In late October, just before the start of the National Basketball Association season, the Phoenix Suns traded their best big man, Marcin Gortat, and three other players to the Washington Wizards for a conditional No. 1 draft choice and Emeka Okafor, a once-good center whose herniated neck disk meant he probably wouldn’t play this season and might not again. The Suns theretofore had been reckoned as laggards with a potential of maybe 20 victories in their 82-game card. Afterward that estimate seemed optimistic.
Instead of anguished wails the move engendered popular and journalistic approval in the desert metropolis. That’s because the team had accumulated four possible first-round picks in the supposed-to-be-loaded 2014 draft, and its anticipated worst or near-worst regular-season record would give it a good shot at Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, the projected cream of that crop. Ryan McDonough, the Suns’ young general manager, was hailed as a genius for his act of roster destruction.
Funny thing, though, some of the young and/or miscellaneous players the Suns collected to mind the store this season turned out to be pretty good, and at year’s end their 19-11 won-lost mark was sixth-best in the league’s western half, well above draft-lottery status. If they continue that way they’ll have to grind out further improvement laboriously rather than through a single-draft splash.
The situation highlights a paradox that usually goes unremarked in sports. While intentionally losing any single game is deemed disgraceful if not illegal, it’s quite all right—even praiseworthy—for an organization to set itself up to lose a season of games, or more. The practice is called “tanking” and it’s as much a part of big-time pro scene as bloated salaries and ear-splitting game-break entertainments. It makes sense because of the “worst goes first” amateur-player drafts that all our professional leagues employ to give bottom teams a leg up toward redemption.
Except when an Andrew Luck is available, worst-goes-first works better in small-roster basketball than in big-roster football. It worked so well in basketball that in 1985 the NBA acted to counter blatant tanking by abolishing the top-pick coin flip between its two conference cellar dwellers in favor of a 14-team lottery that’s so complicated actuaries have trouble understanding it.
The NBA lottery sometimes yields odd results-- in 2008 the Chicago Bulls, with only the ninth-worst record and a 1.7% chance, drew the long straw and Derrick Rose. Further, top picks turn into busts often enough (Kwame Brown, Greg Oden and, apparently, last year’s prize Anthony Bennett) to give pause to the most cocksure general managers. But the 25% shot that goes to the team with the worst mark is nonetheless worth trying for, and, annually, several always do.
With the Suns out of the running, the NBA’s race to the bottom now is being led by the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz. Both were decent last year (the Bucks went 38-44, the Jazz 43-39), but each cleared its roster of useful players in off-season preparation for a dive.
Interestingly, though, they may face competition from a couple of teams that started the campaign with title aspirations. The above-mentioned Bulls, again faced with the season-long injury loss of the above-mentioned Rose, are being urged to dump other veteran stars Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer in order to jockey for a better draft position, and the Brooklyn (nee New Jersey) Nets, who impatiently added old Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to vie for supremacy in the East, now find themselves old all around and wondering where their next fix will come from. A clamorous press in each of those clubs’ home cities does not shy from use of the “t” word.
More interesting, I think, is the fact that big-time sports’ shining recent examples of, uh, creative losing come not from basketball but from baseball, the sport in which futurecasting is the most iffy. That’s because it typically does not get its best young prospects primed by the feedlots of academe but must develop them themselves, with little certainty of reward.
The baseball model was established in 2006 by the Washington Nationals under the veteran executive Stan Kasten. To put it baldly, Kasten’s plan (he even called it “The Plan”) was for his historically ailing franchise to be really lousy for as many years as it was required to build a farm system that could sustain title contention. It took five seasons of between 89 and 103 losses (2006-2010), but the team eventually accumulated enough high-draft-pick standouts such as Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasberg and Bryce Harper to enable it to compete in better company.
Kasten’s present-day disciple is the Chicago Cubs’ Theo Epstein. Hired in 2011 to accomplish the Herculean task of reviving a team whose record of futility impresses even Buddhist monks, Epstein, the one-time Boston boy wonder, has eschewed half measures, remorselessly purging his roster of any veteran who might be worth a prospect in return. The upshot has been two terrible seasons and a third at hand, with who knows how many more looming beyond that.
True to his Hebraic roots, Epstein is like Moses, determined to have his minions wander through the desert until no one with the old, slavish mentality remains to enter the Promised Land.
That sounds better than tanking it, don’t you think?