Tank You Very Much
The Heat's unexpected run to the Finals has made us revisit the tanking debate yet again. I take a look at where things currently stand.
News & Notes
The Knicks had another group workout yesterday, after which Tom Thibodeau said a whole lot more of nothing. A OK with me. They’ll have one more group workout tomorrow, and then more time for individual workouts for anyone who wants until Oct. 6, as per Steve Popper.
Precious Achiuwa, who is considered a late-lottery prospect, said he interviewed with the Knicks (and many other teams) and that it would be a blessing to play for them. Stanford’s Tyrell Terry also said he Zoomed with the Knicks before the lottery.
Tweet of the Day
One more reminder that the Mailbag leftovers newsletter I keep promising will happen (maybe tomorrow, maybe Friday)…in the meantime, another appetizer:
Tyson later clarified that he’s asking about my preferred choices for the players I reasonably expect to be around when each pick is made. Given that I have no idea who will and won’t be on the board, I’ll do one better and name my top three choices for each spot:
Choice 3: Isaac Okoro
Choice 2: Devin Vassell
Yes, I’ve officially flip-flopped (although these two are still neck and neck for me). Watching whole FSU games makes it impossible to ignore how helpful Vassell is to everything his team is trying to accomplish at both ends. I also think he’ll easily transition into more of a volume shooter in an offense where he doesn’t need to do as much as he did for Florida State and there are multiple playmakers on the floor to get him the ball.
Choice 1: Killian Hayes
If he falls to eight and the Knicks pass on him, that means Troy Weaver, who learned under Sam Presti and is in desperate need of a lead guard as well, passed on him too. That would get me to sleep at night. But I’d still be bothered, even with the concerns over his athleticism and lack of a right hand (and to a lesser extent, his shot). The overall package and ceiling are too good to pass up.
(Note: I don’t think there’s a prayer Tyrell Terry falls this far, so he’s not listed here)
Choice 3: RJ Hampton
If the Knicks want to put their newly spent development money where their mouth is, this would be one of the main kids to do it with.
Choice 2: Nico Mannion
I buy the shooting and the passing.
Choice 1: Desmond Bane
Only because if I don’t, Spencer will never speak to me again.
Choice 3: Jaden McDaniels
I can’t imagine the former No. 7 recruit in the country falls this far in a weak draft (and there’s probably some red flags we don’t know about if he does), but if he’s there, ditto to what I said about Hampton.
Choice 2: Malachi Flynn
All the draft people who are much smarter than me seem to think he’s going to help teams for a very long time.
Choice 1: Xavier Tillman
Like Vass, he’s just going to do all the little things at both ends that help you win games. And I would very much like for the Knicks to win a few games before I die.
To Tank or Not to Tank: That is the Question
The Finals start tonight. Oooo baby…Here. We. GO.
It’s been a long, strange journey to get to this point in an NBA season (and in a year) like no other, but for as much as the circumstances were wholly unique, it feels like the right two teams made it to the finish line.
Who wins this series will likely serve as a referendum on a lot of things - LeBron’s legacy, whether he made the right decision by leaving Miami, whether it’s better to be top heavy or deep - but perhaps the most interesting commentary this series will make is on the subject of tanking.
The perception is that the Lakers, in order to keep a lightly protected pick they foolishly tossed away in the Steve Nash trade a decade ago, stunk it up for years in an effort to retain that selection, and that is part of the reason they find themselves where they are.
Pat Riley’s Heat, meanwhile, are seen as the never-tankers, too proud and confident in their culture to ever resort to such a thing.
That’s all partially true. It’s also a lie.
The 2014-15 Lakers started off the season intending to win games, trotting out a taped-together Kobe Bryant under new coach Byron Scott. Bryant wasn’t himself and then tore his rotator cuff, at which point the tank was on. The following season, Kobe’s last, was a circus act for the ages. Both years, they kept their pick.
But in the summer of 2016, ahead of the final season the pick would be protected, they spent lavishly on Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgoz in an effort to win games. Thanks to their own incompetence though, they still stunk and ended up with the second pick, which became Lonzo Ball.
The protected picks they kept all those years helped them clear cap space for LeBron and another max player who didn’t initially come (the Russell trade to Brooklyn), and eventually, helped them land Davis (Ingram and Ball).
