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Tanking, the NBA draft lottery and another flavor of pride

Why the biggest factor that slows institutionalized tanking might, ironically, be the folks in charge.


Do you think Sam Presti was lucky to land the No. 2 pick in a year in which the No. 2 pick was both obvious and a future ultra-elite scorer? Do you think Presti was lucky to pick out a future All-NBA point guard with the No. 4 pick a year later, despite that guard's range being all over the place? Was it lucky, in that same year, to pick a Congolese prospect in the 20s and have him challenge for Defensive Player of the Year within three seasons? Was it lucky to land potentially the best player in the draft at No. 3 a year later?

There's no question that Presti's strategy in Seattle and then Oklahoma City was to make the Sonics and Thunder non-competitive for two years to acquire two of their own high picks. (As it turns out, the Sonics and Thunder were not competitive for three years, and landed three of their own high picks, used on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.) But that wasn't the totality of Presti's plan: he also dealt his assets for picks, landing the No. 5 pick in 2007 (Jeff Green) for Ray Allen and renting out cap space to the Suns for the No. 24 in 2008 (Serge Ibaka).

The Presti Plan is to strip the roster, leveraging space and vets to maximize rebuilding assets. That's not in dispute. And there's no question that at least one team, the Sixers, are currently following that strategy. Another, the Bobcats, appeared to recently have tried it but have since abandoned the idea in order to improve. The Magic bizarrely won the Dwight Howard trade (by no small margin) and so they don't really fit the Presti Plan bill anymore. The Suns rebounded so quickly behind a new coach, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic that they eliminated themselves from the Presti Plan conversation. The Raptors dumped two high-dollar players, one for a draft pick. But those players were performing so poorly that trading them has had the opposite effect as a Presti Plan move would ... the trades have made Toronto better! The Celtics might be tanking if they weren't in such a horrid division and if Rajon Rondo didn't heal like Wolverine.

But again, the Thunder are not the Thunder by sole virtue of Presti stripping the team. The Durant pick was a no-brainer. The Westbrook was nothing of the sort: it was a master stroke. The Ibaka pick was just as good. The decision to pick James Harden despite having elite scorers in KD and Westbrook on the roster paid dividends (though perhaps not enough) once Presti ended up trading him.

The whole Spurs-Tim Duncan tank job conversation applies here, too. Yes, the Spurs tanked on purpose once David Robinson went down. Yes, the Spurs got lucky. But all those titles don't come without R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich making a whole lot of other crucial moves, including taking Manu Ginobili in the second round and Tony Parker near the end of the first round. Getting a top pick — even the top pick — in a big draft is never ever enough. It takes more.

And that brings me to pride, and in particular something Suns GM Ryan McDonough said last month.

"One of the reasons I'm here and one of the reasons we had great success in Boston was because of our success outside of the lottery," McDonough told Arizona Sports 620's Burns and Gambo. "Is it easier to be picking in the top 5? Sure. But in some ways it's an insult to myself and my staff to think we can't [have success in the draft] without a top 5 pick, that we can't have success outside of the lottery."

You don't get to become a general manager of an NBA team without believing you can pluck stars from anywhere in the draft. And the Celtics sure did it, with McDonough playing a role in the Rajon Rondo pick. There's no question that in any given year you'd rather have the No. 1 pick than the No. 12 pick, or the No. 12 pick instead of the No. 24 pick. But because these GMs believe they can make steak and lobster out of the No. 24 pick, there is likely to be lower thirst for that No. 1 pick.

As analysts, we sit back and see the actual difference in value between expected output from the No. 1 pick and No. 12 pick. But the average GM sees it through a different lens: through faith in his own ability to excel. The No. 1 pick on average will outperform the No. 12 pick. But I can pick an All-Star at No. 12. That faith, that pride expressed in McDonough's quote is a real defense against full-on tanking. And frankly, Presti had it, too. He only intended to stink for two seasons. That's why he went after extra picks in 2007 and 2008. It just so happened that improvement was slow enough for him to be blessed by the lottery balls in 2009.

Tactical tanking will happen late this season as teams jockey to improve their odds. Healthy players will be yanked, like Goran Dragic last season or Paul Pierce in 2007. Coaches will rely on bizarre lineups to quietly drop their likelihood of winning, like Mark Jackson did two years ago and Dwane Casey did in 2006.

But don't expect GMs to put all of their eggs in the lottery hopper. Belief in their own ability will prevent much more institutional tanking from happening.

THE 20-20-20 CLUB

One of the best things about peak Kevin Garnett was that he was such a good all-around player. He didn't just score, just rebound, just defend, just pass well. He did all of it. He's the only player in NBA history to average 20 points per game while hitting a total rebound rate of 20 percent and an assist rate of 20 percent. And he did it twice, in 2003-04 and 2004-05.

This season, two more guys are on pace to join him: Kevin Love (25 ppg, 20 percent rebound rate, 20 percent assist rate) and DeMarcus Cousins (22, 20 percent, 20 percent). The ability to score and facilitate while handling a standard big man duty — rebounding — at an elite level is really rare. Of course, Garnett was an elite defender as well. Love and Cousins are ... not.

But that doesn't diminish their awesome accomplishment to potentially join an elite club I just made up after a goofy Basketball-Reference Play Index search. That doesn't diminish it at all. 20-20-20 Club!

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