TrueHoop: Rod Thorn
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.
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."
As traumatic as the first trade of a young player's career is said to be, Ryan Anderson appears to be grieving about as much as a lottery winner after being sent to Orlando from New Jersey as part of the draft-day deal involving Vince Carter.
Ryan Anderson: "He's one of those guys ... It leaves his hands and you say, 'It's in." (Fernando Medina/NBA via Getty Images)
out of here....'
"That's definitely not what it was. I talked to the whole staff in New Jersey. It was a hard decision for them to make, but if I could go with anybody, I'm glad I came with Vince.”
It took just five summer games for Anderson to make Orlando look like his personal Magic Kingdom. He finished with 33 points -- one shy of Travis Diener's league-record -- and 14 rebounds Tuesday against
He followed with five 3-pointers and 26 points against Utah. At times, Anderson was the second-best player in Orlando after Russell Westbrook and showed just how much he could thrive playing behind
Rashard Lewis with the Magic.
"How many guys in the league, when the ball leaves their hands, do you feel like, 'It's in'?” Jazz assistant Scott Layden asked. "All of a sudden the basket looks like a hula hoop.
"He's one of those guys, really. It leaves his hands and you say, 'It's in,' right? He's that way. And what a team to play for. Wow. Think about that. You get looks on Orlando.”
Anderson had one sequence Thursday during the second quarter against Utah in which he hit a 3-pointer, put the ball on the floor against Goran Suton -- spinning back for a layup -- and then buried another 3-pointer off a pick-and-pop.
Anderson averaged 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds as a rookie in New Jersey, but played in only 66 games. The 21-year-old spoke about the importance of confidence, which he figures will be easier to maintain
with a defined role off the bench in Orlando.
"Rashard didn't really get too much of a break, so I'm there to relieve him,” Anderson said. "You can play the same game with Rashard on and off the court.”
Not even two weeks after the trade, Anderson crossed paths all week in Orlando with the Nets' Lawrence Frank, Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe, in town to watch their own summer-league team. Anderson said there was no awkwardness in the least.
"I think it's kind of nice,” Anderson said. "I have that team family and now I have a brand-new family.”
The vibe around the Magic couldn't have felt better this week. Dwight Howard was a regular -- even for Friday's 11 a.m. getaway game between the Jazz and Oklahoma City -- while Vince Carter stopped in a handful of times.
Even after signing an offer sheet with Dallas, Marcin Gortat watched games every day, evidence perhaps of how tough it is to leave Orlando right now ... or, in Anderson's case, how easy it is to arrive.
"It's a good fit for us because he fits into our style of play,” Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "He's another tall forward that can shoot and you can't have enough of them.”
Having traded up from the Nets to the Magic, from a 34-win lottery team to one that reached the Finals, from winter in the Meadowlands to year-round fun in the sun, Anderson clearly is enjoying the view from the penthouse.
"I think I've always been an underdog guy my whole career,” Anderson said. "I'm finally in a spot where a team really wants me and needs me. Last year in New Jersey, I'm a rookie, so they don't know what to expect of me, really. But here they do, and it's exciting. This is a winning team. I'm really excited to be part of it.”
The Salt Lake Tribune's Ross Siler has this dispatch from the Orlando Pro Summer League, where the Sixers and Nets are strange bedfellows:
The union became official at halftime of Monday's summer-league opener at the RDV Sportsplex, when 76ers general manager Ed Stefanski pulled up a seat along press row next to Nets president Rod Thorn.
For one week at least, the Atlantic Division rivals have come together, with a joint New Jersey/Philadelphia entry in the Orlando summer league prompted by the worst economy in a generation.
Nets rookie Terrence Williams: Would this man steal Eddie Jordan's trade secrets? (Fernando Medina via Getty Images)
"I'm not a fan of it,” Philadelphia coach Eddie Jordan admitted. "I like working with your own players and teaching your own guys, getting your own guys in your system.”
"I don't want to have to berate their player for not picking up. It just doesn't seem right to get on their players for doing something that you want them to do.”
The marriage has led to some strange scenes, to be sure. Philadelphia's newest first-round pick, Jrue Holiday, warmed up for Monday's game in a Nets shirt, leading one Sixers staffer to observe that a free shirt is a free shirt.
After Monday's game, Jordan was asked about Nets rookie Terrence Williams, prefaced with the qualifier: "You won't have him beyond this week ...”
(Jordan's answer: "He's a very competitive player. He's strong, he's a bull out there. He's got great, quick moves. He can change direction in a heartbeat. He's an aggressive player. I really like him.”)
In addition to their own draft picks and players, the Nets and Sixers each made four selections for the team. The offense can best be described as an overlap of Jordan's and Lawrence Frank's systems.
"It's a combination of what they've done and what we're going to do,” Jordan said. "And that's why we make it work, because we know the Nets.”
Frank called it "a little bit of an introduction” to his offense, adding, "But I think this has to be more about the development of the guys as opposed to putting in your system. Especially when you're
splitting a team, it makes it tougher.”
The biggest benefit, Frank said, comes in having a deeper summer-league team than most. The Nets/Sixers have four recent draft picks in Chris Douglas-Roberts, Holiday, Marreese Speights and Terrence Williams.
Were it not for the history between Jordan and Frank, Thorn and Stefanski, as well as assistants Tom Barrise and Mike O'Koren, the Philadelphia and New Jersey pairing probably would be doomed to
"It's a joint venture, where it only works for us because we know the Nets guys,” said Jordan, who nevertheless described the partnership as being "different” three times in one answer.
Of course, the Nets and Sixers players still have it better than Bobcats second-round draft pick Derrick Brown, who is playing with the Jazz in Orlando with Charlotte not fielding a summer-league team to cut costs.
Brown ended up with the Jazz thanks to a longtime connection between Charlotte coach Larry Brown and Utah general manager Kevin O'Connor. (There's a lengthy explanation as to why the Jazz didn't also end up with Bobcats lottery pick Gerald Henderson.)
Brown had nine points in his NBA debut Monday night, which came in a Jazz jersey, playing for a team coached by Jazz assistants. In fact, Brown wasn't even sure if the Bobcats were sending a representative
to Orlando to watch him.
"It's definitely a good opportunity to be out there and start the ball rolling in the NBA,” he said. "Whatever it takes for me to make a stand in this league, I'm going to do it.”
Frank was asked if the Nets and Sixers were just ahead of the curve, whether next summer will feature other entries based on geography and cost-saving, like the Heat and Magic, the Bulls and Bucks, the
Warriors and Kings or the Jazz and ... nobody.
"In these economic times, look, you've got to be fiscally very responsible and I think you just have to be prudent in the decisions you make,” Frank said. "Every group is different. This worked for us and Philly and it made sense, and who knows what the future holds. Hopefully, things get better.”