NBA Bag: 10 Steps to Tanking Perfection
Editor’s note: Every Wednesday from now until the final day of the regular season (April 16), I am cranking out an all-NBA mailbag for the Triangle with a 5,000-word limit. As always, these are actual emails from actual readers. We’re tackling only one this week.
Q: What are the odds that the Sixers finish their season on a 36-game losing streak? They’re at 15 already with 21 games to go. They put two actual NBA players on the floor each night, and things are so bad that I just thought about whether or not Byron Mullens is an actual NBA player. Is there a chance for L36?
— Jack, Philly
SG: The short answer … YES!
You know how Lance Armstrong was the greatest cheater ever? How he blended his commendable charity work with state-of-the-art science and relentless lying to pull an ongoing Jedi mind trick on the American public? The 2013-14 Sixers have a chance to go down as the greatest NBA self-sabotagers ever. They haven’t been tanking games as much as obliterating any chance of winning them. And they’re doing it because the NBA gives every team the same loophole …
If you want to throw away a season, depress your fans and disgrace the league for a 25 percent chance at the no. 1 pick and a 100 percent chance at a top-four pick … knock yourself out!
The Sixers know they’re better off bottoming out in the grisliest way possible, so they’re owning it — they’ve done everything short of signing Kevin Hart and Allen Iverson’s mom to 10-day contracts. And those moves might be coming next week. Would anything shock you? Look at the self-sabotage blueprint that Philly’s new owners and GM Sam Hinkie have followed.
Step 1: Trade your best player for future assets if you don’t feel like he can be the best player on a championship team.
And that was a GREAT trade: Jrue Holiday for 2013’s no. 6 pick (Nerlens Noel) and New Orleans’s top-five protected first-rounder in 2014. Thanks to New Orleans’s struggles, Philly has an excellent chance of landing two top-10 picks in a deep 2014 draft; more important, they improved their own 2014 lottery chances by turning 82 games of Holiday into zero games of the already-injured Noel. A crucial part of self-sabotage: maiming yourself in the short term. You don’t want to sorta suck or kinda suck in the NBA. You want to suck all kinds of suck.
(Important note: I loved that trade last summer and love it even more now that New Orleans is flopping in the West. Philly got somewhere between 130 and 200 cents on the dollar, depending on where that second pick lands, for someone who wasn’t a franchise player. I love Rajon Rondo, but if the Celtics got a Holiday-like offer for him, I’d be packing his bags and his leather Connect Four case for him.)
Step 2: Don’t sign anyone who can help you, even if it means dipping under the salary-cap floor and going down as the cheapest NBA team ever.
What’s the point of signing veterans like Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, and Shaun Livingston in July just because you have the extra money? So they can tie up your cap, give you depth, make you a few wins better, take young players under their wing and maybe even teach them good work habits and professional behavior and all that overrated stuff? Screw that! Fill your bench with unproven young guys, failed draft picks and fringe bodies who make you say things like, “Wait, wasn’t that the dude on Jimmer’s BYU team who got suspended for getting laid?” and, “Is that the same Jarvis Varnado who was on Miami, or is this another Jarvis Varnado?”
Step 3: Don’t get discouraged if you win early.
Philly started out 5-4 for two reasons: Michael Carter-Williams was better than everyone expected, and its three holdovers (Thad Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes) clicked in a surprisingly entertaining way. The Sixers handled it perfectly — never celebrating, never improving their roster and allowing Young-Turner-Hawes to be thrown in every conceivable trade rumor without ever saying, “We kinda like what we have here … change of plans!” By January, Carter-Williams was developing poor habits and learning to lose. Young was asking for a trade. And Hawes was mailing in games and carrying himself like the star of a hostage video. Well played, Philly.
Step 4: If you can’t get fair value for your trade assets, trade them anyway.
Before the deadline, Philly gave away Turner, Hawes and Lavoy Allen for three second-round picks, two expiring contracts they immediately bought out (Danny Granger and Earl Clark) and the immortal Henry Sims. People get carried away with second-round picks because they’re cost-effective assets if you nail them, but recent history says you have about a 10 percent chance of landing a rotation player from picks 31 to 40. (Since 2009, only Draymond Green, Kyle Singler, Chandler Parsons, Lance Stephenson, DeJuan Blair and MAYBE Nate Wolters came through.) After that, you’d have a better chance of hearing someone say the words, “I think what James Dolan is doing is really smart … ” By stockpiling second-rounders (five in all), Philly gave itself a puncher’s chance of landing someone who, someday, might be 80 percent as good as Spencer Hawes. Congratulations! But that’s a self-sabotage staple — you’re not throwing games, just making it impossible to win. Hawes and Turner needed to go.
