Losing to Win

by Harrison Larner

Note: For the purpose of this article, I will refer to “stars,” or guys who could be the best or second best players on a championship team as “Olympic” players. “Olympic” players are guys who could make and possibly start on the US Olympic team, and carry a NBA team to a title.

I’ll start off with a quick anecdote. My family and I are on vacation during Christmas break, and my mom comes up to me very excited and says “guess who won today?” in a very excited tone. I reply in a more somber tone, “The Ravens mom.”

You see, I am a casual Ravens fan. Why am I sad about them winning? Because I want them to tank. Lose on purpose, or get destroyed if need be. Am I a bad fan, or do I just care about the future fortunes of my team?

The most obvious example of tanking are the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA. In the past three seasons, the 76ers have won just 20 percent of their games, a truly atrocious number. The 76ers have intentionally not signed free agents or made moves to make their current team better.

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Because they have so blatantly lost so many games, they have become the face of tanking. Their continuous losing has been dubbed “The Process” and many fans don’t understand why they are doing this.

To understand why the 76ers have purposely lost so many games, it is first necessary to understand how winning rosters full of “Olympic” players are built, because the only teams to win championships are teams with one or more “Olympic” players.

Stars always win championships. In the NBA, there are three ways to improve your team. The first is free agency. The problem is, “Olympic” players won’t want to come to your team unless there is already a strong collection of talent in a major market. For most teams in the NBA, that is simply not an option.

The second way is through trades. The issue with trades is that you cannot make trades with other teams for “Olympic” players unless you already have a large collection of talent. With free agency and trades nullified as options, teams are forced to turn to the draft as a way to accumulate talent.

tanking

As this graph shows, better talent in the draft is found the closer to the #1 spot the player is picked. That “better talent” is what turns into “Olympic” players and the more “Olympic” players a team has the more likely they are to win a championship.

If you don’t believe me that the current best NBA teams have lost a ton of games to get where they are now, you are very wrong. In the 1996-97 season, the Spurs shut down former MVP David Robinson after six games to lose more games and get Tim Duncan in the draft.

The Cavaliers intentionally didn’t sign any big free agents prior to the Andrew Wiggins draft in order to force themselves into a worse record and a higher chance to get the number one overall pick. That pick was the major piece in the Kevin Love deal that eventually led to LeBron coming to Cleveland.

Even the Warriors benched all of their starters in 2012 to assure they kept their lottery pick, which turned into Harrison Barnes.

Other fans may believe that losing at any time is unacceptable. I do think planned losing is acceptable. I’m not saying either one of us is right.

What I am saying though is that I care more about winning championships than they do, even sacrificing short losing for long term winning. Other fans are sacrificing avoiding a “losing culture” for an average future.

By being perennially average, teams will never be bad enough to get a high enough draft pick or draw in superstar free agents. You need to be bad to be great. And that’s what I’m asking for today. For you, the fan, to be patient in losing, because it means future winning.

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