NBA Preview 2013: Are the Utah Jazz tanking . . . technically is that not exactly what they did last year?

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE
Ed. - THIS IS AN OPINION PIECE

Every season before a purported magical draft class (see: Tim Duncan draft, Allen Iverson draft, the fabled 2003 NBA draft, etc) more and more is written about tanking. Ideally, the allure of a once in a generation talent is in all honesty, a solid enough reason to facilitate having more ping pong balls. People who hold onto theoretical ideals of honor, nobility, and virtue need to wake up from their LARP session to understand modern pro sports a little better. I think there's evidence to suggest that the Spurs tanked, got Tim Duncan, and have gone to five NBA Finals, winning four of them. If they don't tank, they are as relevant in the history books as the Atlanta Hawks or Milwaukee Bucks -- except with no titles. So basically the Utah Jazz. But they did tank, and it paid off. And this is the ideal situation with a little luck. In the Duncan year the Boson Celtics actually lost 5 more games than the Spurs did, and in a perfect world, Duncan should have been a Celtic all these years, and playing center for them.

And that's the point. Even if you outright tank there's a great chance you're not even going to get the first pick in the draft. In fact, the worst team has only won the lottery (there have been 29 lottos, next year will be the 30th) four times: Danny Manning to the Los Angeles Clippers in '88, Derrick Coleman with the New Jersey Nets in '90, LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers in '03, and most recently Dwight Howard with the Orlando Magic in '04. That's four times in 29 years, or a whopping 14% of the time, despite having a 25% chance in these last few years in the 30 team NBA. The benefit to tanking is palpable, but the execution of tanking is what fans cringe about. And General Managers get really, really get pissed off if they do tank, and don't win. (David Kahn used to yell to reporters about it, as the Wolves never won the lotto, despite having some really bad teams - he even blamed David Stern once.)

This season teams look to be positioning themselves for a chance at Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Andrew Harrison, Mario Hezonja, Glenn Robinson, Montrezl Harrell, and many others. The reason to tank exists. The benefit to tanking also exists. It's just that, well, many times tanking doesn't pay off. But you miss every shot you don't take, in a basketball game. You get rejected by every girl you fail to ask out on a date. And you miss out on a once in a generational talent every time you actively try not to get them. (Except in the case of the Orlando Magic who won the lotto back in 1993 after posting a 41-41 record, when they should have gotten the 11th pick in the draft that year; and they used that pick to draft Chris Webber and flip him for Penny Hardaway.)

According to das internet, we all already know which teams are tanking this year:

In the case of our Jazz, some have us as being the absolute worst team in our conference already (thanks guys!). And to be honest, we've made a number of curious moves if all you care about are wins in the 2013-14 season. In a perfect world it's clear that if you trade for Andris Biedrins while letting someone like Paul Millsap walk you are not making moves based upon making your team as good as it can be for the next available season. (It gets crazy if you realize that Millsap is going to be making $19 million for 2 years, or $9.5 million per, while Biedrins will make $9.0 million for 1 year. That's a half a million dollar difference.) And if you make moves that look like you are trying to be bad it's very easy to come to the conclusion that the team is tanking.

After all, that's really what it looks like to casual observers, and national observers alike.

However, tanking is not the same thing as rebuilding.

Just take a look at the amazing article Tom Ziller put up earlier this month on the SB Nation mothership:

"We're at the point where reporters are openly claiming that if Team A doesn't sign Superstar Y, the team will "tank" in 2013-14. As Peachtree Hoops documents, ESPN's Chad Ford has been big on this claim, suggesting that the Hawks will join other "tankers" if Atlanta can't land Dwight Howard.

"Our Paul Flannery got at this on Tuesday, but it needs to be repeated again and again: we have a whole lot of different definitions of tanking bouncing around, and none of them really make sense. And the idea that a team can pitch itself to a major free agent, lose the bidding and decide to suck -- it doesn't even make sense!

"In my opinion, tanking is an act, not a plan. If I were the arbiter of basketball definitions, to tank would be to intentionally lose one or more games through abnormal rotational decisions, DNPs and/or shooting nights. The Suns sitting a healthy Goran Dragic against his will in March? Tanking. Two teams sitting their top-five players in the final week of the season, and then one of those teams (the Celtics) sitting a hot player the entire fourth? Tanking. The Warriors yanking a rookie because he's too good? Tanking. Mark Madsen firing up seven 3-pointers in the final game of the 2005-06 season? The most egregious tanking ever.

"Those are acts of tanking. The Celtics trading Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry for draft picks and contracts? That's not tanking, that's rebuilding. And the reality of rebuilding in the NBA is that the draft is the best, most efficient, most effective and often the most painful path. It's long, arduous and it works. Even if you bail out on it early -- as the C's did in 2007 -- you need the picks because ... other teams are doing the same damn thing."

- T. Ziller, July 2013

I will also offer up that, if we're just looking at recent examples (and avoid the Spurs sitting David Robinson after he was healthy enough to play back in the pre-Duncan years) you can't get much better than goal tending a last second shot against the New Orleans Hornets to ensure the loss down the "home stretch" of the season while sitting Klay Thompson for the entire 4th quarter. Btw, Klay was shooting 58 fg% in that game and leading all scorers by the end of the 3rd, and was torching the Warriors while being healthy.