Step 5: If you can affect the playoff race just to be dicks, even better.
Philly gift-wrapped Turner and Allen for Larry Legend for 10 cents on the dollar. Then, the Sixers bought out Granger to save $500K over keeping his sign-and-trade rights and hoping one of the league’s most respected veterans affected Carter-Williams in a positive way. Granger signed with the Clippers, meaning Philly potentially improved two of the league’s five best teams. (Note: I still think Granger has a salad fork sticking out of his back. We will see.) If someone made those two moves in your fantasy league, it would ignite a 125-email chain that included snarky insults, obscenities in all caps and semi-threats like, “Why don’t you drive over to my office right now and say that to my face?” When the Sixers do it? Totally fine. The NBA enables this behavior — there’s no trade committee, no “spirit of the league” rule, nothing. So, why not?
Step 6: Trade for Byron Mullens.
Thanks to a Latvian reader named Reinis for pointing this out: Byron Mullens is really the Olivia Pope of NBA self-sabotage. First, he has the experience — Mullens was the LVP of that unforgettably wretched 7-59 Bobcats team. When Charlotte dropped 23 straight to end its 2012 saboteurium, Lord Byron was giving them 27.2 horrendous minutes a night. The man knows what he’s doing. Nice guy? Absolutely. Could he be your 12th man? Sure! But if you’re riding him for big minutes, you’re riding a center who doesn’t protect the rim, rebound, defend or draw a double-team. You’re riding a sabermetic eyesore. You’re riding a 3-point specialist who can’t actually make 3-pointers.
Believe me, if you’re throwing away your season, you want Byron Mullens involved. Even with the Clips pushing to dump Mullens to open up a roster spot, Philly still traded a second-round pick to get him. He ended up fetching one fewer second-round pick than Spencer Hawes did! Has there ever been a better self-sabotage move? It was like the 1987 Lakers landing Mychal Thompson, only the exact opposite.
Step 7: Come up with a fake injury for any good player and/or milk the recovery time of any existing injury.
Here’s an interesting blueprint dilemma for Philly — only Carter-Williams can cost them a couple of losses (by playing too well), but the Sixers want MCW to win Rookie of the Year so that SOMETHING good comes out of this season. You know, because voters are dying to reward the best guy on a team that just lost 36 straight. Let’s send him a trophy and a car! Well done, my friend!
The case for not shelving Williams with a bogus injury: He feeds into the self-sabotage as long as he’s forcing too many plays and cheating for steals over actually playing defense. Have you watched him lately? Yikes. That’s what happens when you enable an impressionable kid and allow him to chase the Rookie of the Year award over trying to win games. Anyway, you could make a strong case for keeping MCW out there. Hold this thought, we’re coming back to it in Step 10.
Step 8: Give tons of minutes to young players who aren’t ready for them, and come up with as many doomed/goofy/ridiculous lineups as possible.
Two sentences are your buddies here: “We think he has potential, and we want to see what we have here,” and, “We want to get a little more creative with our lineups and see if anything works.” Both are unequivocal lies. Whatever. If the Celtics landed Kevin Durant in 2007, do you think Boston fans would care seven years later that we played Allan Ray too much, or that Young Gerald Green had the green light to shoot from any spot on the floor, or that we played two and three point guards together at the same time? Again, we repeatedly played Delonte West, Rajon Rondo and Sebastian Telfair together at the same time. This actually happened. Within a few months, we had KG and Ray Allen and nobody cared. Sixers fans won’t care in six months, either. Assuming there are still Sixers fans. That reminds me …
Step 9: Make a big deal about discounting next season’s tickets as a thank-you to your loyal season-ticket holders who paid full price for an 82-game season that you just threw away.
Whoops — the Sixers went the opposite way! My bad. Before Allen Iverson’s jersey retirement ceremony last weekend, they enticed fans to buy 2014-15 season tickets with a thrilling offer: Get your tickets now and you can have your picture taken in front of Iverson’s no. 3 banner, then one of his bodyguards or flunkies Iverson will autograph that photo at a later date. They even called it “an exclusive opportunity.” You mean, more exclusive than paying full price for a D-League team with a genuine chance to finish zero for its last 36? Maybe they could have Tony Wroten autograph an “exclusive” picture of a disgustingly clogged toilet to commemorate their 29-point home shellacking to Cleveland last month.
(The good news: The Sixers still have time to rectify this mistake. What about giving your loyal peeps a sorry-about-everything discount for 2015, you dumbasses? Or would that make too much sense?)
Step 10: Weigh the benefits of self-sabotage against the long-term damage to your most valuable asset.
