Tanking Is Not the Answer
Pacers' Highest Heights Weren't the Byproduct of Bottoming Out
The Pacers should be tanking, right?
They're mired in the muck of mediocrity, having plodded through consecutive seasons in which they barely qualified for the playoffs and then lost in the first round. Even worse, they just had to trade their best player, and have no established All-Star on their roster.
Clearly, the best way for them to become a championship contender again is to tank — get as bad as possible as quickly as possible by selling or trading off most of their better players, which would set themselves up to get high draft picks – either through trade or from having a horrible record -- and then select a player who becomes a superstar. Maybe rinse and repeat the process the following year, too. Then, surely, they'll have a couple of superstars who will enable them to contend for championships in a few years. It's the only way for a small-market team that can't entice elite free agents to build a standout team.
If only it were that easy.
If only previous championship teams did it that way.
If only the Pacers haven't already proven they can rise from mediocrity without doing it.
If only all the inconvenient evidence is that tanking isn't all it's cracked up to be, and in fact has never been shown to be a legitimate strategy for building a championship team.
Some Pacers fans, and some media members, have been calling for the franchise to tank off and on for 25 years now. The arguments have resurfaced whenever the team finished with a .500-or-thereabouts record or had a disappointing playoff experience. Those calling for a full-scale tanking effort, though, would be wise to remember (or learn) the franchise's history, and recognize how other teams have (and have not) won championships.
"All these things I hear people saying, I just laugh," former general manager and team president Donnie Walsh said.
That's because he's been through it all before, and has seen, if not directed, the pathway out of mediocrity. The Pacers have been in their current state at least three other times in the past 25 years. Each time, fans and media commentators called for firings and major overhauls. Each time, they stayed the course and patiently built teams that reached the conference finals eight times, with one NBA Finals appearance.
The Time: April, 1992
The Situation: The Pacers were coming off three seasons in which they won 42, 41 and 40 games, and lost in the first round of the playoffs each year. They were swept by Boston in 1992, one year after taking the Celtics to the limit in a five-game series, so their trend was not encouraging.
The Commentary: The cries for drastic change began.
One Indianapolis Star columnist called center Rik Smits, whose confidence and production had regressed under coach Bob Hill, a "Dutch cream puff who has no basketball or killer instinct." He called Reggie Miller a "one-dimensional scorer who can't guard anybody with a heartbeat." He cited Boston forward Kevin McHale's claim that Chuck Person "makes more unkept promises than a politician." He also called for Walsh to be fired, writing, "I think it's time he moved on. Donnie had a damn good opportunity and it's pretty obvious this club is spinning its wheels."
The Result: Chuck Person, Rookie of the Year in 1987 and star of the near-upset of Boston in the 1991 playoff series, was traded in September of '92, shortly before the start of training camp. Point guard Micheal Williams also was included in the deal, which brought Pooh Richardson and Sam Mitchell from Minnesota.
Pooh Richardson shooting against the Celtics. (Photo: Getty Images)
The deal was made to improve team chemistry. Person, Miller, and Detlef Schrempf all were scorers above all else, and Williams was a score-first point guard. Richardson was more a pass-first quarterback, and Mitchell was a blue-collar rebounder and defender.
The trade was harshly criticized, even internally.
LaSalle Thompson, the Pacers' co-captain along with Person, said Person had been made the "scapegoat" of the team's frustrations, and questioned the ability of the returning scorers to step up. "I think what you're going to find is that we've got some guys on this team who are gutless."
Williams' agent, David Morway, also was critical. "I can't believe this trade," he said. "I think it's a poor trade for the Pacers."
Morway later became an assistant to Walsh in the Pacers' front office, and is now in Utah's front office.
The Time: October, 1993:
The Situation: Trading Person didn't make much difference, at least immediately. The Pacers won just one more game in the 1992-93 season, finishing 41-41, then lost to New York in the first round of the playoffs. There were more competitive, however. They lost Game 1 at Madison Square Garden by just three points, and lost Game 4 at Market Square Arena in overtime.
That wasn't enough to curb the percolating discontent.
