Phoenix Mercury further proof of the benefits of tanking


Back in May with the Suns on the verge of a rebuild, PBO Lon Babby denounced the concept of tanking and all the ugly externalities that go with it.

Apparently that viewpoint never reached the offices of the Phoenix Mercury, and today the Merc are celebrating because of that after landing the No. 1 overall pick and likely the right to draft all-world center Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 behemoth who should team up with resident star Diana Taurasi to form an unstoppable 1-2 punch.

The Mercury finished 7-27, their worst season in franchise history, in order to possess a 27.6 percent chance at the top pick, the second-best odds of any WNBA team. Last year the Mercury reached the playoffs with a 19-15 record and just three years ago they were WNBA champs.

I’m not here to analyze whether the Mercury tanked because frankly I don’t follow them nearly close enough to offer an informed opinion on the matter. I don’t know whether Taurasi was shut down in the middle of the season for tanking purposes or because her worn-down body really needed the rest, but I do know that ESPN’s WNBA guru Mechelle Voepel wrote last month that “Phoenix’s accusers feel the franchise is more interested in chasing lottery balls than loose balls, that the Mercury’s strategy is lose now to potentially win big later,” something that has made WNBA fans and observers “furious” because they see the losing as “largely intentional.”

Tweeted ESPNW contributor Michelle Smith: “So much talk about whether Phoenix tanked the season. Now they get the No. 1 pick.”

So I assume there were various Mercury tanking theories to subscribe to.

This tanking win, if that’s indeed what it is, sure reminds me of 1996-97 when a solid Spurs team held out David Robinson for the season after he broke his foot six games into the year and also suffered from a back injury. Surely, you know the rest. The Spurs literally and figuratively won the lottery, drafted Tim Duncan and won four championships, two with The Admiral by his side.

Tanking has become a blood issue among many NBA bloggers, and TrueHoop proper itself has gone on a crusade of sorts against tanking.

Babby supported that position in May by explaining, “I’m adamantly opposed to this concept of tanking. I don’t think it’s the right way to go about things. I don’t think it’s good for our franchise, I don’t think it’s good for our fan base, it’s not good for our city. Quite often what it does is I think allows you to mask bad decisions year after year claiming that you’re in this idea that you’re trying to get bad to get good.”

Babby was explaining the way tanking is usually done in the NBA whereby a team is bad for many consecutive years and never seems to get much better. It does seem to mask bad decision after bad decision and leads to an endless cycle of losing.

Obviously, that’s different than what the Mercury did (if, you know, that’s what they did). They traded one bad season when their star was ailing anyway for a shot to become a premier WNBA franchise and be title contenders for the next decade if Griner is as good as advertised. The Mercury weren’t close to winning this year it seems, even if Taurasi had come back from her injury. So why not take a shot at becoming sublime? It seems crazy not to, although from the one game I went to this year watching that team trudge to 7-27 must have been painful for the Mercury season ticket holders.

Of course, the logistics of the lottery make tanking much more feasible in the WNBA than the NBA. Only four teams receive a spot in the WNBA lottery with the top team earning a whopping 44.2 percent chance at the top pick (not that that helped Washington, who will pick fourth). The second-best team has 27.6 percent odds, third 17.8 and fourth 10.4.

By contrast, the top team in an NBA lottery (which includes 14 teams) has merely a 25 percent chance, second 19.9 percent, third 15.6 percent, fourth 11.9 percent and from there nobody has even a 10 percent chance of winning it.

By finishing two games ahead of the third-worst team in the WNBA, the Merc’s odds increased by 55 percent. By going from fourth to second, a team increases its odds of winning the lottery by 165 percent. With all the additional teams in the NBA lottery, the benefits of tanking are not nearly as strong because the odds are so long regardless, but flailing WNBA teams are very much incentivized to tank based off this system.

