It is perhaps a coincidence, and a rather crude one, that "tank," the NBA code word for purposely losing games, rhymes with "stank." As in this conversation, which is certainly making the rounds in NBA circles: "Have you seen what the Milwaukee Bucks will trot out in the 2013-14 season? You can smell them from here. They (s)tank."
Tank. Stank. Same thing, right? Whatever you call it, a handful of teams will be accused of that next season, based on what they've done, or not done, during a tipsy offseason that's raising suspicion and creating a gulf between the haves and the have-mercies.
These summer months are all about adding talent and dumping dead weight and polishing the roster and as usual, that's been the case around the league. Look at how many teams were willing to shell out money and players if necessary to get Dwight Howard. And good money is being tossed at lesser free agents. And trades are being made in order to reach the next level. It is business as usual, for the most part, although those who are aggressively looking to get better were already in position to do so. It was in their best interests. They were headed up in the standings and building steam. They were one or two pieces shy of being a contender.
So they made a move, and sometimes two, to give themselves hope.
But the basement teams, with the surprising exception of the Pelicans and Pistons, are either taking a mild approach to improving or simply pushing the pause button altogether. This is being passed off as "rebuilding" and in normal times it would make sense. After all, not every team is in position to win-now (and in the case of the Bobcats, some are trapped in a perpetual state of win-never).
Yet, here's the difference: The 2014 draft, by every measure, account and expert opinion, is gonna be bananas. Potential galore. A possible franchise player or three. A grab-bag of riches for those teams fortunate enough to, well, (s)tank it up next season and improve their odds of choosing among the top three. And that means there's incentive to intentionally implode, to write off the upcoming season as a loss, to basically tell their fans: We need to get a whole lot worse before we can get a whole lot better.
Nobody was accused of tanking for the 2013 draft because there was no grand prize, no Shaq or Olajuwon or Duncan or Robinson, players who caused teams in the past to tank with authority and without apology.
But this next draft? With the chance of seeing Jabari Parker or the so-called next LeBron, Andrew Wiggins? That's a loaded draft. That's why there's an intriguing whiff in the air, the smell of suspicion. The (s)tank.
Well. If you look a bit closer, the charges of tanking are mostly baseless right now. We'll check back in February around the trade deadline. That'll give us a better idea of who's definitely in the tank, especially if bad teams are tossing productive players overboard and asking for picks in return. Right now though, tanking is just something to buzz about, nothing more.
Take the Celtics. Danny Ainge did the only sensible thing when Doc Rivers left for the Clippers. Ainge tossed Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets because he had almost no choice. KG and Pierce are on their last legs and probably wouldn't have responded to a new coach (and certainly not the guy Ainge hired after they left, college-boy Brad Stevens). Besides, the Celtics with KG and Pierce last year were woefully average, which is what you don't want to be in the NBA. They flamed out in the playoffs and looked old. So Ainge grabbed four future first-rounders in the next five years and some young players, and began the process of clearing as much cap room as possible.
And hey, if the Celtics win 25 games and grab Wiggins or Parker, Ainge will be thrilled, although he'll never admit it now.
You see, the way the present system is set up, the best way to get franchise players is through the draft. For some teams -- take the Bucks, for instance -- it's the only way. Free agents aren't flocking to Milwaukee. Players don't even want to be traded there. Places like Milwaukee and Sacramento and Utah and Toronto aren't destination teams and therefore must build mainly through the draft. That's where the Bucks have historically gotten their best players: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sidney Moncrief.
If you're the Bucks, it pays to be bad in a good draft year. Not in a year where the top prize is Andrew Bogut. So what have the Bucks done this summer? Nothing special, actually. They drafted a guy (Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 18-year-old thesaurus from Greece) who may not arrive next season because of contractual issues with his European team. They signed O.J. Mayo. Oh, and Zaza Pachulia, too. Yes, O.J. and Zaza, which sounds like a corner café, will energize the Bucks next season.
The tank charge also hit the Sixers after they sent their best player, Jrue Holiday, to the Pelicans. Philly did get Nerlens Noel in that deal, plus an additional (and conditional) No. 1 pick next season, so it was hard to resist, especially since the 76ers are under new management and trying to escape the clutches of mediocrity. Once the Andrew Bynum trade backfired, it became more advantageous to bottom out and re-tool for 2014 than keep the status quo and win 38-40 games.
This summer, along with the Sixers, the Suns, Hawks, Jazz, Raptors and Kings also saw the loss of a key player or two from a year ago and did little or nothing to compensate for it. So they're clearly packing it in and aiming two seasons down the road before helping themselves in earnest. Does that mean they're tanking? Depends. Again, the timing is both on their side and against them. If they acted this way prior to a weak draft, then nobody would say anything. But because rebuilding can only help their chances leading up to a strong draft, they'll take that blessing and also accept the whispers and innuendo that come with it.
Here's what you should know: Everyone in the NBA is trying to win (yes, even the Bobcats). Not everyone is savvy enough in the front office to do it. Not everyone is going about it the same way. They can't. There are challenges making that impossible: cap room, draft position, assets, management and overall condition of the team. Everyone is in a different situation.
There are at least a half-dozen teams that will enter the 2014 season with no shot at the title and faint hopes of reaching the playoffs. All of them hope to follow the example of the Warriors, who are equipped to compete for the West title next season. Golden State had a miserable decade until finally being blessed by the basketball gods. The Warriors helped themselves through free agency (Andre Iguodala will help) and trades, but their foundation came from the draft. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, could be a backcourt that lasts a decade.
The NBA is different than other leagues. One or two very good-to-great players can completely change a team. Although LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami, and Howard left the Lakers for the Rockets, it's rare for a player of that magnitude to switch teams unless there are special circumstances. The best way to find those talents is through the draft and teams will do everything they can to grab one.
Even tank. They'll just disguise it as rebuilding. Purposely or not, they're destined to lose and fall into a draft lottery that will bring forth a franchise-changing moment … or devastation.
Remember, the Celtics clearly tanked with hopes of getting Tim Duncan in 1997. How'd that turn out?