To Tank or Not to Tank: An NBA Struggle

This NBA season fans are salivating over the talent in college about five months early. Usually interest peaks in March, when the tournament showcases the best of the collegiate level and some NBA teams have given up on their seasons, but that’s not so this year. Supporters of some NBA teams, like Milwaukee (2-10), Utah (1-11), Boston (5-10), and Philadelphia (6-9) want their teams to “tank” and lose purposefully in order to gain a better draft spot.

The NBA is a unique case for tanking because each sport has inherent risks. Baseball, where no draft pick is ever guaranteed – much less a first-rounder – it is impossible to tank to even 40-122, which is the winning percentage (.250) where NBA teams want to be if losing purposefully. In the NFL and NHL, it would be foolish to set foot on the playing surface while purposefully not trying because of the violence within each sport.

The system that David Stern created in 1985 was to deter tanking. The NBA implemented the method of a lottery to decide the drafting order in which ping-pong balls representing all non-playoff teams are drawn. That means they all have a chance (with the worst team having the best, weighted odds) to earn the top-pick.

In regards to demeaning tanking, one commonly-heard argument is that the number-one overall pick is not a guarantee. The fact that Kwame Brown and Greg Oden were once first-overall selections serves as a severe reminder that it is impossible to predict exactly how well college talent translates in the professional paradigm. 

However, with the outstanding play so far this season by Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) and Jabari Parker (Duke) has provided incentive to throw away games. (Riggin’ for Wiggins and Sorry for Jabari!) A hope of snagging either of those franchise players is in the forefront of the mind of those fans.

Another thought is, “What’s the point of trying to win even if you’ll never make the playoffs? Get the best odds at someone like Wiggins or Parker and be happy!” Although even making the playoffs would be worse. In fact, it is the worst thing in the NBA to be just meh. Being the 8th seed in the NBA is the most futile position in sports. A guaranteed first-round loss and no shot at the number-one overall pick.  Even Brandon “Guarantee” Jennings couldn’t alter that fortune against the Heat last season.

A different take on tanking would be a sly approach. Such as: should a coach on a terrible team find himself giving a developing rookie more court-time than a veteran on a one-year deal even though the rookie is currently worse…that may not be such a bad thought.

Conversely, there are many downsides to tanking. For one reason: the team loses revenue as the fan-base loses interest because the organization purposely fields a poorly-performing team. Another: In the 24 years of draft lottery, only thrice has the worst-team in the NBA been rewarded with their choice of collegiate talent. Therefore, the loss of revenue and uncertainty of draft slot puts many problems into the ideology of tanking.

Tanking may make sense strategically for an organization, but asking a Point Guard to exhibit a string of bad performances decreases his value and could prevent a fringe player from playing with another team. Off the court and on the bench, the same goes for a coach, whose win-loss record may be inaccurately skewed and cost him a job offer. For example, this year the Boston Celtics hired former Butler coach Brad Stevens to manage the team. As of now Stevens presides over the “rebuilding” (a nicer word for tanking) that the C’s are going through. Say that, perhaps, in five years Boston decides they have seen enough and let him move on. Stevens owns a .300 career winning percentage as a coach because the Celtics did nothing but tank during his tenure. Coaches know this, they are smart people. Therefore, it is difficult for the upstairs management and front-office brass to convince the coaches and players to buy into tanking.

This year, even with the strength of Parker and Wiggins, seems to be a bad year to tank because of the overall depth. Even though LeBron James headlined the 2003 class, there were many talented, future-NBA superstars taken. Likewise, this upcoming class seems to mirror that with depth through Dante Exum, Julius Randle, and Marcus Smart just as a few examples. That way, struggling teams can still get talent in the draft without undergoing the shameful process of purposefully removing competition.

The final point is this: you shouldn’t tank. It is bad form, it alienates fans, and it does not even guarantee the top slot in the draft. 

 

*Side note on Boston Celtics as the aforementioned example for tanking. Do NOT trade Rajon Rondo right now. Do not. It would be a bad idea because, primarily, his value is way down currently and, because of Derrick Rose’s predicament, other teams will not trust a healing knee with a formerly torn ACL. Another reason is because the nucleus of a “rebuilding” team starts with who but Jeff Green, who is merely six months younger. Therefore, if you are a Celtics fan who says, “Get younger! Trade Rondo!” are you then willing to part with Green, too?

