We're at the point where reporters are openly claiming that if Team A doesn't sign Superstar Y, the team will "tank" in 2013-14. As Peachtree Hoops documents, ESPN's Chad Ford has been big on this claim, suggesting that the Hawks will join other "tankers" if Atlanta can't land Dwight Howard.
Our Paul Flannery got at this on Tuesday, but it needs to be repeated again and again: we have a whole lot of different definitions of tanking bouncing around, and none of them really make sense. And the idea that a team can pitch itself to a major free agent, lose the bidding and decide to suck -- it doesn't even make sense!
In my opinion, tanking is an act, not a plan. If I were the arbiter of basketball definitions, to tank would be to intentionally lose one or more games through abnormal rotational decisions, DNPs and/or shooting nights. The Suns sitting a healthy Goran Dragic against his will in March? Tanking. Two teams sitting their top-five players in the final week of the season, and then one of those teams (the Celtics) sitting a hot player the entire fourth? Tanking. The Warriors yanking a rookie because he's too good? Tanking. Mark Madsen firing up seven 3-pointers in the final game of the 2005-06 season? The most egregious tanking ever.
Those are acts of tanking. The Celtics trading Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry for draft picks and contracts? That's not tanking, that's rebuilding. And the reality of rebuilding in the NBA is that the draft is the best, most efficient, most effective and often the most painful path. It's long, arduous and it works. Even if you bail out on it early -- as the C's did in 2007 -- you need the picks because ... other teams are doing the same damn thing.
The Sixers trading a young All-Star for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 pick? That's called selling high and rebuilding. The Hawks deciding that they should not sign a bunch of mid-rung veterans if they do not land Howard? That's called smart team-building. The Raptors trading Andrea Bargnani and possibly Rudy Gay? That's called cleaning up the old tenant's mess. The Bobcats ... I don't know, what exactly are the Bobcats supposed to be doing to avoid the deep lottery right now? Signing Al Jefferson, Jarrett Jack and Kyle Korver?
The anti-tank crowd will bash teams for not putting together a competitive team while bashing other teams for overpaying for marginal players. If we're going to "fix" tanking, focus on actual tanking. Why on Earth would we want to punish bad teams (and their fans)? Isn't being awful punishment enough?
The sentiment especially reeks coming from neutral or fans attached to other teams. If a team sucks, and the fans of that team understand why the team sucks and when it should get better, and the team loses gate receipts, prestige and attention accordingly, what right does a League Pass jockey have to get pissed and demand change? (And like watching the middle-of-the-pack playoff teams -- looking at you, Bucks, Hawks and Celtics -- was any more fun that viewing the Bobcats, Suns and Wizards.)
If there's anything for Adam Silver to do on this subject when he takes over, it's to address the acts of tanking through fines or perhaps more aggressive punishment. The question of what constitutes an act of tanking is not nearly as complicated when you strip all of the rebuilding stuff away. Heck, include a warning system to set some boundaries. When a reporter says the Suns plan to scratch a healthy Dragic for two games, good ol' Stu Jackson can fire up his Batphone and threaten a fine. "Fake an injury like a real tanker," he says. It won't end the practice, but the practice pops up a handful of times every couple of years.
The actual problem of tanking -- once you drill down and define "tanking" reasonably -- just isn't a big deal. It's the conflation of rebuilding with tanking that makes it look so pervasive.