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Patrick Hruby

Know When to Fold 'Em

In defense of sports tanking

Sports on Earth

Justin Engelbart wants the Milwaukee Bucks to lose. Early and often. Later, too. He wants the Bucks to lose at home and on the road, to the surging Indiana Pacers and the struggling New York Knicks, on the beaches and the landing grounds, wherever and whenever defeat can be snatched from victory's welcoming arms.

And just to be clear: Engelbart is a Milwaukee fan.

"I'd like a [season] win total probably in the mid-20s, low-30s," he said.

A 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Engelbart is one of the people behind saveourbucks.com, a website that asks the team to commit sports heresy by way of sports seppuku. Which is to say: They want the franchise to stand down. Forget making the playoffs. Scrub the roster of experienced, win-now talent. Go young. Pile up losses. Tank the current season -- tank it hard -- and grab a potential star like Duke forward Jabari Parker or Kansas swingman Andrew Wiggins in next summer's NBA draft.

To make sure their just lose, baby message gets through, Engelbart and company recently raised $5,105 online, the better to purchase a billboard that will feature numbered ping-pong balls and the caption "Winning Takes Balls."

"It's hard to root against the team," he said. "But we need a top-five pick in the [NBA] draft. A real blue-chip prospect that the city can get behind."

Engelbart's sentiment is hardly unique. Across the NBA, sacrificing victories for better draft position is en vogue. The Boston Celtics are built to fail. So are the Utah Jazz, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Phoenix Suns, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Orlando Magic. As the calendar progresses, other clubs likely will join the league's First Armored Division. ESPN.com's Chad Ford already is writing a semi-regular "Tank Rank" -- after swapping Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for Derrick Williams last week, the Sacramento Kings are movin' on up! -- while an anonymous league general manager told ESPN the Magazine before the season even started that his team "isn't good enough to win and we know it. So this season we want to ... get in position to grab a great player. The best way for us to do that is to lose a lot of games."

Of course, purposeful losing doesn't sit well with some. Like players, who uniformly hate it. Or Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who refuses to tank despite losing superstar guard Derrick Rose to a knee injury for the second consecutive season. Or Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelley, who earlier this year scoffed at the notion of tanking to land a franchise quarterback in next spring's NFL draft. Or Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, who insists his franchise would never take a dive. Or the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which two years ago featured an entire talk on how to eliminate the practice.

Then there's Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who just a few weeks ago all but demanded sports tankers be deported, preferably by being placed on the next ice trawler to Soviet Siberia.

"As an American, I wouldn't like to think that an American team would want to lose or create situations where you would want to lose," he said. "I can't even fathom -- I can't go there. I can't believe that that would happen. Maybe I'm naive and I'm going to go read a fairytale after this.

"If that is happening, shame on whoever is doing it."

Shame? Au contraire. Naive? Oui. As both a guy who has devoted his adult life to winning basketball games and a self-styled expert on American, um, Americanness, Coach K ought to know better. In fact, everyone who finds tanking unseemly -- if not borderline immoral -- ought to know better. Because if there's one thing history teaches us, it's that losing on purpose is sometimes good. A necessary non-evil. Downright All-American, even.

Consider George Washington. Not the university. Not the university basketball team that gave us Yinka Dare. The man. The father of our country. The face on the dollar bill. Time and again during the Revolutionary War, Washington ordered the Continental Army to retreat in the face of superior British forces: once at the Battle of Long Island, again near White Plains, N.Y., a third time near Philadelphia. Was Washington a coward, a traitor, worthy of Coach K's fainting couch shock and schoolmarm scorn? Hardly. He was smart. He understood that in order to win the war, the British had to win a decisive battle -- whereas his army simply had to survive, harass the enemy, sap their will to fight and ultimately win the right battles, like those at Monmouth and Yorktown. Washington grasped that desertion can be the better part of valor, and knowing when to fold 'em is as important as knowing when to hold 'em.

In other words, America was founded on tanking -- with Washington pulling the military equivalent of dealing aging Boston stars Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for filler and draft picks.

Uninformed, vaguely jingoistic sentiment aside, what tanking critics fail to grasp is that Successories posters and high school football coaches are wrong: you can't accomplish anything you set your mind to just by working hard and wanting it badly enough. Lots of times, the other guy -- or other team -- is bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, more talented and just plain better. Your will is irrelevant. Sure, you might get lucky on any given night -- but in a seven-game series, LeBron James and the Heat are going to crush you underfoot, drowning out Harry Belafonte's arena sound system cries of "Day-O!" with the lamentations of your women. That's sports. That's life. "Rudy" made it as a Notre Dame walk-on. He did not win the Heisman Trophy. Jordan once said that "never say never, because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion." Pithy aphorisms didn't help him hit a curveball. In "Rocky IV," Rocky Balboa couldn't bring himself to throw in the damn towel during Apollo Creed's lopsided fight with Ivan Drago. Death before tanking dishonor! Everyone knows how that turned out.

