Today is Kobe Bryant’s 35th birthday. The black mamba has been electrifying patrons in Staples Center for exactly half of his life, and even after suffering an achilles tear on April 12th, Kobe is determined to be back in purple and gold this coming season. Kobe has always been a winner, and that derives from his unmatched work ethic and drive. That has been tested this summer as Kobe has been in the toughest battle of his life, against his ailing body. Kobe’s rehab has gone very well to this point, and barring any setback, he expects to be ready when the Lakers open the season. Below is a birthday homage to one of the all time greats.
Although this week has been filled with ninety degree heat, I am not referring to the popular clothing top. Nor am I writing an article on TTO about a vehicle of war. And I am certainly not Jesse James, with an opinion on the construction of a gas tank. I am however referring to every commissioner’s worst nightmare. Tanking games.
I am a firm believer in the Circle of Life. If you are a bad NBA team you should be looking to use draft picks, to become a younger team with equally young players who will (we hope) develop into stars, helping their teams become legitimate contenders. Signing big name free agents is also a quick route to help your team win. If a bad team is lucky enough to find a superstar willing to play for them, I encourage it! The Circle must, of course, include the good teams as well. Those at the top are working towards a championship now, before their cast becomes old or is split up for other, financial reasons.
The problem in this Circle occurs when teams refuse to be bad, unable to determine which way their season is going to go. These teams are stuck in mediocrity. They need to make a decision whether or not to make a move and become better and possibly contend, or pull the plug and rebuild. Where people get confused is when the term ‘tanking’ is thrown around. Simply stated, tanking is losing games on purpose. The benefit of this comes with falling to a lower ranking, increasing their chances for a higher pick for the best available player. Despite the seemingly valid rationale, this is highly frowned upon for a number of reasons. The most obvious of which is the fact that it’s just not good business sense, leading to a decrease in both ticket and merchandise sales. This can taint a franchise.
When people hear the term ‘tanking’ they think of things like trading away star players for a future pick and keeping injured players out for unnecessarily extended periods of time. I would argue that there is a more subtle approach to this, still allowing the opportunity for a high draft pick while managing to keep the fans happy. The key: avoid mediocrity.
I don’t have problems with young teams with a bright future. My issue comes with teams who would rather be mediocre than bad. As I write this, many players have joined new teams (J. Smith, Pistons. D. Howard, Rockets. A. Iguodala, Warriors. Etc…) and there are still big name players available (M. Ellis, A. Bynum, B. Jennings) who have been linked to teams such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Milwaukee.
With next year’s draft class being so promising, teams should not be afraid to be bottom feeders for a year. The Hawks were in a perfect ‘tank’ situation. They had only a few players under contract going into the summer, with Teague and Smith being free agents, leaving them with a ‘bad’ team. This gave them cap space to pursue Atlanta-native Dwight Howard. Pursuing Dwight is a solid play. However, with Dwight choosing Houston, plan B should have been to just play out the season. The team would be bad, but not as a result of tanking. They would just not be a particularly talented bunch. Tanking assumes they are trying to lose, whereas losing would come naturally. By signing Paul Millsap and overpaying for Kyle Korver they are refusing to be a bottom dweller and in turn are going to be mediocre for another year as opposed to ‘bad’. Even with a potential signing of another talented guard, this team will not find itself near the top of the East next season.
With the recent signing of Josh Smith and the assumption that the Bucks attempt to re-sign Brandon Jennings or someone to play with Larry Sanders, I can assume both teams will join the Hawks in having a mediocre season as opposed to using their free pass to ‘tank’, playing with the team they have.
Certain teams feel their name is not synonymous with losing. I feel this year that the Celtics, Lakers, and Mavericks fall into that category. All three teams are looking to rebuild, yet fear the losses that come with it. L.A. and Dallas were looking to use free agency to establish a future for their team. With both teams failing to do so as of yet and with no valuable trade assets available to them, a complete rebuild should be in order. Neither Mitch Kupchak nor Mark Cuban are willing to sacrifice games for the future of their team. The Mavericks followed up Dwight Howard’s decision by signing Jose Calderon to a four-year, twenty-eight million dollar deal. Although Calderon is a solid point guard, he will by no means turn the Mavericks into a contender. Therefore I expect both teams to join the list of mediocrity.
The Celtics, similar to the previously mentioned teams, are too proud of an organization to lose games. Yet unlike them, the Celtics have young assets and a bounty of picks. By trading Garnett and Pierce, you trade away any chance of winning now. It should be assumed a rebuilding process would come next. Danny Ainge has publicly stated, “We are not tanking. That’s ridiculous. This is the Boston Celtics.” That leaves us with a team of young talent, large salaries, and an all-star Rajon Rondo coming off injury. With tanking out of the question for Ainge and the Celtics, this team finds itself in the category of mediocrity, albeit with a more promising future than L.A. and Dallas.
With where teams currently stand – in solely my opinion – I would say a potential bottom three teams next season include the 76ers, Jazz, and Magic. That is not to say that I do not like what these teams have been doing. All three used the draft wisely, and will be good in the near future because of it. By avoiding mediocrity these teams have acquired young talent such as Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Trey Burke, and Victor Oladipo, while accepting the role of a team who does not have to tank. They are naturally ‘bad’. Even though teams like Detroit and Dallas may be better than a team like Utah this year, they will suffer for that mediocrity in the years to come.