In the course of NBA history, you can find examples of blatant tanking in order to secure a higher draft pick for a forthcoming talented draft class. In my research for this post, I found many instances of tanking (and there are various iterations of the event) and in nearly every case, it hasn’t paid off. But in the case of the Spurs in 1997 (drafted Tim Duncan), the Rockets in 1983 (drafted Hakeem Olajuwon), and the Cavs in 2003 (until LeBron walked), it has paid off and that is enough to give other teams now the hope that it will work for them.
However, despite the slim chance that tanking will pay off for you, I’ve also seen where this phenomenon has done the exact opposite; it has created a losing culture for a franchise and despair for a fan base.
This second reason is the point of my article here today. Are the Jazz tanking? and Is there a “right” way to tank?
Are the Jazz tanking?
The simple answer is “yes.” I found several examples of what tanking means. It ranges from allowing an injured player to “rest” longer than he needs to, to intentionally goal-tending a shot to force a loss, to “developing next year’s talent” at the expense of the clearly better players on the roster (here’s looking at you Golden State in 2012.) Another, less pervasive method for tanking is the rebuilding method, in other words, the exact method of tanking that Utah Jazz GM, Dennis Lindsay is employing. If the ultimate goal is to win games, letting Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk after last season, only to trade for Richard Jefferson and Andres Biedrins would make no sense. But those two players had given Utah all they had and taken them as far as they could, that is to say, a quick first-round exit in the playoffs. But the ultimate goal is to build a contender and creating assets and cap space is exactly how you start that process.
It isn’t fun for the team and it isn’t fun for the fans. We’re built to cheer our team on and as an adult who understands the process the Jazz are working through, it builds a harsh dual reality in me. When I’m not watching the game, its easy to be happy about a loss. But when that TV is on, or I’m in attendance, the fan in me wants the win in the worst way. Its even worse when my four-year old son asks me if we want the Jazz to win (he’s still learning what all this means) and my wife looks at me quizzically and asks me, “Well Dad, do we?”
We want the team to win, but understanding the process helps you accept it.
Are they tanking the “right” way?
If you categorize rebuilding as the “right way” and intentionally goal tending, signing D-League players to start or “resting your players” unnecessarily as the “wrong” way, then yes, the Utah Jazz are doing it the right way. In my mind, tanking, in any form, seemingly spits in the face of true competition. And in most sports, tanking is not so prevalent, but the NBA looks the other way as general managers make a sport of the concept. The NBA, with its sizeable gap between large and small market teams, has created this monster and it’s been around since the inception of the league. (In fact, the Rockets tank job in 1983 led to the inception of the current lotto model the NBA employs today.)
So is there a “right” way to do this? If there is, I think the Jazz are as close to following it as you can get. And it’s the NBA’s fault. Because the Jazz can’t possibly hope to land a marquee free agent (heck, Cleveland couldn’t even hold onto its own home-grown free agent) and signing a superstar at the end of a contract (or even the beginning) isn’t viable since he can just walk after it expires, the draft is the only method left to the Jazz and drafting the next John Stockton or Karl Malone is the hope.
(After last night’s game, I had to amend this. Whatever the management may be doing, the players aren’t tanking. I fully believe this. And anyone who boos the players for winning, especially while hitting such a fabulous game winner as Trey Burke did on Saturday night, doesn’t understand what it going on and should be whipped.)
What about this youth movement?
For several years now we’ve heard the term “core four.” And now we’ve added Trey Burke to this group. As this season winds downs, I think you’ll find more opportunities to watch all five players (Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter) play together more as Corbin “evaluates the future.” We already know Richard Jefferson won’t be with the team next year. Biedrins, Brandon Rush, and several other players will be gone (personal note: I hope Marvin is not among those who are jettisoned.) But there is one player, among these five young guys that I am surprised in myself that I hope is back next season: Gordon Hayward.
This goes against the common consent, but since the beginning of the season the Jazz and the Hayward camps could not hammer out a deal, I’ve felt that Gordon was going to leave the team this offseason for a new opportunity. And I was happy with that. I felt that if the draft strategy goes well, we’re going to get a special talent in the draft that is going to all but make Gordon a non-entity in Utah and we’d end up paying him too much money to sit on the bench or wasting the new talent by riding him on the bench. Let him go has been my mentality all season.
On the drive to work today I had a notion that I am wrong. And it has nothing to do with Gordon as a player, but rather everything to do with morale and fan perception. I still don’t think he is a long-term fit in Utah, but here’s why he needs to come back to Utah.
He is a sign of “all is well in Utah” to the fans in general. He’s a sign that we are building (and rebuilding) for something greater in the future. If he, as our first real piece in this puzzle, were to leave at the first opportunity, what would that signal to the fans? What would it signal to the team? I think it would signal that we’ve reached the level of the 76ers, the Cavaliers, the Kings, or the Pelicans; that we’ve descended to a point that we’re not willing to draft, develop, and keep players until just the right one comes along. And who is to say when he might come along? Cleveland got theirs in 2003, only to see him take his talents to South Beach. Players like Duncan and Kevin Durrant only come along once in a long while, players who are playing the game for the right reasons. You can’t guarantee that getting the right guy in this draft means he is your guy when his rookie deal expires. Gordon Hayward means more to this team as a symbol, as much as anything.
I hope the Jazz can resign Hayward when the time comes. I hope that the NBA rewards the teams that are “tanking the right way” for their efforts in May when the lotto balls bounce. I hope that as the team moves into 2014-15 that we are in for a treat as we see the fruits of Dennis Lindsay’s master plan start to pay off.