon.
It's about making good decisions. If your team is well-run, you can succeed anywhere from Oklahoma City to New York City.
The doomed teams are not strictly the ones with the poor owners, nor the ones in the small cities. They're the ones that do dumb things again and again, either because they know no better or are intentionally gaming the system.
Both cases would be reduced or eliminated if the league stopped rewarding losses.
I once published a story that focused on an unnamed general manager who worked but a few hours a week. Not that he was out scouting or meeting with agents. He just did not work much for his multimillion-dollar salary. As soon as it hit ESPN.com, I heard from longtime trusted people in three other front offices saying, essentially, "How did you know about our GM?"
Rest assured, in addition to the new wave of brilliant hard workers, the NBA has a tradition of front-office people who aren't all that interested in how things could be done better, nor in the value of long hours. It's on the way out, but it's not gone yet.
I've heard stories about GMs in the draft war room not recognizing names of top prospects from major programs. I know of brilliant young executives doing the kinds of scouting and analysis that defined the early careers of people like Sam Presti, Rob Hennigan and Ryan McDonough -- and having their work routinely dismissed by bosses too ham-handed to appreciate it. Even as the Spurs built a dynasty on undervalued foreign talent, I've had GMs explain to me at length why internationals are losers.
Even today, many GMs can't bring themselves to trust anything resembling sophisticated advanced analysis, doing things like signing Kwame Brown to protect the rim, because he looks like a guy who ought to be able to do that, even though in terms of the percentage of shots he blocks he has trailed point guards playing alongside him.
All that is to say nothing of formulating a vision, building a winning culture, making hires that fit, and establishing the credibility to mediate disputes between players, coaches and owners. These things simply don't happen on a lot of teams.
Why, in a league in which the players are so incredibly competitive, effective and hardworking, do so many of their bosses get away with being ineffective loafers?
Because the players simply must be among the best in the world or lose their jobs. They are subject to the laws of competition. You have to bust your butt to stick as a player. The front office, though, gets the mother lode of corporate welfare, which does an almighty job of fuzzing up who's really good and who's really bad at running a team. It's tough to hide a bad player, but it's a cinch to hide a bad GM. He's the guy winning the lottery. Or not -- maybe he did that intentionally.
You see the issue?
It can make it seem, to fans and owners alike, almost as if there's nothing to it but luck. But we know, on some level, that's not really true.
As part of Tank Week, economists Arup Sen and Timothy Bond proposed something fascinating and brilliant, where teams would buy draft picks with credits. Play around with that one in your imagination. It's rich.
@TrueHoop I'd love that, except SAS would save its credits to make seven 2nd rd picks, nail all of them, and win 9 straight titles. :)— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) September 5, 2013
Andy Glockner is half being funny here. But it's also right smack-dab at the heart of what matters here. The Spurs know exactly what they're doing and your team doesn't. On some level, that's great news: Front offices can be amazing! On another level, it's horrible news because yours probably isn't.
A. Keep handicapping the Spurs by giving your team better players.
B. Rejigger the market to force every team to get real-deal management, as the Spurs have.
I choose "B" because I can't see any reason every team can't have a great GM. There are tons of people who would be amazing running teams. (Those geniuses who run the Tampa Bay Rays -- was anyone even recruiting them before they took over, did things differently, and started winning?) Basketball's next generation of geniuses are mostly waiting for the phone to ring, effectively locked out by a horribly inefficient market that's kept afloat by a very rich brand of corporate welfare. You're the kind of horrible GM the Spurs dream of facing? Here's a lottery pick and media articles praising your genius. Often that's the only way to keep your job.
Meanwhile, with crappy leadership, you're more or less doomed no matter how many great picks you get. The talented players don't develop properly. The chemistry fails. The coaching is a joke. And on and on.
Thirty teams can't win titles every year, but 30 teams can be great at developing systems that work, calling plays and scouting talent.
The league's truly doomed franchises now are not the small markets or the penny-pinchers. The doomed franchises are those that can't make five straight good decisions. And the lottery system goes a long way toward keeping those teams from the evolution, innovation and turnover necessary to get ahead.
