For a subset of basketball observers and fans, tanking (or, to use my preferred term, strategic losing) is one of the great specters haunting the NBA. With the draft lottery privileging bad teams and protected draft picks being used in trades, many franchises find it in their best interest to lose (or at least not do everything possible to win). This is bad because fans theoretically want to see their team try to win even when winning has no clear benefit.
Over the past week, the anti-tanking zealots at TrueHoop have published a rash of articles concerning how to fix this issue. While the vast majority of these posts feature economists concocting new systems for player dispersal to replace the draft, Kevin Arnovitz has chosen to examine a team that eschews tanking for the purpose of winning as many games as possible.
Unfortunately, the Milwaukee Bucks have also found themselves in the NBA's gooey middle for quite some time, alternating perfunctory first-round playoff exits with uninspiring placement in the lottery. So why do they keep pursuing this strategy?
Under the leadership of owner Senator Herb Kohl and [general manager John] Hammond (a contributor to the assembly of the Pistons’ teams of the early- to mid-'00s), the Bucks have squarely situated themselves in the survivalist camp. Their goal each offseason is to shoot for as many wins as possible. The catalog of transactions in pursuit of this goal isn’t without blemishes -- and management will own up to the [Tobias] Harris-[J.J.] Redick deal -- but that’s been the consistent tactic in Milwaukee.
The Bucks’ brass articulates its rationale behind this strategy. Part of that argument is based on principle, while the other half is the stated belief that tanking doesn’t necessarily yield better results than doing it their way.
A sports owner like Kohl (and similarly [Indiana Pacers owner Herb] Simon) who lives in an older city that has struggled to join the growth economies of the sun belt or tech corridors often sees his franchise as a public trust. The team has an accountability to the city. And part of that is delivering a competitive product, to let those making the trip to an aging arena that there’s a better than 50 percent chance they’ll see a win for the home team. Unlike so many of the newer owners who live out of town and have only a passing relationship with the cities of their teams, Kohl sees Milwaukeeans as neighbors. When you invite your neighbors over to your place, you owe them your hospitality.
“Why should I come to the games if you’re telling me you’re not trying to win?” [assistant general manager David] Morway asks rhetorically. [...]
For Kohl, playing to win every night is a common courtesy to fans, the majority of whom have elected him to the Senate on four occasions, the last time with two-thirds of the overall vote. Public trusts have to perform -- especially if they’re asking for popular support. The Pacers are, again, an appropriate case study. In Forbes’ team valuations published in January, they ranked 24th, while the Bucks were dead last. The Pacers asked from the public and received $33.5 million to address their shortfall in operating income at their home arena. Coupled with a negative public image, the fallout from the Palace brawl, the Pacers felt they couldn’t afford to tank. That’s a privilege reserved for organizations in healthy markets and/or those who have accumulated equity and good will.
It's worth reading the entire piece, because Bucks executives go into much more detail, with Arnovitz rightfully noting some inconsistencies and problems in their thinking when appropriate. The short version is that the Bucks try to win as many games as possible because they believe it to be both a necessity of their status as a small-market team that cannot bear the financial stress of several consecutive losing seasons and something they owe their fans. Arnovitz does not appear convinced that this is the best course of action, although he also seems to blame the current system more than the Bucks brass.
I cannot argue if the Bucks believe their financial situation to be that precarious, because if that's the case then they have to do what's necessary to remain solvent. The other issue, though, perhaps gives fans too little credit. A fan base — particularly its season ticket holders — demands some return on their investment, which usually takes the form of winning games. Yet fans also conceive of their commitment to a team as a long-term proposition, to the point where a few seasons of consistent losing can be positive experiences if they appear to lead towards a better future. For that matter, this experience doesn't have to be wholly about earning the best draft pick. There can be great pleasure in watching a new player reveal his skills and in seeing how a potential core learns to play together. A team's record is most often used to judge a team's improvement, but there are other ways of measuring progress.
To be sure, this positive experience can exist without the draft, a situation in which it wouldn't read as tanking, either. But if every anti-tanking argument rests on the assumption that fans demand the pursuit of as many wins as possible no matter the context, then we may need to reassess the rationale for overhauling the entire system. The goal of these changes may not be an accurate one.
What this means for the Bucks is unclear. There's nothing inherently wrong with the team's strategy — the Pacers and Houston Rockets have gone from the middle of the pack to ostensible contention this way, and the Oklahoma City Thunder's model of lottery-dependent rebuilding may be an outlying success story. Maybe, though, we should discuss their situation in terms of the entertainment value it brings to fans, not its potential to create a contender. The problem may be not that the Bucks aren't getting better, but that they're not making the bold moves necessary to instilling a sense of hope in their fan base. Winning is the end result of progress, not the thing itself.