Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Day the Boos(ic) Died

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Wowza, what a Monday! Free Agency is in full “contracts can’t be officially signed for another week” swing and CtB hits you with Kevin’s epic lead-out to the draft and lead-in to free agency, Mallory’s podcast with the always spectacular Scott Raab and now … a couple of Instagrammed snapshots and personal anecdotes.

*cough* *cough*

Aim to please, folks. Aim to please.

But seeing the draft in person is a weird jag. After last year’s draft, Scott Henkle and I talked at length about the unique experience of attending the draft as a fan/spectator in a piece for The Classical. This year, the experience was equally unique, just replace “drinking overpriced beers” with “the nagging feeling that you should always be tracking down ‘the scoop’ and then realizing that the NBA will bend over backwards to make sure the scoop they want you to get finds you— and not one bit more.” Access to the recently drafted players — especially the top picks — is very controlled and has everything to do with getting these players on as much television as possible.

Dennis Scott and Anthony Bennett

Anthony Bennett’s name was called. Then he was ushered to his on-air interview with Dennis Scott of NBA TV. Then onto his press conference, which ran a scant five minutes, before he was ushered to the “Live Shot” area (the Nets’ practice court converted into about a dozen booths, a veritable gamut of TV interviews) where we were told he would be for over an hour. Not only was other press not allowed to hear the “Live Shot” interviews, but we weren’t allowed to wait (okay, fine, creepily linger) outside the area.


Measured Expectations

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

The stuff dreams are made of... Giannis Adetokunbo's hands.

As a sports fan, it’s often a challenge to remain reasonable. At this time of year, at draft time, it’s a real challenge not only to manage our expectations, but to not get swept away. It’s difficult not to fall in love with some player’s unique skill set or measurements. That’s because the draft is all about imagination — and, more often than not, players who can be termed “very good basketball players” do not excite the sports fan’s imagination. There’s something else there that makes us dream big about certain guys.

Every year, very good basketball players tumble down the board on draft day and go on, in many cases, to have fulfilling pro careers and (one might imagine) lives. What really makes a sports fan see red at this time of year are the players who may not be the very best basketball players, but who have some wrinkle to their make-up that convinces us that Player X has it. This is why we go nuts over guys with wingspans never before measured or verticals never before reached or athleticism never before embodied. These are the things that whisper, “This guy is different. Okay, well, how different? How about future all-star different? How about future defensive anchor of a NBA championship defense different? How about solid rotation player different?”

But, hey, that last guy was a pick toward the back of the second round. So … you know, that’s really good!

Fans even know that, no matter how much a singularly exciting skill or statistic is, likely, their fascination is getting sold a bill of goods. We have numbers to help protect us from our sports imaginations, but even those numbers are being used to suggest a hypothetical projection of some future time; that’s using numbers to fuel imagination. And imagination, at the end of the day, is what makes this all so much (kinda) fun anyway.

No, Rudy Gobert is not likely to be the type of shot obliterating big man in the pros that he was at the combine. We know that. But … maybe. No, the fact that Giannis Adetokunbo has looked (occasionally) amazing against pretty low level competition does not mean he’ll look even remotely like that going against NBA players. But, man, have you seen those hands?! Do you realize he grew three inches this past year and is now a hyper-athletic 6’9” small forward prospect? Maybe, maybe… Yeah, sure, Alex Len’s a good player. He’s got good size and decently developed skills for this point in his career. But, wow, Nerlens Noel just looks better doing it. Those hands. That hair. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

(Side note: Yes, it’s official. This is the first year I have become irrationally attached to a player’s pro potential based, largely if not in full, on his hair style. It’s a piece of the package)

Every year, there’s a player who should be a full-on imagination all-star, but who gets caught up in someone (or many people’s) insistence that we have moved beyond imagination, that we are reasonable people now.

