Friday, November 22, 2013

Lord, We Give You Tanks

By Jonathan Lowe

It was Tuesday night, one week ago. The recently instituted college basketball Tip-Off Marathon had just come to a close. After more than 24 hours of feeding hoops into our brains, it was time to detox. But before all the highlight shows could get their B-roll cut and delivered for broadcast, someone fired a shot across a whole league's bough.

In Chicago, four of the preseason's top five teams gathered to display some of the best talent that might be on NBA rosters by this time in 2014. It was a night for the balling youth of America to shine brightly ... and they did just that. Freshmen Julius Randle (Kentucky), Jabari Parker (Duke), and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) all made their case to be the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

But leave it to Mike Krzyzewski to put a damper on any party NBA scouts might have planned on Michigan Avenue. After all the festivities quieted down, the Duke coach was asked if it was justifiable that professional organizations would tank this season in order to be at the front of the line for these talented kids. He responded in kind:

"As an American, I wouldn't like to think that an American team would want to lose, or create situations where you would want to lose. I can't even fathom — I can't go there. I can't believe that that would happen. Now, maybe I'm naive and I'm going to go read a fairy tale after this, but if that is happening, shame on whoever is doing it."

Now, while I respect the man and his legacy, I'm not going to be the one organizing a parade in his honor. But, in this instance, I've got to agree with the NCAA Division I wins leader. I may not go so far as to say "shame on you," but the whole process has me shaking my head in bewilderment.

Since the end of the last NBA Finals (heck even before that), everybody had an eye on the pool of players eligible to enter the Association next June. While some teams just needed to stand pat for the assurance of a lottery wish, others (namely Boston, Philadelphia, Utah, and possibly Denver) made some movement of key, aging talent. Sure, these moves also accumulated future picks to help build from the ground up. However, there's no secret that this may be the best draft to have a front seat to since 2003 (LeBron, anyone?).

Even with a buffet of potential stars to choose from, though, my mind can't make the intention of tanking logical. And I've had my own tendencies to see one of my favorite teams throw away a season (the Chiefs steadied their ship two seasons ago, missing out on Andrew Luck). So, what reasons are there for this particular strategy not working out?

1) Prideful Intentions

The goal in professional athletics is to win. Coaches are hired to produce playoff berths. Players are selected to gel and become a postseason force. To nudge these folks, who should be using the pressure of contracts, media, and fans to create victories, to "take some time off" seems absurd. Sure, the talent level of each team is different, but every team has the same ultimate goal going into training camp.

The first month-plus of this season has shown that the idea of tanking can backfire. Heading into Tuesday night, most of the teams you might think of as being in the "sweepstakes" are under .500. However, the Sixers started 3-0 on the season and lead the Atlantic Division (at 5-7). The Celtics won four straight after starting 0-4. And Phoenix, who probably wouldn't mind adding another piece to the roster, sits at a surprising 5-4.

2) The "Powerball" Effect

More than any other sport, one player can turn the fortunes of the basketball franchise. Unlike the other major sports, the worst team isn't guaranteed first crack at the talent pool. The team with the worst record has struck gold only four times out of the 29 times the lottery's been held. The last time that happened ... 2004.

Compare it to playing Powerball or Mega Millions. The randomness of hitting those numbers could pay off in retirement, but the rarity doesn't really make logical sense (believe me, I've played those number enough to know). When you look at the odds, what's the point in trying to secure the most ping pong balls in the chamber? There's no guarantee at the bottom on the standings, and there's no trend letting teams know which spot near the bottom should be coveted.

3) The Depth of This Draft

In years when there's only one or two "can't-miss" prospects putting their name in, I guess it's a little more logical. But, according to some, this could be the best draft class since the '03 contingent that included James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade ... maybe even better.

Parker, Wiggins, and Randle leading the prospect list, but there's still room for Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Aaron Gordon (Arizona), Gary Harris (Michigan State), and more (including the rest of Randle's teammates and all the foreign-born players). With so many possibilities, what's so bad about having a top-10, or even 15, pick this time around?

4) The "Bust" Factor

You know this is a possibility. For every Patrick Ewing, there's at least a couple Kwame Browns. As much as the lottery is an imperfect science, upside can create even more room for failure. Some players might need a change in coaching to blossom. Some may even have to wait for a change in address to hit their peak. And, for whatever reason, some first picks just can't live up to their full promise.

So, is it worth it? Are the trials of losing and embarrassment worth the opportunity to create a new, more hopeful experiment? Some front offices might say yes. For me, the logic doesn't add up. But sports aren't logical, and that's what makes them fun.

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