Results & Resolve

If the goal is success, then tanking in the NBA‏ is not an option.
by December 26, 2015

Recently, the Sixers lost a game by 51 points, to a Spurs team which had rested Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili. Jerry Colangelo was just named as their Chairman of Basketball Operations. This for a team that already has a general manager. This degree of futility demonstrates if your goal is success, intentional failure is not an option.

Last season the Philadelphia 76ers finished 18-64. In 2013-14 they were 19-63.

This year, the Sixers are 1-30.

Joel Embiid is once again injured. The team’s best player, Nerlens Noel, is 21. Jahlil Okafor was suspended two games for off-court indiscretions. They sent their best scorer—2014 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams—to the Milwaukee Bucks for a future first-round pick of the Lakers in a three-way deal.

Last season, the Sixers finished last in fan attendance, and they’re 29th this season.

The toll planned, habitual losing takes on player morale is not worth shuffling rosters and dealing veterans. This is especially true of the effect on players from high school and college programs where they have almost never lost. In addition, the years of discouraged fans, revenue and marketing loss, draft busts, and loss of respect from opposing teams, is not worth the strategy.

The Lakers and Sixers’ best opponents do not take them seriously. Local media deride them. High-paying fans and others, are asked to wait.

The Chicago Bulls did not earn the right to draft Michael Jordan, the Rockets, Hakeem Olajuwon, or the Warriors, Stephen Curry, by planned poor performance. The presence of those players, and strong rosters built around them, reaped the benefit of NBA Championships. The same formula worked for the Lakers with the young Kobe Bryant.

More now than then, draft lottery choices are highly risky, as the pick of the litter generally only have one year of college as a sample size of their gifts. Few are leadpipe cinch successes a la Isiah Thomas, Jordan, Hakeem or David Robinson.

Even the selection of lottery picks, players such as Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Danny Manning, Allen Iverson, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Penny Hardaway, Carmelo Anthony and Yao Ming, would not have been guarantees to the team that mortgaged three-to-five years of tanking, would have won an NBA title.

None of those players won a Championship, and most played on formidable teams built to succeed, not fail. In many cases, they will not even make the Finals. How long would it have taken Kyrie Irving to play in an NBA Finals, had LeBron James not decided to come home?

Losing is a culture. Losing discourages free agents and top coaches from signing with a team. Great work habits and winning methods are learned through patience and hardship, yes, but with victory as a goal.

It took Michael Jordan seven years to win his first ring, but he and teammates, front office and coach, were giving it their all. Intentional losing is disingenuous in any line of work. It can’t send an inspirational message to the youngest fans. There’s nothing wrong with embarrassing losses tied to maximum effort. Teams learn how to better prepare for their most challenging opponents.

Consider how other national basketball teams in FIBA competition grew since the Dream Team routed all whom they faced in the 1992 Olympics. The other coaches wanted to play the best, despite the lopsided scores, and games that looked like exhibitions—the ball often not touching the floor during USA fast breaks.

Countries who hoped to develop in international play, and even groom future NBA talent, went back to the drawing board, sent kids to play at US colleges, hired American coaches and consultants, revamped their training and recruitment processes, and studied game film and instructional video.

Today, some of those teams are as likely as the US to medal in world competition. The style of play, with great spacing, drive-and-kick, has been absorbed by top NBA teams like the Warriors, Spurs and Atlanta Hawks.

There is a genuine learning curve involved in trying one’s best, no matter the sport. Pacers veterans said that high school-to-pro players such as Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington didn’t even know some basic elements of offensive execution.

The Wizards found that Kwame Brown was poorly conditioned, and nutritionally naive. But at least those teams had Reggie Miller, Antonio Davis and Michael Jordan to babysit the high school products.

They weren’t tanking. Playing one’s best is the sole measure of the distance to achieve elite status. Intentional ineptitude will not give an NBA team that frame of reference. Placing Colangelo in the Sixers’ front office, proves the point.

Bijan C. Bayne is the author of the books Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race & Class and Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball.