If you hold up all eight fingers and one thumb, you have the exact number of teams that have won the title since 1980. And with the start of another NBA season just two weeks away, it’s still safe to say that unless you are a powerhouse, you have little chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June.
Pick any championship team of the last three decades and immediately—with the possible exception of the 2004 Detroit Pistons—a transcendent player comes to mind: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James. Landing a player like that seems to be what it takes to become a powerhouse. But where do you get one of those guys?
The best way to find a franchise player is through the draft. And thus, for teams at the bottom of the pack, the notion of “tanking” is born. In Houston, when the Rockets wanted Ralph Sampson, the fans used to chant: “Lose more for seven foot four.” But commissioner David Stern changed all that by instituting the draft lottery in 1985, (insert frozen envelope joke here). Since ’85, not even losing has assured a team the top pick. In the history of the lottery, the team with the worst record in the regular season has only received the No. 1 pick on four occasions.
Still, one current NBA general manager tells me he figures somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 teams won’t be trying to win when opening night hits Oct. 29th—they already know they can’t. But he points out that although tanking can give you a great chance to select a good player, the odds of winning that way in the long run are still bad. You can win the top pick and still not get a once-in-a-generation-type player—there just aren’t that many of them. And you don’t win titles in sports with young players, particularly in the NBA where you need a star to hook your cart to.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean high drafts picks are bad. They can be used as trade bait to convince a team to relinquish a potentially transcendent talent or, in other cases, good pieces. For years Pat Riley seemed to be a proponent of trading draft picks. Yep, you take the seeds and I’ll take the full grown tree and transplant it.
The Boston Celtics used this approach to build a championship team in 2008. They were banking on the top pick and were even poised to select Kevin Durant over Greg Oden, but the lottery balls didn’t fall in the right spots. The “rebuild” turned into “loading up” when they traded for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. And they won a title. Not a bad plan B, huh?
The NBA is littered with examples of teams that lose regularly, collect high draft picks and still can’t field a title contending, or even playoff, squad. I present the Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings, among others. It’s only when the right pick does come along, after years of losing, that you get a team that makes tanking look like it works.
The San Antonio Spurs were a good squad that had a rough year in 1996-97. Some contend they went in the tank. David Robinson played only six games that season and voila, they win the lottery and draft Tim Duncan, a Hall of Fame talent, first overall. But Duncan alone didn’t make the Spurs a championship team. San Antonio was coming off 59 and 62-win seasons. They were a solid contender and managed to secure their future with other quality players, while developing talent around Duncan. They were also fortunate enough to find character players willing to sacrifice to win. The result has been four NBA titles since 1999.
The more modern day example is the Oklahoma City Thunder. They bled losses as the Seattle Supersonics, then stopped the haemorrhaging by drafting Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and trading for Jeff Green. They turned those moves into a close loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs, another to Dallas the year the Mavs won it all and a defeat in the finals before a pedestrian loss in the second round last season. OKC has had a nice run, but still no banner or ring, and with Harden and Green long gone and Westbrook sidelined by injury they’re suddenly in a dog fight for a chance—just a chance, I say—at a title. No guarantees right? Lucky for the Thunder, they have a transcendent player in Durant.
Yes, this year’s draft class is supposed to be full of transcendent talent. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Marcus Smart are all viewed as players around whom you can construct a solid contender.
But what is the best way to build? Acquire the draft picks, develop them and try to create a culture of winning. Realize that some of those picks might be traded along the way to make the team stronger, and that if you are fortunate enough to have some success, regardless of where you are on the map, that winning may help you attract a few key free agents and change the perception of your franchise league-wide.
As for Raptors fans clamouring for the tank to roll through Toronto: forget it. It may be the consolation prize in February if the team is doing poorly. But Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is on the record saying, “we’re not going to give players away and I’m not sure how you teach winning by losing.”
The Raptors will play to win. And why not? Toronto is eyeing its longest playoff drought—at five seasons and counting. Playing for ping pong balls means a sixth-straight campaign without the post-season, and then you’re likely looking at another couple of seasons before the next chance at the playoffs. This isn’t Boston or Philadelphia, both of the Celtics and Sixers have played on Mother’s Day in recent seasons.
You can tank all you want, get high picks for consecutive seasons and still never secure a transcendent player. For the teams that choose to tank, their losing may start a downward spiral before an honest effort starts to supply some positive results. In the immortal words of former New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards,”you play to win the game.”