Tanking acknowledges as much. It acknowledges limits. The Garnett-Pierce Celtics were too old to win another NBA championship. Departed Suns veterans Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola were nice players, but not even good enough to lead Phoenix to the Western Conference Finals. Following Krzyzewski's logic, Boston and Phoenix could have kept on keepin' on. Both clubs could have doubled down on their fundamentally flawed rosters -- much like Milwaukee, whose No. 8-seed-or-bust trade of promising youngsters Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb for sharpshooting guard J.J. Redick last season helped net the franchise the Eastern Conference's eighth playoff seed … and a subsequent postseason bust. Determined, confident and always trying to win right now is a fine way to go through life, except when it's utterly short-sighted and delusional. (Pro tip: it's also a terrible way to handle martial spats). Because if you can't identify -- or accept -- your inherent limitations, you'll never figure out how to work around them. Let alone surpass them. As Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen puts it:

… the dumbest thing that the 76ers, Suns and Celtics could have done last summer would have been to throw money at their problems -- to try to win now with rosters that were incapable of meeting that challenge. The 76ers wasted years following that shortsighted approach, while the Knicks and [Brooklyn] Nets are trying to follow it now; we'll see how that plays out for them.
The 76ers, Suns and Celtics have been been trying to improve, ironically. The improvement they're seeking is the kind that lasts, the kind that can lead to a long championship run. To me, that isn't tanking -- it's management …

Exactly. Tanking is not quitting. It's not the same as giving up. Contrary to Coach K's definition, it isn't even trying to lose. Not per se. It's more like executing one of Washington's strategic retreats. Playing rope-a-dope. Managing available resources over time to maximum effect. Suffering now in order to succeed later. Far from despicable, tanking is actually virtuous, a sign of refined character. Who tanks? People who have learned to delay gratification. People who can think longterm. People whose sun does not rise and set on quarterly earning reports. Peopke who are OK with finishing their salad before devouring a deep-fried Twinkie. (In that sense, Krzyzewski may be right to call tanking un-American).

Who tanks? People who understand tanking works.

The Houston Rockets allegedly tanked their way to drafting Hakeem Olajuwon (spurring the creation of the NBA draft lottery). The Celtics and San Antonio Spurs are suspected of tanking in order to land Tim Duncan. In 2006, the Los Angeles Clippers mysteriously -- ahem -- lost a number of late-season games to finish as the Western Conference's sixth seed. In the playoffs, they faced the Denver Nuggets, who finished with the eighth-best record in the conference but a No. 3 seed thanks to winning their division. The Clippers won the series. Had Los Angeles entered the postseason as a No. 5 seed, they would have played the No. 4 seed Dallas Mavericks, who had the second-best record in the West. Retreat and advance! Similarly, Sweden mysteriously -- ahem -- lost a pool play ice hockey match against Slovakia at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Had the Swedes won, their quarterfinal opponent would have been either Canada or the Czech Republic, a pair of previous gold medalists; by losing, the Swedes instead faced not-so-mighty Switzerland in the quarterfinals. Thanks in part to a more forgiving draw, Sweden went on to win the tournament; in hindsight, can you really blame the squad for failing to take a shot during a 5-on-3 power play against Slovakia?

Back to the Bucks. At the saveourbucks.com website, Engelbart and his colleagues make a compelling case that the only way to field a consistent NBA winner is to have a superstar player (or two) on your roster -- and the best way for smaller-market teams like Milwaukee to acquire those superstars is through the draft. Specifically, through top-five draft picks. Examining the draft over a 20-year period (1991-2010), they determined that of the 37 players who were named either first, second or third-team All-NBA at least twice in their career, 24 were selected between picks Nos. 1 and 5 -- a number that figures to increase if recent top-five picks Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose, James Harden and Kevin Love are named to more than one All-NBA team over the course of their careers.

Moreover, the website notes that the only sustained success Milwaukee has enjoyed -- ever -- was due to top-five draft picks like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen and Andrew Bogut. Even 1977 No. 1 overall pick Kent Benson -- a career disappointment -- netted the Bucks future Hall of Famer Bob Lanier in a trade.

"Big-market teams can bring in stars as free agents," Engelbart says. "We couldn't even get Eric Bledsoe this offseason, because we're not attractive enough. Our franchise player right now is Larry Sanders. He was a No. 15 pick. With him, we're getting the most potential we can get at that pick. But we need that top-five pick to be able to jumpstart the franchise."

