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Tanks for Nothing

No doubt many of you have seen the John Hollinger piece (via OregonLive) in which the erstwhile statistician discusses the practicality of your team tanking the season to get a high lottery spot.  He looks at lotteries past and asks how much losing each extra game helped teams reach the Promised Land (by percentage).  It's an Insider article but I was fortunate enough to read the entire thing the day it came out before it got tucked away into's pay-to-view vault.

It is not my purpose (not entirely anyway) to argue with Mr. Hollinger on his own terms.  I freely admit that he is far superior to me in matters of statistical analysis.  Other than one brief question, I don't intend to debate his statistical work.  But I would like to take issue with both the validity and the propriety of his underlying thesis that tanking is a viable strategy.  Simply put:  I am sick of the word and the concept, which has seen more use this season than in all the seasons I can remember since the lottery began combined.  Enough is enough with the tanking thing.

First, my question statistically-speaking.  John went to a lot of work coming up with his stats.  He was able to show that teams that have lost 71 games have won a top two pick a certain number of times while teams that have won 68 games have won a different number of times, and thus to measure how much those extra losses "helped".  But correct me if I'm wrong...isn't each lottery drawing a completely independent trial?  In other words unlike, say, baseball statistics it has nothing to do with skill or ability or the weather or any factor except the completely random bouncing of ping-pong balls.  That means that no matter what has gone on before, with 71 losses or 68 losses or 52 losses or whatever, the teams in the lottery will have the exact percentage chance they have and no other.  The chance you have with 68 losses doesn't depend on the results of the team with 68 losses back in 1996.  It depends on how many teams this year have 69 or more losses and that's it.  Losing that 70th game doesn't get you one extra fraction of a percentage if the next team worse than you lost 71.  And the team with the worst record will always have a 25% of getting the best pick no matter what the last decade's records say.  I can't help but think I'm missing something here because it's unlike John to do a spurious piece.  I'm sure someone will correct me in the comments section.  Until then I don't get it.

But even if that's resolved, I still have some questions about the attractiveness and the mechanics of tanking.

How many teams when it comes right down to it really, really want to tank?  Of course every team wants a top two pick.  But how many general managers would really walk into a season saying, "Our main goal this year is to lose as many games as possible to ensure ourselves the best shot at those picks"?  A little fudging I can believe.  There might be guys out there saying, "If there was ever a year to take a flyer on some young guys instead of signing some journeymen vets that might win us a game or two more, this is it."  That's a no-lose situation really, because if the young talents develop you've won but if they don't you have the pick.  But those decisions are made every year.  The factors that lead to those decisions are complex and people fall all over the continuum for various reasons.  The prospect of getting a high lottery pick is not foreign to those considerations and leaning towards the high-risk end of the spectrum in any given year can hardly be considered "tanking".

No, what I want to know is how many of these ultra-competitive men, many of whom were former athletes themselves (and in this league and in those uniforms), men who have it in their blood to win and succeed at every turn, are actually going to turn around and say, "I want to lose, on purpose, to everyone"?  Maybe I'm naïve, but I can't believe the percentage is that high.  You'd have to have no respect for the game, or fairness, or dignity at all.  Does it happen?  Sure.  We all remember the Houston fracas that started the lottery in the first place.  But does it happen that often?  Is it more than a very small percentage of people?  I don't think so.  And it shocks me that this is being spoken of as if it's a legitimate philosophy that teams employ every day like a full-court press or pick and roll.  That just seems irresponsible and, well...dumb.  It's dumb on the part of the media, it's dumb on the part of fans.  It brings suspicion into the game for no good reason and casts shadows where, for the most part, there are none.  

And you know no matter who gets those top two picks and no matter how they got there, unless they're maybe by some bizarre twist of fate the 13th and 14th teams in the lottery, the "T" word is going to be used.  I've got news for you.  I love the Blazers with all my heart and I will never stop loving them, rooting for them, or thinking the best of them.  But when it comes right down to it, when compared to other teams in the league--teams like Phoenix and Dallas, or even Denver and Washington--the Blazers are not a very good team.  They're poor offensively.  They're poor defensively.  They're poor rebounders.  When they lose games, do you suppose there might be a reason for that?  When Boston loses or Memphis loses do you suppose there might be a reason for that?  Of course there is!  And it's not because they're tanking.  It's because they STINK.  You notice that the only fans who talk about tanking as a serious strategy are fans of teams that are already going to lose way more games than they win.  I often think it's a knee-jerk way to avoid reality.  "No...of course my team's not actually bad.  They're losing on purpose because it's a brilliant strategy!"  Uh-HUH.  Allllll...righty then.

