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Rebuilding in the NBA is a victimless crime

Is "tanking" really as big a problem as some make it out to be? Who is it really hurting?


Henry Abbott, Kevin Arnovitz and the TrueHoop team have spent an incredible amount of time, effort and brain power on cracking the "tanking" scourge. The argument from the TrueHoop squad is that it's bad for basketball and its fans to have intentionally horrid teams, and that the strategy -- be awful to get good -- doesn't even work. All fixes spring from that position: tanking is bad for the league, and it doesn't even work.

The latter case has been made, to some extent, though I have some quibbles with the evidence. (Teams aren't always in the lottery on purpose. Abbott has previously written about GMs who work a couple hours a day and pay little attention to any sort of advanced analysis or deep scouting. Those GMs end up in the lottery, too. Studies showing that "rebuilding" doesn't improve teams haven't controlled for the teams who are in the lottery because they are run by bums.)

But I'm still struggling to believe the first part of the argument, that this is a drain on the league. Where are the victims here? Who is this hurting?

The TrueHoop team's focus has been almost entirely on documenting the many failures of the strategy and proposing sensible solutions. The raison d'etre for the whole exercise is Beckley Mason's 2012 post, "Tanking Hurts Fans." The post quotes two writers -- Ethan Sherwood Strauss of Warriors World and SB Nation's own Ben Swanson, a Bobcats fan -- on how odd and/or miserable it is to watch teams losing on purpose.

That and the evidence that tanking isn't a useful strategy is basically the entire argument as to why this is a major problem. And to me, that's not enough.

We need to give fans way more credit. They understand. Go up to Boston right now or in February when the squad is 17-40, and you'll find some upset fans, but you'll also find a ton of fans who actually appreciate that Danny Ainge finally took the plunge and traded away the vets who got the team to that not-terribly-competitive 41-40 record last season. The thing is, you'll find upset fans -- paying fans -- in every city. Sports talk radio, anyone? Heck, this is the best Knicks team in 13 years and we still hear constant complaints.

Ultimately, fans vote with their money. Perpetually poor teams lose season ticket holders. Bad teams see single-ticket sales drop and actual season ticket holders flooding the secondary market with cheap seats, hurting team revenue.

And those financial decisions by fans hurt the teams doing the rebuilding, creating a disincentive to strip the car bare. So as with any strategy, rebuilding has pros and cons. Each team sorts that out and makes a decision. Because of the business impacts, one would hope that the owner is involved and cognizant of the menu of consequences. And because so many owners are of the "championship or bust" mentality, rebuilding will often win out over the oft-maligned but perfectly reasonable "be competitive every year and hope for the best" strategy employed most famously by Herb Kohl's Bucks.

/// TANGENT! ///

In that Bucks piece, Arnovitz writes:

The basketball intelligentsia mocks teams that seem content to chase the No. 8 seed, especially in the East (No. 8 seeds in the West are usually pretty good and generally have legitimate aspirations to finish higher). The maxim, "If you're not contending, you're rebuilding," is regarded as smart thinking. Some league executives publicly adopted another neologism -- "the treadmill of mediocrity" -- to describe what many of them see as a fatal condition.

This position is regarded as smart thinking because of the seemingly league-wide philosophy that getting a championship is everything. Few teams concede over the long-term that being consistently good is good enough; almost every owner promises to bring a title to their city. Milwaukee is an exception to this philosophy. Until that obsession with championships ends -- so, never -- the focus on being way better than the No. 8 seed in the East will remain.

/// END TANGENT! ///

Abbott and company are certainly correct in that it's a shame that not every team sees a reason to be competitive. It's quite a bit of a mockery that the Sixers began free agency on August 1 (a month after everyone else, and about two weeks after everyone else wrapped it up) and are now leading HoopsHype with big moves like signing Darius Morris and Khaliff Wyatt. (What Sam Hinkie is doing right now is nothing short of subversive performance art.)

