January 14, 2010
Does "rebuilding" equal "tanking?"
Chris Tomasson, the respected veteran NBA reporter at FanHouse, doesn't appear to think so. He used the word "tank" or "tanking" just once in his column on the 2002-03 Cleveland Cavaliers, without divulging as to whether or not he thought those Cavs did tank the season.
John Lucas(notes), the coach of that team that contends the Cavaliers wanted to lose games on purpose in order to secure the 2003 draft rights to LeBron James(notes), doesn't appear to think so either, as he refrains from using the word.
The FanHouse editor in charge of headlines? He or she went right ahead and used it, and I'm having a hard time blaming them.
The Cavaliers did tank the 2002-03 season. Much in the same way the New Jersey Nets are tanking right now, and the Sacramento Kings tanked last year. Everyone's current darlings, the Oklahoma City Thunder, tanked last year, the year before, the year before that — and by not signing any money on free agents last summer, one could argue that they're tanking this year, despite the team's playoff potential.
These teams are rebuilding. They're looking down the line, cutting costs, and focusing on developing young talent at the expense of minutes or even roster spots for established, veteran players. Usually those veteran players are pretty crummy. Even if they do drop 16 a game.
Like Lamond Murray, the guy John Lucas was complaining about losing in Tomasson's article. An average enough player, at his best, Murray was counted on for so-so scoring and little else, and a team looking to develop young talent and not stick itself in the purgatory of the 25-35 win strata has little use for him.
Lucas wanted him, though. And is upset about losing him on that 2002-03 Cavs team. Same with Andre Miller(notes), who the Cavaliers dumped on the Los Angeles Clippers when it became apparent that they weren't going to be able to meet Miller's 2003 free agent asking price. Faced with a lame duck season with a veteran point man who was certain to leave the next summer for nothing in return, the Cavs traded him for the younger Darius Miles(notes), who people actually liked back then.
Wesley Person? On a good team in 2002, a passable rotation contributor. On the Cavaliers? A starter. They still traded him, because they knew (as the Nets and Timberwolves and Kings and even Thunder know now) they wouldn't be needing him much in three or four years, when it comes time to really make a run. And if by some stroke they did need him in three or four years, it was unlikely for the then-veteran to be contributing much.
Murray, Miller, and Person tanked themselves, considerably, in 2002-03. Murray and Person fell off as to be expected by any rational NBA observer (sometimes those observers don't always have jobs in the NBA itself), and Miller fell off because, as a lame duck on a team that was sure not to pay him in 2003 (like, say, the Cavaliers), he played tepid and altogether out of shape basketball in his lone year with the Clippers.
But the contention that the Cavaliers lost games as a way to make some direct connection to local legend LeBron James? Hogwash.
As bad as the Cleveland front office was back then, even they knew that this was far, far from anything close to something even resembling a guarantee. Did the extra balls (from dropping to 29 wins to 17 wins) in the hopper help? Considerably. No question.
Did they want LeBron, years before? Of course. Would they have even selected him first overall in 2003 had he limped to the podium with a torn ACL? In a second. Did they do everything in their power to make it as certain as they could that LeBron James would be drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003? Yes.
But did they lose games to get LeBron James? Hell no.
They lost games because the team was going nowhere fast, it was looking at a string of lottery appearances even if the 2002 draft (one that saw them pick DaJuan Wagner(notes)) worked in their favor, and LeBron did fall into their laps in 2003. And as daft as the front office may have been trying to sustain a mediocre team from 1999 to 2002, it was time. Every team recognizes this, whether the end result is LeBron James and Tim Duncan(notes) at the top of the draft, or Kenyon Martin(notes) and Michael Olowokandi(notes).
Once again, this isn't to say these Cavs were babes in the woods. Everyone knew, whether you appreciated Dajuan Wagner's talent or not, that the Cavs were going into full "win later" mode when Stern called out his name in 2002. Even after going to college for a year, he was preceived as a project that would require quite a bit of patience. And he was a guard, no less, not some all-jump no-skill big man.
And James was on everyone's mind even then, in June of 2002. Before the 29-win 2001-02 Cavalier team was dismantled. There was no question that there was almost some pre-ordained idea about him heading to Cleveland in the 2003 draft, and that Cleveland was going to do all it could to make it a possibility. The only question beyond that, to the sports talk dorks, would be whether David Stern would freeze an envelope for the Knicks, who ended getting Michael Sweetney(notes) in 2003 instead.
(That doesn't stop some writers from poring over YouTube clips of Stern calling out New York's name for Patrick Ewing back in 1985, but, gah. Such twaddle.)
At the end of the day, with all the losses and Cleveland's eventual 17-win record (tied for Denver for the worst record in the NBA), there's no guarantee. I'm not exactly up on the coin flip record between Cleveland and Denver that year, but even if the Nuggets finished with 18 wins and Cleveland "won" the worst record, the Cavaliers would have only had a 25 percent chance at the combination that produced the last pick.
That's a combination that precious few last place teams have earned since the lottery began. It's why the lottery works. It's why, when you hear Tony Kornheiser on TV tonight talking about how awful it was that Milwaukee and Boston tanked for Greg Oden(notes) back in 2006-07, you'll never hear him mention how well the lottery worked that year — the Celtics, worst team in the NBA, got the fifth pick that year. The Bucks, one spot behind them in record, finished one spot behind them in the draft, sixth. The lottery worked.
The lottery works. Tank at your own peril. In the draft, there are no guarantees.
In team-building, however, there nearly are. There is a significant history that shows that clearing overpriced clutter, developing young talent, and hoarding draft picks (even if they aren't the top draft picks) works exceptionally well if executed properly.
Tank at your own peril, because you can't properly execute a lottery drawing; but rebuild in a second if it means saving the franchise.