Games 3 and 4 against the Knicks had failed to sell out, an indication of encroaching apathy among the fan base.
"That was embarrassing," Pacers owner Herb Simon told the Star. "We appreciated the fans who came. It was exciting. But I was very disappointed to see all those empty seats. It broke my heart."
After the 1993 playoffs, newspaper and broadcast reports had Rick Pitino, then coach at the University of Kentucky, considering an offer to become both coach and general manager of the Pacers. They turned out to be inaccurate, but Pitino had indeed been contacted in a back-door maneuver by someone outside the organization.
Walsh, meanwhile, was worried about his future with the franchise. "If they feel they have to replace me, I'll accept that," he told the Star.
Hill was let go, with a record of one game over .500 in his two full seasons as head coach. Walsh then hired his backcourt teammate from North Carolina, Larry Brown, to take over. The following October, during the pre-season, they agreed on a trade that sent Schrempf - an All-Star the previous season - to Seattle for Derrick McKey.
Donnie Walsh hired Larry Brown to take over as head coach in 1993. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Commentary: Schrempf was described in the newspapers as the Pacers' most popular player, and probably their best. The deal didn't go over well with the public, or in some corners of the local media environment.
A Star columnist wrote: "These who always had thought Walsh can't be trusted with the keys to the franchise now have their final confirmation."
Another columnist declared: "Meanwhile, in Mediocreville, there's only more fodder for the legions who see Walsh wrecking what he had so carefully constructed. It looks like after three years with a shaky trigger finger, Walsh is pulling it on the wrong pieces."
He concluded: "Walsh might have pushed the Pacers, and himself, off a cliff."
The Result: After a 1-6 start, which briefly provided more fuel for the critics, the more defensive-minded Pacers went on to finish the season 47-35 and reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Miller, unleashed, was now the clear focal point of the offense, but had help from Smits, McKey, Dale Davis, and Byron Scott.
Miller scored 25 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the conference finals against the Knicks. Some of his field goals came off screens from Thompson, who surely didn't consider him "gutless." Miller's outburst gave the Pacers a 3-2 edge, igniting hope for a trip to the NBA Finals, but they lost the series in seven games.
The Pacers would go on to reach the conference finals five times in a seven-year period, with injuries a major reason for the two exceptions.
As it turned out, while it had appeared the franchise was stuck in "Mediocreville," it was just a tweak or two away from long-term contention.
"You add the right guy at the right time…it's kind of magical in a way what makes a team a contender," Walsh says now in reflection.
The Time: June, 1999
The Situation: After taking Chicago to seven games in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, and with Michael Jordan having retired, the Pacers were favored by many to win the championship in the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
They didn't, losing to eighth-seeded New York in the conference finals in six games. There were some extenuating circumstances, although they were of little comfort to the fans.
A week-long break between the second and third rounds of the playoffs had disrupted the Pacers' momentum and led to a homecourt loss in Game 1 of the series. A monumentally botched call in Game 3 – when referee Jess Kersey whistled a foul on Antonio Davis and mistakenly allowed Knicks forward Larry Johnson to complete a four-point play – led to another Knicks victory. (Kersey publicly admitted his error a year later.) A series of questionable calls in Game 6, in which the Knicks attempted 33 free throws and the Pacers nine, helped New York clinch the series.
Miller also had an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance in Game 6, hitting 3-of-18 shots. And Smits, battling sore feet, had been so inconsistent and frustrated with his play he said he was leaning toward retirement.
The Commentary: With an aging team that had failed to get past the conference finals four times in the previous six years, calls for a breakup came flooding from fans and media members. Much of the talk radio conversation was bitter, and a Star columnist was ready to lay the team to rest. It not only was old, he wrote, but "soft, complacent and, worse, smug."
He concluded: "As much as it might mean a sentimental farewell and a few tears at the airport, it's time to say goodbye to some of our long-standing blue-and-old and no one – not Smits, not Miller, not the Davises – should be untouchable."
The Result: Walsh held firm, bringing nearly everyone back for another try. The exception was Antonio Davis, who requested a trade (a decision he later regretted) and was sent to Toronto for the fifth pick in the draft, which brought Jonathan Bender.
