Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Losing is better than winning...when?

So the Clippers lost to the Grizzles last night, and by doing so, improved their chances of advancing in the playoffs. Makes sense.

You've probably been beaten over the head with this, but in case you were living under a rock the last two days, here's why: The NBA rewards the its three division winners in both the Eastern and the Western conferences with the 1, 2 and 3 seeds. So the three best records aren't given seeds 1-3; the three teams that win its respective conferences are. So Dallas went out and won 60-plus games, far and away the second highest total in the Western Conference, but because they finished second in their Division to San Antonio, they were given the 4-seed. Denver was given the 3-seed, despite winning 45/46 games.

Denver as a 3-seed makes the 6-seed much more appealing, because if you are the 6-seed, you are matched up with the 3-seed in the first round. So despite being a 6-seed, you would get to have home court advantage in the first round. If you are a 5-seed - which is better than the 6, mind you - you have to play Dallas on their home court. Seems fair and well thought out.

So in a playoff format that David Stern had to have borrowed from Bud Selig
("Bud...Dave here...yea, hey listen...say you were running my league...what's the one thing you'd change? Playoffs, really? Hmm, alright...I'm gonna trust you with this one...start talkin'.") it's better to be a 6-seed than a 5. You're saying that the NBA front office envisioned no scenario in which this could have happened? For as shrewd as Stern always is...this just leaves us shaking our head. We want to meet the guy who convinced Stern this was a good idea. We think he has a future selling stuff to people.

But the scenario brings up a question that ops up from time to time: Is there ever a scenario where it is better to lose than to win?

A couple scenarios happen every once in a while that makes losing seem the more logical choice than winning: should a team tank its last 10 meaningless games to ensure the No. 1 draft spot? Should the Clips or Grizz try to lose to get that 6-seed? Both of those instances make losing look awfully appealing.

But if your team is willing to go out and intentionally tank games...that's just not good. On any level. You think a team that blows games on purpose going into the playoffs is a good team or has any shot in the playoffs? That's the kind of attitude you want on your team? What kind of coach ever - under any circumstance - encourages losing? That "culture of losing" is incredibly hard to turn around, and if the coach is encouraging it, hell, if anyone in the organization is encouraging it, your team is going to suck - and suck hard - for the foreseeable future. At least as long as that person is there. Losing on purpose undermines anything the coach ever said. It's the easy way out - and players taking the easy way out is worse than it sounds. Much worse. No one taking that path will ever be successful.

And to tank games for a draft pick? Kind of like the way the Cavs tanked it in hopes of getting LeBron? Its arguable that the culture of losing was so firmly embedded there that they might as well start fresh. Which seems reasonable. But if you are going to do that, you had better clear house. Any player or coach who can stand to intentionally blow games has to be gone - every single one. This better be a firesale that makes the Florida Marlins look like the Louvre - just clinging onto every single asset for dear life.

And that player you are losing to get? He had better be a demi-god. An absolute franchise-maker, a no-way-in-hell-is-he-not-an-All-Star-every-year kind of guy. If he walks on water, you are only mildly surprised. "LeBron just skipped acorss the pool? Yea, saw him do that last week, pretty cool, huh?" So drop the Nuke on your team, fine: but you better be getting the Next Coming as a result. Its the only way that works.

And losing games to move from the 15th spot to the 11th? Hope that chair at the Ping Pong Party is comfortable, because you're going to be sitting in it for a while.

That "culture of losing" is so, so, so hard to turn around. Harder than the average fan realizes, we think. Fans have a tendency to look solely at a roster, see the obvious talent, and wonder why they aren't more successful. Well, fans and Isiah Thomas (it is so hard not to use him as a punchline; you have no idea).

Here's a perfect example: When Jim Leyland flipped out the other day, all people heard - analysts and fans alike - was, "we stink, we stink, we stink, I'm outta here!" Don't get us wrong, that's great television, but everyone missed the most important part, and we're paraphrasing here, but it was something along the lines of, "We could have won today and that would have been OK, or we could have lost today and that would have been OK, the guys were just ready to get on the plane to Oakland." That kind of indifference caused Jim Leyland - when's the last time you heard him go on a tirade? - to snap.

The reason is, he knows how hard it is to turn around the culture of losing. And if your team is actively encouraging that at any level? Well, you better enjoy those draft picks, because you're going to be getting a lot of them.

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