Kenneth Faried should have gotten everyone’s imaginations excited. He sure did mine. His rebounding was that bizarre wrinkle in his make-up that (along with his hair – See! It’s a real thing) should have had people dreaming up scenarios where Faried played … well, about as good as he has in his first couple of years. But he was too short. Conventional wisdom suggested that he might not be able to achieve in the pros what he did in college. It happens. And so GMs talked themselves down, away from the rebounding (and the hair!) and decided to let conventional wisdom rob them of a very exciting young player. It happens.

So, who will it be this year? Who will be the player whose singular skill, combination of intangibles or collection of measurements will be looked past because we’re being smart? And who will teams reach for because, for an instant, they blinked and let imagination get the better of them? Here’s to this draft’s imagination all-stars: you may not end up being great players but, just for a moment, you showed something that made the less rational fan part of my brain go, “Right now, I can see him being awesome. It may not happen, but I can just see it!”

A Look Down the Bench at… Igor Kokoskov

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

The Cavaliers organization took a lot of flack for the speed at which they hired Mike Brown. After firing Byron Scott, the team wasted no time (okay, they wasted 10 days) in bringing Brown back into the fold. At the time, many criticized the unsexiness of the move, even suggesting that it reeked of panic.

If Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant are fools for rushing in, however, the same cannot be said for Brown who has been methodically assembling his staff of assistant coaches since re-boarding the Cavalier boat.

The names we all expected to see – mainly former Pistons head coach, John Kuester, an assistant under Mike Brown in both Cleveland and Los Angeles – despite being heavily rumored, never surfaced. Instead, Brown trended “developmental” by retaining Tristan Thompson god-maker, Jamahl Mosely, from Byron Scott’s staff, adding former Lakers player development coach, Phil Handy, and, most recently, adding former-Cavs Vitaly Potapenko in a player development role.

Lost among all this development, might be the most significant one: Brown’s hiring of long-time Phoenix Suns assistant coach, Igor Kokoskov. Kokoskov has been an NBA assistant for 13 years, working for Alvin Gentry (Clippers and Suns), Larry Brown (Pistons – including their 2004 championship season), and briefly both Terry Porter and Lindsey Hunter (Suns). For Hunter’s brief stint with the Suns last season, Kokoskov was considered the team’s offensive coordinator, while Hunter ran the defense, a situation that is likely to repeat itself with the Cavs.

Most of the information we’ve been given about Kokoskov is exceedingly positive. Gentry has called him “one of the brightest minds as there is in the game” and former player, Earl Boykins gushed about Kokoskov’s point guard-focused offense.

But none of that has given Cavs fans any real sense of what a Kokoskov-run offense will look like. So, I talked to someone who has actually watched a little Kokoskov-run offense: Ryan Weisert* from Valley of the Suns.


Cavs: The Podcast 0030 – Welcome Back!

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Holy calamity, what a way to kick off the off-season!  Who could’ve possibly seen this coming?  I have a sneaking suspicion this is just the beginning of what should be a very, very exciting off-season.

With such huge news breaking everyone at C:tB had a lot to say on the subject of the new/old Cavs coach.  Colin, Tom, Nate, and I hopped on the line and discussed the Cavs’ decision to rehire Mike Brown and what that means for the Cavaliers.  As you’d expect, opinions were all over the place on this one.

As always, we’re on SoundCloud at:

And on iTunes at:

Draft & Coach-Search Talk

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

First, a quick note regarding the coaching search.  While Mike Brown is a fine coach, I hope the climax of this endeavor is not him returning.  I have crossed-my-fingers hoping for a top-name in assistant coaching; once upon a time, Greg Popovich and Phil Jackson received their big break, right?  We recently witnessed a Byron Scott-coached team repeat a miniature cycle similar to his prior two stints: All-Star point guard; quick rise to prominence; equally rapid plummet accompanied by whispers of locker-room dissent.  Well Mike Brown, while also a former coach-of-the-year and NBA Finalist, lists on his resume two experiences of being run-out-of-town to appease a superstar.  If hiring Brown, do we witness history repeat itself five years from now, with the Cavs panic-hiring an ex-Laker B.S. (Brian Shaw) in order to placate a potentially evasive superstar? A lot of hypothetical there, but I don’t care to explore that parallel universe.  I’ve seen the prequel.   So, hire Mike Malone, Brian Shaw, etc; I have cast my vote. 