Walsh was remaining calm amid the storm, but also was being practical. Miller, Jackson, and Smits had one year remaining on their contracts and therefore had minimal trade value. Also, Larry Bird had agreed to coach the team for three seasons, and Walsh wasn't going to send him out with the beginning of a rebuilding effort.
The Pacers reached the NBA Finals for the only time in franchise history the following season, advancing after a Game 6 victory in Madison Square Garden. Smits' feet issues were largely resolved by a physical therapist, Dan Dyrek, brought in by Bird. Miller, motivated by the previous season's failures, regained his clutch postseason form and scored 34 points, while Dale Davis grabbed 16 rebounds. The previous season was a distant memory.
The Time: May, 2003
The Situation: Coach Isiah Thomas' third team was eliminated in the opening playoff round for the third consecutive season.
His first team, a collection overhauled after the Finals appearance in 2000, had finished 41-41. His second team finished 42-40. But his third team, bolstered by a trade during the previous season for Brad Miller and Ron Artest, and the development of Jermaine O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley, Jeff Foster, Austin Croshere, Al Harrington, and Jonathan Bender, showed major improvement – so much so that he coached the East team in the All-Star game as a result of having the conference's best record.
Jermaine O'Neal emerged as a star for the Pacers, helping the team win 61 games in 2003-04. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Pacers were 37-15 three games after the break, but a variety of factors brought about a late-season collapse. Reggie Miller's performance slumped because of foot problems that needed surgical repair, and other players had personal and family issues that were distractions.
The Commentary: Again, there were calls for change. Criticism mounted on Thomas, and to a lesser degree, Walsh.
One letter in the Star from a man in Greenwood read:
"As I see it, there are a few minor things the Pacers need to do.
"They need new ownership. They need a new general manager. They need a new coach. They need a new shooting and scoring guard. They need a professional center.
"Other than that, the Pacers are a good basketball team."
The Result: The Pacers did get a new general manager in Bird, although Walsh remained part of the front office. They also got a new coach in Rick Carlisle, after he was fired by the Pistons over the summer. Despite the loss of free agent center Brad Miller, an All-Star the previous season, and with a healthier Reggie Miller, they came back to win a franchise-record 61 games and reach the conference finals again in 2004. Jermaine O'Neal finished third in the MVP voting, Artest was voted Defensive Player of the Year and both played in the All-Star Game.
The Time: April, 2010
The Situation: Bird had been forced to deconstruct the contending team of the 2003-04 season piece by piece because of a variety of calamites. That led to a reconstruction period that included four consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance and seasons with 35, 36, 36, and 32 victories.
By the end of the 2009-10 season, when the Pacers finished 32-50, some fans and media members were growing weary of the trend, which, numerically at least, was downward.
The Commentary: An oft-heard refrain was that Bird got a break because of his legendary status as a player and successful coaching career. That hardly seemed true, as he was frequently questioned and criticized in the newspaper and on the radio. He was as much a magnet for complaints as immune to them.
"You can't keep looking at the coaches," a Star columnist wrote about Bird after the 2009-10 season. "Eventually you've got to look in the mirror."
The Result: The Pacers began showing progress in 2010-11. Frank Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien as the head coach at the end of January and a team with promising young talent that included Roy Hibbert and rookie Paul George finished strong to reach the playoffs. They were eliminated by Chicago, 4-1, but a sense of optimism had returned.
Free agent forward David West took notice and signed with the Pacers in the 2011 offseason, turning down a more lucrative deal from Boston. The Pacers went 42-24 in the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12, and qualified for the playoffs again. They advanced to the second round and led Miami 2-1, but fell 4-2.
Their progress continued into 2013, when they reached the conference finals and took eventual champion Miami to a seventh game. That fueled optimism for the following season, with Danny Granger due to return from a knee condition that had kept him out of all but five games.
Granger never truly recovered, but they carried on nicely without him, opening the 2013-14 season with a 16-1 record. The distraction and pressure of their success caught up with them late in the season - they lost seven of nine games at one point – but they still finished 56-26 to gain the No. 1 seed in the East. They reached the conference finals once again, but lost again to Miami, this time in six games.
