Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In defence of tanking

As far as fandom goes, there are few experiences less satisfying than rooting for a failing NBA team. No team sport is more predictable, largely because no other collective game relies so heavily on the talents of its best players. This leaves NBA fans of bad teams with only one thing to hope for: a terrible season that results in a high draft pick and the possibility of drafting the superstar who can turn around their fortunes.

Given that I am a long-time supporter of the Toronto Raptors, I am well-acquainted with this reality. Indeed, there are players on the team I have only ever cheered against over the course of their entire careers in the interest of tanking. This is a strange way to cheer, and it certainly leaves me feeling more than a little ambivalent about the team I am supposed to like.

However, lest this be taken as an argument against tanking, let me set that straight. Nothing enrages me more as a sports fan than seeing a team that has been built to lose, that needs to lose, win. Nothing. 

This is why I hate this Raptors team, who have, for the past few weeks, been trotting out a starting line up that includes three development league players and Aaron Gray and still managing to win games. This is especially galling since it seems clear that GM Bryan Colangelo, by trading Leandro Barbosa at the trade deadline, signing the d-leaguers, and shutting down Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon, has been attempting to tank.

Bryan Colangelo (image from cbc.ca)

The problem is, in simplest terms, that they have a good coach (Dwane Casey) who has taught them to play defence. It is also that those d-leaguers, who on paper would seem to give them the least chance of winning, are using this opportunity as an extended try-out. In other words, they are literally playing for their careers. This means that they are playing rather hard, which also happens to coalesce with the coach's defensive mentality, particularly when the Raptors play other teams who are mailing it in. So, in fact, the d-leaguers are ironically giving them a better chance of winning. 

The upshot of this is that I am seething with resentment that this season has not been as bad as it was supposed to be. At the same time, I find it difficult to vent this frustration at the team or those who have constructed it. 
Fortunately, a new target has emerged: Jay Caspian Kang of Grantland. Kang recently published a piece entitled "Tankonia," in which he conducts "a survey of the NBA's thrilling race to the bottom." Kang expresses the viewpoint I am terrified Bryan Colangelo shares (despite significant evidence to the contrary this year), namely that tanking is relatively pointless.

In the interests of my sanity, I will touch on the absurdity of a few of his points. 

Kang writes, "Nobody really understands the NBA draft. The idea that a GM could reliably say, 'I know exactly how the difference between the no. 4 and no. 6 picks will play out' is absolutely ludicrous." This is by way of suggesting that there is no point in tanking for a worse pick. Where to begin? First of all, could this be more of a straw 'man' argument? What GM would ever claim that they know exactly what the difference between those picks would be? This is not the reason why the GM would prefer the fourth pick. 

A competent GM desires a higher pick because it provides him with the ability to choose between available options. Players are not simply numerical probabilities (although if they were, wouldn't you select the higher probability if two options lay before you?); they have qualitative differences that distinguish them from one another and render some more appealing than others (whether that is because they have more advanced skills, greater athleticism, or fill a team need). It is inherently more advantageous to choose first in a conventional draft format, particularly in a sport where the difference between players can be immense and, consequently, the difference between success or failure for the team as a whole.

Kang then goes on to suggest: "Most years, when you have the no. 2 and the no. 4 pick, you end up with Marvin Williams and Shaun Livingston [two disappointing players]." What? A quick look at Basketball Prospectus' list of the ten drafts between 2001-2012 tells us that number two and four picks included Tyreke Evans, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, and Tyson Chandler. There are other disappointments on the list, but the fact that many of the game's best players appear demonstrates the incentive. No one claims that tanking equals success. The point is that a team that has no stars and yet refuses to tank ensures it will never genuinely contend.

Battle of the #4 picks: Chris Paul vs. Chris Bosh (image from LA Times)

Kang's final rhetorical question brings us to the heart of this 'debate' (how are we even debating this?). He asks, "Why defile the competitive nature of the sport for such uncertainty?" Kang here conflates entertainment with competition. There is a case to be made that tanking is less entertaining. Fine. But what does Kang think competition is about? Clearly, the point is to win. Much can be written condemning competition (I believe it is fundamentally anti-social, even as I have been socialized to revel in it) and the need to win, but that isn't what Kang is doing. He is arguing that tanking is a less competitive practice. The competitive purpose of NBA basketball is the win a championship. Winning meaningless games late in a season does not further this end; tanking does. It is thus the most competitive thing a floundering team can do. 

Look, Kang is obviously entitled to his opinion. The thing that drives me crazy is that others share it, some of them involved in running NBA teams. I lose sleep over the thought that Bryan Colangelo and Dwyane Casey are among this group. Currently, the fourth and eighth worst teams in the NBA are separated by two games, with one or two left to play. The Raptors are in this group. Wednesday against New Jersey (with whom they are currently tied), we will learn what Colangelo and Casey think of tanking. 

As always, I'll be cheering against them.

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