Yes, it is bold. And it would be different. But it's not a lot of the horrid things many think it would be.
Eliminate the rookie salary scale and let there be a bidding war for every rookie. And remember, the NBA effectively has a hard cap. So really bad teams would be able to offer Andrew Wiggins $20 million while free-spending teams would be trying to talk him into things like the quality of the practice facility and training staff.
European soccer basically has this model, and there it does create a super class of perennial contenders. But they don't have salary caps.
Emotion suggests this would create competitive-balance issues. The evidence says: probably not.
@TrueHoop This fails to account for the impact that handing huge money guaranteed deals to very young players would have on the game— CH (@swanklax) September 5, 2013
All I know is the sky was falling when Kevin Garnett made all that money out of high school. That's the deal that freaked everybody out and ushered in rookie salary scales. But in retrospect it was wholly unnecessary, and today smart people are calling for the removal of these kinds of caps. Garnett turned out to be a champion and one of the best players ever, and while he does get on his hands and knees and bark at opponents, which is weird, he is generally seen as a major boon to the league, which is typical. Players who arrive in the NBA very young tend to succeed more than others, according to Michael McCann's research.
In other words, you could be right, but I'd need convincing.
In the meantime, I assume that's all just a cover story. Less money for young players means more money for everyone else at the collective bargaining table, including veterans and owners. If anyone complains, they say, "Oh, we all know what money isn't good for them." And, amazingly, people buy that.
@TrueHoop but good teams would attempt to get rid of their solid players to sign, say, Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle.— Sam Gordon (@SlamGordon) September 5, 2013
Sure, that could happen in a world without a draft.
But, wow, is it tricky.
Let's say you're Pat Riley in the summer of 2014, coming off either three straight titles, or two straight and a very good season. To get under the cap enough to woo Wiggins or a similar player, you're going to need to let major talent go. Basically, at a minimum you're ditching Dwyane Wade for the chance to sign a guy with one year of college experience, who (history shows) is essentially a lock to get roasted on defense for at least a season. Kevin Durant might be the best college freshman in NCAA history, but he didn't help his team, per plus/minus, until his third season.
You know LeBron + Wade + Bosh + cheap role players = perennial contending machine and some likelihood of future titles.
Does LeBron + Bosh + a rookie + cheap role players = equal any titles? Presumably the team is worse while starting that rookie, and much better than they'd otherwise be post-LeBron. But will Wiggins or Randle catch up to where Wade might be while James is still in his prime? LeBron's prime is a horrible thing to waste.
And don't forget you'd have to ditch Wade first, and then see if you can get Wiggins.
Meanwhile, with or without the draft, Riley has the ability to ditch a major player for a current free agent. This isn't that new.
Who knows what the Heat would do, or if this is the best example. But if you're contending, clearing cap space for Wiggins means giving up meaningful stuff. If you're not contending, getting a good player probably helps competitive balance more than hurts it.
But after thinking about all this long and hard through Tank Week, and becoming convinced the existing system is subpar, my conviction is that GMs don't need handouts any more than anyone else in the sport. It's hard to find, acquire and value the right talent? That's really the problem the league is trying to solve for front offices? Isn't that all front offices do?
Change is hard to come by, and I don't expect NBA owners to ditch the lottery and draft overnight.
But if you're asking an honest question about what system would work best for fans, players, front offices, owners and other stakeholders -- who all benefit from the most intense possible competition -- to me the current system is not the place to start. It's not nearly as good as it could be at ensuring the best possible competition.
The conversation ought to begin with going back to the beginning and eliminating the draft entirely. Tweaks beyond that might be necessary, but they ought to be backed up with stronger arguments and evidence than I have been able to find.
The Milwaukee Bucks don't believe in tanking, which makes them misguided -- or wonderful.
There was a time when the Milwaukee Bucks lorded over the NBA’s Central Division as perennial contenders. In the mid-1980s, Don Nelson still had a modicum of structure in his nightly war plan (Nellie’s Bucks consistently ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace), and the Bucks ran off seven straight divisional titles between 1979 and 1986.
