Talking honestly about tanking

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
12:51
PM ET
Webb By Royce Webb
ESPN.com
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Adam Silver is the HoopIdea commish, and that’s a very good thing for the NBA and its fans. As your new NBA editor Henry Abbott wrote this weekend, the buzzword in the NBA is innovation.

Another hot buzzword from Silver: transparency.

Silver used the word five times when asked about his approach to innovation, calling transparency “one of my guiding principles.”

What is transparency? It’s being clear about what is really going on.

That might not have been the intention of Rod Thorn, the NBA’s president of basketball operations, last Friday in an interview with TrueHoop TV, but the substance of his remarks was crystal clear. While discussing whether there were NBA teams that were purposely trying to fail, Thorn said, “I don’t look at it as tanking. I look at it as, ‘I don’t want to be at this level here. I may have to get worse to get good.’ It’s definitely a strategy and more and more teams are looking at it.”

Let’s unpack Thorn’s remark:

I may have to get worse to get good.

In other words, We may have to lose to improve.

Since transparency is a hallmark of the new NBA, let’s be transparent about tanking.

The NBA inadvertently set up a system that encourages teams to lose. The league doesn’t want to admit this. The cardinal sin of sports is giving fans reasons to doubt the integrity of the game. The underlying contract with fans is that NBA games are honest competition, not pro wrestling.

Tanking is also against the NBA’s own rules. Joel Litvin, the NBA’s president of league operations, told Howard Beck of The New York Times in 2008: “If we ever found a team was intentionally losing games, we would take the strongest possible action in response.”

The key word in Litvin’s claim is “found.”

See, that’s how lawyers talk. He didn’t mean “found” as in, “Hey, I found my wallet!” He meant “found” as in, “If we conducted an investigation and made a formal finding that a team was tanking, we would do something.”

The NBA’s spin is that coaches and players are trying to win, and that has a ring of truth. Silver took the same legalistic approach as Litvin on Saturday, saying “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.”

But even that is not always true.

Coaches and players are just pawns in a larger game -- a game all too often being played to lose. As Hall of Fame NBA writer Jackie MacMullan detailed recently, the Boston Celtics, from the owner on down to the head coach, intentionally lost as many games as possible in 1996-97 in an attempt to get the top draft pick and grab Tim Duncan.

Of course, most coaches never admit to tanking, even if it’s happening. But in a piece at TrueHoop, I detailed multiple occasions when players and coaches admitted to losing on purpose in the past 20 years. And those are just the on-the-record admissions. Plenty of NBA reporters have heard far more accounts of intentional losing by multiple franchises over the years, including this year.

Does anyone think the Golden State Warriors did not intentionally lose 22 of their last 27 games in 2012 to protect a lottery pick? Does anyone think that there are not multiple teams that are intentionally losing this season to improve their position in the loaded 2014 draft?

If the NBA cares about transparency, it should investigate and tell fans what it truly finds. Or better yet, appoint an independent investigator and then lay out the results of the investigation. That’s true transparency.

If the NBA cares about the integrity of the game, it should care that owners, general managers, writers, broadcasters, coaches, players and fans assume that tanking is happening and is a viable path in the NBA. Even Silver acknowledges that perhaps “incentives aren’t entirely aligned.” In other words, he knows that teams don’t always want to win.

Silver will be a great commissioner -- smart, progressive and visionary. In the long run, he’ll take the NBA to new heights.

Let’s hope he focuses on the fact that basketball teams are supposed to try to win. We don’t want a sport where fans have to assume that hundreds of games each season are questionable.

Honest competition is what makes the NBA playoffs the greatest postseason in sports. Honest competition is what gives us the amazing highs and lows of March Madness. And honest competition is the only way forward if the NBA is going to be the greatest league in the world.
Royce Webb is an NBA editor at ESPN.com.

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