The Time: Now
The Situation: The conference finalists of 2013 and '14 possessed a solid and youthful core, and appeared poised for continued runs toward title contention. But those teams unraveled, for a variety of reasons.
Lance Stephenson, Bird's prized second-round draft pick who had a league-leading five triple-doubles and nearly made the All-Star team in 2014, declined the Pacers' contract offer and wound up signing for less money with Charlotte (a decision he later regretted).
Paul George broke his leg later that summer in a Team USA exhibition game and would miss all but the final six games of the following season, a major setback. That and other injuries to key players guaranteed a drop-off in on-court performance.
Meanwhile, Hibbert's confidence and performance were fading. After dominating in the 2013 playoffs, he was barely a factor in 2014 as he grew disenchanted with his role in the offense. His decline was abetted by the NBA's shift toward a smaller, up-tempo style of play, prompting Bird to trade him in the summer of 2015 after the injury-ravaged Pacers missed the playoffs by one game. That prompted West – the lone starter nearing retirement – to opt out of his contract and take $11 million fewer dollars to play for San Antonio.
That kicked off another on-the-fly reconstruction period. The Pacers qualified for the postseason in 2016 and '17, but lost in the first round each time, bringing them back to where they were in 1993. And 2002. And 2010.
"We have never thought that way; we've always played to win. How can you stand for, 'We want to lose?'"
And then, this summer, George's agent rang up the Pacers' office and delivered what newly-named team president Kevin Pritchard called a "gut-punch" by telling him George didn't intend to re-sign with the Pacers after next season when his contract expired. George then was traded to Oklahoma City.
The Commentary: Bird, who stepped down as team president after the season ended, has been criticized in the local media for not foreseeing George's indirect trade request, and Pritchard has been criticized for not getting a better deal for his All-Star forward.
The cries for tanking, meanwhile, have resounded from some media members and many fans. The following June tweet seemed to speak for many fans:
"Pacers are gonna be perfectly mediocre AGAIN, get the 18th AGAIN…gotta bottom totally out, stop fake trying."
The result is forthcoming, but Pritchard's attempt to remain competitive while gathering young talent with mid-first-round draft picks, trades and modest free agent signings shouldn't be surprising to anyone. It's what the Pacers did before under Bird and Walsh, with owner Herb Simon's approval. All agree that trying to build a championship contender by losing intentionally for two or three years is a flawed strategy, not to mention contrary to the spirit of competition.
"We have never thought that way; we've always played to win," Walsh said. "How can you stand for, 'We want to lose?'"
Their belief stems from the success they've had drafting players late in the lottery or outside of it -- such as these starters on previous conference finalists, with their draft position noted:
Paul George (10th)
Reggie Miller (11th)
Dale Davis (13th)
Jalen Rose (13th, by Denver)
Ron Artest (16th, by Chicago)
Roy Hibbert (17th, by Toronto)
Jermaine O'Neal (17th, by Portland)
Mark Jackson (18th, by New York)
David West (18th, by New Orleans)
Jeff Foster (21st)
George Hill (26th, by San Antonio)
Jamaal Tinsley (27th)
Lance Stephenson (40th)
(It should also be noted that Turner, a key building block of future Pacers teams, was drafted 11th.)
The lone high lottery pick to have been a crucial part of any of the elite teams is Smits, who was drafted second in 1988 after the Pacers got lucky enough in the lottery to draft higher than their record would have allowed them. Chris Mullin, taken seventh by Golden State in 1985, started on the 1998 and '99 conference finalists, but he was in the final stages of his career, well past his prime, and was acquired in a trade.
There's also this inconvenient (for tanking advocates) fact: no NBA team has ever won a championship by tanking. Certainly teams have gotten bad, either through injuries, retirements, or poor front office decisions, and then wound up with high draft picks that were used on players who become superstars. But as a strategy, tanking remains unproven and highly suspect.