(Edit: According to ESPN, the Sunday night dinner meeting between Dan Gilbert, Mike Brown and Chris Grant “went well…(Brown) is the only coach they are currently pursuing.”  So, that’s interesting.

This guy looks familiar to me, but I can't put my finger on where I've seen him before.

The other big storyline of the spring is the upcoming draft.  Cleveland looks towards June 27th with the third-best lottery odds, as well as the 19th, 31st and 33rd picks.  As an intro to the upcoming ten weeks, a perusal of their options is in order.  Starting with the lottery pick…

Cleveland’s odds stack-up to a 96% chance of picking in the top-five, 47% likelihood of selecting top-three, with 16% of choosing at the top.  There are basically only two options here, right?

  1. Pick a top prospect.  My current “big board” goes: Noel, Porter, Oladipo, Bennett, McLemore.  Hitting the fifty-fifty proposition of a first-three pick would be awesome.
  2. Trade for Al Horford.  David Zavac discussed this last month at Fear the Sword.  I thought his offer was steep, but if Atlanta wants to tear down and tank for a few years, Cleveland could package the fourth pick, Varejao and spare draft picks for the Hawks’ Center.  Atlanta could parlay one top-five pick in 2013 and a high-lottery choice in the hugely-touted 2014 draft towards an exciting future.  The Cavs pick up a 27-year old All-Star with a reasonable 3 years, $36 million on his contract.

For the other first-rounder, options appear to be:

  1. If the likely first scenario from above is taken, my preference is to not bring-on another rookie for next season.  The team needs to keep bolstering the young talent pool, but a combined push towards adding experience is also in order.  A Euro could be picked as a draft-and-stash.
  2. If the lottery-pick is traded, then selecting a 2013 – 2014 newcomer at #19 is a solid option.  As a Euro looking to come to the NBA next season, I can envision talking myself into Sergey Karasev of Russia.  A 19-year old small forward with sweet scoring and passing skills and an accomplished start to his teenaged Euro-career, he is vaguely reminiscent of Evan Fournier.  Last year, I declared Fournier a late lottery pick, and based on early returns, that looks pretty solid.
  3. Trade the pick.  In 2011, San Antonio looked to get younger, more athletic, and less expensive.  Indiana possessed cap-space to burn and needed to get a tad more battle-tested.  George Hill and Kawhi Leonard crossed paths and both teams met their goals.  Last week, I mentioned OKC as potentially willing to roll-the-dice swapping a $4 million role player for a $1.5 million first-rounder, provided there is someone they really like.  Over the course of this season, on a few occassions, I mentioned Portland as a team that should look to make a trade.  They:  are not a playoff team; have $45 million in annual salary commitments for the next two seasons; and dealt away a future first rounder.  Of the ten Western Conference teams finishing ahead of them, six have definitely or arguably better young cores at their disposal.  Is this incarnation of the Trail Blazers maxed-out as future first-round playoff fodder?  Perhaps they should trade Wes Matthews & LaMarcus Aldridge, keep Damian Lillard and Nic Batum, tank for the 2014 draft and start building a contender for 2019.  The Cavs are way under the cap and could take Matthews off their hands.
  4. Trade the lottery pick and nineteen to move up a slot or two.

Finally, the second rounders.  Obviously combining picks and trading up, or Euro-stashing remain options, but my early preference with those picks is take two players, and let them hover between the D-League and end-of-the-bench (depending on injuries) for 2013 – 2014.  Even while trading second rounders in 2011 and 2012, the team brought in a bevy of undrafted rookies.  As of today, my preference is draft the lottery pick, trade #19, sign four reliable, veteran free-agents to fill roster spots one through twelve, and go into next season with the 13th, 14th, and 15th men as Kevin Jones, and the thirty-first and thirty-third picks.  Of name’s currently slotted towards the early part of draftexpress’s mock second-round, I am interested in Erick Green, B.J. Young, Mike Muscala, Nate Wolters or Adreian Payne.

