Bismack Biyombo entered the game for the Orlando Magic on Monday night with about four minutes left in the first quarter. He grabbed a rebound and promptly had two layups and a dunk.
Magic coach Frank Vogel managed, to his credit, to not immediately bench him.
Orlando, firmly among the group of teams that absolutely does not want to win games here in the heart of Tanking Season, has at least been subtle about it. Biyombo stayed in the game against the Milwaukee Bucks through most of the second quarter, and the Magic trailed by just two points when he left. He didn’t see the court again for any significant time until the Bucks were up by 13 points in the fourth. On the night, a comfortable 102-86 loss to the Bucks, Biyombo would finish with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and six rebounds in just 16 minutes.
Conveniently for Vogel, Biyombo is a bench player, and so it’s much less obvious when he remains on the bench as the Magic cruise their way to their 57th loss.
Other tank jobs in the dying weeks of this NBA season have been considerably more blatant. A night after Marc Gasol posted a 20-9-9 line for Memphis in a loss to Detroit, the centre was benched as the Grizzlies played the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday.
Without Gasol in his way, Wolves centre Karl-Anthony Towns had 24 points and 18 rebounds as Minnesota handed the Grizzlies their 59th loss. Gasol was officially listed as out of the game due to “rest,” which is interesting given that the schedule ends in two days. He is resting up for the resting season.
Gasol, in fact. has been a one-man tanking indicator this season. In a game in late March, he scored 28 points on 11-of-12 shooting through three quarters and then didn’t see the court in the fourth, as Utah pulled away from Memphis for the victory. The Memphis paper described him as “annoyed” at the late benching, an adjective backed up by Gasol’s terse analysis of his play that night: “The ball went through the hoop. Guys found me when I was open.”
The Memphis strategy of bench-Gasol-in-case-of-emergency hasn’t even been the most obvious loss-assurance technique in recent days. When Dallas arrived in Orlando last week fresh off a victory over Portland, they desperately needed to halt their winning streak at one, especially since the Magic are one of the teams they are trying to out-tank. The Mavericks sat four starters from a night earlier — Dirk Nowitzki and the other Dallas players you’ve heard of — and rolled out starters like Johnathan Motley and Dorian Finney-Smith, who were not, in fact, random guys they signed off the street. Orlando benched their starting centre but still won 105-100.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban essentially promised this tactic months ago, when he said it wasn’t in his team’s best interest to win this season. That earned him the ire of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who vowed punishment for teams that were actively tanking, but that hasn’t come to pass.
This is where we have come to, tanking-wise: Everyone knows it is going on, the NBA is mad about it, but there is no way to stop it. As much as Silver might dream of it, there is no way to force a team to play certain guys. Is a coach trying to lose, or does he want to get a look at unproven young players? One motivation is seen as honourable, but the result is the same.
And after all, Cuban is right, and though he was talking about basketball, he might as well have been speaking about all North American sports. It’s the awkward evolution of leagues that now share two common characteristics: an instrument to artificially suppress player salaries, and a draft that awards the best picks, or the odds of the best picks, to the worst teams. If you aren’t good, the only way back is to first become really bad. In the NHL, which didn’t have anything this season like the Great Tank-Off of 2015 between Buffalo and Arizona, we still saw what the current setup forces teams to do. St. Louis, preparing to maximize its draft-lottery odds, shipped off Paul Stastny at the trade deadline, and then had a stretch where they won eight of nine — and missed the playoffs by a point.
It’s the inevitable consequence of a system that rewards bad teams, while also not allowing them to spend freely to become good. And so, you have situations like Monday, when Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff said “It’s disrespectful to say guys are tanking and trying to lose,” even as he kept Gasol on the bench. No one thinks the players are trying to lose, of course, even as it is obvious that management is not giving them the best chance to win.
There is one way to stop all this: Kill the drafts. None of the leagues would seriously consider that idea now. But you wonder how many more years of active tanking we will see before they start to come around to it.
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