The Oscars Shine an Unwanted Spotlight on … Tanking in the N.B.A.?


In a wholly unforeseen span of about 20 seconds Sunday night, viewers of the Academy Awards were exposed to an impromptu bit of sports-radio banter inspired by the faraway N.B.A.

Yet it was the sort of back-and-forth, however brief, that makes the league truly uncomfortable.

On what would soon become the most successful evening of Spike Lee’s professional life, Samuel L. Jackson announced from the Dolby Theater stage in Los Angeles that Lee’s beloved Knicks had beaten the San Antonio Spurs at Madison Square Garden to halt a franchise-record home losing streak at 18 consecutive defeats.

Lee, who was moments away from winning his first competitive Oscar, appeared to mouth back to Jackson that the Knicks were “trying to tank” — N.B.A.-speak for teams that seek to improve their position in the draft as much as possible through rampant losing.

In truth, nothing the Knicks could do — even winning — could diminish the occasion for Lee. The Knicks’ most famous fan won the Oscar that had eluded him for more than 30 years and surely knew as well as anyone that one measly victory, even over the Spurs and their decorated coach, Gregg Popovich, wouldn’t knock the team too far off course in its shameless bid to finish at the bottom of the standings.

But the exchange and ensuing waves of social media chatter shined the brightest of unwanted spotlights on a subject that N.B.A. officials undoubtedly wish would not have surfaced in this manner.

For it is the public discourse that surrounds tanking — which inevitably leads to otherwise passionate fans like Lee openly wishing for their teams to lose — that has long been regarded at league headquarters as the most unsavory element of the practice.

Tanking, in itself, can be a foolhardy strategy — especially in the wake of a procedural change this season. This is the first year since the inception of the N.B.A.’s draft lottery in 1985 that the teams holding the three lowest win totals will share flattened odds of 14 percent each of landing the No. 1 selection in June.

Previously, the team with the worst record had a 25 percent chance of winning the top overall pick. But Commissioner Adam Silver’s push for so-called lottery reform has made it even tougher for the worst team in pro basketball — currently the Phoenix Suns, who, at 12-50, are a game behind the Knicks (12-48) — to win the right to (presumably) select the highly coveted Duke freshman Zion Williamson.

If only there were clear measures to be taken to try to drown out the persistent tanking talk that seemingly (and loudly) swirls around every bad N.B.A. team. “Corrosive” is the word Silver used at his annual All-Star Weekend news conference in Charlotte, N.C., this month.

“I personally don’t think it’s a winning strategy over the long term to engage in multiple years of rebuilding,” Silver said. “There’s a mind-set that, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad. I believe personally that’s corrosive for those organizations.”

The Philadelphia 76ers are the rare franchise in position to differ. They amassed a load of lottery picks and other trade assets across a three-year window of intentional losing during the polarizing reign of their former general manager Sam Hinkie, who stepped down in April 2016 in response to a reduction in his authority over basketball matters before having the chance to reap the full benefits of all his team’s futility.

Several of Hinkie’s high-profile draftees — Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric — fell well short of becoming the sort of fulcrums teams build around. Ditto for the 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, who was drafted by Bryan Colangelo, Hinkie’s initial replacement. But the two selections who did become franchise players — Joel Embiid (by Hinkie) and Ben Simmons (two months after Hinkie’s exit) — now find themselves flanked by the former All-Star Jimmy Butler and a potential future All-Star in Tobias Harris. Butler and Harris arrived via trades that the Sixers’ new general manager, Elton Brand, was able to swing this season on the strength of the various trade chips Philadelphia had stockpiled under Hinkie.

It is too early to say whether Silver’s lottery-reform crusade will actually quell further tanking attempts from teams pondering the Philadelphia model, but it has a chance. The flattened odds of winning the lottery mean that the Suns, Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, who currently comprise the bottom three teams, all face a daunting 86 percent chance that someone else wins the Zion Sweepstakes when the lottery is held May 14.

One can safely assume that Lee and countless other Knicks fans will be shouting less flattering things as opposed to just mouthing them if all this losing they have endured this season leads to drafting someone other than Williamson.

Since the Knicks are now linked with the 1993-94 Dallas Mavericks, having narrowly avoided breaking that team’s league record of 19 straight home losses with that unexpected triumph over San Antonio on Sunday, it is worth remembering what happened to the Mavericks that season.

With Jamal Mashburn as their star rookie rather than Chris Webber or Penny Hardaway, after the Mavericks fell to the No. 4 overall pick the previous off-season despite boasting the highest odds of winning the draft lottery, they posted a 13-69 record.

That is the type of cautionary tale that Silver, even as tanking talk persists, can forever serve up to discourage actual tanking: In the 34-year history of the lottery, only eight times has the team with the worst record managed to win the No. 1 pick.

At least one Knicks fan in Hollywood finds the idea of tanking in professional sports to be “a horrible thing to even think about.” The actor Leon Robinson, who starred in “Above the Rim” and “Cool Runnings” and has made numerous appearances at The Garden this season, said in a phone interview Monday: “I’m never happy to see my team lose. I’m in The Garden — people go crazy every time they even get close to winning. Every time they’re losing, people are shaking their heads at halftime. So I’m confused. Why are you coming to the game?”

Lee, however, is hardly alone in lusting after Williamson. It’s an open secret that the Knicks are dreaming of a mammoth free-agent coup this summer with the more than $70 million of salary-cap space they can clear; Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are widely regarded as the Knicks’ top two targets. But make no mistake: The Knicks themselves, not just a segment of the fan base, are dreaming of Zion, too — no matter what history says.

Given the immediate on-court impact one extremely gifted young man can have, in this five-on-five sport more than any other, it will probably always be thus.

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