Well, there is some kick-off to the draft coverage.  Last year, I was writing heavily about prospects throughout the season; right now, I am late to that game.  Rectifying that serves as a high priority over the next two months, so check back often for in-depth coverage leading to draft day.

–Updated– 2013 Cavaliers Coaching Search Almanac

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Note, the almanac has been updated to add profiles for Michael Curry, David Fizdale, and Mark Price in sections 1, 2, and 4, respectively. Dan Gilbert and Mike Brown may make it all moot though..

By the time you read this, Byron Scott may or may not be has been fired.  I’m really irritated that I didn’t post this a week ago, since there’s 30 of these lists up on the internet right now.  Anyway, I thought I’d give you an exhaustive a rundown on my top coaching candidates in the NBA, with a focus on experience, toughness, player development, defense, and recruiting ability.

Group 1: The Usual Suspects (AKA retreads). You’ve heard these names before, and you’ll hear them a lot more in the coming weeks.  All these guys have coached before to varying degrees of success as head coaches in the NBA.  Can they teach Kyrie Irving to guard a pick and roll?  That remains to be seen, but many of them could tell him what James Naismith was like in real life.



Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

After probably the longest sports season I’ve ever experienced (compounded by years of bottom feeding), it’s come to this.  The supposed fork in the road has finally arrived.  For all intents and purposes, the last three years will be decided in the next twelve months.  Chris Grant’s talent evaluation abilities, the supposed ceilings of Kyrie, Tristan, Tyler, and Dion, and even Byron’s coaching ability (despite the fact that he may not even be around at that point) will all be judged and weighed against serious expectations.

The last three years haven’t been easy.  As a fan, it’s heartbreaking to watch a team you love lose night in and night out, especially, like last night, to an equally bad Bobcats team.  As a writer, examining every facet of the team, it’s taxing.  If you need proof, see the comments section, where arguments over the big picture become heated and even, at times, cruel.  I’ve seen friends and family who formerly watched the Cavs, unwavering in their dedication even in the pre-Lebron years, slowly but surely lose all interest.  Not even the emergence of Kyrie could rope them back in.  The hope is whatever is coming will.

I’ve made my views on Byron abundantly clear – last night only strengths my beliefs.  Even if Byron could’ve been the man for the job, there has to be a signifier – to the fans, to the players, and to the organization, that things are about to change.  There are only so many options available – boot Grant, dump one of the young players, or nix the coach.  It’s sad that Byron will likely be the one with the onus squarely on his shoulders, but that comes with the territory of agreeing to coach a rebuild. (Don’t feel too bad – the man made one million dollars for every 4.7 wins)  Going forward, the players have to realize it’s win or get off the pot.

I’m not going to speculate on the moves that Grant will make this off season, largely because we’ve all done enough of that as the season has progressed.  There has to be something.  Drafting Noel will not be enough, nor will adding a rookie small forward.  The team’s personality, which has been entirely absent these three years, must take shape.  That starts from the top down.  Likewise, role players have to be signed and secured as part of the future.  I don’t advocate blowing too much cap room, but stalling another year would be a massive mistake.

We’re all tired – three years and 166 losses will do that to a person.  Three years ago, after the day that shall live in infamy, this moment seemed beyond comprehension.  But sure enough, it has arrived.  The Cavaliers have youth and talent, but something is missing.  I hope, as I’m sure you all do, that whatever is lost will soon be found.  I don’t know the answer to the question of what the next few years hold.  All I know is that we’re finally at the fork – lord help us all.  We are – for hopefully the last off season – dreaming of what will be instead of what is.  The future has arrived, and boy is it scary.

And fade to black…

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I enjoyed Colin’s Monday missive, metaphorically comparing the soon-finished season to unassembled clips of a movie.  I appreciated that sentiment even more while contemplating what to say myself about the year past.

Perhaps Moondog can play in Wednesday's game against Charlotte. That may be the only hope for an interesting outcome.

