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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Enes Kanter Rejects the Tanking Mentality

Tanking is wrong because it cheats the fans out of their hard earned money that they pay to attend or watch games and it violates the integrity of competition. It is also worth noting that tanking does not work.

It is most unfortunate that tanking has become a widely accepted practice in the NBA. I have no interest in watching or analyzing the performances of teams that are actively trying to lose games. If I were interested in that kind of farce then I would watch pro wrestling or some other form of pre-scripted "entertainment" that may involve impressive physical feats but does not involve actual competition.

I very much appreciate the comments Enes Kanter recently made about tanking. His New York Knicks are one of at least 10 NBA teams that are tanking to some extent and he is not at all happy about it: "Let me tell you something, man: They can develop guys in the G League. This is not the time to develop young guys, or whatever, because we're trying to win games here. This team is paying us a lot of money, everybody, and all the fans are paying a lot money to watch the games and they're paying a lot of money for tickets, so they're not just coming here watching, 'Oh, this guy's getting better. This guy's developing.' No, we're trying to win games here, man. I think that's how our mindset should be. And if they want to develop somebody, they can send him to the G League and we can see some development. But I think right now, we're trying to win games. We're not trying to develop nobody."

Teams that are not trying to win should not charge full price for tickets, nor should they accept a full share of the league's broadcast and merchandising revenues; if you are intentionally putting a subpar product in the marketplace, you cannot justify charging the public full price for it. I don't know if league-mandated refunds/rebates would cure the tanking epidemic (and such refunds/rebates may not even be permissible under the Collective Bargaining Agreement), but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver needs to do something, because the product that his league is putting on the court on a nightly basis in many cities is embarrassing. The top end teams are exciting and fun to watch but many of the bottom end teams are brutal.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:02 AM

15 comments

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15 Comments:

At Wednesday, March 21, 2018 12:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I don't know that it *never* works. San Antonio punting in '97 after Robinson went down certainly turned out ok for them. LAL or Philly could turn into something someday on the backs of stars they got/cap they freed by openly tanking (though obviously Philly went way too far for the RoI).

Heck, how hard was Cleveland trying to win in 2003? Seattle/Oklahoma drafted basically three straight MVPs (all in the top four of the draft) by hanging out near the bottom of the standings and doing dumb stuff like "pretending their 7-footer is a shooting guard".

Tanking does work sometimes, but it still sucks, and I'd be all for a solution that stopped it.

 
At Wednesday, March 21, 2018 4:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In isolated instances, tanking can work, though still requires a lot of luck, but doesn't seem like a very good business model long term. SA would still probably not have a title if they don't get Duncan, so tanking when Robinson went down, especially since the season was lost, was a great strategy. And yes, CLE sure seemed to tank in 2003. No guarantee they'd get James, but they gave themselves a great chance to.

It's hard to really know how tall Durant is. He was 6-9 as a rookie, and still listed as 6-9 on bkref. I doubt he's fully 7-0. But as a 6-9 rookie and with SEA's personnel, it did make sense to try him out at SG some, though didn't work ideally. We've seen guys like 6-9 Magic and 6-10 Simmons as PGs, so it wasn't that strange to at least try him out there.

The problem for a lot of teams in the nba in smaller markets is that they have a much harder time winning a title. If we look back at title teams, almost all of them need an MVP(former, current, or future) playing at a very-high level and with a solid cast at the very least. Shaq, Kobe, James, and Duncan have accounted for 14 of the last 19 titles. Dirk and KG each won, and both were former MVPs and had great casts when they won. Then, GS has won 2x recently with absolutely stacked teams and MVP-caliber players(Durant, Curry). 2004 DET is the only oddball, but they had a great team, their Finals opps were greatly hobbled, and it was a down year in the nba that year.

So, unless there's a special situation, a title team needs a top 5ish player at the very least; otherwise, it's not happening if your goal is to win a title. Most teams aren't getting that type of player via trade/free agency, so the draft is the only other option. Which applying the principle to choosing the small list of teams who could win this year, it's CLE, GS, HOU, or OKC. Hard to see anyone else even having a chance. RW's cast is pretty comparable, maybe better, than Kobe's cast when he won in 2009/2010 given that he played with a hobbled Bynum in the playoffs.