Personally, I am not as anti-tank as others in the NBA blogging community. It should not be seen as a masking agent for a multitude of bad decisions and it’s bad when it allows executives to sell hope and buy time for them to save their jobs. I feel like tanking is palatable in one-season gulps, especially for teams on the treadmill of mediocrity that aren’t nearly good enough to compete for a championship but aren’t nearly bad enough to find an elite player at their draft slot either. Of course, the problem is trying to tank for one year runs the risk of a decade of misery following if it doesn’t work out.

Ask any Mercury fan today if going 7-27 was worth having the Taurasi-Griner pairing fall into their laps, and I would be shocked if anybody says it wasn’t.

Same with the New Orleans Hornets last season. I don’t know if Eric Gordon could have returned earlier from his injury, but even if he did they still would have been pretty bad. Going from the solid Chris Paul era to one year of losing big to a bright future headlined by The Brow and Gordon was worth all the losses last season for the Hornets in my opinion, whether they tanked or not.

Of course, for every story like those two there are probably five others of teams that tanked to some degree without a payoff, like the poor Charlotte Bobcats, who were intentionally historically bad yet did not come away with a franchise-changer like Davis in the end. Still, I totally defend their moves to get there. That franchise was stuck in quicksand, and now possesses three solid young players in MKG, Kemba Walker and Biyombo. They may have tanked, but it was their only way to improve.

I am of the opinion that this Suns season ahead is wildly unpredictable. I could see Clyde Drexler only being slightly off with Phoenix shocking the world as a 6 or 7 seed. I could also see the bottom falling out and all the pundits being right for putting the Suns at the bottom of the conference.

If March rolls around and the Suns are clearly out of the race, why shouldn’t Markieff Morris start getting more minutes than Luis Scola? Why shouldn’t Kendall Marshall start playing more than Dragic’s scraps, potentially in lineups with The Dragon? Obviously you want the team to play hard every night, but if you could improve your lottery odds by 75 percent by moving down two slots in the standings, why not play your young guys at the expense of vets who are better now?

There is a dark underbelly of tanking that results in games that make a mockery of the sport, and nobody wants that. Something must be done to shift the incentives so tanking isn’t so enticing.

But today the Phoenix Mercury are set up as a future juggernaut, which proves once again that when the prize is good enough it’s only rational for bottom-dwelling teams to do what’s necessary to improve their odds at hitting the jackpot.

Incentives must shift to solve tanking

Of course, if the incentives shift then tanking might not be so worth it, so if the NBA really cares about taking care of its tanking problem those incentives must change.

There is a fine line between offering a means through which bad teams can improve versus going overboard to prevent tanking. If the reward is great enough any team would be crazy not to tank. Any team that’s not a legitimate contender would be insane not to do everything possible to tank in a year a talent like LeBron James is available, for example, especially if Carmelo, D-Wade and Bosh are the consolation prizes.

I like the idea of incentivizing teams to overachieve. Maybe half of the ping pong balls could be awarded for where you finish and another half for how well or poorly you do in contrast to expectations, with the baseline decided in the preseason by a select group of unbiased NBA analysts. That way if the Suns were to finish ninth in the West when many prognosticators peg them for 14th they would be rewarded for not tanking. Similarly, teams that tank would be penalized but the worst teams would still derive some benefit.

And 1

Arturo Galletti from Wages of Wins did some damning anti-tank research in April that showed the probability of win improvement based on how many games a team won the season prior for every year in the next 10 seasons, with data taken from 1978 to 2011.

His conclusion: “Good teams tend to stay good, bad teams tend to stay bad but over time everyone trends to 0.500.”

Based on this analysis, the lottery seems to be doing its job by pushing bad teams up and good teams down, but it takes about five years for things to really level out. Furthermore, this chart seems to say instead of tanking leading to a rags to riches story, on average it’s a rags right back to mediocrity story.

That is, of course, if you don’t land a franchise-altering player like Griner may be for the Mercury.