The Milwaukee Bucks have made a special point not to lose with the strategic intention of garnering high draft picks. In most NBA circles, this plan is called "tanking," and those teams that enact it are to be looked down upon with great shame. We know this because the point of the sport is to win, and not doing everything possible to win each game is bad. As noted several weeks ago in this space, the Bucks have decided that their market desires an eternally competitive squad even if this decision limits their long-term ceiling. It's a perfectly acceptable decision that would appear to placate those who will not tolerate strategic losing.
With next June's draft figuring to feature several prospective franchise players, the outcry surrounding tanking has reached a fever pitch at a relatively early period in the NBA calendar. Enough so, in fact, that current deputy commissioner and soon-to-be real commissioner Adam Silver is being asked about the issue before any team plays an exhibition game. Watch his Bucks.com interview with Jim Paschke here, and read the relevant comments after the jump (as transcribed at EOB):
"I don't think it works, because culture is critical. And I don't think you can build a winning tradition with an undercurrent that 'it's better to be bad.' I've never seen it be successful. It makes me nervous that it has to be asked, so I recognize it's something the league has to focus on."
With all due respect to Silver, his characterization of tanking is quite off. The entire point of tanking is to win eventually, to the point where the willingness to lose games usually only persists for a season. For instance, in the case of the 2007-10 Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder, general manager Sam Presti knew that the team would be bad for one or two seasons but assumed that there would be meaningful, measurable progress along the way. Making the playoffs in 2009-10 was part of the plan — it's not as if they consigned themselves to the lottery because they thought it would be fun to lose for an indefinite period of time. They wanted draft picks so that they could develop a winning culture from scratch. Furthermore, teams like the 2011-12 Golden State Warriors circumvent winning for only several months — it's effectively a shortcut to their goal, not a reimagining of the entire path.
Silver is smart enough to know these things, if only because the Thunder, the ostensible model for many of these tanking teams, are now one of the league's premier draws. To figure out what he's getting at in these comments, then, it is useful to consider the NBA's approach to tanking. While the league's new system of fines and suspensions appears to take the issue seriously, selective enforcement and unclear definitions have cast these rules as a somewhat toothless public relations strategy. If a large group of fans doesn't like something going on in the league, the powers that be have to look as if they're dealing with the problem.
I remain unconvinced that tanking is a major crisis for the NBA (for reasons explained here by Tom Ziller, plus others), but if the league is going to address it then they should take it seriously. As is, league officials appear more content to respond to the problem than to deal with it.