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Predicting the AFC Playoff Picture

  1. Denver Broncos (9-1) – We’ve heard all about their offense, but it’s so well deserved, like the Sunday Night Football broadcast pointed out last night, “Everything they do on offense is record-breaking.” For a crazy stat: Broncos offense has scored 398 points this season (Next closest? 275 – Indianapolis Colts). Whoever wins the AFC West (whether Kansas City or Denver) will be the top overall seed, but whoever comes in second will fall all the way to fifth-seed because of the playoff format. Denver will finish first because they have a softer schedule against bad defenses, with the exceptions of when they play in Arrowhead against the Chiefs and at Foxboro for their matchup against the New England Patriots.
  2. New England (7-3) – The controversial loss at Carolina will ignite New England and they will not play a defense as good as that for the rest of the year. And after next Sunday night where they host the Broncos, the Patriots do not play a team with a winning record and the one team that is .500 (Miami) is a mess. Other signs point up are the fact that their offense is finally complete with Receiver Danny Amendola, Tight End Rob Gronkowski, and Running Back Shane Vereen see the field together at the same time. Also, their brutally-injured secondary will heal as Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard progress as the Patriots seem to have the same problem , so the Patriots have certainly the easiest road to get to the second-seed and first-round bye for the playoffs. 
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) – The losses of Geno Atkins, one of the best pass rushers in the game, and Safety Leon Hall dampers the dominating defense Cincy boasted, but it finally appears Andy Dalton has figured out what’s going on. AJ Green continues to post solid numbers and the brute power/finesse combo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Gio Bernard out the backfield has given the Bengals a change-of-pace offense. Their schedule is not overwhelming as they have to go to San Diego and play host to the Colts, but they go to Pittsburgh, stay home for Minnesota and host the Ravens – whom they narrowly were defeated by last time out.
  4. Indianapolis Colts (7-3) – The Colts continue to mystify as they seem to have played themselves out of the consideration for “top team” in the AFC. The 38-8 blowout loss to St. Louis sabotaged the hype and their struggles at Wide Receiver have exposed and accentuated the absence of Reggie Wayne. Their schedule sees them go to three of the NFL’s toughest pass defenses in their last six games. At the Cardinals, Bengals, and Chiefs gives reason to pause, but their other matchups – at home against Tennessee, Houston, and Jacksonville – all but guarantee at least a 10-win season.
  5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) – Their defense allowed a meager 27 points to the best offense in football – they averaged 44 points at home coming in. Their tougher latter half of the schedule makes up for their Pillsbury Doughboy-soft first half. Four of last six come against tough teams like the Broncos and Colts; however they both come at home. To play their divisional rival, the San Diego Chargers, twice (one each at home and on the road) down the stretch presents what may be a trap game for Kansas City. Phillip Rivers has reverted to a version of himself c. 2009. The Chargers offense, fourth best (per game) in passing yards, QBR, and pass completions, could be an offense similar to Denver’s. That, in conjunction with the decent San Diego defense, could be a wrong recipe for Kansas City.
  6. New York Jets (5-5) – After failing to break the trend of win-loss-win-loss play by getting dominated on both sides of the ball last week against Buffalo, the New York Jets team will try to maintain their one-game lead for the final spot in the AFC playoff bracket. The play of Rookie Geno Smith will continue to improve as Chris Ivory shoulders the role of feature back extremely well. But their offense isn’t what will get them there, it’s the superb defense led by Cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Dee Milliner.
  • In the playoff picture:
    • There are six teams sitting at 4-6 currently (Oakland, Tennessee, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Diego) and all of them face decently difficult schedules with just six games to play. Baltimore would seem to have the advantage because of their experience and potency on offense, but they play three division leaders and two possible Wild Card teams (PIT and NYJ). Pittsburgh is in a similar situation and they also have to deal with a Week 16 Green Bay Packers, who will have Aaron Rodgers back by that point. The Oakland Raiders will take on a slew of competitors including the Cowboys, Jets, Chiefs, Chargers, and Broncos – so that doesn’t look good for a team starting someone by the name of Matt McGloin (who?). The teams with the best chance to disrupt the playoff picture listed above would be Cleveland and San Diego, who have difficult schedules but also could be poised to make a large statement.

