The NBA’s ‘tanking’ epidemic and the Utah Jazz

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In the 1996–97 season San Antonio Spurs superstar David Robinson went down with back and foot injuries. Following the injury, the remaining Spurs players floundered and finished the season with a dismal 20–62 record. This record earned the organization the first pick in the NBA draft, where it selected coveted prospect Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest.

The next season the Spurs, with a healthy Robinson playing alongside Duncan, won the NBA championship. Many NBA fans won’t hesitate to point out the coincidence of the events that took place leading up to the Spurs drafting Duncan, and some even say this was an example of “tanking” — losing on purpose to improve draft positioning.

Charlotte Bobcats' Bismack Biyombo, left, goes over the back of Utah Jazz's Enes Kanter as they try for the loose ball. AP photo
Charlotte Bobcats’ Bismack Biyombo, left, goes over the back of Utah Jazz’s Enes Kanter as they try for the loose ball. AP photo

In the 2011 NFL season, the Indianapolis Colts experienced a similar fallout with the loss of all-pro quarterback Peyton Manning. The Colts, finishing the season with a dismal record, subsequently won the first overall pick in the draft, selecting Andrew Luck from Stanford. The Colts then made the playoffs in both of Luck’s first two years, advancing as far as the divisional round in 2014.

Enter the current NBA season.

The 2014 draft has been said to include some of the most talented players the NBA will ever see, and it includes the much-hyped Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

Because of the loaded upcoming draft, and following the example of these two successful attempts, other teams seem to be following a similar path of unexplained losses and underperforming talent. This is something that seems to baffle one of the world’s most successful basketball coaches, Mike Krzyzewski.

“I wouldn’t like to think that an American team would want to lose or create situations where you would want to lose,” Krzyzewski said. “I can’t believe that that would happen. Maybe I’m naive and I’m going to go read a fairy tale after this.”

Are the Utah Jazz “tanking?”

After letting most of their main players go to free agency without even a hint of a desire to resign them, it’s hard to chalk the Jazz’s sudden youth movement and lack of depth up to coincidence.

“It got to the point where we needed to make some decisions; some to allow our young players to grow, some salary cap decisions, but ultimately, we couldn’t get everybody signed,” said Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey. “We decided to jump in the deep end of the youth movement, and we’re excited to do so.”

Utah Jazz's Derrick Favors (15) scores between Charlotte Bobcats defenders Al Jefferson, left, and Josh McRoberts. AP photo
Utah Jazz’s Derrick Favors (15) scores between Charlotte Bobcats defenders Al Jefferson, left, and Josh McRoberts. AP photo

The Jazz have only had seven losing seasons since moving to Utah in 1979, and they have built a reputation around the league as a consistent team that plays hard. However, following an offseason that saw every experienced, top-scoring player on the roster sign with other teams, the Jazz began the 2013–14 season as one of the NBA’s bottom-dwellers.

A lifelong fan’s perspective

Mark Allred, a BYU grad and Centerville resident, has been a Utah Jazz season ticket holder for 30 years. Not many fans have followed the organization as closely or for as long as he has. Allred refuses to believe the Jazz are tanking.

“I don’t believe they are losing on purpose,” Allred said. “I’ve watched them, and even in the ones they’ve lost, I think they’re still trying; it’s just sometimes they’re not trying effectively. If they’re throwing the games, at least from this fan’s perspective, it looks like they’re not trying to lose.”

After going to so many games during the past 30 seasons, Allred believes the Jazz organization is treating this year just like any other. He doesn’t see any reason to feel like the organization planned to compensate for the losing year, which goes a long way in the argument that the team is, in fact, not losing on purpose.

“It seems pretty much like any other season. They may think they’re doing more, but from my perspective it looks like any other season,” he said.

What’s being done?

It’s no secret that the saying “winning fixes everything” still rings true in professional sports. While endorsements of many kinds and the ability to sell out seats in the arena can help, a long-term fix still lies in a winning organization, which is the driving factor behind all this losing.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Reggie Jackson (15) attempts a shot while defended by Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15). AP photo
Derrick Favors defends Reggie Jackson. AP photo

“We’re just at the beginning stages of a rebuild, and certainly we would like to blink an eye and be championship competitive; … we’re not there yet, but we won’t skip the steps and run from the work that it takes for us to get where we want to be,” Lindsey said.

The bottom line

Whether or not the Jazz are just trying to develop young talent or “tanking” in hopes of drafting the NBA’s next superstar, the Jazz organization has made the decision to proceed forward featuring a starting lineup of young, growing talent.

“From our standpoint, we looked at it and analyzed what we needed to do, and we didn’t want to be in the middle of the road,” said Randy Rigby, Utah Jazz president. “We felt that it’s a perfect time, with the talent that we have, and the structure that we have in place, to really go at a new beginning and really build this team.”

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