December 2, 2013

SHATZMAN | One Team Is Tanking, But Nobody Cares

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Those versed in NBA jargon are familiar with the latest addition to the vernacular: “tanking.” It is a concept that refers to a team with low expectations losing games in order to receive as high of a draft pick as possible. The NBA’s draft lottery system makes it so the worst team does not necessarily receive the first pick, but that the worst team has the greatest chance to receive the pick in the lottery.

The 2014 draft features the most highly anticipated class since 2003 (James, Antony, Wade etc.), and the idea of tanking has been a major topic of discussion in the NBA world. Earlier in the season, one NBA General Manager even admitted to tanking, though he did so anonymously, leaving a great deal of speculation as to which team was throwing the season. Many believed it was a team like the 76ers or Magic, but both look to have promising young talent to be excited about. Other teams have been included in the conversation as well. However, there is one team that has been left out of the tanking discussion that should have aroused plenty of suspicion: the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavs are 5-12 as of today. They have the fifth worst record in the league. Roster-wise, though, they are not at the bottom of the pack. Led by stars Kyrie Irving and Andrew Bynum, Cleveland boats an explosive offense and rim-protecting defense. They are now coached by Mike Brown; the same Mike Brown who unexpectedly led the Cavs to the finals in 2007 when the team consisted of a 22-year-old LeBron James and not much else. So why is this year’s Cavs team losing — and getting blown out, for that matter — most of their games?

There is evidence to support the prospect that the team is tanking in hopes of drafting a Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins caliber player. First, and most obvious to a casual basketball fan, is the way the team plays. Watch a full Cavs game. The players move around in what seems like slow motion. They may set a pick or two, and then nonchalantly settle for a one-on-one matchup.

Kyrie Irving’s shooting percentage is lower than in his first two seasons. Yes, it is early in the season, but the Cavs hardly look like they are trying.

Next, in what was the head-scratcher of the 2013 draft, the Cavs, who were lucky to receive the first overall pick, selected 6’ 8” power forward Anthony Bennett out of U.N.LV. Bennett’s rookie season has been atrocious, and recently he has barely seen the floor at all, save for some trivial minutes in blowout losses. Sure, it is plausible that the Cavs thought Bennett was the best choice in the draft.

Frankly, he has potential and is years away from being considered a bust. But an undersized power forward who was not even in the discussion to be the number one pick, unknown to many fans around the country? Seems sketchy, that’s all. When I watched him play at U.N.LV., I was unimpressed, especially when comparing him to the likes of Victor Oladipo, Ben McLemore, and the other projected top draft picks. I am no NBA scout, but at the time of the draft, those confident that Anthony Bennett was the best selection for the Cavs were few and far between.

Why does this relate to the Cavs tanking this season? Bennett’s lack of notoriety in comparison to let’s say, Oladipo, meant that the typical number-one-pick hype that occurs prior to the season was not found in Cleveland. More tickets would be sold because of free-agent acquisition Andrew Bynum than because of Bennett. By selecting Bennett, the Cavs entered this season in a low-key manner, as Bynum’s injury woes made him a question mark early in the season. Now Bynum is healthy and Bennett is on the team, but the Cavs remain bottom-dwellers in the standings. Maybe the Cavs believed Bennett was the right choice, but the possibility that the Bennett selection in 2013 was made with the 2014 draft in mind cannot go unnoticed.

The final point of emphasis in the case for why Cleveland is tanking revolves around owner Dan Gilbert and his relationship with Mike Brown. Gilbert is an interesting figure. He is one of the more widely known NBA owners, and like fellow owner Mark Cuban, Gilbert often makes the headlines due to his outspoken personality.

When LeBron James opted to leave Cleveland and sign with the Heat, Gilbert published a letter to Cavs fans in which he lambasted James, and seemed to abhor the superstar who led the previously irrelevant Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA finals. It was Dan Gilbert who, in 2011, begged commissioner David Stern, in yet another letter, to terminate the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers deal for reasons unbeknownst to the rest of the league. He listed his reasons for wanting to stop the trade, but those reasons were odd and suspicious. Gilbert has shown to be a fishy guy. He seems to be one of the more likely owners to encourage a tanking season, and anonymously admit to doing so, for that matter.

Prior to the season the Cavs hired head coach Mike Brown, who previously coached the team early in Gilbert’s ownership. Had Gilbert planned a tanking season, hiring a coach who he already knew would be beneficial to his scheme. Think about it: Gilbert calls Brown and says, “Hey Mike, we’ll hire you again, and pay you lots of money, but here’s how it must go down this season.” Likely? Maybe not. Possible? Definitely. Gilbert is willing to become a title contender at all costs, and Mike Brown was, you know, unemployed for nearly all of last season. The duo makes for some fine skepticism.

One General Manager admitted that he and the owner agreed to throw the season. I cannot tell you which team it is, but I encourage you to consider the Cleveland Cavaliers. Turn on the television the next time they play on ESPN, and decide for yourself: Does it truly look like they are trying to win?