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When it comes to tanking, poor perceptions persist

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Tanking isn’t the answer if your favorite team is looking to turn the franchise around.

Portland Trail Blazers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

This is from Colin McGowan at RealGM.com on Tuesday:

Which lays bare the conundrum facing tanking franchises. Most modern fans understand that if their team is one of the six or seven worst in the NBA, they might as well be the absolute worst. That’s the most direct path toward title contention, or at least being worth a damn a few years down the line. This knowledge, while useful, also poisons their ability to enjoy their teams, since it essentially transforms the fans of bad-to-mediocre squads into standings-watchers rather than, y’know, people who watch twenty, thirty, sixty games per season hoping to be entertained by a win. It turns something straightforwardly fun—hey, would you look at that: the Bulls haven’t sucked in a month—into a source of worry and conflicted feelings. The team keeps winning, and you ask yourself should I be happy about this? And, really, you should and you shouldn’t. There’s no firm answer, only the edgy silence of wanting one.

I have no idea what he’s talking about.

This isn’t to single out Mr. McGowan, he’s expressing what a lot of people think. And, say. And, say. And, say. In fact, it seems like more people are saying Let’s Tank! than ever before.

If you follow Fake Teams, then you may have read this piece a few weeks ago, wherein we looked at recent NBA drafts to see if the tanking strategy has merit. TL;DR, here’s what we found: there’s no GD reason to trust a front office to do anything well if they’re bozos, ESPECIALLY EVALUATE TALENT AND ASSESS RISK. Tanking is a trick that owners and front offices use to tell the public that “losing is good.” Oh, and that it’s “worth you fans paying your hard-earned dollars for, otherwise we may have to move the team to another city.”

Tanking, as a strategy, is only defensible if you actually know what you’re doing. Let me use a recent example: In last year’s NBA draft Dennis Smith, Jr., Donovan Mitchell, and Kyle Kuzma were all drafted outside of the top 8. Kuzma was drafted 27th.

Here are some other good examples of tanking not being necessary:

  • Malcolm Brogdon, the Rookie of the Year last season, was drafted in the second round.
  • Devin Booker, who has a 70 point game, was drafted outside of the lottery.
  • Nikola Jokic was drafted in the second round.
  • Anthony Bennett was drafted #1 overall. In the same draft as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Oladipo.
  • Draymond Green was drafted in the second round, right after Jae Crowder. You know who drafted Jae Crowder? The Cleveland Cavaliers. Think about that: the Cavs could have had DRAYMOND MFING GREEN on their team. Would he have had the same success in Cleveland as he’s had in Golden State? Maybe, maybe not. He full on Wally Pipped David Lee, so his career is already built on a twist of fate. Who knows, maybe Dray in Cleveland never reaches his potential. Or, maybe he excels and forms a bond with Bron and they dominate the “Almost Great” Warriors for 5 years. But, I can tell you one thing: neither the Warriors, nor the Cavs, nor any of the other teams knew what they were doing, because any single team could have had Draymond in the first round, anyway.

I think it’s safe to say that folks around the world are, once again, learning to be skeptical of the authorities, be they in the government, or in business, or in the media. Skepticism is GOOD. You shouldn’t swallow hook, line, and sinker some speech at a press conference just because you’re told to. You shouldn’t blindly absorb the declarations and judgments of the people on the TV, or the Internet, or the news, or hell, even in a fantasy column. You should find out for yourself. You should VERIFY. You should CONFIRM.

You should question perceived wisdom. You should research your questions and try to arrive at answers without bias. You should wonder how people can be so seemingly sure of themselves when the world around them is filled with ambiguity, ignorance, vulnerabilities, and happenstance.

You should ask why so many rich people who own sports teams are all of a sudden very interested in slashing payroll “so that they can be good down the road,” even if they were already good and more improvement merely meant spending more money. You should ask why so many in the media swallow proffered wisdom without questioning how the speaker came to their conclusions. Could it be that the sports media companies are more partners than journalists when it comes to reporting on their actual corporate partners? Probably not. Everybody who’s alive is all peaches and sunshine and virtuous and unfailingly honest. ESPN has unassailable integrity, despite its sordid history, and the fact that it literally exchanges money with the companies it purports to cover factually.

Look around. There’s no lying in sports.

Tanking is, at its base, a promise: we will lose now so that we can win later. But, the winning is dependent on actually acquiring good talent, whether via draft or trade or signing. And, hell, KEEPING that talent (looking at you, Marlins and Thunder). Let me ask you this: how many rich people who run businesses do you know who keep all their promises? How many rich people who extort money out of cities for new stadiums do you trust? How many rich people who make money whether their teams are good or bad do you believe when they say Just wait a little longer, next year, next year, we’ll be good again someday

I kind of can’t believe these people when they advocate tanking. They tell you that they need more assets because you want as many chances as possible of picking the best player available. Isn’t that just saying that they’re absolutely awful at this whole sports thing? “We need six bullets because we’re terrible and can’t hit anything!”

And, then they raise the ticket prices. It’s a scam, guys. You don’t need to tank to get good players; you don’t need to lose in order to win. But, it’s insanely profitable if you do. Owning a sports team with no salaries, while getting the gate from each game, the money from media broadcast rights, AND a cut from the national headquarters each season? That’s money you get without even trying.

I’m not saying spend to spend, and I’m certainly not saying that teams should disadvantage themselves. But, tanking doesn’t work. You know what works? Scouting. Analysis. Film review. Intelligent and creative use of assets (y’know, like the Spurs, who never draft high, trading for Kawhi Leonard after the Pacers drafted him?). Mike Trout wasn’t drafted #1 overall. These front office guys aren’t as smart as they’re telling you they are.

Of course, it’s hard to draft. Of course, it’s difficult to run a team and juggle players. Of course, sports is filled with people who are competitive and want to win.

But, here’s the thing: the teams that actually want to win, find ways to continue winning. They don’t get in their own way. They don’t give out stupid contracts, they don’t make stupid trades, they don’t swallow the company line, they don’t delude themselves, and they don’t back down. Most importantly, though: they don’t ever stop trying to develop the players they do have. The best teams know that they acquired a player for good reasons, and they trust in their judgment that those skills are attainable, even it takes awhile.

It’s not just that good teams believe in their players; it’s that they also believe in themselves.