Well, so this brings us back to tanking. Tanking really is a hot button topic, and you can read all about it today on almost every website:

I could on and on about other people talking about tanking, rebuilding, and "going for it." But you came here to read about a) the Utah Jazz, and b) what we have to say about it. So let's begin . . .

Are the Utah Jazz tanking in 2013-14?

The first thing you need to do here is define tanking. And that's really the crux of the argument. Is letting a guy heal for a little longer than necessary tanking? That's a grey area. Is sitting a good player for a lesser player tanking? Absolutely true.

In my idea of tanking, tanking is first and foremost an active policy to field a less than capable squad when evidence suggests that a more capable squad is available. The Utah Jazz received the benefit of tanking back in the 2004-05 season when Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer missed a combined 72 games that season. However, I doubt you can link the Jazz with tanking at all because the season before (2003-04) they had an even worse roster and went 42-40 -- then in the off-season spend big money on signing free agents Kirilenko, Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Carlos Arroyo, and Gordan Giricek. The team could not compete, though they tried, and lost a lot of games. They ended up with a #6 pick, which they flipped with other parts, to get Deron Williams. In those post-Stockton and Malone seasons the Jazz coaxed out 42, 26, 41, and 51 wins (the last two seasons' win columns were greatly assisted by Deron). The anomaly is the 26 win season, which appears to be a product of missing our two best players for the majority of the season. For a point of comparison, the Bobcats have managed 44 (playoffs!), 34, 7, and 21 wins in the last four years.

The Jazz did get the benefit of tanking, and honestly, if we didn't get Deron on our team the Jazz would have looked a lot worse than it did during those Andrei/Memo/Carlos/Deron days. And without him, Utah also probably does not go to the Western Conference Finals in 2007 either. So even in our own small community we've seen WHY tanking is beneficial, even if our hands are clean from the act. Usually the best players, franchise leading players, are found high in the NBA Draft. And that's why teams tank.

So are the Jazz tanking now? We can't know for sure, because we have not seen the team get game losing goal tending calls yet, and we have not seen the team AVOID getting game losing blunders down the stretch either. In terms of the on court production, the answer is an incomplete because, well, we have played zero games so far. Yes, the Jazz did sit out Alec Burks in two games, and Trey Burke in one game in the Orlando Summer League. But Alec is now a third year player who proved his worth and was playing with an injury. And Trey, well, he was lost and needed to slow down, while the Jazz just got two more active PGs cleared the play on that same day (Jerel McNeal and Raul Neto), and they needed some run.

Did the Jazz tank in Orlando? No. Even if we were the 3rd seed and ended up in 4th place and we sat out Jeremy Evans, Alec Burks and others I don't call it tanking. It's the summer league.

Have the Jazz front office set up a roster to specifically tank? This is more of a grey area. When you lose Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Earl Watson, trade Randy Foye, and will possibly let Mo Williams, Raja Bell, and Jamaal Tinsley all walk -- it looks like it. Well, on talent level no; but in terms of how our amazing coach Tyrone Corbin set up our depth chart and pecking order, then yes. When there is a mass exodous of 54.5% of all the minutes played in a Jazz uniform over the last 3 seasons makes it really *really* look like we're tanking.

In fact, it may just be a point that we're clearing the deck from mismanaged players instead. Yes, the Jazz are saying goodbye to at least 30,000 regular season minutes worth of experience. But the main reason why the team is saying goodbye to them is because our stubborn head coach (who put his immediate personal needs ahead of the long term team goals) has had all of his toys taken away from him.

LAST season he would play these guys who had very short term shelf life over the massive, apparent talent that our general manager (Kevin O'Connor) worked so hard (squeezing figurative and literal blood from a stone) to accumulate. In those three seasons where marginal veterans with little potential to ever improve were playing 54.5% of all of the minutes the team squandered critical development time for Derrick Favors (#3 draft pick), Enes Kanter (#3 draft pick), Gordon Hayward (#9 draft pick), and Alec Burks (#12 draft pick). Now with another lotto pick falling to us, in Trey Burke (#9 draft pick) the front office really had no other option than to jump-start the rebuilding.

We can't afford to let these high priced, expensive lottery picks continue to flounder and have their careers and present talents be retarded any longer. We're trying to get better. You can't get better by doing the same stupid things over again, and magically being dumbfounded when people run the pick and roll against Al Jefferson all day long and we lose games.

Trying to get better is the opposite of tanking.

What about my initial idea of tanking? I called it an active policy to field a less than capable squad when evidence suggests that a more capable squad is available.

That doesn't sound like making a roster where our best players TODAY are really the people who we hope will be the best players in the future. Rather, it sounds a lot like what we were doing the last few years -- last year in particular.