 
At Wednesday, March 21, 2018 6:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Did the Spurs truly "punt" or were they just not very good sans Robinson? At his peak, Robinson was legitimately worth 20-30 wins, so a drop from 59-23 to 20-62 is not necessarily proof of intentional losing. Also worth noting is that Sean Elliott, the Spurs' second best player, missed more than half of the season due to injuries. In any case, the Spurs did not embark on a deliberate, multi-year plan of intentional losing the way that the 76ers did under Hinkie or the way that several other teams appear to be doing now.

All tanking "accomplishes" is perhaps marginally increasing the chance of getting a top draft pick. The team still has to pick the right player (if available) and then develop that player. A team that cultivates a losing culture is unlikely to either draft the right player or properly develop that player.

 
At Wednesday, March 21, 2018 6:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Even when tanking may appear to "work," it really is more a matter of "luck," as you suggest. The Spurs and the Patriots have shown that it is possible to sustain a high level of excellence without intentionally losing. That is not only the right way to do things in terms of providing value for the paying customers but it is actually the best way to sustain long term success. How much success have the Bulls had since they intentionally blew up a six-time championship team?

I agree that a team generally needs a "top 5ish" player to compete for a title but intentionally losing for years is unlikely to either bring forth such a player (too much luck is involved) or provide the proper environment to maximize that player's potential.

 
At Wednesday, March 21, 2018 7:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

They gave the green light to a 37 year old Dominique Wilkins who wasn't in the league the season before OR the season after, and it's not like the rest of their team were scrubs; Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, and Vernon Maxwell were all solid players (if not superstars) who started for contending teams in that era. They also went only 11-28 in the games Elliott played in, so it doesn't really look like they were trying to win those, either.

I agree that they didn't do what the 76ers did, but they certainly did tank. I agree that cultivating a long-term culture of losing is a bad plan.

 
At Wednesday, March 21, 2018 11:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am afraid that at this point it goes deeper than the bottom feeders tanking for draft picks.

You see what the Warriors are doing right now by resting their stars with injuries than only they know the real severity of (but the suspicion that they are simply resting players for the playoffs sure hangs in the air). And that's the best team in the league

Even the Spurs, as excellent as they have been over the years, and as much of a winning mentality as they strive to maintain as an organization, have been pioneers in the field of blatantly throwing games away to rest players.

Back in the 60s teams played 5 games in 5 nights on some occasions, and that was before the era of private jets and teams having the resources to hire a large staff to take care of every aspect of their conditioning. They somehow did not die on the court by doing that.

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2018 9:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

That is a good point. Tanking is not only being done by the worst teams but it is being done--selectively--by top teams as well. The Spurs have been fined for this, most notably a while back when Popovich sent home several of his starters before the team played its only regular season game that season at Miami.

There have also been some instances during which teams may have intentionally moved down in the standings to obtain what they perceived to be a more favorable playoff matchup or seeding.

This kind of conduct is not good for the sport as a whole. I also fear that if gambling on NBA games becomes more widely legalized then there will be a significant financial incentive for a variety of kinds of misconduct.

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2018 1:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, a lot of luck involved with tanking. Let's leave football out of this, as basketball is a completely different sport, and one player can make a much bigger impact on the game. I agree mostly with what your saying about the philosophy of tanking/not tanking. However, to say it doesn't work is incorrect, because we've actually seen it work before many times. Whether it's intentional or unintentional is moot. Once we reach the 3/4 or 4/5 mark of the season, and a team is clearly out of the playoff picture, what incentive does that team have to try to win as many games as possible. Kanter is absolutely correct and it really stinks to see teams do this stuff, but I see the reason why they do and it seems to make sense.

I seriously doubt SA was trying their very hardest to win as many games as possible in 1997, but that's another discussion. And the other posters here are right, they're one of the worst franchises when it comes to tanking, too. Would we see the SA organization in the same light if they didn't luck out in getting Duncan in the 1997 draft? SA would likely have no titles if they didn't. As great as Robinson was, he only needed led his teams to the CF 1x in 9 years, so it's very unlucky SA would've won a title with Robinson as their best player. Something probably needed to change.