The only tanking that has worked is the unintentional variety, which is more like bad luck. San Antonio put on the classic example of that in the 1996-97 season when David Robinson - a seven-time All-Star and league MVP in 1995 – suffered a back injury in the preseason and had to sit out until December. He played in six games, but broke his left foot against Miami and sat out the rest of the season.
It was a nightmarish season for the Spurs, who also lost starter Sean Elliott for 43 games and wound up dressing 20 players in all because of widespread injuries. Person, the former Pacers guard, was among the absent players, missing the entire season with a back injury. Hill, the former Pacers coach, paid the price for all the misery, fired and replaced by Gregg Popovich after a 3-15 start.
The Spurs, who had won 59 and 62 games the previous two seasons, finished with the third-worst record in the NBA, 20-62. Vancouver had the worst record, 14-68, and Boston won 15 games. Yet the Spurs lucked into the first pick in the draft and won the grand prize, Tim Duncan. Two years later, with Robinson healthy and Duncan blossoming, they won the first of their five NBA championships with Duncan.
The Spurs didn't get there by tanking, they did it with a timely combination of bad luck (a run of injuries) and incredibly good luck (winning the lottery when a future superstar was available). Had they been tanking, they wouldn't have brought Robinson back in December. Had they not won the lottery, they wouldn't have been able to draft Duncan, the obvious No. 1 choice, and might never have won a title.
Popovich, to his credit, freely acknowledges the role of good fortune in his career.
"Before you start handing out applause and credit to anyone else in this organization for anything that's been accomplished, remember it all starts with and goes through Timmy," he once said.
The only NBA team to have embarked on a serious tanking strategy that goes beyond sitting starters at the end of a hopeless season or trading off a high-priced veteran is Philadelphia. It will stand forever as the lab experiment for the strategy of gutting a roster and building a team from scratch with a series of high lottery picks.
The 76ers have drafted five players in the top three picks in the past eight years – Evan Turner (2nd) in 2010; Joel Embiid (3rd) in 2014; Jahlil Okafor (3rd) in 2015; Ben Simmons (1st) in 2016 and Markelle Fultz (1st) this year. But they have yet to reap any rewards from their investments.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons remain promising players for the 76ers. (Photo: Getty Images)
Turner was traded to the Pacers for a hobbled Granger and is now playing for his fourth team.
Embiid missed his first two seasons with a broken right foot. He averaged 20 points in 31 games last season, but missed the remaining games with a left knee injury that eventually required surgery. His talent is undeniable, but his health remains in question.
Okafor, limited by injuries and a suspension, has played a total of 103 games over the past two seasons. The 76ers have indicated a willingness to trade him.
Simmons missed what would have been his rookie season after fracturing his right foot in a September scrimmage last year, and is on schedule to enter the league in the upcoming season.
Add to that list Nerlens Noel, drafted No. 6 overall by New Orleans in 2013 but immediately traded to the 76ers. He played three seasons for the 76ers, then was traded to Dallas at the deadline last season. He also has been dogged by injuries, but shows promise.
Sam Hinkie was the mastermind behind the 76ers' repeated sell-offs and trades that brought high draft picks – known (sometimes mockingly) as The Process. He's gone, too, having resigned in April of 2016. He was nearly three seasons into his teardown and rebuild, and patience was wearing thin. The NBA office was putting pressure on the franchise to try to win games more immediately, and Jerry Colangelo was hired as the Director of Basketball Operations. His authority threatened, Hinkie bailed.
Philadelphia still has a promising core of young talent, but is at least a few years away from competing for anything meaningful, even if its remaining lottery picks stay healthy and find chemistry with one another. It hasn't had a single winning record in its previous 12 seasons, and has made just four playoff appearances in that period, advancing to the second round once.
That's the risk of tanking. If it doesn't execute perfectly, a team – and its fans – are in for a long slog through noncompetitive seasons. In a small market such as in Indianapolis, attendance would suffer a gut-punch of its own. When the Pacers unintentionally tanked in the mid-1980s, winning between 20 and 26 games in four consecutive seasons, curtains were drawn around the upper level at Market Square Arena to conceal the vacant seats, the attendance average dipped to as low as 4,814 in 1983, and the franchise had to be rescued by Herb and Mel Simon.