 

The Derision

CHAGRIN FALLS, OH–In a stunning announcement yesterday at 3 PM, LeBron James of the Miami Heat publicly admitted to being a fan of Nickelback, becoming the first professional athlete in North America to do so. The interview took place at the Boys & Girls Club in Chagrin Falls, just 35 miles outside the LeBron-ambivalent city of Akron.

Nickelback, a rock band originating from Alberta in 1995, has released seven studio albums. In November 2011, users of the music-oriented dating site, Tastebuds.fm, voted Nickelback as the number one musical turnoff, edging out Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

LeBron James, widely recognized as the most talented player in basketball, recently won his second consecutive NBA Championship trophy as the leader of his squad.

“Yeah man, I really wish that Nickelback would take their talents to South Beach too,” said the back-to-back Finals MVP of the Canadian rock band. “If we could get Chad Kroeger [lead singer] to do the pump-up music before games that would be awesome.”

When asked about the courage he needed to do so he responded, “Coming out from backstage about my feelings toward Nickelback really was the right move, I spent a long time on the phone with my mom. She was on a train heading to The Great White North so the reception wasn’t great, but the sentiment got across: I needed to do this. Both for me and for others who feel the same.” During the meeting, LeBron seemed affable, finally peeling back the final shell of his complex and guarded personality.

Before LeBron won his first ring there were two kinds of NBA fans: those who wanted to see him fail for the inconceivable, incensing notion that he would team up with others as if trying to buy a championship, and Heat fans (whose numbers conspicuously surged after 2010). The situation shared similarities with Major League Baseball and the New York Yankees. In MLB–especially during the early 2000s–people loved to see their team win, but they loved seeing the Yankees lose almost more. That was the dogma that surrounded Miami in the NBA, everyone rooted for them to lose.

In essence, LeBron’s announcement drew every NBA fan, Heat supporters included, together in a robust union in hatred for the Miami basketball team and the face of their franchise. Even Miami Heat players, fans, and management were soured by the news. Pat Riley, the Miami basketball architect and team President, refused to comment on not only LeBron, but his mere existence.

The proclamation comes as a shock to nearly everyone, with one small exception.

Shooting Guard, teammate, and the man who brought LeBron to Miami, Dwyane Wade, spoke on the matter late Sunday night after a congregation of reporters formed under the terrace at his mansion. In response to NBA expert analyst Doris Burke’s question about warning signs toward James’ tastes in music, he had this to say: “You hear him humming around the locker room and at first, I didn’t really pay any attention to it,” Wade recounted, eyes misting. Other teammates, in written statements emailed to us, attributed the sounds to Discovery Channel documentaries on hippopotami fighting or horror movie soundtracks’ with nails on a chalkboard and a cat screech accompaniment. “Then I figured out it was the chorus line from Rockstar,” Wade finished, seemingly devastated. Rockstar, dubbed the second-worst song of all-time by Buzzfeed, was released in 2007 to much critical disclaim.

After the announcement, the alienation was immediate. Cleveland fans who not three years ago burned their number-23 jerseys, James in effigy, rejoiced. Social media and internet message boards were ablaze with taunts and jeering messages towards the man formerly known as the Miami Messiah. A collective cascade of contempt washed over the former-Superstar.

What does this mean for the best basketball player on the planet?

Approximately an hour after what many are calling “The Derision” Nike notified James he would no longer receive sponsorships from the company. In addition, all ten editions of his shoes have been pulled from every outlet nationwide.  Fans, stinging from the betrayal, are calling for a sort of trade-in system, but Miami initially balked at the idea citing that if Cleveland could deal, so could thousands of others.

