1. Tanking: The theme of the final month of the NBA season has been tanking. Namely, that the bad teams have quit trying in an attempt to amass ping pong balls for the NBA Lottery. But is this true? Well, the anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly supports this assertion. Of the 16 teams currently in the NBA playoffs, all are at least 5-5 in their last ten games, except Orlando (which is 4-6 and has been reeling with the injury to Dwight Howard). Of the 14 teams now outside of the playoff picture, only four teams are 5-5 in the past ten games and two of those teams (Phoenix and Milwaukee) are still actively competing for the playoffs. Ten of those 14 teams are 3-7 or worse in their past ten. Of course, one would expect the poor teams to play poor in any random sampling of ten games but the ineptitude is palpable and most of these bad teams have shut down key players already.
Of course, there is little incentive for bad teams to really try to win once they obviously won’t make the playoffs. Indeed, teams get a better chance to win the Lottery with more losses. There is some value to finishing strong, as winning will give the bad team some positive feelings with fans for the next season. But good feelings aren’t going to be too strong enough merely because a team the goes from loser to competitive non-playoff team. Throw in that competing requires risk to your best players for the next season, and the slim benefits of finishing strong are clearly dwarfed by the benefits of losing. So, unless you are on the perimeter of the playoff race, the only real incentive to compete after a team has established itself as bad is where the coach or GM who is at a risk of job loss and hopes to show intra-season improvement sufficient to avoid being fired.
Henry Abbott over at ESPN argued that tanking is deleterious to the NBA and rewards bad decision making and should, therefore, be eliminated. Tanking is not really good for the NBA but it is difficult to think of a system that incentivizes competition over tanking. The concept of the NBA Lottery was invented to limit tanking (particularly after the Rockets were accused of tanking to get the pick that became Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984). The Lottery initially gave all non-playoff teams an equal shot of winning the Lottery and thus a team on the verge of the playoffs had as much of a shot of getting the top pick as the worst teams. The NBA figured that the system wasn’t fair to the really bad teams and could even encourage border line playoff teams to junk a run at a low playoff seed for the shot at the top pick. So, the weighted Lottery system was adopted and being bad became the best way to possibly get a better pick, even if you weren’t sure to have a top three pick.
Is this current system a problem? Well, it isn’t good that bad teams look like even bigger pushovers come April but fixing this only creates more problems. The best idea put forward came from Bill Simmons, who has talked about a tournament between the non-playoff teams, with the winner getting the best pick. This would encourage teams to play harder for better seeding in a theoretical tournament but the incentive still isn’t that great. Playing hard won’t help because the seeding isn’t really that important since none of the really bad teams are usually so good that getting a top seed in a loser’s bracket would be that big a deal. For example, if we were to fictionally create a loser’s tourney right now for 2011-12, the Suns would be the top seed and would have a bye but the third seeded Bucks would draw the Bobcats, not exactly a huge disadvantage for Houston. Also, the moderately bad teams, like the Nets or Raptors probably wouldn’t care which top seed they draw and winning a round in the bad tourney wouldn’t exactly excite the fans. A loser’s tourney has the distinct stench of the NIT, much ado about nothing to the fans. At the end of the day, the Lottery is the best way to balance between making sure the decent teams shoot for the playoffs teams and the bad teams are given a better chance but not a guaranteed shot at the highest picks and no artificial system is really going to fix this. For now, we just have to accept that the bad teams will be worse by the end of the season.
2. Bobcats Are Quite Bad: It may be a shortened season but Charlotte is threatening to have the lowest winning percentage in modern history. At 7-56, the Bobcats are worst offensive and defensive team in the NBA and their expected won-loss doesn’t short change them either, as the point differential projects to the same 7-56 record. It is clear that Charlotte has been managed horribly from day one and it is important for the team to get another win just to avoid another humiliation for the continually alienated local fans. At the end of the day, though, the Bobcats already bottomed out with some terrible drafts and the trading of Tyson Chandler for nothing but financial savings. It seems, though, that the Bobcats have figured this all out and Michael Jordan has finally hired a competent GM in Rich Cho. If Charlotte gets Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, they will have a nice building block. The fans may never feel for the Bobcats like they did for the Hornets but better the Bobcats are doing the right thing in dumping their mediocre vets and starting over. Now they just have to not screw up the coming draft choices.
3. Metta World Elbow: I caught much of the fun Lakers/Thunder game on Sunday. A great game was lost to the side story of Metta World Peace’s hard elbow to the head of James Harden. World Peace was rightfully tossed from the game and has earned a suspension of five games or so. World Peace claimed after the game that the elbow was unintentional and part of his celebration of a made basket. In reviewing the tape, World Peace seemed very much aware of Harden’s presence and meant to shove him off, though he probably didn’t mean to hit him so squarely in the head. The elbow looked very similar to one that World Peace threw at Chris Paul earlier in the season.
While World Peace definitely deserves his punishment, this incident should not be looked at as a back slide to his reckless behavior from many years ago, when he started a brawl in Detroit. The elbow on Harden was vicious but is a part of the game. Being guilty of serial elbow is not a character defect, as Bill Cartwright, Dikembe Mutombo, and Karl Malone can attest.
