FanPost

TDS Application: On Tanking and the Rookie Scale.



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On an interview in February 2009, shortly after the Rockets traded for Kevin Martin with the corpse of Tracy McGrady, Daryl Morey sat down for an interview with that wonderful display of objectivity and sincerity that we call Bill Simmons. Morey talked about how the best CBA for the NBA would be one without the myriad restrictions and loopholes which define the NBA today, which lawyers spend days upon days combing through papers to prevent ( or possibly facilitate) loopholes. Morey's ideal was simple: Place a hard cap to prevent the big spenders from dominating the league....and nothing else. Max salaries? Gone. Bird rights? None. The caps on rookies? Nope.

Now, God-Emperor of all Basketballkind Stern could not tolerate such dissidence. Consequently, he shut Morey down with a fine <strike>and negated a trade which would have made the Rockets relevant again two years later</strike> as punishment, and Morey has shut up ever since. This is of course an incredible shame, not just because Morey gives interesting interviews, but because part of Morey’s discussion ties into one of the fundamental problems of this league. Because contrary to what everyone thinks, the rise of the superteam, the conflation of seven of the twenty best players into two teams, is NOT the biggest problem the league faces. It is the rise and the cultural acceptance of tanking which grows to become a seriously significant problem in the NBA.

Arguing this to the fans of a team which has stubbornly refused to tank for three years may prove to be an utterly absurd cause, but look around the league. Ignore the Rockets’ wholesale embrace of the 14th pick. The Wizards haven't been relevant since Obama became president and have received multiple top 5 picks during that timespan. Yet their moves to go back to playoff relevance this summer have been viewed with skepticism at best. The Hornets are viewed as geniuses for having the luck to receive Anthony Davis. There are even those who say that the Bulls, who have their superstar out for the better part of the year, should tank this year or possibly even blow a championship core up completely purely because of this injury and relegate themselves as the inferiors of Miami. In the standard overreaction which defines any and every basketball forum in the event of a loss, there are always some cries to “blow it up” and “start over” – even from the Lakers and the Heat!


Now let's be fair. Tanking has hardly originated in the last few years. The Rockets received Olajuwon through it before I was born, for better or worse, and the 2002-03 and 2006-07 seasons were pretty bad as teams out-sucked each other for the right to Lebron or Oden. And the logic is appealing. Since most teams are supposedly unable to get stars through trades or free agency these days, the best way to get them then is to draft one. And the best way to draft a star under the current system is to tank. The fact that the OKC Thunder successfully succeeded and are viewed as a model franchise serves as an example as teams attempt to emulate their success by sucking as much as possible. Furthermore, I don’t even intend to discuss the nebulous nature of how risky tanking is – this blog had plenty of debates about it when we discussed the possibility of trading for Dwight Howard. Let me simply point out that in all of the drafts that have existed since Dwight Howard was drafted in 2005, there has been only one player who is anywhere close to Dwight Howard’s ability, Durant. Griffin, Cousins, Davis, might be better than Howard someday, but that is only a might, and a slim one at that.

What I want to argue is that the fact that tanking has been more emphasized than before and is viewed as a better idea as before creates a mean for justifications and excuses. It serves as a way for owners to justify trading their stars for nothing and it serves as an additional way for owners to buy their fans time before they get angry and more importantly stop buying tickets or merchandise. You can trade Dwight Howard for an average shooting guard and a couple low-end prospects, one an unathletic center who didn’t contribute much to Philadelphia his rookie year, and another a prospect who everyone has proclaimed will be the next Trevor Ariza, and say “Hey, we’re going to tank, it will be fine trading Howard for this junk.” Ironically, at a stage where we wonder more and more about what young prospects a disgruntled superstar who wants to enjoy the beach will fetch, teams demand less and less so that they can tank better.

Now, what’s the reason for this line of thinking? Before we do, I’d like to go back and look at another important element of dumping a superstar that we’ve seen, especially in the case of Dwight Howard. Superstars leave teams because they want to join a better one, and a frequent reason for this is because their original team has many bad contracts, whether it is Hedo Turkoglu or trading for Antwan Jamison. The original team thus will seek to dump the bad contracts on the new team. We saw this throughout the Dwight saga, but this isn’t new – this occurred to Houston during the Dwight Howard years.

Now, why the emphasis on dumping bad contracts? Teams like to sell this dumping to fans by telling them that in a few years after tanking, they will sign an elite free agent. However, this never happens. Even the vaunted Thunder, who completely succeeded in tanking, have never signed a free agent. It’s inherently contradictory, after all, because by the time your young talent has developed, you have to pay them, and so you won’t have that money after all. So what’s the point? The answer should be obvious – to save the owners money. I want to seriously emphasize this as we go through the next paragraphs.

Morey has consistently stated, in both the Simmons interview mentioned above and in other interviews, that the two most valuable contracts (ie. The ones that are most relevant to the Moneyball master) are the max contract and the rookie scale contract. The max contract is obvious – the NBA imposes the max contract, after all, to protect the middle class of the NBA, the Joe Johnsons and the Danny Grangers as opposed to the Lebrons or Durants, as Mike Prada so wonderfully pointed out. A player like Lebron frankly deserves something more like 70 million instead of 20. Similarly, rookie contracts are similar in saving money which makes them valuable. When people speculated about the Clippers entering the Dwight Howard race, they continually forgot that the fat pig who owns them would rather have Blake Griffin than Dwight – just because Griffin had one more year of a rookie contract. That, more than anything, shows their value.

But because of the value of a rookie contact is so great, it removes the impetus to draft well and encourages teams to continually tank for multiple years in a row. Furthermore, it encourages team to almost throw away draft picks on projects. This was Memphis’s logic with the Thabeet pick, after all. The kid probably won’t pan out, but if he does, he’ll be awesome. And if he doesn’t, what does it matter? Just a couple million as opposed to the huge amount of money I’d have to spend on an actual dominant center. Finally, rookie contracts still encourage teams to tank because they can just not spend money as they throw out bad team after bad team. The Donald Sterling route to team building is now a viable model - just stay cheap and suck for year after year until that #1 pick finally lands a superstar.

This, above all, is the problem with tanking. It’s not about the lotto or the value of draft picks or anything like that. Their cheap cost and the fact that teams can use them to justify failure serves to create a culture of accepting failure and a lack of accountability. This is to the detriment of the NBA. And until this problem is resolved, you will see a growing gap between the teams that have the stars and those who don’t, as teams that only have a few will just give them away so they can tank again. Only by lowering the value of the rookie contract by raising the amount of players these earn, only by discouraging teams from frivolously wasting them, does the NBA have any chance of encouraging some modicum of parity and not just creating a league of haves and have nots. It is this problem which Morey understood back then, and his advice should still be listened to by everyone. Even by a God Emperor.


No cursing in title. No pirated material, such as links to online game streams. Do not cut/paste entire sections of content from other websites. Thanks.

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