BOSTON – Former Toronto Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo admitted that he attempted to "tank" during the 2011-12 NBA season on Friday.
Colangelo's admission came during the Basketball Analytics panel at the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which began in 2006 as a small gathering of likeminded folks eager to share cutting-edge analysis that would sharpen their understanding of sports, and has since exploded into a major annual industry event. He was joined by fellow former Phoenix Suns general manager/Turner Sports commentator Steve Kerr, former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens and Celtics assistant general manager and team counsel Mike Zarren. Over the course of an hour, the group wound its way through a lively conversation on topics like the relationship between analytics and roster construction, the psychological impact of employing tactics considered analytically optimal (like 3-point-heavy-bombing offense), injury analytics and more.
What perked attendees' ears up most, though — well, beyond the famously irascible Van Gundy saying that minutes restrictions allegedly intended to protect players' health are "bulls***" and a "cover-your-a**" move by teams' medical staffs, which wasn't very nice — was when Colangelo piped up in the midst of a chat about the annual NBA draft, the lottery system and the argument that as presently constituted, it incentivizes losing.
"Admittedly, I tried to tank a couple of years ago," said Colangelo, who joined the Raptors in February 2006 after 15 years in Phoenix, including 11 years as the Suns' general manager. "I didn’t come out and say, ‘Coach, you have to lose games.’ I never said that. I wanted to establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that, but I wanted him to do it in the framework of playing and developing the young players. With that comes losing. There's just no way to avoid that."
Colangelo said he was referring to the lockout-shortened '11-'12 season, the Raptors' first under head coach Dwane Casey, during which the ex-GM said Toronto was aiming primarily at landing a high draft pick for the 2012 draft. The Raptors scuffled that season, with DeMar DeRozan not yet ready to bear the burden of being a primary scorer, Andrea Bargnani missing more than half the season due to injury and experiencing his standard defensive and rebounding struggles when healthy, and a general lack of firepower contributing to a finish as the league's 25th-ranked offense. They weren't as bad as they could have been, however, thanks in large part to former Dallas Mavericks assistant Casey's game work on the defensive end, where he coaxed a less-than-impressive Raptors roster to a No. 12 ranking in points allowed per possession.
"He did too good of a job in motivating his players," Colangelo said, tongue (perhaps) in cheek.
Heading into the final game of the '11-'12 season, the Raptors and New Jersey Nets — who had already traded away their first round pick in the 2012 draft to the Portland Trail Blazers for swingman Gerald Wallace — were tied for last place in the Atlantic Division. Despite Colangelo's clandestine wishes, Casey rallied the troops to finish the season on a high note, turning in a 98-67 blowout of the about-to-leave-New-Jersey Nets behind a somewhat shocking triple-double (12 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds, four steals) from former Net Ben Uzoh, a 24-point, 12-rebound double-double from Ed Davis, and 20 points on 5 for 9 shooting from 3-point range from Alan Anderson.
“The last game of the season, [Nets head coach] Avery Johnson had a 24-point deficit and was looking down at the floor smirking,” Colangelo said.
Toronto wound up finishing 23-43, one game ahead of the 22-44 Nets, whose draft rights went to the Blazers, who used the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft on point guard Damian Lillard; two years down the line, Lillard's the reigning Rookie of the Year and a Western Conference All-Star. Toronto also finished even with the Golden State Warriors, who won an eventual coin flip to earn the right to draft seventh; they took Harrison Barnes, who stepped in right away and played significant minutes on a Warriors team that went to the second round of the playoffs. (Golden State made what appeared to be a similarly concerted effort to sink to the bottom of the NBA barrel to avoid giving up the top-eight-protected 2012 first-rounder they owed the Utah Jazz, but you didn't hear Warriors GM Bob Myers, who wasn't on the panel but was in attendance at the conference, admit to it.)
The Raptors, picking eighth, selected Washington swingman Terrence Ross. After a bit of a slow start to his career, Ross has shown seemingly boundless athleticism (witness his performances in the last two Slam Dunk Contests), a smooth stroke from the 3-point arc (40.6 percent from deep this year), tons of promise as a perimeter defender both on and off the ball, and even the capacity for the occasional offensive explosion, such as when he scored a Raptors-franchise-high-tying 51 points against the Los Angeles Clippers back in January. Lillard seems poised to continue looking like the one that got away, but with Ross improving and Barnes stagnating somewhat in his sophomore season in Oakland, the reedy Ross seems like a stronger choice these days than he did at the time. (Then again, hindsight being what it is, Colangelo also could have drafted burgeoning monster Andre Drummond, who went to the Detroit Pistons with the ninth pick.)
You could argue, of course, that "playing and developing young players" wouldn't necessarily constitute tanking. Newly minted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver certainly would, in keeping with his recent proclamation that there is "absolutely no evidence" that teams are actively trying to lose in pursuit of better lottery odds. But Colangelo himself certainly seemed to feel like what he did — constructing a roster that prominently featured and depended heavily upon the likes of Linas Kleiza, Aaron Gray and Gary Forbes, with relatively little reliable or high-ceiling talent in the mix — constituted tanking, to the point where he bemoaned the players he didn't get to pick because his team won just a little too much. In the process, he went beyond the "anonymous GM" option and went on the record to admit that he'd attempted to tank, which isn't something you hear every day.
Colangelo won the NBA's Executive of the Year award twice, in 2005 while with the Suns and in 2007 with the Raptors, but fell out of favor in Toronto after his teams compiled a 193-283 record over the six seasons that followed Toronto's 47-35 division-winning '07 campaign. Shortly after taking the reins as the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Tim Leiweke relieved Colangelo of his general manager duties last May; a month later, after importing reigning Executive of the Year winner Masai Ujiri from the Denver Nuggets to be Toronto's new GM, Colangelo exited the Raps' front office all together. Toronto stands at 32-26, atop the Atlantic Division and in the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference, in Ujiri's first year at the helm.
As it's been in NBA-watching, writing and reading circles for much of the past couple of years, tanking was a common topic of conversation during the first day of the Sloan conference. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, one of Sloan's co-chairs, spoke of the need to "get rid of the marginal incentive to lose" that comes along with giving the worst teams the highest odds of landing the best draft picks, pointing toward the "wheel" proposal forwarded by the Celtics' Zarren that would do away with the lottery and ensure that each of the NBA's 30 teams gets a different one of the 30 draft slots over the course of a 30-year period, with the picks rotating so that every team picks in the top six once every five years, and gets at least one top-12 selection every four years.
Van Gundy tendered a perhaps more radical suggestion: eliminate the draft entirely, let all rookies enter the league as free agents going to the highest bidder. This, the coach argues, would get rid of the sort of teardown underway in Pennsylvania, where the Philadelphia 76ers have traded away virtually all of their viable veterans save for Thaddeus Young and, as a result, have lost 12 straight games, 15 of their last 16, and 22 of their last 25. Van Gundy called the ploy, undertaken by new general manager Sam Hinkie, who was in attendance at the session, "embarrassing."
"I don't care," Van Gundy said. "Adam Silver can say there's no tanking or what's going on, [but] if you're putting that roster on the floor, you're doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose."
Whether Hinkie's alleged effort bears sweeter fruit than Colangelo's admitted one remains to be seen. I'm betting, though, that he's not going to be as forthcoming about the machinations as the ousted Raps boss anytime soon.
- - - - - - -