One could argue, of course, that while the Pacers have done well by repeatedly rising from mediocrity to title contention, they haven't won any NBA titles. And the teams that do win titles have two or three future Hall of Fame players. And the likeliest way for a small market team such as the Pacers to get one of those players is via the draft, since the Shaquille O'Neals and Kevin Durants of the NBA don't gravitate to small market teams as free agents.
There are problems with that theory, however.
The nature of the lottery makes tanking a suspicious strategy beyond the ethics of it. What if you "achieve" the worst record but fail to get the top pick because another team beat the odds in the drawing? Ask Pitino, who was Boston's coach and general manager when San Antonio lucked into drafting Duncan in 1997. He lasted 3 ½ losing seasons, never making the playoffs, and then scurried back to college.
And, what if you wind up with the No. 1 pick in a draft that doesn't offer a future superstar? Some years, you get LeBron James. Other years, you get Anthony Bennett. The draft is easy in hindsight, but plenty of top three picks never really work out.
And, how does a general manager keep his job if injuries delay the benefits of tanking, or if even one of his top picks doesn't pan out as expected? Ask Hinkie, who might yet be vindicated by his "Process," but is now lecturing in Silicon Valley and looking for a door back into the NBA.
And, how do you convince a promising young player –Turner, for example - to endure a couple of tanked seasons and hope things work out in the end? The odds are great a player such as that will bail on a tanking team unless there's legitimate reason to be optimistic for a quick fix.
And, how do you build a winning culture by trying to lose, even for just two or three years?
"Even if you have young guys, it doesn't do any good to get them accustomed to losing," Walsh said. "In many cases, they never learn to win. And that's a problem.
"It sends all the wrong signals out to your fans, and to the players."
In a sense, Walsh put on a display of a tanking execution when he took over as the Pacers' general manager in 1986. He inherited a pre-tanked team that had gone through four consecutive seasons without winning more than 26 games.
Walsh had the fourth pick in the draft in '86 and selected Person, who went on to become Rookie of the Year. The Pacers finished 41-41, reigniting fan interest in the team. Walsh then took Miller with the 11th pick in 1987, but the team regressed to 36 wins. Walsh benefited from the stroke of luck that brought the second pick in the draft in 1988, despite the fact nine other teams had an equal or worse record, and grabbed Smits.
Should Walsh have found a way to tank another season or two in search of another star player? It likely wouldn't have helped. Pervis Ellison and Danny Ferry were the top two picks in the 1989 draft. Neither was a surprise pick, but neither lived up to expectations and couldn't have led a rise to the top. Derrick Coleman was the top pick in the 1990 draft. He was good, but not nearly good enough to shoulder the burden of a championship team. Gary Payton was second, and became a Hall of Famer, but the rest of that first round of that draft was pedestrian.
The teams with the top picks in those drafts did not benefit from their misery. Walsh knew that was a possibility all along, and wasn't about to risk his professional future on the gamble of tanking. He nearly lost his job as it was, when the team appeared lost in "Mediocreville."
"When I came into the job, I just decided we were going to put out a product (that competed)," Walsh said. "People weren't coming to the arena. The last thing in the world I was going to do was say, 'Yeah, we're going to lose and get the first pick.' That would have been crazy.
"I didn't believe in it anyhow. I always wanted to win as many games as I could win. We had young players and I wanted to see them improve. The only way for them to do that is to go out and get their ass beat in the beginning."
The only way for those young players to learn to win, Walsh added, is to have veteran players – such as a Thaddeus Young – who can set an example and pass on their knowledge. A team overloaded with youth runs the risk of becoming unhinged.
Building a team the way the Pacers have done it doesn't guarantee a championship, but diving deep into the lottery hasn't proven to be a better strategy. Eight trips to the conference finals since 1994 have yet to bring a championship, but hoping to add another single or double is more appealing to them than falling way behind and trying to wallop home runs.
"If you keep knocking on that door, it's going to happen," Walsh said. "If you don't keep knocking on that door, it's not going to happen."
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