Nba nerd

Is This Worth Tanking For?

I've got a prediction I feel very confident about: one of Draft Express' current top 5 prospects (Wiggins, Randle, Parker, Embiid and Exum) will be a bust.

Hell, let's ignore Exum because he's an Australian prospect and replace him with Smart. I predict that at least one of these guys will be a bust. Like a doctor who can predict that at least ten people in a room full of 100 are going to get cancer, I can't tell you which one, but I'd be willing to bet a big sum that one of them will.

Seem like a bold prediction? Let's look at the top 5 picks going back a few years. Let's skip the last few drafts because the jury might still be out on some of them, and go backwards from 2009:

2009 Griffin, Thabeet, Harden, Evans, Rubio
2008 Rose, Beasley, Mayo, Westbrook, Love
2007 Oden, Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Jeff Green
2006 Bargnani, Aldridge, Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Williams
2005 Bogut, Marvin Williams, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Raymond Felton
2004 Howard, Okafor, Ben Gordon, Shaun Livingston, Devin Harris
2003 James, Darko Millicic, Anthony, Bosh, Wade
2002 Ming, Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Drew Gooden, Tskitishvili
2001 Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Eddie Curry, Jason Richardson
2000 Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift, Darius Miles, Marcus Fizer, Mike Miller

A couple of things spring to mind: first, almost every draft has a bust, even the 2003 draft, which everyone considers the best since 1984 (Olajuwon, Bowie, Jordan, Perkins, Barkley). Second, there isn't a universal reason that a pick might be a bust; sometimes it's because the players never became good enough to justify their draft slot (Bargnani, Milicic, Tskiti, Morrison, etc), sometimes because the players had injury troubles (Oden, Livingston, Jay Williams, etc), and sometimes because they never became much more than rotation players. And finally, as I think you can imagine, when I was looking at these, things got a lot worse if you expand to the top 10 picks in each year. (Another thing I noticed is that if your last name is WIlliams you've got a better shot at the NBA, apparently). 

If I had just blindly made a bet for ten years that one of the top 5 picks would be a bust, I'd have won 10/10 times, unless you want to argue that Thabeet or Beasley aren't busts. Hell, if we wait long enough, even Derrick Rose could be a bust -- his injuries have been devastating and he might never achieve his old performance levels. Furthermore, if I had blindly bet that two of the five would bust, I'd have won 6 times, with the jury still out on 2008 and with some disagreement on 2007 (lots of people consider Green a star; I think he's an overrated bad player).

Now, let's look at this list again: How many of these players would be worth throwing away an entire year? I'd argue that list would be short: James, Howard, Love, Harden, Wade, Durant, and Paul. That's 7 out of 50 players. So, arguably, the "reward" for losing a lot of games in one season is a 14% chance at a franchise player...if you get a top 5 pick. Many teams that "tank" end up far from the bottom, and finish with the 6th-10th worst record, and have much smaller chances at the top 5.

I've said this before, but all this talk from clueless armchair managers who claim that a team should be losing because this is "the deepest draft in memory" is getting tiresome. Here's another bold prediction: The Spurs are going to grab somebody in the late first round, he'll be pretty good, and everyone else will be surprised. And with their mid-first-round picks, the Bobcats and Timberwolves will each draft somebody who turns out to be awful, even in this "deepest draft in memory".

The point I am making is this: Yes, there are teams that that tank in the sense that they actively try to construct rosters that lose. And there are teams that actively tank by telling a perfectly healthy starter to sit out with "back spasms" or a "stomach strain". But these strategies are simply stupid. There is no nefarious reward for this baked into the system; there is only fool's gold. Draft picks are valuable in the sense that you want to collect lots of them (because some will work out, and when they do they are the best contracts you can have); but pursuing any one particular draft pick in any one particular year is an awful strategy.

Then there's the other thing that every NBA journalist calls tanking because he doesn't understand what's happening. When the Raptors traded Gay, they were not waving a towel; rather, they genuinely felt that this trade made them better. It wasn't about tanking. When the Bulls traded Deng, they were a) saving money and b) getting something from a player that was going to leave them next year anyway. Again, that's not tanking.

The Deng trade does not make the Bulls better...today. But, once again, it's not really making them much worse. The Bulls have this other guy named Jimmy Butler who's returning from injury. They have a very underrated backup wing in Mike Dunleavy. Both of them can slip in and replace Deng's minutes. The drop-off won't be catastrophic. Deng is going to get a contract this off-season that might be fair in its first year or two, but is going to look awful when Deng is 32 years old. The Bulls made a trade that saves them a boatload of money without really making them worse in the immediate term. As a fan, you might not like this, because you'd prefer an owner who will spend whatever it takes to win. But it's a far cry from tanking in the sense of "losing on purpose".

My last piece of advice for the average NBA journalist: if the first thing you are asking about literally every trade is "How does this fit into the tanking narrative?" then you're doing your job poorly. Stop letting ESPN set the agenda of your storylines for the year.