Bernstein: NBA ‘Tanking Police’ Creates Silly Theater

Author: Dan Bernstein

By Dan Bernstein

Mark Cuban made the mistake of telling the truth about what was best for his team, and the Dallas Mavericks’ owner paid a $600,000 fine for admitting that, at this point, they were better off losing than winning.

This is life in the NBA, where a draft system that rewards the worst teams continues to incentivize being bad on purpose in the short run in an effort to acquire talent that gets them closer to winning a championship. It’s all about the interpretation of how trying to win is defined amid the currently agreed-upon rules, and what can or cannot be said about any of it.

It is comical, now, with commissioner Adam Silver doling out such punishments and going so far as to monitor how teams racing for the bottom are deploying players and managing their respective rosters. The Chicago Bulls are reported to have received a warning from the league for holding center Robin Lopez and guard/forward Justin Holiday largely out of action since the All-Star break. Silver invoked new league policy to mandate that the two be reinstated to more regular use.

And the Bulls had been doing everything right, too, staying on message at all levels like a well-operated political machine or lobbying outfit. Executive VP John Paxson and coach Fred Hoiberg rolled out a public strategy based on the stated goals of self-scouting and player development, carefully hiding the pursuit of lottery ping-pong balls behind the veneer of a progressive youth movement. Their deliberate comments about finding out what they have in their players and seeing specific combinations in action have been painstaking to the point of artful, delivered with straight faces at every turn. They are doing anything but making a public mockery of honest competition, yet Silver still felt he needed to intervene.

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There is no little irony in the application of new rules the league office is invoking in this case, also. As approved by the board of governors in September, along with mild modifications to the draft lottery system, guidelines on players’ regular-season rest were enacted to keep contending teams from holding stars out of action, particularly on the road and when in prime national television slots. Healthy player absence determined to be “prejudicial or detrimental to the league” can be punished, even as veteran contenders are merely marshaling resources for more meaningful games in the pursuit of a title.

These Bulls are the opposite of the kind of team this was designed to police, yet are still forced to comply, despite not being in the running to win anything. Lopez and Holiday were not being saved for playoff games, instead being shelved to allow for less consistent or effective players to take the floor. It was canny strategy by the Bulls to make it more about the opportunity for their replacements, but Silver has sent the message that he’s seeing through it, regardless.

The fact is that teams that want to strike the delicate balance of coming up just short enough while not actively trying to fail on the court will always have a way to do so. Any player can claim to have some invisible injury or malady, and coaches must be allowed ultimately to mete out playing time as they see fit. What’s clear now is that honesty will be punished.

Of course Cuban was right in his assessment, and of course he was rash enough to force Silver’s hand. Nobody is debating what the system in place forces teams to want, and until losses are somehow entirely uncoupled from draft opportunity, the inconsistent governance of appearances will continue.

There’s a way to go about this, is the message. Do what you have to do, but don’t talk about it or make it so obvious.

It’s as if the average NBA fan is still believed to be such a rube as to not be able to understand something so simple.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Bernstein and Goff” on Chicago’s 670 The Score, where he’s been afternoon co-host since 1999.

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