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Now that we’re clear of the regular season, dear readers, I think you want to read about something fresh. I’d imagine you’re as weary as I am of Girls and “hipster racism,” of campaign analysis and summer movie previews. You came to this space for something new, and something new I shall provide. That’s right, I have a few thoughts about tanking.
Now that we’re clear of the regular season, it seems likely that the discussion surrounding tanking is probably going to subside some, as teams are no longer jockeying for seeding or playoff odds. But I waffled on the issue several times over the course of the past few weeks, alternating between “what’s the big deal?” to “it is basically criminal that the Warriors will probably get a better pick than the Rockets,” so I figured I’d share my thoughts about the issue as it currently stands.
I think the reason for variety in opinion over the tanking issue is that it’s much more of a bellwether than it is a self-contained issue: how you feel about tanking has a lot to do with your feelings about the structure of a sports league and how entertainment should intersect with the “real” world. I’ll use a controlling analogy for my point relying on political terminology, but I’m more using a shorthand than I am trying to have a nuanced political discussion. So forgive me.
It seems like the tanking issue comes down, more or less, to what I’ll call a “free market” approach to the game versus what I’ll refer to as basketball “socialism.” Again, sorry for this. These words are stupid in this context. I couldn’t really think of a handier analogy.
Free market viewers believe that the league should function, as an entity, to reward the “best” teams — the most financially responsible, the most competitive, the most innovative, etc. A basketball socialist, which I consider myself, believes that the league should function to regulate the product of basketball such that the most fans are happy at any given time. Crucially, neither of these positions can be “incorrect,” because we’re talking about basketball. Whichever you are is just an entertainment and sports preference, so I’m not here to disagree with anyone.
Tanking is so odious to the free market viewers — most notably our friends spearheading ESPN’s HoopIdea — because it presents an incongruity. It makes losing games a rational behavior for teams, as it improves bad teams’ outlooks. If you want the league rewarding the teams who thrive within the NBA environment, this is anathema. And it’s doubly frustrating because we’re at sort of a crossroads with the league; post lock-out, nobody has really clarified whether every team should make money or whether every team should be given “equal opportunity” to win. In this light, tanking becomes a reflection of a league that isn’t committed to an identity, that doesn’t know whether it wants to reward its best and brightest, or float the 30 teams’ worth of product on the backs of the elites.
My suggestion, then, is that tanking itself isn’t the issue, but for the league and fans to try and get on the same page. (Disclosure: I know this is a basketball blogger nerding out. There is almost no chance of any real world application of this argument occurring.) I’ve come to terms with tanking because I prefer the notion that the league supports a game and that it’s okay for a game to have sort of bogus infrastructure if it makes the product more fun. I prefer, personally, the idea of Anthony Davis on the Bobcats to his hitting free agency because I think that forced distribution of talent is just more fun. It’s not more “fair” or “better.” It’s more fun. If tanking is a byproduct of this system, then so be it. That’s the cost of admission.
A basketball socialist should also, by extension, be willing to make sacrifices in the name of her ideology. For instance, if I’m going to embrace this idea, then I recognize that it’s going to stay very difficult for “super teams” to form, since cheap superstar talent is really the only way that happens outside of the occasional star alignment like Miami. This pains me a lot. I love watching juggernaut teams. I mean, I’m just a huge front runner in this way, because a large part of me wants to see a team do something that will never happen again. But darn it, I am committed to my lofty ideology, and if the Milwaukees and Golden States of the league are going to siphon away the best young talents in the name of keeping things interesting, then so be it.
(I really just shook up my whole point with that last paragraph. Maybe this basketball socialism thing isn’t any good. I LOVE superteams.)
Conversely, a free market viewer should be ready to make some sacrifices in the name of consistency. A free market viewer should be fine with teams in tax-free states dominating free agency, or with warmer climates or better general managers or anything like that creating a huge chasm between the haves and have-nots. Again, this ain’t Occupy Wall Street, it’s basketball. There is nothing wrong with a huge talent disparity, if that’s your bag. But it is the likely outcome of, say, having rookies be free agents (which is the “free market” idea I like the best).
What it comes down to is: does the league have a responsibility to the teams or to the product?
If it’s the teams, than I think being redistributive in a way that “rewards mediocrity” is the price of admission. If the league has a responsibility to the product of basketball, then tanking really ought to be stopped. It depends on how you view the game.
I will say this, though. It’s the playoffs, and that means that all we have left are teams that did not, beyond a few games for seeding purposes, tank. You think any of the teams with a shot at the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft would change places?
With all the excitement coming, I think we’re all going to be reminded again exactly why some teams sell out to get to this part of the season even when their long-term prospects could use a higher draft pick: because the next few weeks are the best basketball time there is.