As I reported from the summer league in July, the league introduced an odds-reform proposal that would have made Cleveland-style leaps more likely by cutting the chances for the worst teams. The proposal was an anti-tanking measure clearly aimed at the Sixers, and it didn’t get the required supermajority in an October vote. Kiki Vandeweghe, the league’s senior vice-president of basketball operations and last night’s drawing room MC, told me the discussion has been tabled for now. “I don’t see anything happening in the immediate future,” Vandeweghe said. “We will continue to study it.”
Stu Jackson is a former NBA head coach and the former executive vice president of the NBA. More recently, he has worked as an analyst on NBA TV. All those jobs make him uniquely qualified to answer a set of questions about the league from the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand: Q There is a lot of talk of “tanking” and teams intentionally losing in the NBA. How much of that do you think is perception and how much is reality? A My view has always been that the perception is greater than the reality with most teams. I think every franchise has reasons why they make certain decisions with their personnel, in terms of managing their salary cap situation to allow for certain trades or free agency, and it really depends on the stage of development respective franchises are in. Those decisions are not the same for everyone. For some it might take on the appearance that a team is tanking when they’re really just managing their own development.
The Nuggets have rested players for two straight games. On Monday night, those players just happened to be three of the team’s four leading scorers and the leading rebounder since the coaching change in a season that team brass — and many fans — hope ends with a high lottery pick. Not everyone is pleased, though. Forward Wilson Chandler was asked if he expected a full roster Thursday with the long rest between games. “I have no idea what they are going to do,” Chandler said. “Whoever is on the court just has to keep playing. It’s the nature of the business. I’m not a GM; I don’t know what’s going on. It’s tough when you’re fighting together but you’re getting set up for failure.”
Some New York Knicks fans want to see the team tank the season to land a top pick in the NBA draft. But to star forward Carmelo Anthony, that is a “bad mentality to have.” “I don’t know how to have that mindset,” Anthony said Wednesday night after the Knicks beat the Philadelphia 76ers 98-91 to improve to 7-36. “Having that mindset as a basketball player, as a competitor, it’s just hard to do unless you don’t care about the game, what happens and your performance. To say that we’re going to go out there and we want to lose a basketball game, I think that’s a bad mentality to have.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver says that the perception of tanking in the league is greater than the reality of it. “I absolutely don’t think any team is trying to lose,” Silver said in an interview with ESPN’s Andy Katz for “Outside the Lines.” “No player is going out there to lose,” Silver continued. “In terms of management, I think there’s an absolute legitimate rebuilding process that goes on. It’s so hard to win in this league, and it’s so complex.
Magic Johnson the other day said he hopes the Lakers lose all their games. What do you make of that mentality? Flip Saunders: I’m never a proponent to just say tank games or lose games. You’re letting players off the hook. Depending on who you have out there, you might not have to worry about it. … I know what Magic is saying, and I’m sure it’s how most people look at it: If you’re not going to be a playoff team, you’re better off getting as high a (draft) pick as you can.
But tank? As far as Lakers president Jeanie Buss is concerned, tanking is “unforgivable” and “irresponsible.” “I think the teams that use that as a strategy are doing damage,” Buss said as part of a wide-ranging ESPN The Magazine joint interview with her brother, and Lakers president of player personnel, Jim Buss. “If you’re in a tanking mode and you’re doing that for three years or whatever, that means you’ve got young players from the years that you were at the bottom that you’re teaching bad habits to. I think that’s unforgivable. “If you’re tanking and you have young players or you keep a short roster, you’re playing guys out of their position or too many minutes, you’re risking injury. It’s irresponsible and I don’t think it belongs in any league.”
Another rival executive suggested that the Sixers’ losing streak would soon come to an end, though I don’t see Fort Wayne on the schedule. One more GM predicted that the Sixers ultimately would win about 10 games, citing how difficult it is not to win at least a handful of games by accident. The worst 82-game record in NBA history, of course, belongs to the Sixers, who went 9-73 in 1972-73.
Why is this a problem? It isn’t so much the practice of tanking itself, but rather the poor public perception of the strategy that concerns Silver. “I don’t necessarily disagree with the way it works now,” Silver said. “I’d say from a personal standpoint, what I’m most concerned about is the perception out there right now. Frankly, the pressure is on a lot of our teams, even from their very fans, to somehow underperform because it’s in some people’s view the most efficient and quickest way to get better, so I think that’s a corrosive perception out there. Whether it’s the case, I’m frankly not sure. I think sometimes perception becomes reality in this league.”
Sixers fans are quick to point out that Philly has already drafted two big men in the last two drafts in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. But several NBA sources said Philly could easily trade one of their current bigs if they opt to draft Okafor at No. 1 (assuming they get the No. 1 pick). “They will probably trade one of the bigs they currently have instead of Okafor,” one NBA source said.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had just finished praising his potential one-and-done players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones when he climbed down off the podium at Barclays Center and told me tanking for star players like them is “stupid.” “It’s stupid to have it because one, you don’t know if you are going to get somebody and it’s a disservice to your fans,” Coach K told me after his No.-4 ranked Duke team beat Stanford, 70-59, to win the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Some 50 NBA personnel, including Boston Celtics President Danny Ainge and Phoenix Suns GM Ryan McDonough, were in attendance.
Michael Carter-Williams: The media creates this narrative and repeats it over and over. That’s how Stephen A. Smith ends up in our locker room with a big smile on his face. I’m not picking on him. I know he’s playing a character. He knows he’s playing a character. But what happens when we break the streak by going out and beating Detroit that night? Now it’s another story. After the game, a lot of the reporters didn’t even stick around. The ones that did weren’t prepared. They didn’t ask us about the specifics of the game. They made up questions on the spot, like, “Uh, hey, you guys won … so how do you feel?”