But it's not hurting the NBA in any sense that I've seen proven. Fans are going to be pissed at their GMs no matter what! And the sort of drastic steps TrueHoop's writers and the contributing (very smart) economists have suggested to fix the issue need really good justification, because the ideas come with a whole host of potential consequences.

Take the crew's most audacious suggestion, written up by economics professor Brad Humphreys: eliminate the draft, and make rookies subject to normal salary cap rules. It's a bold proposal, and Humphreys makes a strong case in its favor. But there's a glaring problem.

Critics would howl that this policy would wreck competitive balance. The large-market teams would buy up all the good players, leading to a lopsided league of haves and have-nots!

My response to this criticism is: This would be unlikely to happen with the current NBA roster limits and salary cap. Incoming players would be subject to the cap, and rosters spots on NBA teams are limited, so large-market teams could not stockpile all the incoming talent.

It's not that the large-market teams would buy up all the good players. It's that, if the history of NBA free agency is to be believed, the glamor teams would buy up all of the very best players. There's a reason that Al Jefferson was the first major free agent ever signed by the Bobcats. Or that either Vlade Divac, Shareef Abdur-Rahim or Carl Landry is the most notable free agent Sacramento has signed in almost 30 years. Or that ... well, let's go back to Milwaukee for a second.

Critics (present company included) raised eyebrows at extending [O.J.] Mayo a contract of $8 million per season over three years, but the Bucks answer that they acquired one of the best talents among the free agents they could realistically target. If they overpaid by 10-15 percent, that's just one of those variables that Milwaukee can't control in play. Besides, it's not as if giving a $6 million player $8 million is going to decimate their fairly roomy cap situation.

"We're not unique," [GM John] Hammond said. "Cleveland has to do the same thing. Indiana has to do the same thing. Sacramento has to do the same thing. It's also true in major league baseball. Sometimes you have to overpay for talent."

Milwaukee is a fantastic city, but it's not Miami. Sacramento is wonderful, but it doesn't have the amenities of Los Angeles. Cleveland, bless its soul, is not New York. Minneapolis from October through April just isn't as pleasant as San Francisco. Charlotte's got nice weather and superior access to craft beer, but you wouldn't blame millionaire 20-year-olds from preferring to live in Atlanta.

In what reality can we see Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle picking those teams over more glamorous squads that cut enough space to make a competitive offer? Perhaps I don't give the young fellas enough credit. But consider LeBron James: he was drafted by Cleveland, and fled to Miami. Or Carmelo Anthony: drafted by Denver, fled to New York. Or Chris Paul: drafted by New Orleans, fled to Los Angeles. Plenty of good players (like Landry and Jefferson) sign in less glamorous cities, and under Humphreys's scheme, teams like Cleveland would still end up with good rookies. But not LeBrons. Not Kyrie Irvings. Not Andrew Wigginses.

In a league in which one star can be the difference between the lottery and the championship for a decade, that matters.

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Further, I'm not convinced that you'd actually eliminate what the TrueHoop crew calls tanking under this scheme. The NFL is a bit in this boat: getting a really high draft isn't as valuable as it is in the NBA, though that's changed a little since the onset of the NFL rookie scale. Cap space is everything in the NFL. So, you have teams that blow up their cap sheet, sacrificing a year or two of terrible football so that they can have a clean sheet to load up on free agents in a future year. The Raiders and Jaguars will play on Sunday. The teams will probably combine to win six or seven games (out of 32) this year. And those teams are "tanking" far more for cap space and to develop current youth (Terrelle Pryor, Blaine Gabbert) than to get a higher draft pick. So let's not assume that prioritizing cap space over draft position is going to fix the problem of non-competitive teams. It'll more likely just change the shape of what non-competitive teams look like.

There's real potential for unintended consequences and a failure to fix the problem. Of course, the TrueHoop team isn't suggesting the league rashly take one of these steps without full consideration of the consequences. But so long as we as the basketball writing community discusses them, bringing up potential pitfalls seems in line with the spirit of discourse.

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