What did this season mean?  On the first day of winter, when Cleveland lost to Indiana, a third straight double-digit defeat, things looked bleak: Five wins and twenty-three losses; Varejao injured; Tristan struggling at the rim and Dion not driving there; a sad bench and questionable line-up decisions; Luke Walton stumbling around as the depressing and incapable back-up power forward.  We took solace in the reasons of the compressed schedule, clustered with road tilts, and Kyrie’s early injury.  By December 21st though, with a holiday break upcoming, and an easing schedule, it was time to find a few more wins; I asked for twenty. (if they win Wednesday, the team reaches that threshhold…not exactly as contemplated though.)

And then the next night, they won, and the day after Christmas, another present for the fans.  Victories started trickling in; Kyrie with 33 and Tristan with 11 & 14 against Atlanta; the same duo combining for 50 points and 17 rebounds against Portland; and eventually Irving scoring 107 points during a late-January three-game winning streak.  And things were just starting to get fun.  Tristan’s basket of tricks suddenly overflowed: running righty hooks, push shots, fancy dribble drives…in January, he averaged 15 & 11 with 53% shooting and 68% from the line.  Combined with his standard defensive effort, it was a revelation.

A trade with Memphis brought a revitalized bench, and over one five-week stretch, the team won 10 of 16 games.  The Herculoids were birthed, as Luke Walton averaged an assist every four minutes, joining Shaun Livingston, Wayne Ellington, CJ Miles and Marreese Speights for a frolicking good time.  They were an offensive force, orchestrating pretty two-man games, cutting and passing with aplomb.

Another three game winning streak ensued, first with Kyrie netting 35 against title-contending Oklahoma City, before he, Dion and Tristan tag-teamed towards 114 points on 70% true shooting over two games.  And the train kept-a-rolling, with the bench destroying all-comers, Dion averaging reasonably efficient 20 points per 36  minutes for ten weeks, and Tristan bullying opposing front-lines.  Over a thirty game stretch, the youngsters and their reinvigorated veteran brethren played glorious five-hundred basketball.

And there was Kyrie.  In January & February, he posted 24 points per night, shooting a sublime 47 / 44 / 91.  For a first-timer, he owned all-star weekend.  Breaking ankles in the Shooting Stars game, destroying scrubs in the three-point contest, and scoring fifteen with the Big Boys on Sunday.  Of course, this all occurred before his 21st birthday.

Things looked good at the Q, but then Kyrie got hurt, followed by Dion…then OH NO!!  Luke Walton!!  They were roughed up by Indiana, then lost an absolutely epic short-handed battle versus Miami.  Things unravelled quickly; a forty-point destruction at the hands of Houston; three double-digit losses to fellow-lottery teams; a historic blown-lead at Indiana; and finally a near-Norris Cole triple-double on Fan Appreciation Night.  Add it up, and the computation sums to two wins in a month, and a season ending in spectacular implosion.  To some extent, it all serves as microcosm for Byron Scott’s other head coaching stints: a rapid rise behind an elite point guard, followed by an equally accelerated and historic collapse, infused with reports of player discontent and exasperating lack of effort.

What does it all mean?  I don’t know.  We are all amateur documentarians.  I’ll still explore some preferences.  Letting Coach Scott go sounds imminent and seems right.  Moving through the next seven months with a universally acknowledged short-leash imparts detrimental effects all-around.  Find a replacement, let him start gaining the core’s confidence, and let that young group start immersing themselves in new offensive and defensive wrinkles.

For personnel, I am fine with staying the course.  Draft Noel, Oladipo, Porter…whoever the front-office likes at their top-five pick.  Maybe trade the 16th pick for a suitable bench player; shoot, Indiana got George Hill for the 15th pick in the last “weak” draft.  Oklahoma City is near the luxury tax, and would maybe consider taking the Spurs-route; 16th pick for three-and-D ace Thabo Sefolosha?  Maybe that’s not the right move, but adding experience and defense should take priority over additional rookies.  Maybe with the 2nd rounders, take a flier on a point guard & a young-big, and send them to the D-League for a year; perhaps an in-house back-up for Kyrie can be groomed.

