San Antonio Spurs News

How the Spurs Both Encourage and Discourage Tanking

Apr 2, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills (8) and center Tim Duncan (21) and forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) and forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and guard Tony Parker (9) celebrate during the second half against the Toronto Raptors at the AT&T Center. The Spurs defeat the Raptors 102-95. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 2, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills (8) and center Tim Duncan (21) and forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) and forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and guard Tony Parker (9) celebrate during the second half against the Toronto Raptors at the AT&T Center. The Spurs defeat the Raptors 102-95. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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The Philadelphia 76ers are making the league uncomfortable, and forcing officials and fans alike to confront the realities of being able to compete for championships in the NBA.

In a league dominated by superstars, prevailing thought in the basketball world is that if a team doesn’t play in a glamorous enough city to attract marquee free agents, the only way they can acquire a generational talent is to tank the regular season to obtain a high draft pick.

The “can’t miss” prospect would then have no choice in the matter and be drafted by the hapless team who’s gambling that they’ve stumbled upon an elite player for years to come, without which the team couldn’t realistically compete for a championship

The assumption of the necessity of a superstar to win a championship is backed up by solid empirical evidence. The only team in recent memory to have won a championship without such a player is the 2004 Detroit Pistons.

Adamant contrarians may argue that Ben Wallace was elite, and he certainly was the best defensive player in the NBA at the time, but as a defensive force with no offensive ability accounted for, Wallace may in hindsight be pigeonholed as the “worst player to be the best player” on an NBA champion.

If that seems harsh, look at the last 30 or so NBA champions and the best player on each team. Not many rational fans could formulate an argument that claimed Wallace was better than Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Tony Parker, or Stephen Curry.

So each team begins with that blueprint: find an elite player who could realistically be listed alongside those NBA greats, and with a decent supporting cast and a little bit of luck a championship is possible.

The next pertinent question is where a player like that typically comes from. Of the recent stars who’ve been the best player on their championship team, only O’Neal, Wallace, Garnett, and James were added through trades or free agency. The rest were drafted by the teams they eventually lead to championships, with slight asterisks being included for draft-day trades of Bryant and Nowitzki from teams they’d never suit up for.

The 76ers are right to assume that an elite talent is most likely to come from the draft, particularly near the top of the draft. The reason for this is simple: a trade for a superstar requires a consenting party to trade that superstar, and if interest is there, a substantial package of talent needs to be given up for the superstar. Not all teams have the talent to entice a trade for an elite player, and even fewer teams even dare to part with an elite player once they have him.

Free agency acquisitions depend on both salary cap room as well as an appealing situation for the star to play in. Why would a superstar choose to go to a dysfunctional franchise? The money offered better be extraordinary, but only within the parameters of what the league allows and the team can initiate. A draft pick isn’t dependent on so many external factors. Any team gets a draft pick per round just for existing in the league.

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The recent “best players on a championship team” have nearly all been drafted in the top 5. Bird, Curry, and Nowitzki were drafted in the top 10. Bryant was drafted 13th overall. The two outliers are Parker and Wallace. Parker was drafted 28th overall, and Wallace wasn’t drafted at all.

The inclusions of Duncan and Parker reveal the contradictory role the Spurs play in this debate. The 76ers can easily look at San Antonio and insist that the Spurs’ longevity of success is due in large part to taking advantage of the system, which is what the 76ers are attempting to do.

In the 1996-1997 season, Spurs center David Robinson missed all but 6 games with back and foot injuries. Combined with teammate Sean Elliott’s long absence, the Spurs were able to tank the season and finish with a 20-62 record. They won the NBA Draft Lottery, selected Wake Forrest senior Tim Duncan, and the rest is history.

The Spurs may be the golden example of how tanking can be successful, but Duncan’s selection doesn’t give enough credit to how the Spurs have constructed a talented supporting cast through shrewd scouting and brilliant player development.

Of all the players on the Spurs current roster, only Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge are top 5 picks. The sparingly-used Andre Miller was an 8th overall pick. The rest range from 15th overall to not drafted. Patty Mills was drafted 55th overall. Manu Ginobili was drafted 57th overall. The Spurs are one of the few franchises able to consistently acquire gems in unexpected places, either by drafting them directly or trading for players other teams don’t value as highly.

The jury is still out on whether tanking is a successful strategy. It can be argued that Duncan was the reward for tanking a lost season, and the Spurs win no titles without Duncan. Whether what the Spurs did is less morally questionable to their fan base because it wasn’t the intended strategy at the beginning of the year is up for debate, but it cannot be denied that the cornerstone to their dynasty was acquired by tanking a season.

The Spurs are both the best advertisement for the tanking movement and simultaneously an alternative method to building a winner. The Spurs dominant run has been spearheaded by Duncan going back to their first title in 1999, but Parker and Ginobili have been by his side since 2002. Different players have come and gone, but the winning has continued.

If the Spurs win another championship this year, Kawhi Leonard will be acknowledged as the best player on the team. The fact that the Spurs have sustained this run with different stars is incredible. Leonard was drafted as a mid-first round pick at #15 overall, in yet another example of the Spurs exemplifying the architectural genius of building a winner.

Next: Is Tony Parker a Hall of Famer?

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