Sidney Moncrief was a rock in the backcourt. Out on the wing, Paul Pressey established himself as a prototype for what would become the modern-day defensive stopper. Marques Johnson joined him out there as one of the more reliable, high-percentage wings in the league. When the Bucks swapped Johnson for Terry Cummings, they adapted seamlessly, and Cummings would become a top-10 player during the latter half of the Bucks’ golden period. Alton Lister anchored a defense that was routinely in the top three.
Soon after that stretch, expressions like “small market” entered the league’s lexicon, and the NBA’s better players became empowered to be more selective about where they’d build a career. Gradually, places with cold weather and less cosmopolitan sensibilities had a harder time attracting talent. To play in these markets, stars have to accept a lower Q rating, and that represents lost dollars in today’s sports economy. All of this produces a compounding effect: the belief among players that building a winner in that city is near impossible.
The Bucks organization has always retained its reputation as one of the league’s classier outfits, but it couldn’t fight this tectonic shift. The franchise simply didn’t have enough mitigating factors to overcome it. Like their city, whose spirit has been sapped by new insurmountable economic realities, the Bucks began to fight an uphill battle.
"Guys are going to say, 'I want to be a part of this because they're winning,' or you need to be a team, like Cleveland, that gets two No. 1 picks or three or four top-five picks, and a guy says, 'I see what they have,' ” Bucks general manager John Hammond said.
The treading-water strategy needs a public relations professional. The basketball intelligentsia mocks teams that seem content to chase the No. 8 seed, especially in the East (No. 8 seeds in the West are usually pretty good and generally have legitimate aspirations to finish higher). The maxim, “If you’re not contending, you’re rebuilding,” is regarded as smart thinking. Some league executives publicly adopted another neologism -- “the treadmill of mediocrity" -- to describe what many of them see as a fatal condition. A popular notion exists that nothing short of running the table with a series of mid-first-round picks as the Pacers did, a team is a long shot to contend with this blueprint, even though there's little evidence that losing ultimately leads to winning.
The more clever teams looking to improve seek to capitalize on the glitch in the league’s incentive structure. Blow it up, pick high, nail those picks (and every front-office guy believes he was born to evaluate prospects), and you’ll play in late May. Don’t you know that the market inefficiencies that come with the existence of the NBA draft were meant to be exploited? We don’t make value judgments about the ethics of tanking, because aesthetics are irrelevant. These are the rules as they’ve been designed by the league, and the job of an executive is to succeed within those confines.
Under the leadership of owner Senator Herb Kohl and Hammond (a contributor to the assembly of the Pistons’ teams of the early- to mid-'00s), the Bucks have squarely situated themselves in the survivalist camp. Their goal each offseason is to shoot for as many wins as possible. The catalog of transactions in pursuit of this goal isn’t without blemishes -- and management will own up to the Harris-Redick deal -- but that’s been the consistent tactic in Milwaukee.
The Bucks’ brass articulates its rationale behind this strategy. Part of that argument is based on principle, while the other half is the stated belief that tanking doesn’t necessarily yield better results than doing it their way.
“We're trying to say with Larry Sanders -- one of the top defenders in the league -- with Ersan [Ilyasova], with veterans like Zaza [Pachulia], Luke [Ridnour], Carlos [Delfino], with young players like O.J. [Mayo], Brandon [Knight], John [Henson], Gary [Neal], Ekpe [Udoh], and Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I know we may not win a world championship today, but I do think we can be competitive and continue to build with draft picks and cap space” Hammond said.
Critics (present company included) raised eyebrows at extending Mayo a contract of $8 million per season over three years, but the Bucks answer that they acquired one of the best talents among the free agents they could realistically target. If they overpaid by 10-15 percent, that’s just one of those variables that Milwaukee can’t control. Besides, it’s not as if giving a $6 million player $8 million is going to decimate their fairly roomy cap situation.
“We're not unique,” Hammond said. “Cleveland has to do the same thing. Indiana has to do the same thing. Sacramento has to do the same thing. It's also true in major league baseball. Sometimes you have to overpay for talent.”
Morway was one of the architects of Indiana’s build-on-the-go strategy. Now in Milwaukee, Morway has considered the Pacers’ success and has come to feel deeply that, even with the league’s weird incentive structure, tanking isn’t necessarily a better strategy.