With an added lottery pick, next year’s roster is Kyrie, Dion, Tristan, Zeller, Varejao, Miles, Gee, and top-five rookie.  Stir in some random youngsters teetering between the end of the bench and the D-League, and a minimum of four legitimate NBA bench players need added.  My preference is keeping Ellington and Livingston and finding a cheap, new big…maybe Gustavo Ayon?  And finally, as a twelfth man, another point guard…I suggested A.J. Price last year for the minimum; for today, let’s roll with that.  There still may not be enough shooting, but ironing out a lineup for next year is not what we’re here to talk about today.

With only one major shake-up, I’m very hopeful for the 2013 – 2014.  With the following things happening, I think a leap is in order next year:

  1. Kyrie plays at least 70 games and resumes his starward trajectory, and we all forget about his April shooting percentages of 35 / 28 / 90 (hey, it’s Dion Waiters from December!)  In all likelihood, if good health, offensive mastery, and defensive commitment don’t come from Kyrie, this incarnation of the Cavs never reaches the NBA pinnacle.  How is that for lofty expectations?
  2. We get 2013 Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters for a full season, and the 2012 versions disappear like shadows at night. 
  3. Alonzo Gee cannot rank second on the team in minutes for a third straight season.  I don’t know if it’s Ellington, Miles, the lottery pick, or a 3-and-D free agent, but Gee needs reigned-in towards 15 – 20 minutes per game.  The player between Waiters and Tristan must be a knock-down shooter.
  4. Over the last seven seasons Anderson Varejao averaged 1500 minutes.  Through controlling his minutes and games played, he needs to reach that threshold next year.
  5. With a lottery selection and picking-up Miles’ option, there are eight players under contract next year.  The off-season free agent haul should include four-ish players and needs to eclipse last year’s crew of Miles, Kevin Jones, Leuer, Pargo, Harangody, and Micheal Eric (those last four guys plus Manny Harris started for Miami on Monday night, right?)  I’m not advocating for a splashy move, but dole-out $10 – $12 annually to four guys on relatively short contracts (1 – 3 years).   Just make sure that the twelve guys sitting on the bench on opening night are trusted when called upon, and that they bring maturity (and some shooting and / or passing and / or defense).
  6. Find a new coach.  Next year the team starts fresh.

Personally, that relatively minimal level of improvements drive the team towards the post-season.  But maybe a huge personnel move will happen between now and October.  We’ll wait and see.  For now, thankfully 2012 – 2013 is nearly complete.  Next week, we can all dive fully into the draft.

Oh No-be Kobe!

Friday, April 12th, 2013

In what is probably the worst possible Cavs news left in the remaining days of this season, Kobe Bryant appears to be done for the year with what is likely a torn achilles tendon.  For those not keeping score at home, the Lakers remain one game up on Utah with only a few contests left.

As much as it pains me to say this – pray for Kobe.

On Tanking

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Does a team always have an obligation to play its best players on any given night?  At what point does a team decide that playing it’s younger players in order to build experience for the future trumps its need to win the game that evening? What if a team is made up of barely qualified NBA players who probably have no long term future with the team for which they’re playing?  The Cavaliers were built that way at the end of the season last year.  Is not fielding a team that has any chance of being competitive a violation of sporting ethics?

The NBA has become a place where losing is rewarded.  As a team loses its odds of getting a lower draft pick become higher.  To prevent teams from losing on purpose to better their draft position, the NBA instituted a lottery.  Starting in 1985, the first three picks of the draft were determined randomly, first by drawing envelopes out of a hopper, and then starting in 1990, according to a number of ping pong balls.  After 1993, when Orlando had a 41-41 record and still won the lottery, the rules were changed to favor bad teams even more.

