Just Win

Evidence supports Joe D’s contempt for the virtues of tanking

Joe Dumars is against the idea of compromising the Pistons' young core by tanking the season.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)

The Pistons’ shot at a playoff berth in Lawrence Frank’s first season was all but officially doomed by the team’s 4-20 start. To a segment of their fan base, from that point on the season became more about accumulating lottery odds than pushing the individual development of franchise cornerstones like Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, watching Frank’s progress in coalescing the Pistons defensively in a manner he strongly believes is the foundation for championships or, you know, winning games.

On talk radio, in the Twitterverse and – as I can personally and emphatically attest – in Pistons Mailbag’s inbox, a hue and cry arose as the Pistons went 21-21 down the stretch to push their odds of winding up with Anthony Davis from “unlikely” to “extreme long shot.”

The most recent Mailbag response that I addressed was a month ago – I’ve received several more since then as the Pistons pulled away from a tight pack of teams to wind up in the No. 9 spot going into the May 30 lottery – and here’s how the exchange went:

John (Sterling Heights, Mich.): Is it wrong to still want Detroit to tank the season so we can get a higher draft pick in arguably the deepest lottery since LeBron and others back in 2003? The Pistons aren’t bad enough to get a great lottery pick and not good enough to challenge for the playoffs. They’re in no-man’s land.

Langlois: It’s not wrong, necessarily, but it is futile – it’s not happening on Joe Dumars’ watch. I’m on record, long and often, that I believe in karma, and that teams that intentionally mess with the integrity of competition will eventually – perhaps not immediately – get what’s coming to them. From a more cynical viewpoint, I could even concede the merits of tanking if a team plans to clean house at season’s end, including a new coach. But for the Pistons right now, with Lawrence Frank in his first season and young players like Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight critical to their future on board, it strikes me as ludicrous to invite losing and plant that seed after they’ve just spent every waking moment for a full season trying to eradicate losing from their organizational DNA.

Joe Dumars said it more compellingly last week when he addressed the topic with reporters. He first cited the evidence of how infrequently teams that finish in the No. 1 position actually win the lottery. In the 18 lotteries since the NBA tinkered with the distribution formula in 1994, only twice has the team slotted first actually won the lottery – and even that overstates it. In 2003, Cleveland was tied for No. 1 so didn’t have the 25 percent shot but an 18 percent chance. The last time it’s happened was 2004 when Orlando went into the lottery with the 25 percent shot, finished first and drafted Dwight Howard.

(More about that: The team that’s gone into the lottery at No. 5 with an 8.8 percent chance at No. 1 has drawn the top pick four times, as has No. 3. The No. 6 spot has won twice, No. 2 three times and the 7th, 8th and 9th spots have each won once. No. 4 has never drawn the top spot and nobody from 10 on down has ever won the No. 1 pick.)

Then Joe D got to the real crux of the matter, beyond the lottery results’ defiance of statistical evidence that buttresses my karma argument: “It just doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of what it does to your players. If you allow that in your building, sometimes it’s hard to get out. If you allow that to be a part of the fabric of who you are, it doesn’t leave when you want it to leave sometimes. We’re going to try to win. That’s what we’re here for. Whatever happens with the lottery, we’ll accept that.”

Maybe there’s no need to tinker with the system, as plenty of the outraged suggest every year when lottery teams rest stars with mysterious ailments in the season’s final weeks. But here’s a modest suggestion: Instead of tying the odds to place in the standings, tie them to win totals. If that were the case, Cleveland with its 21 wins and No. 3 slot wouldn’t go into the lottery with roughly nine times the odds to win the No. 1 pick and eight times the odds to pull a top-three pick as the Pistons with their 25 wins.

The Pistons won less than 20 percent more games than Cleveland did. The lottery odds should reflect that margin of disparity. Instead they reward the Cavs as if they had just come off a three-win season relative to the Pistons’ 25 wins. It would be relatively easy to devise a formula that carves up the lottery odds on such a games-won basis.

If the countering argument is that it would encourage teams to start tanking even earlier to avoid wins, good luck with that. You’d have to be possessed of an iron stomach – not to mention the most callous disregard for the intelligence and allegiance of your fan base – to endure months worth, or an entire season, of tanking.

It’s probably not something Joe D will spend much time contemplating. If he never engages in the lottery again, it will be too soon for him. And whatever rules the NBA adopts, the mission statement at 6 Championship Drive will remain the same: win.