For years, the Bucks have refused to tank; for years, the franchise has wallowed in competitive mediocrity. The former leads to the latter. By consistently acquiring and giving major playing minutes to veterans like Monta Ellis, the franchise has ensconced itself on the dreaded NBA treadmill: Good enough to beat anyone on a given night, and maybe even make the playoffs. But not good enough to contend for championships. Engelbart and company want the club to adopt a different approach -- the scorched-earth, lose-now, acquire-young-assets-as-a-reward method Oklahoma City used to build its currently contending small-market club.

Last year, Charlotte Bobcats general manager Rich Cho -- who used to work for the Thunder -- explained the process to ESPN.com's Henry Abbott:

... when [the Thunder] had cap room, they didn't use it. Massive losing streaks helped too. The team's point guard of the future (Russell Westbrook) learned on the job while leading the league in turnovers.
There is no suggestion that any of the players or coaches didn't try their hardest. But the fact is the front office trotted out a young, cheap and, frankly, bad team for a good long time. Intentionally. During those same years they could have been, with a different strategy, far more competitive. But if they had done that, they'd never be leading the Western Conference right now, because they wouldn't have gotten the good players that came with the good picks that came from losing …

Oh, and remember Jordan's public proclamation that he doesn't "believe" in tanking? Perhaps he should consult his own front office. Again, from Cho's 2012 interview with Abbott:

… [Charlotte's] front office -- Michael Jordan, Rod Higgins, Cho and company -- is not doing all it can to win right now. If there are cheap free agents they could add to make this team better, they have not added them. If there are better coaches available, now would not be the time to hire them.
Cho says he made something like that a condition of his joining the team. "They called me the day after I got let go by Portland," he recalls of the Bobcats. Cho had three years left on his Portland contract, and had that finest of luxuries -- he simply didn't have to work. "I had thought about taking some time off, or teaching at a high school," he told me on a recent episode of TrueHoop TV. "I thought about maybe coaching high school tennis, which I've wanted to do for a long time."
But he flew to Charlotte for a conversation that came down to a key moment, when Cho asked if the Bobcats really wanted to win. As in, did they want to win so badly that they'd be willing to follow in the footsteps of Cho's former employer, the Thunder, who won 20 games one season, and then 23 the next, in the process of amassing the core of their current team?
In other words, Cho was asking, were they willing to lose? "Are you willing," Cho remembers asking, "to take a step back to take two steps forward?"
Cho says the room answered, unanimously, "yes." A few months later, that team is 7-40.

This is the dirty little secret of tanking: given the incentives in place, it's totally rational to throw in the towel by going young, cheap and crummy. Don't blame the Celtics, Suns and 76ers for their un-American attempts to fail. Blame the un-American league rules that encourage them to do so. The rules that punish success and reward failure. Like having player drafts that give the worst teams the best chances to acquire top incoming players. Or revenue sharing, salary caps and other payroll mechanisms designed to make it easier for teams to retain top players after drafting them. The Los Angeles Lakers' primary way of adding a talent such as James is to take him to the beach, offer him a pile of money and have a long conversation about sunscreen and/or big-market endorsement opportunities; by contrast, the Bucks' only way of adding the same sort of player is through collectively bargained collusion and conscription. Play here, or don't play at all.

Like Engelbart, Paul Henning is a lifelong Bucks fan, a 33-year-old Milwaukee native. He's also a business school graduate. As such, he has a question: given the way the NBA works, why wouldn't fans of lousy teams support tanking?

"Sports is a real emotional thing," Henning says. "People get extremely passionate about wins and losses. But if you strip it all away and look at it more as business model, then what is the best way to build the talent pool for longterm success of this business? Like any business, it's investing.

"Say you're a biotech company. Do you want to hire experienced guys trained in an out-of-date era to get you through the next two years, or young guys who have the most potential for the next 10 years? It's all about the long-term health of the franchise. Do you just want band-aids every year? What we're really advocating is to build around a core of high-upside young talent and draft picks that will stick around for a while."

So far this season, the Bucks have been bad. Very, very bad, compiling a league-worst 3-14 record. And this, Engelbart and Henning insist, is good. Keep it up, and Wiggins could be starring in Milwaukee next season. Unless the franchise loses its nerve and does something stupid, like attempt to win basketball games. "With our roster at this point, I'm not too worried about making the playoffs," Engelbart says. "But I am worried that we'll make trades to bring in veteran players like [Chicago Bulls forward] Luol Deng to push us over the hump and get another No. 8 [playoff] seed." Such is the upside-down logic of taking a dive, in all its Coach K crazy-making glory. Make things better, and they're bound to get worse. Tanking, like winning, takes balls.

Read the original article at Sports on Earth