Commissioner Adam Silver says what is happening in NBA is rebuilding, not tanking

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Is there tanking going on in the NBA this season?

Depends on how you want to define taking. However even if you define it broadly it’s not as bad as many seem to think it is.

New NBA commissioner Adam Silver defines it more narrowly and says there is no tanking going on right now. He spoke at an event in Boston on Wednesday and Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe was there.

“I think it’s important to clarity what we all mean by tanking,” he said at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “Where I grew up tanking meant the coach and the players or some subset of that group were intentionally trying to lose a game. I don’t think that’s going on anywhere in the NBA and I would take action immediately if I thought it was.

“What is going on is rebuilding. And we have a system right now that incentivizes teams to rebuild. There’s a sense that you’re better off rebuilding in some cases from scratch than remaining mediocre. Now I am concerned even if it’s a legitimate strategy that there’s a perception out there by many people that it’s not. There’s an awful lot of chatter out there in the land and I continue to hear the ‘T’ word. So I think it’s my obligation to address it.”

Look at the teams with the six worst records in the NBA. The Bucks have the worst record (13-51) but they did not go into this season trying to lose, they thought O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Caron Butler and a year of growth from John Henson and Larry Sanders would again have them in the playoff mix. The Philadelphia 76ers planned to be bad. The Orlando Magic planned to be bad. The Los Angeles Lakers thought they could make the playoffs but were dramatically undercut by injuries (and overvaluing some of their talent). The Sacramento Kings were not going to be good but didn’t expect to be this bad (not with DeMarcus Cousins). The Utah Jazz planned to be bad.

That’s only three of the bottom six where as an organization they decided to be bad and go after a high pick. If you choose to define that as tanking go ahead even if Silver doesn’t agree (and you would have a valid point, the organization planned to be bad even if the players are not complicit).

But even with those teams this season is not out of line with history, explains Howard Beck of the Bleacher Report.

As of Monday morning, three NBA teams had sub-.300 records, and 10 were below .400. If we’re measuring widespread futility, these figures are in no way extraordinary.

Over the last 10 years, an average of 3.3 teams per season have finished below .300, including a high of six teams in 2010-11 and 2008-09. In that same 10-year stretch, an average of 7.7 teams have finished below .400, with a high of 10 in 2011-12 and 2009-10.

If you want to argue that the league should not incentivize losing, go ahead. But there is no easy answer here — the very nature of basketball as a sport is that to win in the NBA you need one of the 10 elite players in the league to win a title (or one and a couple from the 10-30 tier). Teams that want to win will do whatever it takes to get those players, and if you are in Orlando or Utah or a lot of other small to mid-sized markets the only way to do that is the draft (elite free agents aren’t flocking there). Take that away from them and they can’t sell hope to their fan bases and you mess with their economic model.

I’m not sure this season of “tanking” has proven to be that big a deal. I thought it would be, but feels like most NBA seasons to me. I’m not sure some grand gesture to “fix” things is needed.