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Bad basketball is about bad choices, not tanking

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

Maybe we should celebrate the 76ers instead.  (USATSI)
Maybe we should celebrate the 76ers instead. (USATSI)

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I decided to check the lottery standings Wednesday morning on Tankathon.com. I wanted to get a feel for where things stand with the lottery now a month away and the spots being locked up Wednesday night.

And then I noticed something. It stuck with me while I ran some errands. And it bothered me as I purused the soy milk, lamenting the continued absence of the double-gallon value pack of vanilla. (Get it together, King Soopers.) It hung with me as I carried my bag back. And it's bugging me now.

Why in the hell are we so worked up about tanking?

This is the NBA's chic issue in the media this year. There's little indication from the casual fans I've spoken to that they understand what it is, let alone why it's an issue. But I've heard it discussed as everything from the end of competitive spirit to the reason TV ratings are down, despite none of the tanking teams having regular national TV appearances.

This isn't some defense of Adam Silver's hilariously blase "I don't think there's any tanking going on" motto from earlier this year. Of course teams are tanking. I actually love that the Sixers have been so brazen about it. It makes the healing process go faster. You don't drag the Bynum-shaped arrow out of the wound an inch at a time, you rip the sucker out so you can get to mending.

The Sixers tanked, they set their team up for failure. The Magic tanked, they didn't (foolishly) aggressively pursue improvements, letting their young core percolate this season.The Magic are brewing a strong batch, and they're not going to rush the drip.

And.... that's it. We're out of tanking teams, folks.

"But the Jazz!" you scream. Look, if the Jazz were tanking? They'd have dished off Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, not signed one to a massive extension. The Jazz were fine with a bad record, because they didn't have any choice. They didn't aim for this kind of failure, they just didn't step out of the way of the train coming at them. Or tank, if you prefer. Plus, let's be honest. If the Jazz played in the Eastern Conference they might have been fighting for a playoff spot by year's end.

"But the Celtics!" you cry. Well, first off, if everyone's favorite competitor-to-the-end, Danny Ainge, insists they're not tanking, I'm going to take him at his word and simply acknowledge that he built a crappy team. After all, Jeff Green was supposed to make the leap (didn't happen), Rajon Rondo was supposed to come back early (didn't happen) and Kelly Olynyk was supposed to be a Rookie of the Year candidate (even with a terrible field, that didn't happen). The Celtics would have been fine with success. It just didnt' happen for them.

Meanwhile, six of the top ten lottery teams had serious intentions of making the playoffs this season. The Bucks are the obvious pick. We're yelling and hollering about the downfall of basketball with tanking, while the Bucks spent significant money in horrible ways last summer! They were supposed to be mediocre, not terrible, but stuff happens. When they gave Zaza Pachulia (a good player who I wish upon wish was able to help a playoff team right now) a multi-year deal, that should have been a warning sign.

And while everyone's, pardon the term, hating on the Sixers, who feature a young, raw, athletic lineup that pushes the ball and loses because of their mistakes, the Los Angeles Lakers were on national television 25 times this season with a roster that featured Nick Young, Chris Kaman, and Robert Sacre as free agent signings. You can point to Kobe's injury, and sure, that was the biggest part of it as were Nash and Pau Gasol's injuries, but still. This roster is horrid. And they tried to be good. They are the "Dance, Dance, Revolution" of NBA teams.

And while we're on the subject quick, a side note: I will take 26 losses in a row for the Sixers over constant, massive, unbelievable blowouts. The Lakers weren't the only team to suffer those, though the 48-point massacre at the hands of the Clippers stands out. I don't care how much you lose, I care how you lose.

The Kings made multiple trades trying to improve. The Pistons spend a googleplex of money last summer to build a playoff team. Dan Gilbert actually said at the lottery last year "We're never coming back here again!" (Welcome back, Dan.)

The list goes on and on. The biggest problem for the bad teams in this league wasn't that they were trying to lose. It was that most of them made honest-to-goodness good faith efforts to be good that were actually terrible ideas. And that's on the media as much for not seeing it. Shame on me for not recognizing how bad O.J. Mayo's contract was for that situation, and for not seeing the signs that had been coming with Larry Sanders for a while. Shame on me for giving the Lakers credit in believing they could keep an aging roster healthy and rely on Swaggy P and Jodie Meeks to carry them. Shame on me for not recognizing just how disfunctional Detroit would be.

But there's no shame on the Sixers and Magic. They accomplished their goals. They didn't waste money. They did something with their seasons, instead of having something happen to them.

And in the meantime, if you want to look at sagging ratings, examine the lack of a flex schedule because bad things (injuries) happen to good teams. If you want to question competitive spirit, wonder about the players coasting on big money deals or playing with them solely in mind. If you want to lament the horror of bad basketball this season, recognize that it's the same as it's always been in the NBA: There will be bad basketball somewhere because playing at this level is hard, the competition is fierce, and the season is long.

There's no epidemic, there's just a series of bad choices.

 
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