Miami, over that same time frame, was still licking its wounds from LeBron’s unexpected departure. No, they never bottomed out, but that could partially be due to the two unprotected firsts they sent out in the Goran Dragic trade back in 2015. Simply put, they’d traded away their only incentive to lose.
That wasn’t always the case though. The tank job they pulled ahead of the Derrick Rose draft - when they won 15 games total, five fewer than the next worse team in the league - is the stuff of legend.
In fairness, they had good reason to believe it would work…because it had worked, five years earlier, when the Pat Riley-coached Heat lost 38 of their final 51 games to finish with the fourth worst record in the NBA ahead of the LeBron draft. They didn’t get James, but that Wade guy they took ended up having a fairly nice impact on the franchise as a whole, and his possible recruitment of Jimmy Butler during their one season together in Chicago may have set the wheels in motion for what we see today.
The Knicks, now seen as Team Tank by many in the NBA, had no interest in losing games intentionally to put themselves in a better position to nab LeBron even though the universe seemed to be begging them to do exactly that. Thanks to an early-season injury to Latrell Sprewell in 2003, they started off 2-10 and were in a perfect position to lead the tanking brigade.
But Spree returned, and the team had a .500 record the rest of the way. They ended up with Mike Sweetney for their troubles.
That year, along with the Curry and Doncic drafts and a few others, have come to form the ammunition for the pro-tankers here in New York. They have their arsenal locked and loaded as the Knicks enter the 2020-21 season with perhaps less top-end talent than any team in the league, and do so ahead of a draft that is seen by some as the best since that 2003 class which is still shaping the course of the NBA to this day.
They’re not the only ones with firepower though. As I mentioned yesterday, the league today is littered with MVP candidates taken between the 10th and 15th picks. For every LeBron, Curry and Doncic there is also a Darko Milicic, Jonny Flynn and Marvin Bagley, all of whom went either immediately before or, in Darko’s case, immediately after their legendary counterparts.
There are others. Beasley, Derrick Williams, Adam Morrison, Greg Oden, Markelle Fultz, Jahlil Okafor, Hasheem Thabeet, Evan Turner, Anthony Bennett, Michal Kidd-Gilchrist, O.J. Mayo and Jabari Parker were all top three picks during this sustained run of Knicks losing, many in what were perceived to be loaded drafts. There’s also an entirely separate class of top-three selections who aren’t defined as “busts” per se - Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani, Marvin Williams, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter to name a few - that never made an All-Star team. Things ain’t looking so hot for Andrew Wiggins, Otto Porter or Lonzo Ball either.
Even the no-doubt-about-it prizes who more or less turned out like you’d have hoped - KAT, Wall, Blake, Rose - don’t always translate to sustained contending runs for the teams that drafted them.
All in all, there’s at least as much evidence that tanking is a hit or miss proposition as there is that it works…and yet, nearly every team in the NBA has tried it at some point in recent memory. I started listing them all out here and had to stop because it’s happened so often and so unabashedly that it’s fruitless to name all the offenders.
That’s why, for anyone who says that tanking is unequivocally never the right move, just know that you’re taking a position that every GM in the sport has disagreed with at one time or another. Even the great Spurs dynasty, for as much as they have been about culture, culture, culture, was built on one of the great tanks of all time.
That’s because their gambit worked, as opposed to most others, which have been partial or abject failures. But even San Antonio needed so much more to go right for their sustained run of success, as is the case with every NBA champion whose success is even partially attributed to tanking.
Here are the talking points for the top three pro-tank argument teams, both for and against whether tanking paid off:
Leaning into a broken foot from David Robinson (who himself was a tanking prize) to finish with a 20-62 record ahead of the Duncan draft
Selecting Tony Parker with the 28th pick
Selecting Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick
Picking up Stephen Jackson off the scrap heap
Signing Bruce Bowen to a cheap deal
Trading George Hill to Indiana for the 15th pick that became Kawhi Leonard
Signing Boris Diaw after he was waived by Charlotte
Picking up Danny Green off the scrap heap after he was waived by Cleveland
Going 17-65 ahead of the LeBron draft
Going 19-63 in the first post-LeBron year to land Kyrie
Landing the top picks in 2013 and 2014, the latter of which allowed them to trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love
Didn’t win anything with LeBron the first time around
The Kyrie pick wasn’t Cleveland’s own in 2011 - theirs was 4th, used on Tristan Thompson - but was instead the result of the Baron Davis salary dump trade they’d made with the Clippers earlier that season.