But let's just go with that for a minute.  Let's assume that there's some unscrupulous GM out there who hatches this cunning plan to get the next LeBron and get rich quick.  Let's just ignore the fact that he only has a small percentage chance because of the way the lottery's set up.  Let's also ignore the fact that he's putting his own job at the mercy of one player, who could turn out to be a dud, or a drunkard, or injured.  Let's say he was willing to go forward with the plan anyway.  Let's even go so far as to say that he was somehow able to talk his owner into this, because you'd pretty much have to do that, wouldn't you?  I mean if you get fired for that 12-win season before you can even consummate your draft selection that kind of defeats the purpose, doesn't it?  Of course the owner would have to be willing to absorb the decline in ticket sales and commercial revenue this year, and perhaps for a year or two to come if the new star isn't Mr. Charisma in addition to being Mr. Basketball, but hey...we'll say he's far-sighted and willing to delay gratification.  We'll just assume our unscrupulous GM got over all of those obstacles.  

How the heck does he go about convincing everybody else?

Your coach lives and dies by his win-loss record.  And it's not just for you he's winning.  He knows darn well that you're going to fire him sooner or later.  Coaches of bad teams almost never retain their jobs long enough to see that team's resurgence.  The fans are going to turn against him.  The players are going to tune him out.  He's only as good as his last season to the GM.  And besides who's to say this new savior coming in next year won't be a total jerk who hates him and is unwilling to follow his system?  When that all comes down, what's going to guarantee him a chance to get another job and continue his livelihood?  His won-loss record, and that's about it.  Plus when you hired him he probably assumed you wanted him because he was good and because you thought he could...I don't some games.  How's he going to react when you tell him that, no, you didn't hire him for his talent, nor to win, but just so he could be a figurehead who talks to the media while your team absorbs loss after loss?  Just how are you going to convince this guy whose blood, brain, income, and life's calling are all bent towards winning basketball games to suddenly coach to lose?  I want to hear that conversation.

And what about the players?  These guys all have some sort of competitive spirit and drive or they wouldn't have gotten to where they are now.  Some are at the point they're ready to excel individually and to grasp all the rewards that implies.  Others are still trying to prove they're good enough to play in the league.  Still others are getting old and are just looking for one more go-`round before they hang it up.  How are you going to show up in the locker room and tell them their job is to abandon all that and go out and throw look bad in front of out-and-out waste 10% or 30% or 100% of their remaining careers?  What's more, how are you going to tell them that they'll be doing this so that next year somebody new can come in, somebody who's going to get more acclaim than they do, eventually make more money than they do, and for some of them take their spot on the team?  I want to hear that conversation even more than I want to hear the one with the coach.

But let's assume that you got through all of those hurdles and somehow, miraculously (probably reluctantly) everyone was on the same page.  What the heck would that look like?  Can you imagine guys going out there and intentionally missing shots and defensive assignments and rebounds?  I don't know if you've noticed, but professional athletes are seldom masters of subtlety and disguise.  My guess is the minute that started it would become patently obvious to the opponent, and over time would also become obvious to the league, the media, and even the most casual of fans.  And you know intentionally throwing games is illegal, right?  (Heck, the opponents wouldn't be the first to notice...the bookies would.)  If the league even suspected you were doing such a thing they'd give you a draft penalty so stiff that it would make the Minnesota-Joe Smith fiasco look like a gathering at Camp Kum-Bah-Yah.  Plus every executive and culpable player in your organization would be summarily fired and banned for life.  Plus your owner might be forced to sell the team.  I suppose another way to rig it would be to sign Shecky Gruberman and Joe Fumblefoot to one-year contracts and then play them 45 minutes per game but it wouldn't be long before the odor from that would seep under the league office door and the Stern Mafia would be knocking at yours.  (They used to get mad at the Lakers for resting Magic and Worthy the last couple games of the season in preparation for the playoffs, remember?)  Or even worse, some disgruntled player or other lackey in your organization would have a private little sit-down with the local columnist and then the lid's blown off the whole deal on Page One.

So does somebody want to tell me again how "tanking" became a legitimate word in our strategic lexicon?  Because I'm just not buying it.  Not winning the last game or two of the season because it'll gain you a better spot...maybe you could pull that off under the guise of checking out your lesser talents.  But throwing a significant part of the season intentionally?  I just don't see it.  So can we stop talking about this kind of thing until it's proven that it's actually happening somewhere besides in the minds of fans (inevitably fans who are pointing fingers at teams besides their own)?

Last thought:  If this is a serious concern maybe the league needs to look at the star system it's created that makes high picks like this seem like the only viable way to success.  Maybe it also needs to examine whether the very lottery system that was supposed to stop this kind of thing is actually paradoxically contributing to it.  After all, if perpetually bad teams had better chances of getting higher picks they probably (on average anyway) wouldn't be perpetually bad that long and thus desperate enough to try such a thing.  It also might not make each draft seem like such a "now or never" proposition if you had some assurance that if you didn't get Oden this year, next year you'd have a reasonable (i.e. better than 1 in 4) chance at Mayo or somebody.

--Dave (