It’s painfully obvious to anyone with two eyes and a league pass subscription that the Miami Heat suck at tanking. Their big three are deeply committed to winning, fighting through injury and overcoming ennui to grit out one of the best records in the league after having won the last two NBA titles. Despite signing head cases and draft busts, and filling up his cap space with onerous contracts Pat Riley can’t seem to stop his team from winning. If Riley was half the GM that David Kahn was he’d have crippled his team with aging vets, disinterested journeyman and mediocre draft picks, and begun Riggin’ for Wiggins, but it appears that Riley just doesn’t have the competitive spirit necessary to truly bottom out a professional sports team in the name of improvement.
To be fair to Riley, tanking in the NBA’s Eastern Conference is no easy feat. The “Leastern Conference” as it’s colloquially known, is widely regarded as the HARDEST division in all sports to tank in, and Riley would be going up against some of the sports world’s most talented tanking savants: Jim Dolan, Billy King and Dan Gilbert are all masters of the artful tank, light years ahead of Pat in terms of both technique and strategy. Burdened as he is by his years of success Riley has a sharp learning curve ahead of him if he’s going to catch up with these men who’ve mastered the art of earning millions of dollars while producing shit sandwiches year in and year out. Dolan himself has been single-handedly ruining New York basketball for well over a decade and his New York Knicks were recently valued at $1.5 billion! That’s BILLION…with a B! Because owners are no longer penalized for not even pretending to care about the quality of their product, tanking in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, the brain trust of losing-to-win, is nearly as difficult as remaining uncompetitive in the broadband and cable market.
Dolan has been a pioneer of tanking since the early aughts, long before most teams had started improving their franchises by making them worse. In 2003 he hired noted tankologist Isiah Thomas as head coach. Just three years later, “the Knicks had the highest payroll in the league and the second-worst record.” The Dolan-Thomas brain trust engineered a number of original moves such as overpaying redundant stars and bringing in hopeless headcases like Stephon Marbury that immediately became tanking classics.
Billy King, who’s been crippling the playoff hopes of NBA franchises since 2007, has become widely respected in tanking circles for completely bamboozling Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov into hiring him as general manager. King is a student of the tanking New School that prefers aging stars to rookies, since you can never tell when a sure draft bust will turn out to be a young stud in disguise (as Philly found out this season with Michael Carter-Williams!). The New School sees aging bodies with thousands of brutal NBA minutes on them as much more dependably faulty than the inconsistency of draft picks. As a bonus old stars also clog the salary cap “forcing” the savvy GM to fill the bench with NBA detritus, improving the chances of losing immeasurably.
King put this theory into practice when he mortgaged the future of the Nets for a grip of aging players including Kevin Garnett (37 years old, 48,674 minutes and 1st in active player minutes played), Paul Pierce (36, 41,548, 5th), Joe Johnson (32, 34,598, 14th), and Jason Terry (36, 36,866, 12th). King’s coup de grace was hiring a coach with absolutely no coaching experience whatsoever, who used to play against the players he now coaches! Despite costing them draft picks, this may yet turn out to be one of the more deft submarining maneuvers we’ve seen in recent years.
But King’s work pales in comparison to the masterclass of tanking that Dan Gilbert has been putting on in Cleveland for the last decade. Not every GM would have the chutzpah to chase off the NBA’s best player, but Gilbert triumphantly overcame LeBron’s deep dedication to Ohio by smartly never drafting a solid sidekick to partner him with or even once considering hiring a coach that knew what he was doing. With a Herculean effort Gilbert drove LeBron away and returned the Cavs to their gloriously incompetency.
Since LeBron’s departure Gilbert’s devoation to bottoming out reached a high point last summer with his daring selection of Anthony Bennett as the first pick of the 2013 NBA draft, one of the most brazen tanking maneuvers witnessed in the history of the NBA. In taking Bennett, whose shooting percentages are record-breaking bad, first overall, Gilbert’s continued building a team of petty, bickering players with no chemistry whatsoever. To ensure their failure he then brilliantly rehired the same inept coach that helped chase LeBron away! Combined, these two moves have capsized what might otherwise have been a winning season, assuring that Cleveland will be in the running for a top draft pick for a long time to come.
But even in the Western Conference, where antiquated concepts of “winning”, “attendance” and “competition” still carry cultural value, tanking is seeing a return to prominence. Denver cleverly jettisoned highly successful GM Masai Ujiri last offseason to put themselves in great position to tank this year, and their fans couldn’t be less happy. In the Western Conference this move is rivaled only by the gutsy efforts of the Utah Jazz who have smartly refused to rehire one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, Jerry Sloan, and have taken on the onerous contracts of NBA dead wood in exchange for the right to gamble on overhyped teenagers who can’t legally purchase alcohol at their own games.
Perennial tanker Donald Sterling is suffering in his efforts to keep the Clippers in contention for a high pick in the lottery. He did finally manage to unload his incredibly savvy GM Neil Olshey on the foolish Portland Trailblazers (who’ve absolutely abandoned any hope of being in the lottery this year, failing to build on last year’s incredible race to the bottom. The beautiful nosedive that Portland engineered was one of the more impressive tanking feats that this columnist has seen in a long time. You can be sure that nothing like that is ever going to happen with Olshey in office).
Still, even without Olshey the Clippers have struggled to make it out of the playoffs and as a result it appears that they will pick in the bottom half of the draft this year, much to Sterling’s embarrassment. His fall from grace has been one of the biggest stories in tanking circles these past few years. Once a tanking legend, whose focus on profiting from horrible teams, receiving plum drafts picks, and then brilliantly mismanaging them was spoken of in awed tones, Sterling is now the object of much derision among the league’s lose-to-win smart set. It’s still possible that Donald has the chutzpah to really screw this team up and ruin their chance at a championship, but it’s going to take a level of incompetence and meddling that I’m not sure even Donald can manage.
Given the high level of ineptitude currently dominating the lower echelons of the NBA, how can Pat Riley ever hope to compete? He might as well keep vying for championships, it might be easier in the long run.