I agree with the concept of teams trying to do well and foster a winning atmosphere which then could lead to getting potential top 5-10 player in the leagues in the future. But, seriously, what great player is going to come to a place like Memphis ever? James mainly went back to CLE because that's where he's from. He probably would've left there a lot sooner than he did the first time, too, if he wasn't from there.

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2018 2:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Been thinking about this some more, and I want to elaborate a little.

I think the reason SA sticks out so much to me--and to a lesser extent, OKC--is that there's sort of a class of haves/have nots when it comes to "ways to get good players," and they're the only small-market teams that were really able to build a contender. They both did so behind multiple Top 5 picks (2 #1s for SA, a #2, #3, and #4 for OKC, plus I think a #12.) Now, SA continue to build intelligently from there through trade and draft and extended their window, while OKC did not (so far), but they both started from a position of strength that they came to by picking more than once at the top of the lottery.

Franchises like LA, Boston, Miami, even Houston to some extent have attractive enough markets and/or environmental factors (no income tax in Florida/Texas) that they really never need to tank; they can always rebuild through free agency. Heck, even the Spurs--definitely a smaller market-- at least have the lure of "no income tax" over a team like Sacramento or Memphis.

But what small market teams have won in the last 20 years besides the Spurs? Most small market teams that don't tank end up in basketball purgatory, winning 40-48 games or so a season until their core ages out of relevance. I don't support tanking, but I totally see why a team like Memphis or Sacramento might try it. If they do go get guys in free agency, they tend to have to overpay (Chandler Parsons and Rudy Gay being recent examples).

There seems to be a hard "Conference Finals" ceiling on small-market teams that don't bottom out. Atlanta, Denver, and Memphis have all had short spurts of semi-contention in recent years... but none of those teams has ever had a Lebron/KD level player, let alone an MVP-type player and a few supporting stars, and they've struggled to sustain meaningful contention or even peak with a Finals appearance in a league dominated by Kobes/Duncans/Lebrons/KDs.

Is it possible for a small market team to win titles without bottoming out? Maybe. But they'd need to nail midround draft picks consistently (basically no team does) and stumble into an A#1 type player either through free agency or a midround pick (only recent example: Giannis), and still manage to build a stable supporting cast without overpaying role players (Milwaukee has not done this for Giannis yet). The degree of difficulty for a small market team that refuses to bottom out is orders of magnitude higher than for either a big market team or a team that does bottom out... or, in the case of the 76ers and Lakers, a big market team that bottoms out.

Do we really think in five years Denver (who did luck out with Jokic) or Indiana has much shot of being anywhere near as good as either of those teams?

I'm not defending tanking--it's wrong, it sucks, and it makes the game less fun--but I think if there's a solution it needs to be one that also creates a viable path for non-destination teams to build their franchises. Because the current model overwhelmingly favors teams that either have the clout to lure stars--i.e., not Memphis or Milwaukee--or teams that rebuild through the draft--which is easier to do while tanking.

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2018 2:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

The interesting counter-example here might be the 2004 Pistons. They're a mid-market team, but certainly smaller than most Finals contenders. They built their team mostly by trading for players they saw as undervalued (Hamilton, Wallace, and Wallace), and by signing Chauncey Billups in free agency banking that his small sample size (to that point) of strong play was a sign of things to come. That goes wrong more often than it goes right, but it worked out for Detroit.

Even with four A+ hits on finding undervalued talent, Detroit still needed a little help to get past the Lakers- Malone's injury, Shaq's defensive apathy, Kobe's low shooting- and couldn't quite beat a Spurs team which had fewer stars but more depth and a better top player. The year after that, they got beat by a Heat team that had a top draft pick (Wade) and an A+ free agent acquisition (Shaq). The year after that, they got beat by Lebron James and a bunch of role players.

That's, in the last twenty years, the best-case scenario for a non-tanker small market team, and it took four massive gambles paying off (in a depleted conference) for it to work as well as it did. Meanwhile, the Heat and Spurs won eight titles behind top draft picks and splashy free agents, while the Lakers racked up 5 behind a splashy free agent (Shaq) and a great draft pick (Kobe) combined with the market to attract a top-2 coach (Phil).