The problem with the draft lottery is that it provides incentives to fail.  It can be argued that these incentives are are antithetical to the concept of competition, fair play, and trying one’s hardest.  The term “tanking” has been coined to describe the process where “competitor deliberately loses without gambling being involved.”  Why is tanking so different from point shaving, which is one step better than fixing a game?  I imagine that the giant of American baseball, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis would have had something to say about tanking, or even the appearance of tanking.

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball. Of course, I don’t know that any of these men will apply for reinstatement, but if they do, the above are at least a few of the rules that will be enforced. Just keep in mind that, regardless of the verdict of juries, baseball is competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game.

I suppose that since there is no grift involved against a perspective gambler, tanking is a step above match fixing and point shaving.  Furthermore, it can be impossible to tell if a team is merely losing because of circumstance, because of effort, because of substitutions, or because of holding players out of games when they could be playing.  David Stern was reportedly livid earlier this year when Gregg Popovich sat Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili against Miami, because “the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”  But little was made of a game in March, when the Phoenix Suns played the Utah Jazz, and sat out Goran Dragic for “rest.”  Of course Phoenix lost that game 103-88. Why was that game important?  Because Utah, of course, is batting the Lakers for the final playoff spot, and Phoenix receives the Lakers’ first round pick this year, if the Lakers do not make the playoffs.  So Phoenix did its part to help Utah keep the Lakers out of the playoffs by sitting arguably its best player, Goran Dragic.  Of course, this can’t be proved.  It’s a wink wink / nudge nudge situation.  And that’s the whole problem with tanking.  I doubt that Landis would think too highly of Phoenix’s actions.

A further problem with tanking is that it erodes competitive balance.  In theory, every team in the East and West conferences has an equal schedule.  But teams that have more “bad” teams at the end of their schedule have an advantage against teams that have those same teams at the beginning of the season, if those teams are trying to lose.  Is it even possible to tell if teams are tanking?  I have become more sensitive to it in the last few years.  We basketball fans have all become more aware of the issue because of current articles like yesterday’s Plain Dealer which illustrated the draft implications of the Cavs recent two day win streak or yesterday’s SB Nation Draft lottery watch subtitled: Magic threatening to outsuck Bobcats.  Grantland’s Brett Koremenos explored this idea in Grantland last month with his article titled Solving the Real Problem with the NBA’s Tanking Epidemic. Bill Simmons and Malcom Gladwell discussed the topic in a 2009 series of letters, with Gladwell summing up the tanking problem as well as anyone.

You simply cannot have a system that rewards anyone, ever, for losing. Economists worry about this all the time, when they talk about “moral hazard.” Moral hazard is the idea that if you insure someone against risk, you will make risky behavior more likely. So if you always bail out the banks when they take absurd risks and do stupid things, they are going to keep on taking absurd risks and doing stupid things … If you give me a lottery pick for being an atrocious GM, where’s my incentive not to be an atrocious?

Furthermore, when front offices become incentivized to fail, they have a few different ways of doing it.  They could tell the coach to play young players, or to put them in bad positions.  The coach could make baffling decision that were in direct violation of common sense if one wanted to win the game.  I wrote semi-sarcastically of Scott and Tyler Zeller in loss to Boston a couple weeks ago, “[Zeller] finished 5-6 for 11 points and 9 boards in 24 minutes.  In a masterful move Scott left him on the bench for much of the fourth quarter, knowing that his play might turn the game in the Cavs’ favor late.”  The problem compounds itself when the players realize what is going on and stop giving maximum effort.  If Cavs observers are reading the tea leaves, this moment might have come in an awful loss to Brooklyn a few nights later.

But is this fair?  There is an unwritten code in sports: try your hardest.  If Byron Scott and the Cavs organization is not trying their hardest, why should the players?  Is it even a fair observation?  Are we as a society so jaded that we see conspiracies even in our trivial pastimes?  Are we simply confusing fatigue, injury, and normal human behavior (i.e. incompetence) for a conspiracy to lose?  In examining those factors, I decided to do a quick experiment.  My hypothesis was, if tanking has gotten as bad as it seems, then we should be able to see the results of it.  I charted a couple things over the course of the last 26 seasons.  First, team winning percentage.  My hypothesis was that if we’re seeing record tying winning streaks by teams like the Heat, is this partially because of tanking?  If so, then the winning percentage of all the non-playoff teams ought to be going down over the last few seasons.  The results surprised me.

