In Defense Of Tanking: Against Toxic Mediocrity
Embrace entropy! Get rid of the draft! Play the season blindfolded! Tanking is a scourge and we must stop it! Oh young basketball fan, it is your sacred duty, that you would take up arms and crusade against this pestilence upon our fair game! Too long have these teams held you captive, forced you to train your eyes on Aaron Gray’s every movement! Revolt! Reclaim!
This is the polemic against tanking, a practice opposed with increasingly fervent discourse. The patron saint of the conquest, Henry Abbott, has built the thesis that the practice of teams intentionally losing games in order to improve their draft position dilutes NBA games to the unwatchable. He and others push the platform that the league rewards and incentivizes losing too much, which makes the latter third of the NBA season functionally tortuous. The crew also frequently emphasizes that tanking is a risky and unsuccessful move anyway, but their main point of reference is from a fan perspective, that tanking replaces otherwise beautiful NBA basketball with scrub-riddled pointlessness.
This is a reductive argument and obfuscates the small joys of being a fan of non-contending team. In the ideal world proposed by Abbott et al., bad teams are still bad, but their autonomy to bring in top players is taken out of their hands and they would be subject to any number of strange fixes. These include randomizing the draft order further, eliminating it altogether, and instituting laissez-faire free agency for rookies. While these are all good-faith suggestions made by basketball minds and economists much smarter than I attempting to fix what they see as a serious contagion infecting the league, tanking is a relatively small-scale practice that doesn’t disenfranchise anyone without their permission.
As Tom Ziller of SB Nation points out, the only people that tanking really hurts are owners, as falling ticket sales and lower season ticket renewals erode their bottom line. This is an important distinction to make, as ambitious team restructuring plans that necessitate losing most likely get ownership approval. Ziller also writes at the end of that piece that all proposed systems of talent distribution would create their own inefficiencies and latent problems not apparent until they happen. The actual boots on the ground practice of tanking is not an entirely sinister thing. There are a few desperate examples of purposeful torpedo-jobs at the very end of a season — think Spurs for Duncan in 1996 — but mostly the practice involves flooding the floor with young players, giving them the keys to the family motorcycle, and a general shrugging of shoulders. This is not a problem. It provides a healthy space for unrefined marble blocks like Russell Westbrook to begin to take form, and for dudes like Ben Uzoh to get a triple double, which is really fun, if not as important. The 2011-2012 Warriors performed a brazen and egregious tank-job to lock in the number seven pick and Harrison Barnes, but the deliberate shittiness was short term and helped Golden State pull out of their long cycle of mediocrity. Under the current system, teams in the bottom five of their respective conferences shouldn’t necessarily be sacrificing development for wins in May. 82 games is a lot, and if you’re staring at a lottery slot with a solid amount left, playing veterans for three more wins instead of allowing prospects to clear up whether or not they are worth a roster slot damages the team twofold.
Fandom isn’t a zero-sum game where a season ending in anything less than a title is a smoldering dumpster fire. Most fans want to watch their squads in playoff basketball games, and most fans do, since over half the league makes the postseason. Of the other 14, there are usually a few teams making a concerted effort to work their way into the playoffs who fall short. These are often semi-veteran teams trying to make the leap out of the tanking cycle or underachieving squads on their way down, and they are typically desperate to finish in the money, if only to validate their difficult season. Directly below these teams are a pack of ex-tankers now looking to cement their core in place, and see if any reupholstery is necessary. These teams will try to steadily improve, and often have enough talent that grim awfulness would be antithetical to their systemic development goals anyway. If tanking compromises end of regular season viewing, it certainly affects a minority of NBA teams. For the holistic NBA fan the solution is a fairly simple one: watch games that have postseason implications, avoid games you don’t want to watch. There will be other basketball games on most nights and these will be apathy-free, desperate affairs.
This is not to say that there is no value or fun in games involving bad teams. Unlike other sports — the best example is soccer — dysfunctional basketball can be it’s own weird brand of fun. Elite athletes, especially now in the post-Jordan era, are hypercompetitve people and they would theoretically be pissed off with purposefully losing. Any team of NBA players fielded will be fuming and straining to win, but their attempts will be hamstrung on a team level by management. These games heavily feature young players, who can be the most interesting demographic to watch, since they are often figuring it all out for the first time and are more apt to do silly, GIF-able stuff. This could simply be a byproduct of watching too much Kings basketball over the past few years, but it’s really entertaining to watch point guards attempt and occasionally succeed with superfluous passes or to witness pyroclastic high-fliers push it too far and jump too high, too often. Sometimes fans even get to watch the entire process as players slowly get their wings and leave the nest, and it’s a unique long-term payoff. The joy of basketball isn’t necessarily in the narratives. Watching athletic events out of story-arc context can be entertaining and that fun is equally valid.
For fans of teams well outside of the playoff hunt, following the day to day ebbs and flows of a young team is it’s own kind of intriguing. These teams will be geared towards winning basketball games as yet unscheduled, but the Aprils and Mays of the immediate future will be nurseries for players whose relevant days lie ahead. Watching along as a rookie learns to maximize his skills on an NBA level for the first time is a rewarding experience. Any fan that sticks through lean years and then gets to see their favorite players whom they’ve formed a virtual bond with perform in the playoffs will be deeply rewarded for their patience. Now that tanking has it’s niche in the mainstream discourse, more fans are aware of it and the practice has some appeal as a brave gamble designed to infuse the team with dynamic talent.
What tanking does best is create two distinct echelons that heavily disincentivize mediocrity. Teams are all trying to be good eventually, and if success is simply not possible in a given season, the best direction to head is back towards the watering hole. The system embraces the reality that NBA championships require superstars, who are almost always acquired as lottery picks, and sends teams in dire need to where they need to go. There is a natural path of improvement that tends to shuttle teams upward until they reach a crucial plateau around 35 wins. Here, they are usually too high to draft a future all-star, but they typically have the right assets to elect one of two paths. They can push forward with the core in place, often with signings or trades to bolster the squad or they can trade those former blue chips away for players with talent still in reserve and draft picks and try to climb those stairs again.
This juncture can lead to a purgatorial stalling out, and these teams are the least interesting ones of the bunch. The Bobcats are a mess, but there is an element of appealing mystery there. Last year’s Sixers were brutal to watch, and it was all a fairly aimless affair featuring Jrue Holiday as Vladimir, pining for an absent Godot of postseason success. Philadelphia of course traded their all-star point guard for what ended up being a rookie with a non-functional knee and the rights to bring in two more rookies next year. In contrast, Dallas signed two solid domestiques, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, in an attempt to return their faltering team back to the playoffs. The approaches and directions are divergent, but the goal is the same; escape mediocrity. Tanking may push fans and players too close to the uncomfortable idea (particularly with regards to American sports culture) of not doing your best every time, but it is situationally necessary. No other system accomplishes the goal of fairly ensuring bad teams a way to rise out of the muck with as few externalities. Most essentially, horizonless boring mediocrity is minimized. Get busy living or get busy dying.