Sink or Swim

Watching the Chris Mullin jersey retirement ceremony debacle catastrophe Monday night, I was sort of stunned as to why I was so shocked by the fan reaction to Warriors’ owner Joe Lacob.

I don’t know what I was expecting. The Bay Area has long loved Monta Ellis because… well… he’s cool at scoring. Don’t worry about the fact that there have been multiple seasons in which the team was hindered with him on the court, despite his acrobatic and theatrical scoring. Monta has long been a truly marvelous talent that makes you want more from him because we can only imagine how good he could be.

That desire for improved team impact was rarely a priority for a good chunk of Warriors’ fans. He was their treasure and something that was truly awe-inspiring to watch on a nightly basis. When Golden State dealt him (along with Ekpe Udoh’s plus/minus and whatever’s left of Kwame Brown) away last week for an oft-and-currently injured Aussie big man and Stephen Jackson who begat Richard Jefferson, the rebuilding plan and tankapalooza were officially on in Golden State.

It didn’t really matter that the rebuilding had been ongoing for roughly 17 years. The treasure had been given away and you were now asking people to swallow up their nearly two-decade long frustrations without the Monta sprightly scoring chaser. Boos rained down on Joe Lacob, even if it wasn’t truly a bad thing what he and his front office did. You were asking the fans to be patient without fun and the ticket prices weren’t exactly being adjusted and refunded in real time.

Having the foresight to blow up your writhing roster before everybody else realizes it is the biggest advantage you can have in rebuilding your franchise. The NBA roster is a product you’re trying to sell and the best way to reshape and rebuild that product is through homeruns in the NBA draft. Star players on rookie contracts are the most lucrative components an organization can employ. It gives you the most bang for your buck and with the current layout of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, bang for your buck puts you ahead of the curve.

Some view tanking as an unethical way of competing in a professional sports, but I’d be mad if my team was treading water year after year. It’s one of the smartest business decisions you can make for your franchise. If you’re fine being a 7th or 8th seed every season, with no real prospects of becoming a contender, then collecting the playoff revenue is for you. But if you want more, if you want bragging rights, then tanking is what you should want from your franchise.

Earlier this season, the Portland Trailblazers jumped out to a 7-2 record and the fans started thumping their collective chest cavities over the chance of contending for a title. The problem was a lot of the success was coming from smoke and mirrors. Raymond Felton was headed for the worst stretch of basketball in his career. Jamal Crawford wasn’t going to fit into the game plan. Nate McMillan’s voice was still getting through to the roster. And we had no idea that even the awesomeness of LaMarcus Aldridge wasn’t quite enough to keep this Portland train moving in the right direction.

Since that opening surge, the Blazers had gone 13-21 before the trade deadline. They were 11-17 against winning teams and unable to close out close games with a 1-7 record in contests decided by three points or less. It doesn’t really matter what the reason for these missteps were. Blame Felton. Blame Nate. Blame the Crawford signing. Blame the ghosts of knee injuries’ past. Whatever the reason/reasons are/were, the Blazers weren’t working as constructed.

They weren’t bad enough to tank but they also weren’t good enough to get the goal accomplished. So Paul Allen and the inhabitants of the front office made a decision to shut it all down, sell off assets for high value, fire the coach, and start rebuilding.

They didn’t go all out. They could have shipped off Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge for draft picks and assets. They could have easily gutted the entire team in order to start from the ground up. They could have poured gasoline everywhere, flicked a lit cigarette, and roasted gluten-free marshmallows over the inferno while they collected the insurance money. Instead, they were much more measured in the way they changed the outlook of the franchise.

Gerald Wallace became the New Jersey Nets’ top-3 protected pick in an alleged franchise-changing draft class. Marcus Camby became a second round draft pick from the Houston Rockets. Nate McMillan was fired and the clipboard was handed over to Kaleb Canales as a first time head coach in the NBA. It wasn’t enough to decimate a franchise and send the fan base completely over the edge.

The Blazers now possess potentially two picks in the top 14 of this coming draft, $24 million in cap space, and one of the 15 best players in the NBA in LaMarcus Aldridge. Let’s pretend they re-sign Nicolas Batum for roughly $12 million per season and Jamal Crawford opts out of the final year of his deal. That leaves Portland with about $17 million in salary cap space, which would be a nice starting point for going after someone like Deron Williams this summer. (Side note: cap holds for the two lottery picks could drop that down to about $10 million in cap space, but they could always deal Wesley Matthews to free up $6 million)

The Blazers are ahead of the curve because they know they have an owner who is still willing to buy draft picks like they’re orange Tic Tacs in a checkout line. They decided to tank and retool immediately, before the rest of the league could lowball them for assets. They called up Billy King and somehow turned an incredible draft pick out of Gerald Wallace.

Instead of treading water for a couple more seasons and adding on desperation contracts to players unworthy of such money, the Blazers drilled a hole into their boat and decided to sink it.

Some people have an adverse reaction to their franchise or any franchise tanking. They think it violates the code and conduct of sports’ lore. I just don’t view it as unethical. When you’re promising your paying customers that they’ll someday have championship memorabilia to purchase, it would be unethical to tread water as a franchise and lie to them about the direction of the team.

Sink or swim. Those should be the only two options.

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