This week’s drama in Orlando is one of the more bizarre NBA stories I can remember. I’m not surprised that Dwight Howard wanted Stan Van Gundy fired or that the two might not like each other. No, but Van Gundy’s decision to go nuclear and call Howard out at an interview session is pretty unprecedented. Players and coaches often do despise each other but there is a thin layer of civility (at least in front of the public) that tethers everyone to reality. Why and how did this happen? Of course, the public does not have all the information behind the scenes here but I think we have enough facts to a least breakdown this whole affair and draw some reasonable conclusions.
First, let’s breakdown the facts that seem undisputed:
-The Magic seem to have stalled out as a title contender the last few years. They are good but not great and have some bad contracts, notably Hedo Turkoglu (whom they re-acquired and gave up Martin Gortat to do it). Turkoglu is not really tradeable unless you take back another bad or worse contract or he is packaged with a really good player (like Howard). They plenty of other bad smaller deals too (Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson).
-Howard, as a pending free agent before the season, told Orlando he was not going to re-sign and he wanted to be traded, preferably to the New Jersey Nets.
-The Magic decided to hold onto Howard in the not entirely unreasonable hope that the Magic played very well this year he might stay with backup plan that they could also wait until the trade deadline and make a deal at that time if the situation was hopeless.
-Once again, the Magic looked pretty good (but not great) at the deadline. Orlando is limbo since they are good enough to keep him but they are a longshot to win it all. At the deadline, Howard first suggests he should not be traded because he might re-sign, even though all indications are that he will be gone at the end of the year. Some thought Howard was angling to avoid a trade because the Nets were going nowhere this year and he could always sign with them at the end of the season. In that case, the Nets would have Howard and get to keep the tons of assets needed to acquire Howard in a trade. This would be a bit underhanded because Howard’s public statements put pressure on Orlando to keep him when, privately, he likely had no such intention, screwing the Magic out of an ability to get value for him. After much uproar and some unspecified discussions with management, Howard somehow agrees to delay his free agency one more year and the Magic cling to the hope they get hot and knock off the Heat and Bulls and get to the Finals. If not, the Magic go through the same uncertainty with Howard next year.
-Things seem hunky dory enough after the deadline but the Magic struggled to a 5-8 record and Howard missed some time with back spasms. It is at this point, Van Gundy calls out Howard for continually trying to get him fired over the last year.
-This weekend, GM Otis Smith states that, as far as Smith knows, Howard never tried to get Smith to fire Van Gundy.
There are the publicly available facts. Something does seem to be missing here. Players try to get coaches fired all the time. Magic Johnson helped Pat Riley get let go after several titles and the player and the players likely did the same to Van Gundy in Miami. Hell, Jeff Van Gundy spent the entire 1998-99 season being undermined by a management that was openly courting Phil Jackson during the season. So, Stan Van Gundy is obviously not naïve enough to be hurt by Howard’s angling for a new coach. Something had to set off Van Gundy. Either Van Gundy had a goal here or he was just tired and pissed off. It’s hard to think that this was calculated because publicly humiliating Howard probably would not make the team play better or help Van Gundy’s long term situation in Orlando. More likely, Van Gundy seems to have thought he was a goner and he wanted to go down making Howard feel some of the uncomfortable vibe that Van Gundy felt.
I guess, in the moment, what Van Gundy did felt really good. Howard was left standing there with a cheapish grin and an unconvincing denial. But this is a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Van Gundy guaranteed he will be canned at the end of the year regardless and now and future employers may question whether he can deal with temperamental stars. Backstabbing players are a common job hazard in the NBA and creating organizational chaos to put the players in their place is not what any management wants. And it’s not like Van Gundy was in a bad place. He had done a creditable job as coach and would leave the Magic as an above-average coach. Howard might not like Van Gundy but his substantive beef was not underperforming but the inability of Orlando’s front office to bring in the right pieces around him. None of what Van Gundy did will serve the goals of the Magic or SVG’s future.
As crazy as SVG seemed the other day, I was almost more astounded by Smith’s public denials of the statements. Smith said that he had no knowledge of a request from Howard to fire Van Gundy. This statement, while probably honest, leaves Smith in one of two places, and neither is good. Either Howard went over Smith’s head and might’ve also requested that Smith be fired or Smith is lying. Neither situation is a good one for Smith or Orlando. Smith should have declined comment since nothing he could say would make Howard or Van Gundy look any better.
This begs the next question: Should the Magic have fired Van Gundy immediately after his press conference? This is a tough question. The statements and resulting chaos certainly were justification to can Van Gundy immediately. But firing Van Gundy might only put more blood on Howard’s hands. If Van Gundy is quietly fired in the off season, this would be much less jarring to all involved. Howard still seems like a bad guy on some level but not on the same level and the Magic don’t seem like they fired SVG only to keep Howard happy.
Despite this, I would’ve still fired Van Gundy immediately. Once he made public comments that should’ve been left in-house, he lost Howard and compromised everything the Magic’s goal of keeping Howard. Why do anything contrary to that goal now? Sure, Howard will look like a jerk but people will forget all this if he re-signs. The plan was to try to make a deep playoff run this summer to convince Howard to stay. Howard now despises SVG, which makes the playoff run less likely. Instead, they should’ve hired a splashy coach now and hoped to catch lightning in a bottle. The obvious candidate is Larry Brown. Brown is older now and still grates (much like SVG) but almost every Brown team starts hot. It’s a desperate plan but the Magic’s plan has reeked of desperation all season anyway.