Philly has a solid chance of passing Milwaukee for the Quadruple P (Ping-Pong Pole Position). The Sixers are only one loss behind, with no plans of ever winning again. But they shouldn’t ruin Carter-Williams to do it. In 1997, I watched M.L. Carr irrevocably alter Antoine Walker’s career with that same “Rookie of the Year on a Crap Team” carrot. As the Celtics threw away their last two months for Duncan ping-pong balls, they had Antoine playing out of position at center, hogging the ball, chasing his own numbers and learning horrendous habits. At the time, I was living in Boston and hitting most of those games because my dad steadfastly refused to go. Trust me: Antoine was only 20 years old, and he NEVER recovered from those two months. He learned all the wrong things. All of them.
Well, the same thing is happening to Carter-Williams right now. He might be special, he might never get there … who knows? He’s a fantastic athlete with size, and someone who quickly adapted to the speed of the NBA game and belonged from day one. Could he have the career that we always wanted Shaun Livingston to have — just a slew of 22-9-12’s on a series of entertaining teams? Of course. But he’s also a genuinely dreadful outside shooter (see Kirk Goldsberry’s shot chart below), and he’s a little older than you think (at 22, he’s actually five months older than Kyrie Irving). We learned this the hard way with poor Ricky Rubio: Sometimes your outside shot is broken, and that’s just the way it is.
Regardless, here’s an undeniable fact: Carter-Williams played much better in 2013 (8-11 record, 17.8 PPG, 7.5 APG, 5.5 RPG, 3.1 SPG, 41% FG, 31% 3FG) than he has played in 2014 as the team has gone into self-sabotage mode (6-24 record, 16.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 38% FG, 24% 3FG). That’s a problem. They’re better off punting on Rookie of the Year, coming up with a bogus injury and keeping him away from the team’s festering stink. There are no good lessons from intentionally getting your asses kicked every night.
Last night, the Sixers lost by 33 in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook finished with a triple-double in 20 minutes. Twenty minutes! Um, how is that helping Carter-Williams? Philly’s easiest remaining games: Utah, @Knicks, Sacramento, Knicks, Detroit, @Atlanta, @Boston, Boston, Game 82 at Miami (against Miami’s second string). You’re damned right 0-36 is in play.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee, Utah and Orlando are their self-sabotage partners, although they haven’t been quite as blatant (ironically, the bumbling Bucks actually TRIED to be good). Utah, Sacramento, Boston and the Lakers will start to smell a little gamey soon. The disappointing Pelicans want to keep that top-five-protected pick, which means (a) get ready for the bogus Anthony Davis injury soon, and (b) we might be getting a lot of Austin Rivers down the stretch. Maybe even 40 minutes a night. We might have to stick paramedics near Haralabob Voulgaris at all times. (What a shame that we can’t watch Rivers and Mullens on the same team running pick-and-rolls.) And don’t sleep on Atlanta throwing its season away (already happening) or Denver doing the same (about to happen). Ladies and gentlemen, that’s our biggest Tankapalooza field ever: one-third of the league!
Does Adam Silver care? Does he want to repair this? I’ve already suggested fixes in 2007 (the Entertaining As Hell Tournament), 2009 (in an exchange with Gladwell on how to fix the NBA draft) and 2011 (tweak on the same tournament idea). Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote about Mike Zarren’s concept of a lottery wheel three months ago. I mean, if the NBA has a relocation committee and a media rights committee, wouldn’t it make sense to create a For the Good of the Game committee? We have too many teams (that’s never changing), a season that’s too long (that could easily be fixed) and far too much incentive for non-contenders to intentionally fail (that can DEFINITELY be fixed). We also don’t have any penalties in place — not even something as simple as, “If you lose 90 percent of your games for any 35-game stretch during a season, your season-ticket holders receive a 30 percent discount for the following season.” Would we see as much self-sabotage if the owners’ wallets were involved? Somehow I doubt it.
Two weeks ago, I wondered about the best way for an NBA general manager to make sure he stays employed for four to five years. “The answer: Blow everything up, bottom out, build around young players/cap space/lottery picks, make a bunch of first-round picks, and sell the ‘illusion of hope’ to your fans. I’d like to see people in other professions try this.”
As a San Francisco reader named Aziz pointed out, I inadvertently “described the private equity business model. Take over a bloated company, load it up with debt, dump assets, cut research & development, and basically guarantee the company can’t do anything innovative for a decade. Once the debt is paid off, you have a company with nice free cash flow (‘cap space’). And guess what? Many NBA teams are now owned by private equity or venture capital investors, including some of our most unapologetic tankers.” One of them? Philly’s Josh Harris. Hmmmmmm. Could there be a correlation? And why would the NBA want any correlation?