However, an outcry by the Floridian public, highlighted by a swiftly-purchased billboard Sunday night that simply read: ‘That is Cleveland, this is Miami,’ has prompted Heat executives to offer jersey switches. As of press time there was no indication whose jerseys would be eligible for exchange, but rumors peg Chris ‘Birdman’ Anderson and Joel Anthony to be the likeliest.

Multiple other companies have also decided to revoke their endorsements with James. McDonald’s was not loving his announcement and pulled hundreds of thousands of small-sized, 40 oz. cups with James’ mug on them. In a TV spot for Beats by Dr. Dre, James is shown dunking by himself while listening to an Imagine Dragons’ tune, but people inside the segment leaked different info. “He insisted on listening to Nickelback,” an anonymous source from the production crew told us. “But with audio splicing, we fixed it. We’ve done more difficult work, like editing out the word ‘practice’ from our Allen Iverson interviews.”

In a slightly awkward moment at the press conference a phone could be heard ringing, interrupting the flow of the meeting. As reporters rummaged through their belongings, the noise got louder and source couldn’t be detected. The derivation of the disturbance was from a Samsung phone lying next to James’ forearm. The ringtone rang This Afternoon by, you guessed it, Nickelback. A shocked newsroom watched as LeBron actually let the song play, only bothering to answer just before time ran out and the phone would send the call to voicemail. Samsung, another endorsement deal for ‘King James,’ ostensibly professed that they could not control the content on their devices but pleaded with other users not to judge their products on James’ behavior – they also promised to severe ties with him.

While LeBron James is feeling the Heat from the organization as well as the NBA’s numerous fans, he holds fast to his word. In a mocking Twitter post early Monday morning @KingJames boasted: “How many Nickelback albums up in my iPhone? Not 1…not 2…not 3…I got all seven man!! #MyBeats.” So this how James has chosen to handle this media nightmare, by mockery and disregard.

James’ marketability within ad campaigns and sneaker deals hasn’t been the only financial suffering since the announcement. Rumors of the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers clearing cap space to sign the former-mega-Superstar this upcoming summer, when he can opt-out of his Miami deal, have fallen harshly and on now-deaf ears. The Cavaliers, looking for an excuse not to pursue James, have taken to the extreme by trying to consume cap-room. They have done so by offering a max contract (5 years at $100 million) to former Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls star Brian Scalabrine, nicknamed “The White Mamba.” Cavaliers GM Chris Grant denied that the signing had any other intention than making the team better. “I am unaware of any person named LeBron James,” were his only words.

It appears for LeBron that even in presently-progressive America, no one is ready to support his Nickelback fandom.

Does Pitching Still Win Championships?

With multiple, intriguing storylines swirling in the October wind at the World Series this year, perhaps the most interesting one was lost to the common spectator. What many forget, or simply didn’t realize, was that this series directly contradicted the old baseball adage that, “Pitching wins championships.”

For the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox to square off, it took Major League Baseball’s best offense, Boston, in runs (853) and OBP (.349) to take on the National League’s best offense, St. Louis. The numbers suggest that in order to even put a ball club in position to win a championship, teams need to trot out players who can get on base and score runs – in bunches. (Really if pitching got teams to the World Series the Detroit Tigers would have won the AL pennant with their Cerberus pitching attack of Scherzer, Verlander, and Sanchez.)

So while the two best offenses in baseball got their teams to the Fall Classic, were they the reason their teams won? Or, like the age-old mantra suggests, did pitching come through for two teams who were based around bats?

Since the most vital tenant of baseball is to, simplistically, score more runs than the opposition in order to win, which seems a fitting start for any team who wants to achieve something. Getting to the World Series is as an arduous accomplishment as any, but how the team plays when they get there is what defines them. To look at how a team performed in the regular season doesn’t hold any merit on how they play in the playoffs. Examples at the extreme include the 2001 Seattle Mariners with 116-46 regular season record, who promptly lost to the Yankees in the ALCS in five games. Then take the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals who won a paltry 83 games in the regular season, then went on a blazing-hot run to capture a World Series title.

First, a baseline needs to be established (and not obstructed) for what goes as “better pitching” or “better hitting.” The Boston Red Sox averaged 5.3 runs per game during the season and the Cardinals averaged 4.8 – therefore it would stand to reason that any significant deviation increase in runs during a game could be considered good hitting, while the likewise corresponds with decrease and good pitching.