Remember that the Charlotte Bobcats were added to the league in 2005.  Winning percentage of non playoff teams went up that year and the two years after, and then dropped the next three years.  The Raptors and the Grizzlies were added in 1995, causing the number to drop in the 1996 and 1997 seasons.  This is actually counter-intuitive because as the pool of non playoff teams grows, one would expect an “averaging effect” to push the winning percentage of the losing teams up.  The Hornets and the Heat were added in 1988 and the Timberwolves and Magic in 1989.  The winning percentage increase after these years indicates this effect.  But what is clear, is that the last three seasons have seen slightly more competitive non playoff teams than the previous three seasons.  This season is certainly no outlier when it comes to non-playoff team winning percentage.

But winning percentage is certainly not the best barometer of how good a team is.  There’s a lot of noise in it.  Many NBA statisticians have long preferred point differential as a barometer of team quality.  Basketball-reference has a normalized stat called Simple Rating System SRS which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule to come up with a number that is slightly better than point differential as a barometer.  This normalizes the number a bit giving us the ability to compare teams in the two different conferences.

As can be seen, SRS took a big jump in 1998 and 1999 , and then dropped quickly.  The 2008 season was particularly bad for SRS, two years after the the Bobcats joined the league.  But once again, the current season is a slight uptick, and the last few seasons don’t seem like statistical outliers at all.  But if there is tanking going on in the NBA, it was at its worst in 1988, 1994, and 2008, and  then has been around the same level since, on average.  Or there were just a lot of really bad teams those years.

There are certainly a lot of limits to this analysis.  This averages the best and worst teams that didn’t make the playoffs into one group.  An analysis that breaks the non playoff teams into tiers and analyzes those tiers over time would be a more precise way to measure if tanking is going on.  Also, looking at winning percentages post all-star break would be an interesting method as well.  We could even start looking at post all star break injuries and correlating them to average games missed, and seeing if “tanking” teams are holding their players out too long.  I hope to be able to break this down a little more in the future.  And I know there are mathematical implications that come from having a finite number of available wins and losses in a season that I am not nearly bright enough to have contemplated yet.  But what we have shown is that this season is no worse than the last few, and if tanking is going on, it can’t be detected this easily, or it is much more ingrained in NBA culture than we’d like to suspect.

I would like to see the league take steps to eliminate tanking.  I’d like them to redistribute the lottery percentages a little more evenly.  The league overreacted to the Magic in 1994.  I also proposed a system in the past that would disallow a team getting the first pick to get it the next year.  A team that picked in the top three two years in a row would not be able to get there a third.  Similarly, if a team picked in the top give for three years in a row, I’d like to see the best pick they could get the following year to be a number six.  A team that has been in the lottery four years in a row ought not be able to get a pick higher than ten, and a team that has been in the lottery five years in a row ought to have to sit at the end of the lottery for a year.  Of course this is just a framework, and these numbers can be tweaked, but you get the idea.  Don’t over-reward teams for losing.

This season and the Cavs don’t seem any worse than the last few when it comes to tanking.  I don’t like to think that people pick and choose when it is most advantageous to play hard, or when losing might be OK.  And as much as any Cavs fan, the last few seasons have worn on me.  It is a difficult situation to be in when the choices for explaining ten game losing streaks are incompetence, laziness, injuries that may or may not be real, or losing on purpose.  As painful as the Cavs might seem in moments like the Brooklyn loss, those moments are uplifted by jubilant victories over teams like the Clippers, Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Boston.  I hope very soon that I won’t even have to ponder the question of tanking at all.   Such is the hope of fandom, especially in Cleveland.  There’s always next year  — well, unless the Cavs are in a playoff race against a team with a lot of tankers on its schedule.