NBA@2: Is Tanking Bad For the NBA?
There are really only two routes to improvement for an NBA franchise. You can either draft and develop a superstar or you can trade for one, but either way, having a superstar is an incredibly important part of the process. Without a superstar your team is going to struggle to make the playoffs, and lose that battle more often than not.
This is the time of year where that ages-old question comes to the forefront, with teams considering whether or not it’s in their best interest to just start losing in order to improve draft position versus win a few more games and still miss the playoffs.
Different teams approach this in different ways. The Toronto Raptors, for instance, aren’t overly concerned about losing this season because they have Jonas Valanciunas waiting in the wings and another high draft pick coming this summer. The higher that pick is, the better the Raptors are likely to be next season. If all goes well, they could be the most improved team in the NBA, so isn’t that worth a few losses this season?
Likewise, the Charlotte Bobcats have cashed in their chips in favor of rebuilding, and the fact that they will have the most ping pong balls in the mix when it comes time to see who will get to draft Kentucky’s Anthony Davis is not a bad thing. Four more wins would do little for Charlotte, but might give the similarly-tanking Washington Wizards an equal shot at the top pick.
Losing isn’t always an option, though. One league executive talking about this issue with HOOPSWORLD recently said that his team’s owner wouldn’t allow the team to go that route, even though some in the front office thought it might be the best answer.
True Hoop’s Henry Abbott recently debated this issue, though he was arguing that the NBA should take steps to prevent tanking. Here’s what Joel Litvin, the President of Basketball Operations for the NBA, had to say about the concept of rebuilding:
“I think NBA fans understand and appreciate the concept of rebuilding. Whether that’s done through the draft, through signing free agents, it’s a process that is not helped when a team has a lot of highly paid players who are either in the middle or approaching the end of their careers. … Go young. Lower your payroll. Draft intelligently. Be smart about your free agent signings and your rookie extensions and hope you can become the Thunder.”
Indeed, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the new textbook definition of how to rebuild. Simply draft amazing players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and then fill in the gaps with complementary pieces. Piece of cake, right?
As Abbott points out in his article, there are few teams who are managed as well as the Thunder, with San Antonio and Chicago being the best of the others. Sure, the Lakers, Mavericks, Knicks and HEAT outspend everyone, but the best way to build a sustainable contender without just buying every big name free agent on the market is to make a long string of great decisions. Draft well, signed great complementary pieces, and refrain from ridiculous contracts.
Of course, there is a certain amount of luck involved, too.
The Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers should be among the NBA’s elite teams right now. Yao Ming, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden should be household names in the NBA, but career-ending injuries derailed those players and their respective teams. Add Yao to the mix in Houston, where Kyle Lowry has emerged as a great young point guard, Luis Scola is the best power forward not on the All-Star roster and complementary pieces like Chandler Parsons, Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic are playing exceedingly well, and you have at least a playoff team. They might even be contenders. Add Brandon Roy and Greg Oden back into the mix in Portland and the Blazers, too, are battling the Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference.
Instead, the Rockets and Blazers are stuck in NBA limbo, not quite good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to get a high lottery pick, either.
The question becomes, is it better to almost make the playoffs every season, or is it better to cash in your chips, be really bad for a season, and add a superstar from the draft who makes you a playoff team right away? The Blazers finally took a step in that direction at the trade deadline, while the Rockets are still hoping one of their young talents will blow up and help them get back to the class of perennial playoff teams.
Abbott’s argument is that the NBA should step in and prevent teams from tanking. He doesn’t like the idea that bad teams are rewarded for being bad, which an interesting point. But what if that weren’t the case? What if the team with the best record got the top pick? Can you imagine OKC landing Anthony Davis? What about Miami? This is a case of the haves become have-mores, whereas what the draft is designed to do is to provide opportunities for the bad teams to get better quickly.
Besides, there is already a built-in protection, which is the draft lottery. The worst team has the best chance to win the lottery, but it’s still just a chance. There’s also a very good chance that the team with the worst record will drop a fee notches, and the difference between the top pick and, say, the number four pick, is the difference between being better overnight and once again being stuck in rebuilding mode. As Abbott notes, the Sacramento Kings have had plenty of high draft picks, but they continue to be among the worst teams in the NBA.