“There isn’t one way to build a franchise,” Morway said. “You can build a team [by pursuing high draft picks], but there’s a lot that goes on between the concept and the execution.”
For every Oklahoma City, there’s a Charlotte and Sacramento. There’s cause for optimism in Minnesota, Cleveland and Washington, but those teams are still trying to make good on multiple high picks, and none of them have seen the postseason during their current era. The Bucks can cite their own history -- the center they chose at No. 15 in the draft (Sanders, in 2010) will likely contribute more when it’s all over than the center they drafted No. 1 (Andrew Bogut, in 2005). There was undoubtedly some bad luck involved but, for the Bucks, that’s the whole point -- there’s no certainty hitting the lottery jackpot will actually pay out in real life.
A sports owner like Kohl (and similarly Simon) who lives in an older city that has struggled to join the growth economies of the sun belt or tech corridors often sees his franchise as a public trust. The team has an accountability to the city. And part of that is delivering a competitive product, to let those making the trip to an aging arena know that there’s a better than 50 percent chance they’ll see a win for the home team. Unlike so many of the newer owners who live out of town and have only a passing relationship with the cities of their teams, Kohl sees Milwaukeeans as neighbors. When you invite your neighbors over to your place, you owe them your hospitality.
“Why should I come to the games if you’re telling me you’re not trying to win?” Morway asks rhetorically.
For Kohl, playing to win every night is a common courtesy to fans, the majority of whom have elected him to the Senate on four occasions, the last time with two-thirds of the overall vote. Public trusts have to perform -- especially if they’re asking for popular support. The Pacers are, again, an appropriate case study. In Forbes’ team valuations published in January, they ranked 24th, while the Bucks were dead last. The Pacers asked from the public and received $33.5 million to address their shortfall in operating income at their home arena. Coupled with a negative public image, the fallout from the Palace brawl, the Pacers felt they couldn’t afford to tank. That’s a privilege reserved for organizations in healthy markets and/or those who have accumulated equity and good will.
The Bucks will soon need to make a hard sell to the residents of Milwaukee that they can’t survive without a new home. They play in arguably the worst facility in the league. Unlike some of the concrete palaces in Sacramento or Salt Lake City, there’s no intimate charm or deafening noise in the Bradley Center. It’s just tired. While a team can’t control the climate, economy or general mood of its city, it can offer a nice work space. The Bucks can’t do that until they build a new facility in Milwaukee, and that’s an easier sell when there’s electricity in town, the Bucks are on the verge of a series upset and Bango the Buck’s antics make him a cult hero.
The Bucks maintain that putting together a run like that without cohesiveness and that there are psychic costs when a team accepts losing as part of the program.
“To build a winning culture ... you can’t turn it on and off,” Morway says. “Players see that.”
Oklahoma City managed it, but by pulling off a rare trick. It built a unique relationship with Kevin Durant, who understood that for a few years, the organization would define success on its own terms. Building that kind of trust requires the rare player in a near-perfect situation. For most young players -- even some who project as future All-Stars -- losing can quickly become a bad habit, and that’s not a risk most teams can assume.
Some of the criticism targeting the Bucks is aimed squarely at questionable deals like trading Tobias Harris for two bumpy months with J.J. Redick and a 3-year, $15.6 million contract for reserve big man Zaza Pachulia. But the overriding sentiment is that the Bucks are foolish to do anything to compromise their future in service of winning more games in the present. Truth be told -- they might be. Unless Antetokounmpo, Henson and Knight explode, and Mayo makes a quantum leap (he’s still only 25), it’s difficult to see the path to the conference finals, and history tell us that’s even more likely if they continue to pick in the mid-first round.
Teams like Bucks who direct their management to assemble this year’s model with the highest-performing engine they can design are regarded as quixotic at best and, more times than not, myopic. Chasing the eighth seed is the ultimate act of madness because respectability is worth far less in the current structure than 60-65 losses. Does this kind of arrangement, one where NBA teams who put the best product on the floor might compromise their future, make the league stronger?