Here's something I don't write often, so bookmark it: Bill Simmons wrote a really smart column the other day. Well, the main reason I say that is the dude basically stole my angle before I had a chance to put it up. He took mah jeeerb!
If you don't follow the NFL, something relatively unprecedented happened in that sport on Wednesday, when the 0-2 Cleveland Browns, a perpetually inept franchise operating under a new front office regime, traded their lone offensive player of note, running back Trent Richardson, the number three overall pick of the 2012 draft (the previous administration's pick, mind you), to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick in 2014.
Now, drawing conclusions about the fate of your season two games into a football campaign isn't quite as rash as it in basketball -- they play just 16 games in a season instead of 82 -- but it's still pretty early. Basically, Mike Lombardi, the team's new general manager, came to the conclusion pretty quickly that Richardson is not the all-world transcendent talent he was drafted to be (in other words, on the No. 3 overall draft pick scale he's far closer to the Sean Elliott side of the spectrum than he is to Michael Jordan) and that for various reasons off the field he doesn't seem to fit the culture they're trying to build either, so they traded him while he still had some semblance of value, despite his overall disappointing stats through his first 1.125 seasons.
The real reason they made the move though is because quarterback Brandon Weeden, the team's other first-round pick in 2012, has already proven to be such a gigantic bust of Kwame Brown proportions that it's clear they'll need to start anew with yet another quarterback in 2014. You see, unlike Brown who at least had youth on his side having come into the league out of high school, Weeden was drafted at the ripe old -- literally! -- age of 28, since he wasted a few years in minor league baseball before discovering he wasn't very good at that.
Well, even if you know nothing about football, you probably don't need me to tell you that it doesn't sound like a bright idea to draft 28-year-olds unless you're positive they're going to dominate from day one. Weeden, it turned out, wasn't any better at football than baseball. He's a lot closer to you or me than he is to Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders.
Anyway, football teams rarely trade players of note, especially mid-season, and they never get rid of high first-round picks this early into their careers. It's just unheard of in that sport.
But what's even more unheard of is for NFL teams to tank, which is precisely what the Browns, again just two games into a 16-game season, seem to be doing. In a sport where each team has 11 guys on the field at any one time and there are separate players used for offense and defense, any one guy, even a star quarterback, isn't the guaranteed difference-maker a superduperstar like a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James are in basketball, and that's before we even get into the notion of sinking for a top-five draft pick, where the odds of getting a great player are a lot less than they are in the NBA.
The Browns have been ripped in some quarters -- especially by their own frustrated fans -- for this move, but honestly, I don't blame them. If you're the owner or a GM of an NFL team and you know your quarterback stinks, you owe it to your other players and your fans to do everything in your power, and as quickly as possible, to remedy that situation by any means necessary.
Broncos GM John Elway, who knows a thing or two about star quarterbacks, was never swept up in the Tim Tebow hysteria a couple years ago while everyone else was losing their collective minds over him. Elway realized pretty quickly that Tebow couldn't throw and would never be an effective long-term answer and decided to jettison him in favor of a 36-year-old Peyton Manning coming off multiple neck surgeries. Obviously it was a huge risk, especially for a player who didn't figure to have too many years left in his career even if his neck was healed. Elway didn't care. That's how important it is to have a star quarterback. You do everything you can to have one immediately and you worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
Or take Washington D.C.'s football team a couple years ago. They coveted Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor. The problem was they had the sixth pick in the upcoming draft and Griffin figured to go no lower than third, to Cleveland, who also obviously had a need at quarterback. Washington's owner Daniel Snyder, an otherwise despicable human being, moved heaven and earth to get the second pick in the draft, giving the St. Louis Rams first-round picks in 2012, 2013 and 2014 as well as a second-round pick in 2012, to leapfrog over Cleveland. Griffin was an instant star and led Washington to the playoffs (where he promptly tore up his knee and now looks like a shell of himself, but still).
It should come as no surprise that Lombardi, a New Jersey native, is a lifelong fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, who've spent this past summer hatching a plan right out of Major League (LeBron wasn't the first person from Cleveland who wanted to go to Miami), absolutely hellbent on having the worst record in the NBA. They've done everything short of holding team tryouts among local fans, a la Invincible, and frankly, I wouldn't put it past them. This draft class is supposed to have the best can't-miss top-five in ten seasons, so why wouldn't Philly, Boston, Utah and seemingly ten other teams do everything they could to land one of those guys? What's the alternative? To have "integrity" like the Milwaukee Bucks, finish 37-45 every year, get yours brains beat in by LeBron while struggling to fill half your seats because you don't have a single marketable player?
You think Bucks GM John Hammond doesn't get this? Of course he'd prefer for the team to be terrible. He's been sneakily trying to get them there all off-season, only he has to make it look like he's trying to be competitive because his owner is a 784-year-old shortsighted rich guy who won't listen to common sense. There's a reason that the ironically-named Bucks are worth even less than the Charlotte Hor-cats.
