Rebuilding 101: Tank n’ Draft
Method 1: Start fresh by tanking.
Some fans love to obsess over the rosters of their favorite team. They scour the depth chart for weaknesses. These arm-chair GMs will get downright combative on message boards over fake trades meant for other fake GM’s: “Jermaine O’Neal’s expiring contract, James Jones, and Dorrell Wright for Amar’e Stoudamire, anyone?” If there isn’t enough shooting in the third-string forward slot they would break a bottle over the bar and go toe-to-toe, all to convince you that Mikki Moore is the missing piece. These zealots think nothing of killing their front office and defending their team to the death, sometimes in the same breath.
If you’re one of these fans, then you’ve come to the right place.
Call this series ‘Rebuilding 101;’ we’re going to be looking at the three most basic strategies front offices carefully plan and implement just so that you can tear their personnel decisions apart while you stuff your face during lunch break. And the subject of this first session is a favorite of Oklahoma SuperSonics fans everywhere—a classic I affectionately call ‘The Tank n’ Draft.’
An incredibly simple strategy in theory, ‘Tank n’ Draft’ really only has two core principles: tank first, and then draft. And the tanking part is really, really simple. As a general manager the goal is to make your team as bad as possible while accumulating top-tier draft picks and maybe some talent since even the worst teams can’t just forfeit their games. To get this bad you either trade away all your valuable, veteran role-players, or you send your superstar packing and hope to get at least a few half decent picks in return. Unless you’ve got Eddy Curry on your payroll, blowing up a team is much easier than building one.
But after you’ve got the picks, you have to actually pick your new team with them. This is where things tend to get a tad bit dicey. I bet you’d love a franchise center? In that case, of course Greg Oden should be first overall, right? Besides, that Kevin Durant kid is too skinny to be durable. Or maybe you bite on one of the many Morrisons, Darkos, Kwames, or Raefs of the Association. If Afghanistan is the so called ‘Graveyard of Empires,’ the NBA Draft is the ‘Graveyard of Franchises.’ At times it is quite literally Russian roulette; do you take Andrei Kirilenko, or take Yaroslav Korlev? The only promise the draft can make is that you won’t know the difference between the two until after you pull the trigger.
The other worry is simply landing in a bad draft for a few of the most crucial years of the rebuilding process. Take the Bobcats, for instance. In 2005 they were out of the money by one pick, settling for Raymond Felton right after Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Then in 2006 they missed by selecting the aforementioned Adam Morrison. Finally, like 2005, 2007 was a notoriously top-heavy draft, and the Bobcats weren’t quite at the top. Gerald Wallace should probably have a solid team around him by now, but the Bobcats have just been pretty unlucky.
The Tank n’ Draft has its success stories too, though. The San Antonio Spurs were possibly the best team of the last decade after losing David Robinson left them with a first-overall pick, which allowed them to draft franchise player in Tim Duncan. From there they found hidden gems like Manu Ginobilli and Tony Parker, and then built around their drafted nucleus. The Portland Trail Blazers are a more recent, and purer, example. They traded away the Jail Blazers and maneuvered to get the draft rights to Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum, who all contributed meaningfully to their success last season. Now that both of these teams are established, they’ll sign or trade for additional pieces, like Andre Miller and Richard Jefferson, but the bulk of their roster was cooked up in the Draft.
Today there are two teams just finishing up the process of tanking: the Nets and the TWolves. The Nets slow-played the deconstruction of their once formidable squad. First they dealt Kidd for Devin Harris, and sent away Richard Jefferson for spare parts and the myth of Yi Jianlin. Then the Nets shipped Vince Carter out of town for Courtney Lee and expiring contracts. They’ve also drafted Brook Lopez and Terrence Williams, which will round out a solid core in, say, a few years. The Wolves, on the other hand, are kind of steering with a broken rudder. They traded the relatively effective Mike Miller and Randy Foye, but for now they don’t seem to have a great plan in place, though that’s quite alright—best-player-available is a relatively simple pick.
On a more positive note, there are two teams that just might be poised to get out of the whole tanking part: the Thunder and the Grizzlies. Fans of the Grizzlies have suffered long enough, so Memphis added Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson. These veterans aren’t without their flaws, but they’ll hopefully bring the games closer to get their young guys some experience at actually competing. The biggest worry for the Grizzlies is that they’re striking a bit prematurely, it’s not clear that OJ Mayo or Rudy Gay is the franchise player that every team has to find during the draft phase. If these guys make the Grizzlies into a respectable NBA franchise again, chances are there won’t be a blue bear at the top of the draft board next season.
The polar opposite of the Grizzlies are the Thunder. General Manager Sam Presti knows Durant is a lock for superstardom, but still isn’t adding the veteran pieces that will get the Durantuala his first taste of playoffs basketball. And no matter how high Durant’s ceiling is, chances are the Thunder are going to struggle again with James Harden being their only real addition this summer. They’re probably holding onto mediocrity for one more season, trying to grab another top draft pick and adding their veterans during the insanity of 2010. While this strategy has an obvious upside, one has to wonder if Oklahoma is squandering a year’s worth of honestly competing.
So what’s the most important aspect of succeeding in the “tank n’ draft” strategy? Clearly, timing. Front offices need to know when their team’s competitive window is over—I’m looking at you Dumars. General managers need to know when their stars have accrued full trade value. And, most importantly, teams need to know just when to start adding veteran help before the fans riot. Yes, drafting might be largely luck, but the timing is pure skill. Front offices need to look into the future and deliberately plan, otherwise they are stuck drafting two points and finding out that their two best players are both power forwards.
If you’re a Wolves fan, chances are you’re ready to kill both me and David Kahn at this point. Or, for the hapless, frustrated Kings fans, the next time you get ready to scrap with some d*ck who tells you Tyreke Evans isn’t leading the Kings to the Playoffs this season, just take a deep breath. Remember that sometimes rebuilding isn’t easy, that it requires patience and impeccable timing—just like a good sucker punch.