Guest Post: Andres Alvarez on ‘Tanking’

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Tanking – the (alleged) tactic by which teams deliberately perform poorly late in the season to improve their draft position – has been the subject of much debate in recent years, particularly about basketball. Henry Abbott of TrueHoop has written quite extensively about the topic over the years and has invited lots of other folks to weigh in.

This past week, Abbott hosted a new round of commentary on tanking, including Dave Berri among others (Berri called for firing incompetent GMs after three years, which then became the subject of an ESPN fan poll. Berri’s proposal, alas, suffered a McGovernesque defeat, as Dre notes below).

For Abbott and others, the integrity of the games is at stake – if teams are deliberately trying to lose, the fundamental social contract that makes competitive sports so compelling is broken.

Andres Alvarez, of The Wages of Wins of Journal, has written a guest post in which he takes a somewhat contrary view on tanking and specifically about whether it deserves as much attention as other issues that undermine competition.

You can also follow Dre on twitter at @nerdnumbers and he’s also a writer at thenbageek.com

So, without further ado, here’s Dre:

ESPN has hopped back on the tanking bandwagon. As we’re to believe, tanking is a major problem! It hurts the purity of the sport, it’s bad for the fans. Won’t somebody think of the children? We have talked a lot about this before, digging into history, making tables that nerds love. It seemed like enough. This time they pulled in the big guns though. They asked economists (including the Wages of Wins Dave Berri) to “fix tanking” and I figured I’d address a few key points on the absurdity of solving tanking.

Tanking’s Not the Problem

Over the years the NBA has changed lots of rules. They’ve changed rules to provide incentives not to tank (the draft lottery means even the worst team has a horrible shot at the top pick) They’ve changed rules to keep teams from overpaying for players. They’ve changed rules to incentivize players to remain loyal to their team. The rules the NBA has made have all been to protect the owners and managers from themselves.

And these have failed spectacularly. Teams still tank. Teams still overpay for players. Teams still fail to provide an even semi-decent environment to incentivize the best players to stay put. The problem isn’t tanking. The problem is management. There are no real hardset rules for owning an NBA team. Most people that do didn’t get their success in sports. And given that a Russian billionaire with potential mob ties, and the Maloofs are owners, it’s not like the bar is that high.

Too Big to Fail?

What’s more, these groups are not allowed to fail. The lockout happened because teams were losing money, who paid? The answer was: the successful teams and the players. To clarify, the problem was the NBA had bad management, and the solution was to keep it around, but just subsidize it? Michael Jordan became a majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. This was a team that had seen its best season right before Jordan took over. What did he do? He systematically dismantled it! Then in the lockout, he was given a say? Does this make any sense? Adding more rules to protect owners from making bad decisions won’t work! Because the issue is not the bad decisions, it’s the management that makes them!

Here’s a metaphor. Imagine you have an office manager that is convinced CDs and floppy disks are important. It’s remarkable how quickly that’s changed. Every month they order tons of floppy discs and CDs that no one uses. Every year they spend tons of money on external floppy and CD drives. Eventually you’ve had enough. A mandate is made, no more CDs or floppy discs! Problem solved right? No! You have someone in control of your budget that clearly doesn’t know how to spend it! And if this is like the NBA, pretend you’re not allowed to fire them. Are you confident they won’t just find another way to spend the money poorly? I’m not, and NBA management shows that time and again.

It’s a Zero Sum Game

The key thing to remember about basketball is that for one team to lose, another must win. Zen, I know. As we’ve pointed out, the best teams require elite players (in the top 10-15 in the league). Many teams, obviously, don’t have one of these players. The fact that often times these players “team up” means that a majority of teams don’t have such a player. Most teams aren’t losing by choice, they’re losing because they’re not very good. And there’s a little more to that.

The fans and the management

The idea that tanking hurts fandom is admirable. But again, most teams simply can’t compete. Heck, teams with losing records regularly make the playoffs. And it turns out that fans want to see winning teams. It’s not as if teams that are tanking at the end of the season were a great draw for fans to start with.

As for the management, tanking provides a fantastic excuse. Pretend your job is to make an NBA team good. Do you have a top player? No? Are your odds good for getting one? Of course not! Now, iss your team doing poorly? Yes? Oh no, you might get fired! But wait, what if you say “losing is my plan!”? What if all it takes is losing a few extra games? It’s logical, right? And back to the earlier point, rest assured if tanking was banned, other such plans would replace it. See Joe Dumars and just throwing away cap money on scorers to prove “Hey, I’m doing something!”

Tangent Note: Dave Berri suggested that GMs that failed to make the playoffs three consecutive seasons be fired. Oddly, the fans didn’t bite.

Summing Up

Not wanting tanking is fine. However, it’s just worth noting that “solving it” doesn’t solve the problem it’s a part of. And what’s more, we very clearly see that the same problem (poor management) leads to lockouts, poorly run teams, and overpaid chuckers. If tanking disappeared tomorrow, the NBA would still be filled with subpar teams that most people wouldn’t pay to see in May. And that’s not really a solution I’m that interested in.

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