That all said, if they'd picked Wade or Bosh instead of Darko in the 2003 draft, their window probably would have been a lot longer.

TL;DR- Tanking happens because small market teams don't see another way to contend, and big market teams cash in on a broken system. The fix has to address both problems, not just the second one, or else the rich just get richer.

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2018 3:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The article from the Atlantic Monthly that I have cited in some of my previous articles about tanking referred to research indicating that tanking does not actually work.

If we accept the premise that it does work and/or your premise that it is a logical practice for small market teams, then you are correct that any solution to this issue must not create further separation between the big market “haves” and the small market “have nots.”

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2018 5:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I'd say it's less "does work" and more "can work." Way more teams probably attempt tanking and get nothing out of it than attempt tanking and meaningfully contend... but for small-market teams I think it's the closest thing to a viable option (if the goal is to contend for a title and not merely be "pretty good.").

If you're looking at small market teams with Finals appearances in the last twenty-five years, it's basically San Antonio (6), Cleveland (4), Detroit (2), Utah (2), OKC (1), Orlando (1), and Seattle (1). Of those, SA, Cleveland, Orlando, and OKC all at least partially built their team by tanking (or at least bottoming out). Detroit built theirs as discussed with beyond stellar player evaluation (and a bit of right-place, right-time, though every title winner needs at least a little of that), and Utah built theirs very slowly with two incredibly savvy draft picks in the 80s that turned into top 10 All-Time talents at their respective positions. Seattle likewise struck gold in the draft two years in a row, including probably the best 17th pick ever (Kemp) and a lottery miracle (snagging the #2 pick with the second lowest odds of any lottery team).

Meanwhile, big market teams LAL (7), Miami (5), and Golden State (3) all got MVP-caliber free agents to come to their franchises (in Miami's case, twice) while also drafting/developing very, very well. Worth noting is that GSW of course had already made 2 Finals when they got Durant, but they were also able to lure Iguodala on a reasonable deal (a key cog) in part because of their attractive market.

I really only see five Finals teams out of 50 in the last 25 years (Utahx2, Seattle, Detroitx2) that were small-market non-tankers. We could quibble about whether or not New Jersey counts as a small market (they were close enough to NY to have significant reflected appeal), but even if we throw them in it's 7/50 appearances and 1/20 titles.

On the flip side, how many of the "big market" teams haven't made the Finals in 25 years? It's basically just the Clippers, right? Famously poorly run? Even the Clippers have had extended runs of competitive basketball fueled by attracting a name free agents (Paul) in that span. Despite the Sterling & Rivers of it all, they still nearly managed to Mr. Magoo their way into Finals berths.

Note: Just got to this point in the post before remembering Indiana. Adjust previous relevant numbers by 1. An extremely well-run team that didn't tank to get their guys. They also didn't win a title, but credit where it's due.

On the flip side, Memphis, Toronto, Sacramento, Portland, Minnesota, Denver, New Orleans, Charlotte, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Washington have all not seen the Finals in the last 25 years. In fact, those teams combined have 10 NBA Finals appearances ever*. That's one more than the Warriors. It's less than a third as many as the Lakers. And half of those are from the 50s/early 60s. The most recent is 1990.

*Though of course the Nuggets did make 1976 ABA Finals.

That all makes me feel like 1) big market teams have a huge advantage with or without tanking, and 2) the small market teams that had the most success generally owe some of it to having tanked. It'd be nice if we could change both of those.

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2018 5:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Correction: The Blazers made the Finals in 1992. That's the most recent by the teams I listed. Got confused.

 
At Saturday, March 24, 2018 11:06:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

There are also intangibles to tanking:
- strategy based on luck, which is questionable business model in real life, it alienates fans and makes for crappy product which hurts the league, thus all teams;
- winning culture has better chance to lure role players with good work ethics and drive to win, which are as important as talent, see: James LeBron; at the same time losing culture attracts "lazy bums"
- there are several good players in the draft, not just 1 or 2, problem I see is most teams doesn't choose all that wisely while some teams still can get good late picks and develop them into decent players, see: SA Spurs.

 
At Monday, March 26, 2018 6:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

I agree 100% with each of your three points.

 

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