Good management is a necessity no matter where a team drafts. After all, only four of the 11 top overall picks this century have actually become franchise pieces: Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose. The other seven – Kenyon Martin, Kwame Brown, Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden, John Wall, Kyrie Irving – have either fallen short or are still works in progress.
Tanking is certainly one way for an NBA team to rebuild. In some ways it makes more sense than being stuck in the middle year after year. It may not be fun for fans to watch their team lose on purpose, but if the payoff is a radical improvement over the next couple of seasons, it’s likely worth it.
Tanking is not, however, a guaranteed ticket to the top, and without good management even a team with a top draft pick will struggle to rebuild.
Courtney Lee Talks Rockets
Houston Rockets guard Courtney Lee is right at home in the starting lineup, though the injuries that have led to him starting are making a playoff berth a daunting challenge for Houston. Lee talks with HOOPSWORLD about the shortened season and the toll it’s take on the roster, the addition of Marcus Camby, head coach Kevin McHale and more in this exclusive interview:
Houston’s Pinch Hitter: Courtney Fortson
The Houston Rockets have certainly had their issues at point guard this season. Kyle Lowry’s rise was the driving force behind the team’s push for the playoffs last season, but he has been sidelined by an illness that may cause him to miss the rest of the season. Fortunately, Goran Dragic has stepped into the starting line and played brilliantly, but when the Rockets traded Jonny Flynn to the Portland Trail Blazers it left them very thin at the point. Derek Fisher was expected to fill the void behind Dragic, but when he opted to take the buy-out route Houston had to come up with a Plan B.
Enter Courtney Fortson, point guard for the Los Angeles Defenders of the NBA Developmental League. He was averaging 17.0 points and 5.8 assists per game for the Defenders when he got the call to join the Rockets.
“I wasn’t really surprised, it’s just timing,” Fortson tells HOOPSWORLD. “Just seeing which team is going to call and they called me and the rest is history.”
The Rockets were in Los Angeles to play the Clippers when they called Fortson up from the Defender, and it only took three games for him to make an impact, scoring 12 points in 19 minutes in a win over the Golden State Warriors. Fortson credits Defenders head coach Eric Musselman for helping him stay ready for a return to the NBA (he played a short stint with the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this season).
“We have a former NBA coach, we have NBA practices, NBA plays, so the transition is very easy coming from that team. The D-League is getting better because a lot of guys are realizing that that’s the quickest way to the league now, go through the D-League. A lot of guys are coming out of the woodworks; the guys sitting at home waiting on calls, those guys are playing, so the league’s better right now.”
Rockets head coach Kevin McHale is impressed with the radical improvement of the D-League, which is now much more like a true farm system for the NBA than it was when McHale last coached.
“I think that’s something that should’ve been done a long time ago,” says McHale. “I think that was a great idea and I think that was one of the things – I’ve often felt our league’s such a brutal developmental league just because you hold the guy at the 12th spot, you have limited practice and then he practices infrequently. Then he works out with the coaches and especially when you have fifteen players, that is not good. If you had fifteen and three in the D-League, that would be good, but fifteen guys on the team is a lot. It’s just hard to get enough practice time and sometimes you have all fifteen up, so I think the D-League’s a fantastic idea.”
A lot of players spend time overseas while they wait for a shot at the NBA, but with the D-League improving so dramatically, Fortson never even considered that route.
“No, I had my plan. I was going to play here and hope for a call up, that was my plan so so far it’s working. It’s tough to learn on the fly, but it’s an opportunity also, so I just look at it an opportunity and just make the best of it. That’s it.”
The Rockets have Earl Boykins in the mix now, so Forstson’s opportunities going forward might be limited. Still, he understands exactly what he has to show when he gets those precious moments of playing time.
“Just consistency,” says Fortson. “If I go in and control the game for the five minutes I’m in and just be consistent every game, then that’s going to make me stick, so that’s the thing I’m going to focus on: consistency, helping bring energy off the bench and not try and do too much.”
That sounds like a path to success for Fortson, whether that success comes in Houston or on his next NBA stop.
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