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The pros and cons of being a ‘never tank’ team

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the NFL, the road from the bottom to the top is rarely a short journey. It takes years of solid drafting, timely free agent signings, and internal player development before teams can even get in the conversation of being a top team in the NBA. The league‘s top teams have all gone through meticulous rebuilds to get to where they are now.

The process starts off with being terrible at the beginning (or tanking as some may call it). Recent NBA Champions like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Miami Heat had at least one year of bottoming out in the standings before landing cornerstone players who eventually lead them to multiple championships.

There’s only enough room for a few teams to contend for a title each year, which means there will always be teams in the middle that do not move up despite their best efforts. They end up in NBA purgatory, the place for teams that are too good to be bad and not good enough to be great. The only way to break the cycle is to try elevating the current core or hit the reset button. Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis favors the first plan, based on comments he gave on Thursday prior the Wizards’ 101-100 win over the Knicks in London.

We just played Philadelphia, and they have shoes that say ‘Trust the Process.’  And they were really, really bad for seven years. And I looked when we beat them at home, they had two guys that they picked in the first round in the lineup. So, you know, that process is pretty risky in and of itself. I don’t think you can tell players, coaches, staff: ‘Don’t make the playoffs and tank!’ We will never, ever tank.

We had a strategic plan when I first bought the team to trade our all-star players and get under the cap and get high draft picks, and we did that. We were able to keep those high draft picks with second and sometimes third contracts. So that’s been our process. But I don’t want to do that process anymore. And I don’t think you can tell a coach, I don’t think you can tell a staff, ‘Don’t try to win.’ I will never do that. So if this team makes the playoffs on its own, that’s fantastic.

Fred Katz pointed out some of the flaws in Leonsis’ criticism of the 76ers’ approach in a recent article for The Athletic:

Leonsis is right about the Sixers having only two of their own former first-round picks, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, in their starting lineup. But that’s because they just traded one former first rounder, Dario Saric, and another “Process” product, Robert Covington, for Jimmy Butler, an All-Star the Wizards tried to get but couldn’t because the Timberwolves didn’t like Washington’s assets as much as they did Philadelphia’s.

The Sixers picked Covington off the scrap heap five years ago (Philly was bad for five, not seven years, by the way) and gave him time and bandwidth to develop. They re-signed him after he’d grown into a full-fledged, 3-and-D threat. They failed with a number of other similar players. Covington was one of the few that hit.

We could debate the minutiae all day, but ultimately it comes down to one question: Is Leonsis’ approach the right one? Let’s evaluate the pros and cons.

The Good

There is nothing more exciting in professional sports than the home team being in the playoffs. The playoffs bring hope and excitement to fanbases across the league, even fans of the worst teams in the playoffs will convince themselves they have a shot at making a run. Just look at how many people in these comments predicted the 43-win Wizards would take down the top-seeded Raptors last spring. It happens to all of us.

The excitement that comes with even the slightest chance to win a championship is more enticing than not being in the mix at all. That has to be part of the consideration for a town that doesn’t have a large fanbase and has seen little success over the past four decades.

Perhaps this is part of why Leonsis is content with just being a playoff contender, even at the expense of ways to get better for the future. Look no further than Washington trading 23-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr. for 33-year-old Trevor Ariza, in one of the most transparent win-now moves we‘ve seen in some time.

Who can blame them from a business standpoint? Home playoff games bring in lots of revenue, and if you can sneak out of the first round, you can build excitement around town and charge even more for second round tickets. If a team can do that every year, it beats the losses you have to absorb through years of tanking to have a shot at winning a title.

Although this approach limits the potential to be a title contender, the desire to keep bringing in playoff revenue and still feel you have a shot at moving up is understandable. There’s also some intrinsic value in showing the team you‘re committed to staying in the hunt for a title, even if the odds are low.

The Bad

The Wizards have followed this plan for years, and the closest they got to the Eastern Conference Finals was a seven-game battle against the top-seeded Boston Celtics. The team has only gotten worse and more expensive since that high-water mark.

Decades of trying to just get by and get in the playoffs as a low seed has made large swaths of the fanbase dormant. The Wizards haven’t been in the top ten of league attendance since Michael Jordan retired in 2003, even though they play in the arena with the fourth-highest seat capacity and play in the eighth-largest media market.

The pressure to make the playoffs every year puts the front office in a position where they have to make shortsighted moves that mortgage future assets to keep the team in the playoff hunt. It perpetuates a cycle of inertia and complacency that keeps Washington stuck in the middle.

Leonsis seems to think the same approach that worked with the Capitals can also work with the Wizards. There are several problems with that. Let’s start with how they acquired their franchise cornerstone, Alexander Ovechkin. The Capitals drafted him with the top overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft after they bottomed out in 2003-04, traded their key veterans, and finished with the second-worst record in the league that season. They picked up their other cornerstone, Nicklas Backstrom, the following season after the lockout when Washington finished with the fourth-worst record. You can call it rebuilding, retooling, or whatever you want, it‘s no different than what the 76ers did. Without those two high draft picks, the Capitals are not where they are today.

Beyond that, it ignores that team building in hockey differs greatly from basketball. Even the best skaters spend only one-third of the game on the ice. You can build a sustainable winner that can win it all even if you don’t have generational talents like Ovechkin and Backstrom because depth is so much more critical in hockey than basketball. In the NBA, the top players spend three-fourths of the game on the floor and can have a much bigger impact on both ends of the floor. It‘s difficult to acquire the stars that help you win championships when you‘re constantly trading away assets that could help you draft or trade for the star who could make all the difference.

What can they do now?

This year, the Wizards are in a unique position. Unlike previous years, they are much closer to being outside of the playoffs because of their injury woes. Packing it in and selling at the trade deadline would be reasonable considering the long-term complications with player salaries if they stay the course.

They don‘t even have to go into a full tank to get some benefit. They could trade veterans on expiring deals — especially Trevor Ariza — which could help them net a pick or young player, and improve the position of their 2019 pick. Instead, they appear content maximizing a bleak chance at success right now that could set them back even further down the road.

Tanking is still a dirty word in some circles, and you can argue it‘s admirable to keep doing everything in your power to put together the best possible team for fans at all times. But at what point does chasing after the playoffs take you so far off the course of winning a title you can‘t get back on track? History has shown time and time again in the NBA you have to take a step back before you can take a step forward. At some point, Washington will have to make that decision, or wait until they’re so depleted that they run out of ways to keep up their charade.