x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Running on empty

As many as six teams could be ‘tanking’ to gain future draft picks, writes Steve Dilbeck.

Kansas Jayhawks’ Andrew Wiggins, left, will be high on many basketball teams’ wishlists for the 2014 NBA draft. Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images
Kansas Jayhawks’ Andrew Wiggins, left, will be high on many basketball teams’ wishlists for the 2014 NBA draft. Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

It is the NBA’s not-so-secret dirty secret. A practice long assumed but never quite verified: teams that make a point of losing, or “tanking”, as it is known in the league.

The premise is simple. The league reserves the first 14 picks in the annual college draft for teams who did not make the play-offs, and gives the absolute worst team the best chance of picking first. Thus, it makes cynical sense for a weak team to be wretched.

Over the years, pundits have watched bad teams suspiciously, especially when a great young talent was about to enter the league. A LeBron James, Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Next year’s draft could deliver several potential All-Stars — and a few perhaps even better — and some teams seem less concerned with how transparent their actions are.

The Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns were busy in the off-season swapping expensive veterans for unproven youth, first-round draft picks and the near certainty of lots of defeats.

Some general managers are talking about it, if anonymously. One told ESPN.com before the season started that he was putting together a weak roster in hope of landing the top draft pick next June.

“Sometimes my job is to understand the value of losing,” he said. “I know that sounds crazy, but if you’re an NBA general manager like me, the last place you want to be is in the middle. There are only two outcomes there: either make the play-offs and be first-round fodder for one of the premier teams or miss the play-offs and pick somewhere around 11th to 14th in the draft.”

The next draft is expected to offer players who could be difference-makers — Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, Jabari Parker of Duke and Julius Randle of Kentucky. Many are high on Australia’s Dante Exum and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.

Some may recoil at horror at a plan to lose, but some GMs see it as being practical. Lose today, win tomorrow. Thus, they give their coaches a team not good enough to win.

After that initial, anonymous GM admitted to tanking, another told SNY.tv he suspected as many as six teams were tanking.

“Utah is going young, which is understandable, and Denver is looking to lower their payroll,” he said.

“Orlando and Sacramento just aren’t good enough because of the jobs of their predecessors, but Philadelphia and Phoenix are obvious [in tanking the season], with Philadelphia not even trying to hide it.”

This goes against the spirit of sport, and some find the very concept unimaginable.

“If that is happening, shame on whoever is doing it,” said Mike Krzyzewski, the US Olympic coach.

“I can’t even fathom — I can’t go there. I can’t believe that that would happen. Maybe I’m naive and going to read a fairy tale after this.”

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