The league’s creative paralysis from 2008 through 2013 had a built-in excuse: David Stern stayed five years too long. He only allowed innovation that involved the words “digital” or “international.” He stopped taking chances, stopped thinking outside the box, stopped trying to grow the game domestically. He bristled anytime someone questioned him, held on to petty grudges, bullied people behind the scenes and protected the wrong people.
Stern executed his own kind of blueprint: the Here’s What Happens When You Stay Too Long blueprint. Even his “retirement” lasted an absurdly long time: nearly 18 months in all, as Stern chased and conquered Pete Rozelle’s meaningless “longest tenure by a commissioner” record. He should have exited last June — after an incredible Finals and a bizarrely entertaining draft in Brooklyn — in what could have been something of a victory lap. Instead, he hung around for eight more awkward months. Everyone assumed that Stern would stay as the league’s unofficial international ambassador, feasting on a cushy gig that allowed him to traipse around the world (India, China, Australia — you name it), while pushing the sport abroad. That job never materialized. The dirty secret of Stern’s last 18 months was that, as much as the 30 owners respected him, they also believed it was time for him to leave. And somehow, the smartest guy in the room was the last guy who realized it.
Adam Silver’s first month in charge was distinguished mostly by how hastily Silver distanced himself from his old mentor. Many of Stern’s administrative cronies had already been forced out, and Stern’s surprising absence from All-Star Weekend in New Orleans wasn’t exactly random. A new generation has emerged behind the scenes, with Silver flanked by new assistant commish Mark Tatum (a beloved hire), NBA Entertainment honcho Danny Meiseles, merchandising guru Sal LaRocca, global media head Bill Koenig, and Adam’s right-hand man, Jarad Franzreb, among others. The current group of owners with the most influence — ranging from the old guard (Peter Holt and the Reinsdorfs) to the newer old guard (Stan Kroenke, James Dolan, Wyc Grousbeck, Mark Cuban, Ted Leonsis) to the new guys (Vivek Ranadive, Joe Lacob) — all believe in Silver and have his back, both publicly and privately. They like the guy. That’s not a sentence you heard about David Stern very often.
Truth be told, Stern would have stayed in office even longer if some of those owners hadn’t gently nudged him out. With a monster television deal coming, digital content booming and live events becoming the most valuable media rights property — especially with multiple 24-hour sports networks and local cable superstations that need hundreds of hours of airtime to fill — the league itself has never been stronger. It didn’t just win the last collective bargaining agreement; it destroyed the players and checkmated a fractured union. Do you realize that Brian McCann signed for more guaranteed money this winter than LeBron’s last contract? It’s no accident that, other than maybe Milwaukee, ZERO professional basketball teams are for sale. Seattle has two billionaires willing to double the sticker price for a handful of the 30 teams; nobody is biting. Throw in LeBron and Durant — the best rivalry, potentially, since Bird and Magic — and all the other star-studded contenders, and it’s an amazing time to run a basketball league.
Silver and his owners believe that there’s a real window here — thanks to the concussion crisis in football and the execrable length of baseball games — for the NBA to seize the reins and become America’s new pastime. There’s a reason the new commish mentioned this publicly more than once. His owners want to hear a little less about “growing the sport abroad” and a little more about “building the sport domestically.” Other than the way he treated people and carried himself, that was their single biggest issue with Stern.
And that’s why this tanking bullshit matters. When 36 percent of your league is willfully throwing away the last five weeks of an 82-game season, you’re doing something wrong. Stern stuck his head in the sand. He pretended self-sabotage wasn’t a recurring danger, just like he pretended the broken officiating system was fine … and the always-disappointing All-Star Saturday was fine … and the annoying 2-3-2 Finals format was fine … and the stunning lack of minority league executives at every CBA bargaining table was fine … and the embarrassing Chris Paul trade veto was fine … and The Decision was fine … and the Maloofs destroying basketball in Sacramento to the point that the fans had to revolt was fine … and Clay Bennett extorting Seattle for a new arena and ultimately hijacking the team was fine … and the league owning the New Orleans franchise as it landed the no. 1 overall pick was fine … and starting off Silver’s commissioner transition by hovering over him for an extra eight months was fine.
I don’t think Adam Silver wants to stick his head in the sand. I really don’t. But conquering the self-sabotage corner is a good place for him to start. This isn’t tanking. Nobody is throwing games. They’re just shitting on them. And they’re doing it because it’s the smartest thing to do. Don’t pretend this is fine. It’s not.