Smith fired back at MCW Friday on Sirius NBA radio, and in perhaps the saddest display of a media member tough-talking an athlete, here’s what Smith said: “You’ve never going to have the last word over us. And you damn sure ain’t going to have the last word over me. I’m not going to start problems, but I can damn sure finish them. If these guys want to come at me, let them do it at their own peril. It will be a mistake.”
Michael Carter-Williams: We weren’t the story anymore. They were on to the next thing. Stephen A. didn’t really stick around. I guess he had a plane to catch. Believe me, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure he doesn’t come back for the same reason.
Michael Carter-Williams: And then there’s the hype surrounding the No. 1 pick. Even before the season started, TankingForWiggins.com was a real thing. Once the narrative picks up, it’s over. We wished we could come out and say how ridiculous it was for people to think the players were tanking when there were guys on the team playing for their livelihood, but that only would’ve made it worse. Nobody took the losses harder than we did. We deserved plenty of criticism, but we all put in too much work to be treated like a joke.
Michael Carter-Williams: Here’s the thing: I can understand why the media seized onto the story. My problem is that it was missing a lot of context. We didn’t even have the worst record in the league at the time, but the average person watching on TV probably didn’t know that. The media spin was that we were tanking the season so we could get the number one draft pick. Now, let’s break that down for a minute. First of all, there’s a lottery system. As players, we all know the math. The last place team only has a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery. Grown men are going to go out and purposely mail it in for a one-in-four shot at drafting somebody who might someday take their job? Nope.
Michael Carter-Williams: In the middle of the playoff race, a race we were decidedly not in, it seemed like the entire media spotlight was on us. And trust me, I get it. We had lost 26 games in a row. Of course, our roster had lost a combined 200-plus games to injury and we had used more than 20 different players in the lineup since opening night. That didn’t seem to be a part of the conversation. All anybody was talking about was “tanking.” We knew it was going to be a circus when ESPN flew in Stephen A. Smith to Philadelphia for the 27th game against Detroit. In the locker room before shootaround, we got swarmed by reporters. You could barely move around the room. Somebody actually asked, “So how does it feel to be a part of the most losing team in NBA history?” Which was really funny because we hadn’t even played the game yet. Everybody just expected us to lose and set the record.
Michael Carter-Williams: You can question my shooting. You can question my ceiling. Just don’t question if I’m giving my all every single night. Don’t talk to me about tanking. The media creates this narrative and repeats it over and over. That’s how Stephen A. Smith ends up in our locker room with a big smile on his face. I’m not picking on him. I know he’s playing a character. He knows he’s playing a character. But what happens when we break the streak by going out and beating Detroit that night? Now it’s another story. After the game, a lot of the reporters didn’t even stick around. The ones that did weren’t prepared. They didn’t ask us about the specifics of the game. They made up questions on the spot, like, “Uh, hey, you guys won … so how do you feel?”
“I don’t know; it would be a tough call,” he said. “When Dirk [Nowitzki in 2012-13] got hurt, we didn’t. But it’s a little different, because I had a lot of one-year guys, and we had to see who we wanted to keep. And I never thought he [Nowitzki] would be out that long. Honestly. I thought he’d be back at the start of the season. … It kept dragging on. “He never would have sat out the whole year. So I’m glad we did it the way we did because I like the fact I’ve never had a losing season.”
In an obvious attempt to make sure folks with the Oklahoma City Thunder have to answer questions about the subject, Cuban wondered aloud if the perennial contender would consider junking this season after injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook put them on the sidelines for another month. “The question I don’t think anybody’s asked is why they don’t try to pull a David Robinson and try to get Tim Duncan?” Cuban said. He insisted he wasn’t suggesting anything inappropriate. He was just curious why the question hasn’t been asked. And no, he wouldn’t say whether he would consider tanking the season if he were in the Thunder’s position.
Salary cap expert Larry Coon, whose Q&A website offers a thorough explanation for the complicated collective bargaining agreement, says that if the Sixers can’t (and they probably won’t) spend another $32.6 million on players by the time the season ends, that money will be handed over to the the National Basketball Players Association for distribution. Who gets it? Anyone who played for the 76ers. Coon explains: The shortfall is based on the team salary as of the team’s last regular season game, but the distribution comes after the league’s audit in July The union informs the league of its proposed distribution within 30 days after the audit, and the team has 10 days after receiving the proposal to distribute the money. There is no set rule for how the money is distributed – the CBA just says “…pro rata or in accordance with such other formula as may be reasonably determined by the Players Association.”
But overall, the much-hyped 2014 tanking wasn’t that awful, numbers show. That is, except for the final two months of the season. The combined record of the bottom 10 teams this year was 258-562 (31.4 percent). That’s only slightly worse than the bottom 10 average in the last 20 years: 32.18 percent of wins.
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Sixers owner Josh Harris told reporters Friday that he’s proud of what the 19-63 Philadelphia 76ers accomplished this season despite losing 26 in a row. “I think the season has been a huge success for us,” Harris said in an Associated Press story on Friday. Give Harris credit for his honesty. The Sixers hold two lottery picks (one via a trade) and never were shy about admitting they had to tank — make that, rebuild — this season in order to start their hopeful championship track. “We don’t use that word,” Harris said of tanking.
Ranadive’s plan also would feature a way to keep every team engaged to the season’s end by keeping them all eligible for the postseason. “Then part two is at the end of the season the top seven teams in the East and the top seven teams in the West make the playoffs,” Ranadive said. “And then for the eighth spot, the remaining eight teams (in each conference) have a college-style sudden-death playoff at a neutral place.”