It’s a tired discussion, I’ll admit at the top. And maybe it’s my official entrance into the “Old Man Yelling At Cloud” club. Do I get a robe? A pipe? Some sort of plaque? Perhaps younger generations of sports fans just accept that once a team is declared a non-contender, it’s time for them to strip everything down, no matter how long they’ve been trying to be good.
It’s a pertinent discussion here in Chicago, mostly centered around the Bulls. It has to do with this. Or maybe this. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing. It’s been in the bloodstream for a while now. Mostly because the Bulls haven’t been particularly good this season (even in a season where they’ve regularly beaten teams at the top of the standings, which they didn’t do at all last season). They just got their doors blown off by the Phoenix Suns last night. They’re under .500.
Most of the Bulls’ plans were predicated on having Lonzo Ball, and he apparently can barely walk. It’s likely he won’t play this year, and it’s also likely they’ll never figure out what’s wrong with him. Without him, the Bulls simply can’t play enough defense, the front office didn’t add enough three-point shooting, their two main stars still feel a little mismatched and they’ve never demonstrated an ability to understand how to use their third (Nikola Vucevic). They do seem a little shiftless.
So clearly, it must be time to start over. This current roster isn’t going to play until June, so they should make sure they never play past mid-April for the next few seasons. It’s the only way, can’t you see? The Bulls will never rise up the mountain again until they fall face-first into the riverbed of the valley.
The thing is, the Bulls have only been watchable for basically a season. Before last year’s playoff team, they’d only made the playoffs once in six seasons. Bulls fans had sat through a ton of bad basketball, and worse tons of meaningless basketball, and were rightly excited about watching anything that was more than just killing time last season. Deep down, all of them knew it probably wouldn’t lead anywhere too deep in the spring, and it didn’t. But there certainly was value In the opening months when they were fun again. That’s not nothing.
A season and a quarter is all they get? We all understand when a certain roster runs out of chances after years and years of trying. That’s not slightly over 100 regular-season games. It’s supposed to be 7-10 seasons. There’s supposed to be a cycle, not a flash or a glimpse, and back into the morass. It feels like everyone needs to get to the conclusion as quickly as possible, whether that’s the parade or the teardown.
Back when I used to be a regular at the track, I and many other horse racing fans would lament how quickly horses were retired to stud to cash in on their breeding fees. They would shoot to stardom and immediately be gone because the prizes were just too great. Very few ever got to build momentum and excitement through age-5 or even age-4 seasons. I and many others joked that horses soon would just only be used to breed other horses that would never run and in turn, would then breed more horses who would never run. If the end goal was the stud farm anyway, why even bother with the racing? That’s where we’re getting to with teams. Just keep tearing it down and selling it off because that’s way easier than actually contending, right?
I don’t mean to slip into loser talk, to suggest that there are plateaus that should be acceptable to teams and fans below contending for a title. That isn’t the name of the game. But surely there has to be more than the one path of taking 18 months to see if you can ever be that good, deciding you’re not, and then shrouding that 18 months in five more years of sludge. Can no team rework themselves on the fly? So much has to go right in a rebuild, so why’s that automatically better than constructing a team where a few things have to go right to win a title? Nothing is guaranteed on any path.
Leagues make a show about trying to rid themselves of tanking with various half- and no-measures such as expanded or altered lotteries. The only solution is to stop tying the draft order to teams’ records, or to do away with the draft altogether. Randomize the order every year. That’ll stop teams from playing for it.
But of course, they don’t actually want to change it because the owners don’t want to change it. They want those years of little investment with the possible payoff of a cheap star for a few years, being rewarded for simply being thrifty. If owners wanted to get rid of tanking, they could do it tomorrow. Randomize the draft, or get rid of it altogether, and you’re there.
It’s the easier, cheaper trigger to pull than trying to spend your way out of the middle. The NBA allows a team to do that if they want. So does MLB. Fuck, the Phillies just made a World Series doing so. And yet they have very little company.
It’s depressing that the minute any team looks like it might not measure up to the very elite, it’s time to think about the future five years down the line. The idea of tweaking a team over three or four years while still making the playoffs, that’s an anachronism. But what if there is no savior in the draft the year you line it up? Drafting isn’t an exact science, any more so than any other way. What if a guy gets hurt and is never the same? It’s no more a guarantee than anything else, but because it’s the one that involves the least money, it’s sold as the one with the most hope because it also carries the most amount of open roster slots to fill with fans’ dreams.
Baseball has become the six teams trying to win and another 12 trying to make sure they’re as bad as possible. It feels like the NBA wants to be the same. There’s gotta be another way.