Getting Dion Waiters with the 4th pick in 2012 and Anthony Bennett with the 1st pick in 2013
They jumped up from nine to one to get Wiggins
They aggressively tanked to end the 2011-12 season, and wound up with the 7th pick and Harrison Barnes for their trouble. Barnes was a starter for their first two Finals runs.
The Warriors went a respectable 14-19 over their final 33 games after a 15-39 start in 2008, including 4-4 in their final eight, right ahead of the draft they ended up with Curry.
Steph was the 7th pick.
They drafted Ekpe Udoh with the 6th pick the following year, three spots ahead of Gordon Hayward and four spots ahead of Paul George.
They tried damn hard to get good in a hurry with the David Lee sign and trade.
Klay Thompson was the 11th pick
Draymond Green was the 35th pick
Harrison Barnes may not have decided a single championship for them.
It took an unprecedented set of circumstances (the cap spike and Steph’s below-market deal) for them to end up with Kevin Durant
At the end of the day, even if you think the Knicks would be much better off today had they tanked in 2003 or 2009 or 2018 or any other year, you at least have to acknowledge the list of players who have been taken within three spots of the picks New York has had:
Amar’e Stoudemire (9th in 2002, taken after Nenê, 7th)
Andrew Bynum (10th in 2005, taken after Channing Frye, 8th)
Rajon Rondo (21st in 2006, taken after Renaldo Balkman, 20th)
DeMar DeRozan (9th in 2009, taken after Jordan Hill, 8th)
Lance Stephenson (40th in 2010, taken after Andy Rautins, 38th, and Landry Fields, 39th)
Tobias Harris (19th in 2011, taken after Iman Shumpert, 17th)
Rudy Gobert (27th in 2013, taken after Tim Hardaway Jr, 24th)
There’s also Cleanthony Early, who was taken 34th in 2014, with Spencer Dinwiddie, Jerami Grant and Nikola Jokic all going within seven spots after him, as well as Frank in 2017 ahead of Mitchell and Bam, and obviously Knox in 2018 ahead of Mikal, SGA and MPJ.
Pick nits with any or all of the above if you choose, but in the last two decades, the only time the Knicks have unequivocally nailed their pick was with Mitchell Robinson, who was taken 36th.
Miami probably won’t win it all this year, but if they do, they’ll be the second champion in a row to succeed mostly without the benefit of a recent tank. And yet despite all of this anti-tanking evidence, it still speaks volumes that the guy who is widely acknowledged as the best executive in the sport tried to lean into a tank almost immediately after arriving in Toronto (but thankfully for him, James Dolan had other ideas. Thanks again Jim.)
That’s the thing about tanking: if it’s good enough for Masai Ujiri, who’s to say it’s not good enough for the Knicks? And who knows what would have happened to Philly - suddenly a prime piece of evidence for anti-tankers - had Sam Hinkie been allowed to see his vision through to the end? Or what if Oklahoma City didn’t have a cheap owner who was unwilling to dip into the tax to keep his team of MVP’s together?
In the end, there is no definitive right or wrong answer, other than that there are some things you almost certainly should not do (like trading away future picks when you aren’t yet a good team) and some things you almost certainly should (like trying to simply get better, as opposed to treating winning like the plague before the season even begins).
Where does trading for Chris Paul (or, for that matter, signing Fred VanVleet) fall on that spectrum? That’s impossible to know for sure without knowing the price, but based on NBA history at least, not trading for Chris Paul wouldn’t guarantee the Knicks a blessed thing.
Tank or no tank, if they don’t start making the most of the opportunities that come their way - whether it be with the 1st pick or the 51st - nothing else is going to matter very much. Leon Rose is off to a good start in that regard, making hires that point in the direction of righting what has wronged the team in the past. Seven weeks from now, those hires will be put to the test.
At least they can’t do much worse than those that have come before them.
That’s it for today. See you tomorrow with another edition. #BlackLivesMatter #VOTE