America’s favorite pastime isn’t baseball; it’s telling young people whatever they watched or did when they were young is better than whatever their kids see or do now. Football was better before teams started throwing the ball on every down. Baseball was better before Mark McGwire started smashing the ball out of the park. Television was better when Archie Bunker was disappointed with his son-in-law than it is now that Jay Pritchett is.
Basketball was better before teams tanked for draft picks and rested its stars and stopped taking mid-range jumpers.
Are any of these problems ideal? No, they’re not ideal. Mid-range jumpers have never been cool, but there were plenty of players who made them look cool. Rip Hamilton dominated the space between the paint and the arc on some great squads in Detroit in the mid-2000s. Big men like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan stepping out from the block to nail big time shots was cool, even if we knew they’d never stretch that out to the three-point line for anything more than a cameo here or there. I miss some of that mastery, which required more slipperiness than a corner three, but knowing how hard Hamilton had to work for those two points only enforces how that area has become obsolete.
Teams resting stars isn’t the most fun trend, either. It stinks for a family who spends money to go to a game not to see their favorite players on the court. Going to a Hornets game is probably bad enough on most nights, without the added insult of finding out an hour before tip-off that Gregg Popovich is ironing the comically large suits of Duncan and Kawhi Leonard. And even if Tony Parker does play, Popovich won’t have him running around by himself for more than 28 or 29 minutes anyway, so look forward to Cory Joseph versus Lance Stephenson for a huge chunk of your NBA experience that night.
And no, tanking isn’t ideal, and while many make the argument for its effectiveness, no one is going to bat for it as an essential part of the NBA culture. While it certainly isn’t good for the league, it isn’t a problem, either. Not at all.
The 76ers are openly tanking. For years during the post-Iverson era, they served as an easy-to-beat first-round opponent. They fought hard to land a sixth seed just so they could lose in five games to the third-best team in the East instead of the second-best team, if they were able to make the playoffs at all. Last season may have been rough, and this year hasn’t been much better, but I doubt many fans in Philadelphia are pining for the Mo Cheeks and Doug Collins days. They might not necessarily be more exciting losing 60 games with young guys as opposed to losing 40 plus with Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, but they certainly aren’t much less exciting.
Talking about the 76ers’ roster-building strategy is missing the bigger picture. Whether looking at a tanking team like the 76ers or a win-now team like the Nets, what you’re watching is sub-par basketball. No matter how front offices look at building their rosters, some teams are just going to be bad every year. If the league remedied the Draft Lottery five years ago to avoid having the 76ers tank, the team probably would have joined the bidding war for Stephenson or Al Jefferson, which has left the Hornets in the same boat of mediocre basketball teams.
Maybe one can argue that sub-par basketball is a problem. Fine, if it’s comforting to label it as a “tanking problem” or a “tanking epidemic,” then by all means do so. However, this “problem” has a very simple solution. Change the channel.
Letting the Knicks or Lakers ruin this NBA season is unforgivable. Maybe the Warriors are on, always a joy to watch even against a Suns team that plays tough despite being out of the playoff hunt. Maybe the Rockets are playing the Mavericks, a possible preview of a potential first-round matchup. Maybe LeBron James is hosting his former Heat teammates in Cleveland. The Heat beat them up pretty good two weeks ago in Miami, and James must be dying to return the favor.
For every team reaching new depths of despair, there’s one playing at a historically high level. Saying you can’t watch the NBA because of teams like the Magic and Kings is like turning off the NFL on Sunday because one of the 13 games is Jaguars at Titans. The Western Conference is balling out from the top seed down to the 10th-place team. In the East, the Bucks, Wizards, Raptors and Pistons had better stretches before the All-Star break, but they still give you reason to watch from time to time.
For all the bad basketball being played in the NBA, there are the Warriors playing the Clippers or the Trail Blazers playing the Spurs. By the time the playoffs come around, at least six or seven of the eight first-round series should feature highly competitive basketball. From the second round on, expect only the best the NBA has to offer.
The Timberwolves are neither tanking nor are they in win-now mode, yet rebuilding on the fly has left them a mediocre basketball team. (The Wolves are awful this year because of injuries.) The Lakers are bottoming out, and the Pistons are trying to make the switch from descendant to ascendant in their conference. Each has a different strategy for catapulting themselves into contention, and each finds itself well out of the playoff race.
Fans will be fans, and in their minds the NBA as a whole will mirror the successes of their favorite team. For fans in New York, the NBA has real problems. For the fans in Memphis, Oakland and Atlanta, it has been a long time since the NBA has been this good.
For people who love the NBA, tanking isn’t a problem. If your hometown team is more focused on jockeying for position in the lottery than for a rebound, don’t complain about the “tanking epidemic” until your face turns blue. Next season, make a stand for good basketball. Don’t go to the games and sit in the stands talking about how great the NBA used to be. Take the money you usually spend on tickets and spend it on League Pass instead, so you can remind yourself how great the NBA is right now.