The Mediocrity Cycle of Not Tanking

I have read my fill of lets-blow-it-up comments, and wanted to share a different opinion, so here goes.

Superstars beget superstars, and teams with good players on good contracts beget good players in free agency. You need to be rich to get richer. Teams in a bad situation seem to stay in a bad situation. Loading on albatross contracts to get draft capital will lower a teams ceiling. Even if they land a pick, it takes time for superstars to mature and develop into their apex-predator form. Those teams will slowly draft on lower and lower picks, but they will still be drafting players that will mature in 3-5 years time into who-knows-what type of a player. During those years they'll rise from bottom feeders and become permanent first round exists, and hopefully phase out the albatross contracts for good but overpaid players (these will be signed before the stars enter their peak). At this point the big hope will shift, from drafting well to trading some of the young core and maybe future assets (that depreciate as the team grows) for a disgruntled star from some other team to at least get a good tandem. Trouble is that by the time this phase is done, it's usually contract extension talks and it is still hard to retain stars without being a permanent fixture in the second round and/or conference finals. That last part is not a guarantee by any stretch, at any point in time, no matter who you ask. This is where stars demand trades or outright refuse to sign. So they trade and blow it up for a few dark years again. And all that is only actually happening if you manage to land your picks right, which is exceedingly hard. Just look at the last couple of playoff runs - Teams that drafted a superstar and have a budding star or great role players to go along with their superstar are still topping out in the second round without a full cast of good players.

I like the Spurs attitude - Never tank, always try to win. Worst case you get a lottery pick. The best case is you win. The team makes itself attractive to top free agents and even stars - being one piece away from 1st/2nd round, or a star away from permanent WCF potential is a great place to be. Especially if the contracts are good and tradable. There's cap space for a star and and a good role player at the very least. Those who will come here know that. They also know the value of good youth on good contracts either as complimentary pieces or trade assets along with future picks. That is a very attractive place to be in, while not lingering on 27-win regular seasons.

There's plenty to counter argue here -

  • Spurs would never trade anybody - I might have believed that before this summer, but even then Spurs already had three stars on the roster and only needed complementary role players for 20 years, so I we can't judge by the past too much.
  • As long as you don't land free agents, all this gives you is a certain first round exit ceiling - I think this is true, but as mentioned above I think this is also true of the vast majority of tanking teams.
  • Building in free agency is possible if the potential stars know that the owner is wiling to drop cash - True. To that I can only say that it might be offset a bit by having tradable assets, and the additional allure of Texas taxes, but the overall point stands.
  • I want to draft someone and see them grow. I want Timmy 2.0 - Me too, me too. I'm even willing to risk falling in love and seeing them leave, despite the heartbreak many other fanbases endure. But generational talents don't show up often. Even we were only able to pair Timmy with a good team due to the Admiral (and Elliot) going down, which is what I think allowed us enough success to keep him.
TL;DR: I don't think the Spurs aversion of tanking is bad. Given how few teams managed to reinvigorate themselves through the draft, those are by far the exception. I suspect being two pieces away from contention and having cap flexibility is ultimately a better way back to the top. and it's much more entertaining to watch than permanent tank jobs.

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