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On Tanking

Sometimes I feel like Inigo, but regarding a differnt word: a much maligned word, filled with angry feelings and negative connotations: Tanking.

I have heard the word before this, but the earliest truly vivid, specific use of it that I remember was from Simmons in describing the 2006-07 basketball season. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were, of course, the top prizes from the draft. Several teams (including Simmons' Celtics) kept their best players on the bench, with obviously bogus "injuries", simply so they would lose and get in better position to win the lottery.

Fast Forward to five years later.

Now, every time a fan, sports writer, or anyone makes any reference to getting a better draft pick or "they may lose a few more games, but in the long run they'll be better off", our ears prick up, and we shout "Tanking! Tanking! Tanking!"

And sometimes I just want to say: You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.

More after the jump

So what is tanking?

Everyone will have different definitions, but to me it's this: Deliberately losing otherwise winnable games in order to improve draft position.

This is usually accomplished by sitting good players on the bench and letting a D-League look-alike squad* muck their way to an ugly loss.

*Thus all teams in Tank mode ought to be careful when playing the Jazz. We lose to D-Leage look-alikes.

And do you know what? Tanking is an ugly thing. A lot of us have opined that we would never, ever support tanking. That we would boo a tanking team back to hell if we could. Add me to the ranks: I would never enjoy following a team that tanks its way to the lottery.

But I think sometimes tanking can be misunderstood. I think it's heart is the intent, as outlined by my definition above. And sometimes we get so caught up in the symptoms and methods that we forget that intent matters more. At least it does for me.

A Look at the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs sat both Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for the entire game against Portland this week. They didn't even dress. With Ginobili already out, that left them with a bunch of role players. They lost by 40 points.

Did they tank? I've seen various tweets and commentary that this proves the Spurs don't care about the regular season. Is this true? Did they simply tank the game against Portland?

Now let's add in some details, and let's see if the answer changes:

  • It was the second game in a b2b2b stretch.
  • This b2b2b stretch ended a 9-game, two week road trip.
  • They played Timmy and Parker 38 minutes each the previous night in Utah (a game they gave every effort to win)
  • They will probably lose most games that satisfy all of the following conditions: a) a decent opponent, b) on the road against a team that plays very well at home, and c) Tony and Timmy are worn out and can't produce.
  • The previous three issues mean that they would probably lose to Portland anyway.
  • Plus, the more often they wear out their main guys in the regular season, the more likely they will be breaking down at the end of the season and playoffs.
  • Denver is not nearly as good at home.
  • Keeping Duncan and Parker out in Portland makes the Denver/Utah games almost like a normal, every-other-night schedule for these two guys
  • Not only did Pop bench Duncan and Parker, but the other primary players also played fewer-than-normal minutes against Portland (Jefferson, Blair, and Bonner).
  • So Popovich got a chance to see the bit players in a much bigger role to see who may be able to contribute more in the future.
  • Additionally, all major players were fresh against Denver, in the third game of the set.
  • Suddenly a very possible defeat because of fatigue turns into a very probable win because they're fresh.

Of course, it's impossible to really know what would have happened had things gone differently. But I think the probability is this: by benching Parker and Duncan they went 2-1 on the b2b2b instead of 1-2. The benching tactic was done to a) help keep Parker and Duncan fresh for the playoffs, b) help keep them fresh for the final weeks of the regular season, b) get a chance to evaluate bit players in bigger roles, and d) actually win more games right now. Notice that three of those four objectives had everything to do with helping the team win more games.

Don't trust the tweets and commentary on this issue. The Spurs do care about winning as much as possible—in both the regular season and the playoffs. Their tactics actually help them accomplish this.

So did the Spurs tank?

Well, if you accept my definition, then they didn't at all. The tactics, symptoms, and methods all resembled tanking, but the Portland loss really had nothing to do with it.

* * *

So, back to the original issue: What is tanking?

Does tanking happen when you are accomplishing other goals? If it helps the players win more? And I'm not talking about winning more in five years—but winning more now, over a two-week period, or this during this season?

I don't expect our team to pull off these kind of Popovich tactics. Our team cares too much about trying to win every game they play. The Jazz way is to give all your effort every game no matter what. It's a Sloan characteristic—one that made him an All-Star—one that helped the 03-04 Jazz team win 42 games. It's a fight-until-you-die attitude that Deron also had. And our team has inherited it.

But the question remains.

What is tanking?

And under what definition of tanking can you no longer give your emotional support to a team?

* * *

Final Thought:

I would argue that nobody right now—and possibly in the history of the NBA—nobody accomplishes more in losses than Popovich's Spurs. And not in the absurd "moral victory" sense, but in terms of tangible objectives that help the team win more games.

There are many reasons things turned out so differently for Duncan's Spurs and Garnett's Pesky Timeberwolves. I think the way the Spurs approach 82-game seasons (including to what they accomplish in losses) is one of the more important.