NBA's tanking issue overblown; more mail
Philadelphia and Phoenix have combined to win more games than New York and Brooklyn this year. Does the NBA really have a problem with tanking?
-- Aaron, Portland, Ore.
I'm going to answer your question with a series of questions, Aaron.
When the Celtics moved Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn for three first-round picks and let coach Doc Rivers out of his contract in exchange for a first-round pick from the Clippers, were they tanking?
If someone wants to accuse them of tanking, then he or she needs to explain what those teams should have done instead. I don't think they can be accused of tanking because their teams, as constructed, had no promising future. The general managers made smart deals to turn expensive and/or older assets into cheaper, younger assets. And now the coaches are trying to win every game, and under difficult circumstances they're doing a pretty good job of it.
Is that tanking?
Philadelphia, Phoenix and Boston are doing what the new collective bargaining agreement insists they do. The hardened ceiling created by the new luxury taxes demands that teams make hard decisions when their core of talent has run its course.
"I think there will be more focus on the draft in this new system,'' deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who will replace commissioner David Stern in February, told me last season. "Because we've made it more difficult to buy your way out of a jam than you could historically.''
When NFL teams make those hard decisions, they're able to jump back into playoff contention quickly because the contracts are not guaranteed (apart from the up-front bonuses). NBA teams need more time to reinvent themselves because the contracts are guaranteed -- they can't simply drop players and move on -- and because most teams rely on the draft to replenish their talent.
The structure of small basketball rosters built around two or three crucial players forces all but the richest NBA teams to build patiently for the long term. The recent title teams of the Celtics and the Heat are anomalies; most championship rosters are built slowly and patiently around first-round picks.
The 76ers and Celtics are big-market franchises that have shown a willingness to spend big money when they believed it would improve their team. They didn't believe that spending money would help them last summer, and so they did what the rules of the new CBA have encouraged them to do: They reinvested in the future.
The reason I don't believe those teams can be criticized for tanking is because they're acting wisely. The dumbest thing that the 76ers, Suns and Celtics could have done last summer would have been to throw money at their problems -- to try to win now with rosters that were incapable of meeting that challenge. The 76ers wasted years following that shortsighted approach, while the Knicks and Nets are trying to follow it now; we'll see how that plays out for them.
The 76ers, Suns and Celtics have been been trying to improve, ironically. The improvement they're seeking is the kind that lasts, the kind that can lead to a long championship run. To me, that isn't tanking -- it's management.
There will be more reason to discuss tanking in March and April, when non-playoff teams will be trying to improve their positions in the lottery. Some of those teams really will be tanking. They'll be benching healthy players and trying to lose in the belief that they have no better options -- and their own fans, who invest big money to attend the games, will be urging them to do so. We can talk about tanking later in the year, but right now I don't see a lot of teams trying to lose on purpose. I see teams doing the best they can in a system that provides them with no better option to improve.
Lamar Odom is talking to the Clippers about a comeback. Do you think he can actually help the Clippers?
-- Brad, California
I do, Brad, even if it's for only a few minutes per game. They'll need another big man in the playoffs, and Odom's versatility will fit their style. If he signs with them, he'll become the only Clippers player who has won a championship.
Good article on the Knicks. The Knicks' current predicament exists for a couple other reasons, too. It started with their trade for Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. They traded a number of quality assets, most notably a very young Danillo Gallinari, for Anthony, who was practically campaigning to come to New York. Why didn't they wait until he was a free agent and sign him without giving up anything? Secondly, they not only traded the aforementioned players/assets, but they also took back Billups. That in itself was fine. What was not fine was that the Knicks proceeded to basically use him as a rental and then wasted their amnesty clause on him. Yes, it allowed them to add Tyson Chandler, but that's the type of move a true contender makes. The Knicks were far from that. The first point led to the second, but the main point is this: Without panicking there, they would have already amnestied Amar'e Stoudemire. Instead, they are again paying for a shortsighted move by having that albatross contract on their books for the next two seasons. Looking big picture, it means that one of the best half-dozen players in basketball wastes two more years of his prime as well, unless he leaves as a free agent. Then who knows?
-- Jeff W., Waltham, Mass.
If the Knicks had waited any longer, then Anthony would have been traded to the Nets. Who else would they have acquired instead of Anthony? (Maybe Deron Williams, although the Jazz were seeking draft picks that the Knicks didn't have.) The reason they signed Chandler was to shore up their defense, and at that time they didn't want to give up on their investment in Stoudemire. But you're right, Jeff, the next two seasons aren't going to be promising for New York.
It's too early to say he's done, Dale. He looks as if he's so focused on trying to pull the team together that his own game is struggling. Garnett isn't the reason they're losing, that's for sure. The best response is to give them and their rookie coach some time to figure this out.
Will the new commissioner try to work with the NCAA on a new strategy for drafting underclassmen?
If Silver wants to add a year or two to the minimum wage, he'll need to work out an agreement with the players' union. The NCAA would have no impact on those negotiations. In the meantime, the NBA needs to keep building up the D-League so that young players can have an alternative to college basketball. In the D-League they can earn their money honestly, instead of being paid under the table.
Do the Bucks have any chance of being a playoff team or will they be in the cellar all season?
-- Mike N., Peoria, Ill.
It might be the best thing for Milwaukee to earn a high pick in the draft, Mike. The Bucks haven't picked in the top half of the lottery in the last six years. They appear to have a future star in 18-year-old rookie forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, and their best hope for contending in the future is to develop another young star alongside him. (Is that tanking?)