The Cardinals were dominated in Game 1 with Ace Adam Wainwright on the bump as he gave up five runs, three unearned, over five innings. It was as bad a defensive performance as any in recent memory, but St. Louis pitching took the large of the blame as they were pounded for 8 runs in as many innings. However, it wasn’t the juggernaut offense of the Red Sox that put the game out of the proverbial reach for the Cardinals, it was Jon Lester. Yes, St. Louis struggled against lefties (they were 21-27 this season), but lefty Lester dominated the game in his own right, going 7.2 while allowing a mere six base-runners.  The Cardinals sole run didn’t even come until the ninth when Matt Holliday hit a homer off of Ryan Dempster – not Boston’s crème de la crème in the bullpen.   Boston held St. Louis under their average of runs per game during the season with phenomenal pitching and won the game, simple.

Game 2, a 4-2 St. Louis win, provided no contradiction. Rookie Michael Wacha gave up only two runs over his six innings of work while fanning six. Craig Breslow’s abysmal seventh inning appearance gave St. Louis three runs and the win. The Cardinals scored their average runs, but the pitching limited a potent Sox offense and they got the win.

ObstructionGate came in Game 3, which was incredibly entertaining for couch-managers as they second-guess John Farrell more than a wife second-guesses a husband. The game, which ended in a 5-4 Cardinals victory, was right at the mean for both teams in terms of runs per game. The numbers suggest a close, hotly-contested affair the actual game followed suit.

Clay Bucholz tired early on in Game 4, but relievers Felix Doubront and – surprise! – John Lackey kept St. Louis bats KO’d as the Sox hung on to win 4-2. It wasn’t to say Cardinals pitching was bad, in fact they only made one mistake: to Jonny Gomes on his three-run shot which would end up being the deciding hit. However, once again Boston kept St. Louis below average and managed to get to their average to get the W. DISCLAIMER: There’s no stat about walk-off pick-offs, but I guess that Boston stayed below average and St. Louis went above average (sorry, Kolten Wong).

Jon Lester returned in Game 5, a rebel with a cause this time, to snap the St. Louis offense. He again threw 7.2 innings, allowed only four hits, gave up no walks, and one run. All on 91 pitches. With that ridiculous efficiency, Lester out-dueled Adam Wainwright for a second time. Though the Sox offense had a tougher time than Game 1 against Wainwright, they still came away with the win. They pulled out the victory as a direct result of Lester limiting the dangerous Cardinals lineup as he ensured that they didn’t reach their average. This game was interesting because, in the 3-1 Boston win, neither team reached their average. Since the Boston offense couldn’t generate enough output to reach that benchmark, the Sox pitching knew they needed to lock-down, which they did. Say Lester came out flat and he gets knocked for a couple of base-hits, one of which is for extra-bases, the game is tied, or even in St. Louis favor; that scenario isn’t too difficult to imagine. However, Lester loaded up and willed his team to the win – through pitching.

It seemed that destiny picked the Sox as its child and pampered Boston to no end in Game 6. Shane Victorino continued his deluge of power as he banged one off the monster for a triple with three runs. The thrilling offense swiped the show, but the Sox received another phenomenal outing from John Lackey, he of the 6.2 innings and only one run. The 6-1 World Series-clincher was artwork as Lackey silenced all doubters in the stands and bats in the batter’s box for St. Louis.

Throughout the Series, Boston pitching limited St. Louis’ offense to two or fewer runs in five of six games. Thrice they only managed a single run. That’s lower than their runs per game average throughout the year and that’s with their clutch hitters like David Freese and Carlos Beltran at the dish in key moments.

Often, World Series play out in a similar fashion (when it comes to runs per game).  The 2010 and 2012 San Francisco Giants and 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks present a facsimile set of cases.

So while the Red Sox used their offense, the best in baseball, to get to the biggest moments, when the moments mattered most it was pitching that became the key contributor. Even in the updated game of baseball with lowered pitching mounds and (allegedly) juiced hitters, pitching still matters. It still wins championships.