I really hope that there isn't a single person reading this who's still anti-tanking. To me, it's just a ridiculous moralistic stance to take, every bit as antiquated as being against gravity. If you're gonna tell me you prefer your teams not to tank, you might as well say you think the world is flat. No, Herman Edwards, you don't "play to win the game." You play to win a championship, period. That's the only goal. Otherwise, no matter what kind of cute Disney spin you put on it about overachieving and overcoming adversity and all that nonsense, your team has ultimately failed. Also, you were a terrible football coach and you're an even worse analyst. Get off my television immediately.
The last people in the world who have a right to rage against tanking are Spurs fans, since we got the two best players in the history of the franchise immediately following two of the three seasons they've missed the playoffs in my lifetime. (In the other one, they tanked for Sean Elliott and the only reason they resorted to that was because David Robinson had to wait two years to enter the league because of his Naval commitment.) If you want to honestly argue that the Spurs would've been better off without Duncan, be my guest.
Then you have situations like the Warriors had a year ago, where thanks to various trade shenanigans they had an arrangement with the Jazz where they had to surrender their draft pick if it was eighth or lower but could keep it if it was seventh or higher. Why, on the Flying Spaghetti Monster's green earth would they possibly want to try given those conditions? Naturally, they tanked. They were egregious about it. It was shameless. It was beautiful. They finished with the seventh-worst record and drafted Harrison Barnes, the same guy who scored like 25 a game or whatever against the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs before suffering a concussion. There's actually a debate about this?
For the most part I think fans get this. All they want is for their teams to put a team on the field or court that can contend for the long term. They'll sacrifice stinking for a couple of years if they can see that there's a plan in place. What drives them nuts is when the plan is to be mediocre or worse and just make a steady profit, results be damned. Nothing screams "the owner doesn't really care about this" more than a string of .500 seasons.
To me, the tanking argument is in the same nebulous grey area as flopping. Fans hate seeing it and rail against it, but all the player is trying to do is fool the referee in order to gain a competitive advantage. It's no different than a catcher trying to frame a ball into a strike in baseball or a receiver purposefully running into a defensive back to draw a pass interference call in football. Technically it's cheating but nobody is holding a gun to the referee's head and making him make bad calls. It's up to the ref to be good at his job to not get fooled, not for the players to make his job easy.
Flopping isn't a problem for the league. Bad flopping is. When it's obvious, it just embarrasses everybody, including the coach and the fans of the team. Coaches should teach guys how to flop properly in training camp and for the guys who just can't pull it off convincingly (lookin' at you, Chris Paul), they should be told not to try it, no different then telling your center to not try leading a fast-break the length of the floor.
Similarly, there's an art to tanking. It's not about telling your fake star to launch thirty 22-foot fadeaways a night and don't worry about getting back in transition. That's awful. Nobody wants to pay a bunch of money to see a lack of effort. Rather, the way to tank is to fake -- or exaggerate -- the injuries to your decent players and to run a bunch of unproven young guys out there, especially in the fourth quarters of close games. It's the ultimate win-win scenario for a crappy team: either you're gonna lose a bunch of games and improve your draft slot or you're gonna unearth a couple of diamonds in the rough who develop their games through succeeding in these big spots and wind up being guys you can use in following seasons when you actually have a chance.
The key is to have the players on the floor look like they're playing hard. Fans will always prefer untalented guys who try hard over talented loafers who don't give a damn. Just try hard with crappy guys and lose nearly every game and then go draft good players. This is not rocket science.
"What about the Houston Rockets," you're asking. "They're doing it the right way."
Yes. They've built a contender (maybe), by fleecing a cheap team into giving up their third banana who quickly developed into a star for Houston. Then they got lucky with Dwight Howard -- a petulant, immature headcase who's already on his third team and was intimidated in the most recent playoffs by Matt Bonner and Aron Baynes. They're hoping those two -- one who might have been the single worst defender in the league last season and the other a guy who you absolutely cannot give the ball to down the stretch of a close game -- will be the keys for contention in the years to come.
Good luck with that.
Meanwhile, the last two finals featured James, Duncan and Kevin Durant, three of the best five players since Jordan retired (the others being Shaq and Kobe). Of the three, only Durant wasn't a top overall pick. He slid all the way to second.
So here's a toast to Lombardi and the Browns. Trading Richardson was the smartest thing they could've done and a sign that NFL front offices are catching up to their basketball counterparts. If you don't have a superduperstar, you don't have a chance, so go get one.
Or you could be the suckers who get decimated by the eventual champs in the first round every year and then draft 16th. In 1987 (the same draft where the Spurs got Robinson who's pretty much the only reason the San Antonio Spurs still exist today) the Sixers, who are primed to be historically awful this season, had the 16th pick.
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