There are any number of quantitative measures which eviscerated the lineups that Tyrone Corbin used last year. National writers, really smart guys, wrote quite a bit about this (as did some "negative / groupthink" blogs) -- and each time they did they were summoned to the principal's office to be dressed down by the over-protective local, team owned, media. Tyrone Corbin has a recorded history of being a long time NBA journeyman who bristled at the fact that he, as a veteran with limited talents, had to keep moving to find work while more talented younger players remained in the long term plans of the teams Ty used to play for. This is a historical fact.

Is it clear that his life experience influenced his game plans or rotations? We can't know that. But we do know from actual historical evidence that even AFTER making the playoffs by playing the younger guys, he went back to rewarding marginal talents like Josh Howard with a starting spot -- where he only continued to make himself look selfish, and the coach who rewarded him just for being a vet look incompetent.

Corbin didn't just make one "boo-boo" he continued to do so over his career as a head coach. Some of this is based upon his inexperience. I get that. Some of this is is based upon the people he brought on to help him (Sidney Lowe looks like a great role model). But a lot of this is Corbin. He seems to show little affinity for the very metrics which bury him. He continued to throw out on the floor 5 man lineups that did not work well together, and failed to use the talents of his entire roster in order to try to unlock the talents of a single player on it. If you look at our team last season no one thrived. Not even the guy we bent over backwards to please -- Jefferson shot worse in a Jazz uniform than he did as a rookie with the Celtics, and he had one of his worst seasons ever as the focal point of our present.

If you look at our end of game Xs and Os we didn't even run a play, we went to isolate either for the guy who is shooting 49 fg% or the guy who is shooting 43.0 fg%. The plays we ran did not look good, were not executed well, and almost looked like we were trying to lose. It's absolute tanking to goaltend a last second shot to make sure you lose the game. It's probable cause tanking if your last second shot is an Al Jefferson three pointer, or you isolate for a guy who has specifically LOST games for you during the season because of his #MOLO shooting streaks.

Tyrone could have done a better job by using better Xs and Os, and by using better combinations of the players he already had on the team. Maybe our deplorable defense would have looked a little better with Derrick Favors anchoring things for greater than half the game, instead of playing him less than half the game for three straight seasons? Maybe we would have drawn more fouls on the defense, and gained a strategic advantage, if we got Big Al the ball on the move more instead of letting him take a shot from 6 to 15 feet when he's going away from contact? (Or you know, play guys who go to the rim?) Could we have gotten more from Mo and Randy and Gordon if we played up tempo? Is it possible that Marvin could have been more effective if he was allowed to take his money shot -- the three pointer in the left corner?

It's almost as if we got the consequence of tanking without even the directed desire to tank. (Bad on court production, without the benefit of a high draft pick) We were in win now mode the last three years. And we won zero playoff games in three years. If we weren't in win now mode we would have played our younger guys sooner, and for more minutes.

We would have been rebuilding sooner.

And rebuilding isn't tanking.

That's a fallacy, just like playing younger players = losing more now. Including the playoffs over the last three seasons we're winning 50.4% of our games. That's just breaking even. We're already losing half the games we play, while trying to win all of them. Would it be much worse if we were trying / aiming to win all of the games possible a season or two down the line with a better roster?

It could be worse, but it could also be better. Yucca and MyLo have us winning anywhere from 20 to 40 wins this year. We'll see who is more right in 12 months.

But a huge part of that will be our coach, and our roster. Last season our roster was not compatible with our long term goals, specifically not with a coach who displayed a bias towards marginal players over future potential. He has no other option this year than to play our future potential. That sounds like a rebuild to me, even if other people call it tanking when we let defensive sieves like Jefferson, Millsap (vis a vis taller players), Williams, Foye, and others leave.

Our offense on paper looks worse. We're losing 54.5% of all the minutes we had over the last three seasons. We're losing vets and recent experience. And people think we're a worse team. Perhaps we are on paper when we're paying $9 million for a guy who scored 2 points after the All-Star break last year.

But we're taking a step back in 2013-14 to take a huge step forward in our immediate future. We're rebuilding. We're not tanking. Or at least, we're not tanking until Richard Jefferson (aka Dick) starts in place of either Gordon Hayward or Alec Burks. If and when that starts happening we should call the Jazz tankers. But if that doesn't happen, I think it's insulting to call a team that is trying to fix their Dwayne Schintzus tanking.

We're trying to get better. And we weren't getting better on a team that kept our younger guys playing developmentally retarding minutes which meant that their future returns would be diminished if they ever got a chance in the future to even play.

As for the point of tanking -- to get a once in a generation, franchise changing player in the draft? Well. We've gained a few draft picks to combine with our own, so we should have the pieces needed to move up, in, or out of any draft between now and the next head coach we have leading our on-court strategy.

I guess what I'm saying is that we can gain a benefit of tanking, while putting out a more cohesive unit on the floor. We'll look better and play better. We may not win as much, but the end goal is to improve our youth. And with the draft picks we have and can claim, we can still find a way to still be in the running in 2014's legendary draft.

The benefit of tanking without tanking, but rebuilding and rebranding. That's what the 2013-14 Utah Jazz are doing. If you are going to argue that we are tanking then you are probably looking for the 2012-13 Utah Jazz.

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