Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fickle in the Middle

By Corrie Trouw

In the last few decades, NBA front offices have perfected a counterintuitive rebuilding strategy. Unlike their peers in other leagues, NBA general managers have embraced stripping their rosters of veteran talent, bottoming out in a few (or more) lottery-seeking seasons, hoarding well-timed salary cap space, and hoping their draft-topping and free agent rewards coalesce simultaneously into a contender.

Well, at least most of them have.

Despite watching several successful teams eject mediocre cores and reboot a few seasons later, a handful of NBA teams seem intent on clinging to the outskirts of contendership. Just a few weeks into the offseason, 2013-14 seems like it will be no different.

These teams seem to fall into two categories. One group is the young team ready to compete after years in the tank. The Cleveland Cavaliers seem to currently be one such team.

At the 2013 Draft Lottery, Cavs representatives gleefully insisted they had no plans of returning to the lottery in 2014. Unless they have a scheduling conflict for May 2014, this implies they plan on making the playoffs.

On some level, young teams moving toward competitiveness make sense. After all, when a front office adopts strategic intentional losing, those same managers have to flip the "compete" switch at some point.

Furthermore, the transition from collecting to contending seems to take multiple seasons. Many of the league's homegrown teams like Oklahoma City and Indiana went through Proof of Concept seasons in which bright, young players had to demonstrate they could play together. In some cases, competing for playoff entry is sufficient progress.

The second group is less logical on the court and disappointingly understandable off of it. See, while franchises regularly endure extended losing periods, front offices rarely do and certain owners simply cannot. The Milwaukee Bucks currently fit this mold.

The Bucks are owned by Herb Kohl, a hometown business man and — oh, maybe this is relevant — U.S. senator. Very few positions in this world are directly judged by the public's opinion. Unfortunately for the Bucks, their owner holds one of them.

For Kohl, strategic tanking seems off the table, presumably because owning a team disinterested in winning plays badly in the polls. So while earning a few home playoff losses probably helps Kohl win in November, it makes playing in June much more difficult.

The Bucks situation is exaggerated by Kohl's office, but the same logic impacts general managers regardless of ownership. At some point owners ask why they are paying a front office to lose consistently, and like it or not, general managers are compelled to get better for the short term. They may save their jobs for a few years with some low playoff berths, but it comes at the expense of any championship-level goals.

The course these two teams have laid out is particularly baffling not only because the tank-rebuild strategy has been proven effective, but because the current landscape makes this the perfect time to execute it.

Looking for a young, franchise-changing cornerstone? The 2014 draft has a handful of them by most reports.

Hoping to add an elite player through free agency? The game's best player headlines a group that happens to be unattached next July.

If the goal of an NBA team is to collect ingredients that can be combined in a winning recipe, then the summer of 2014 is the greatest basketball farmer's market in some time. And the best way to afford a piece of that bounty is not to spend in 2013, even if it means starving.

In short, winning is no longer its own incentive. And in the long term, this has to be a problem for the NBA.

Teams' ambivalence toward winning for long periods is clearly rotten on the surface, but there are two clear reasons why this trend is cracking the league's foundation at its deepest levels.

First, the franchises themselves risk doing heavy damage to already fragile season ticket bases. For all of the talk updating the "in-game experience," there is one surefire way to put butts in seats: win. And not surprisingly, the contrary is just as certain.

Perhaps teams can offset their losses in tanking seasons with massive revenues from sold-out competitive ones. But that assumes, a) There will be competitive seasons, and, b) fans will come back en masse when those good days return. Many medium- and small-market baseball teams who have embraced a parallel fall-and-rise strategy are seeing skeptical fan bases hold back from front offices willing to strip down their teams, even once the dark days are over.

Of course, ticket revenue is a lesser revenue stream in the current sports business model. The NBA, like all leagues, thrives on TV contracts, but tanking threatens that pool as well.

Sure, local TV suffers when teams go into the tank. But those declines tend to be neutralized at the league level (after all, if one team loses, another win).

No, the bigger problem is at the national TV level.

In league sports in the U.S., teams ostensibly play regular seasons for the sole purpose of earning a playoff spot. Certainly seeding and its benefits are key parts of the late regular season, but in most cases, the moment a team mathematically clinches a postseason berth is the realization of its regular season's purpose. The measure of a failed team inevitably includes the epitaph "missed the playoffs"; few people care to read the obituary to find out by how much.

But the NBA faces a situation where playoff spots, the very raffle ticket needed to be eligible for its top prize, are not valued. Smart teams know the disparity between elite and lesser playoff teams is so great that reaching the postseason as one of the last seeds is as hopeless as not making it all.

At some point, NBA fans will figure this out. The "race" for the last playoff spots will become less interesting. And eventually, the first rounds of the playoffs, weeks of sacrificial lamb slaughter, will lose viewers.

Until then, teams like Cleveland and Milwaukee will be flogged for getting better. But how long can a league survive when trying to win is a fool's errand?

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