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"Tanking" is a problem, so why are the Milwaukee Bucks the bad guys?

The Bucks take a lot of heat for refusing to blow up their team and tank. Is that fair? Does it matter?


Let's acknowledge, however disgruntled it may make us, that the tanking question isn't going away anytime soon. As long as there are potential franchise-saviors waiting in the draft year after year, there will be teams willing to do whatever it takes to get them. NBA franchises are typically graded not on process, but results. Generally speaking, it doesn't matter what you do to win, as long as the wins keep coming.

Last week ESPN's TrueHoop Network took up the question of tanking--again--and the topic eventually wound its way to the Milwaukee Bucks, as seemingly every discussion of tanking tends to do these days. Kevin Arnovitz came right out and asked "What's up with the Milwaukee Bucks?" Oh Kevin, if you only knew how long we've been wondering the same thing.

Under the leadership of owner Senator Herb Kohl and [GM John] Hammond (a contributor to the assembly of the Pistons’ teams of the early- to mid-'00s), the Bucks have squarely situated themselves in the survivalist camp. Their goal each offseason is to shoot for as many wins as possible. The catalog of transactions in pursuit of this goal isn't without blemishes -- and management will own up to the Harris-Redick deal -- but that’s been the consistent tactic in Milwaukee.

The Bucks’ brass articulates its rationale behind this strategy. Part of that argument is based on principle, while the other half is the stated belief that tanking doesn’t necessarily yield better results than doing it their way.

This much is evident to Bucks fans, and most everybody else at this point. Kohl himself made it all pretty clear following head coach Larry Drew's introductory press conference back in June.

It's not even murky below the surface anymore. The Bucks hired former Indiana Pacers GM David Morway to replace the departed Jeff Weltman as assistant GM and people quickly connected the dots. Indiana, which was seemingly floating in the so-so sea just like the Bucks, managed to reach the shores of contention with a few great draft picks, some smart cap management, and a successful free-agent signing. This piece-by-piece strategy sure looks like Milwaukee's current modus operandi, or at least it would if it seemed to be working.

The Pacers are now one of the NBA's darling teams, and a dang good one at that--a gritty defensive squad that plays hard, follows the example of a strong (and talented) veteran leader, and boasts something close to the star power needed to compete in today's NBA. Think it's hard for Hammond and Kohl to visualize the Bucks in the same framework? Milwaukee already has a good start on the defensive end (thanks, Scott Skiles) and grabbed Zaza Pachulia for the not-as-ancillary-as-it-should-be purpose of setting a "leadership" example for Larry Sanders and John Henson, who look to be the franchises' most prized possessions these days.

Which brings us to the star power, always the hardest thing to acquire and, cruelly, the most vital. This is where we run into problems. Strip away the logical extensions, the drawn-out conclusions of going from worst-to-first, and think about what the "tanking" discussion is really addressing. The teams with the best chances of acquiring star power--via a high draft pick--are the teams that have, by design or by accident, lost the most games. As Henry Abbott beautifully illustrates, it's all backward:

Losing badly in the NBA is no condemnation of the team. Which is a profound condemnation of the league. Whoever dreamed up that prize scheme simply got it wrong. It’s a strategy where you can more or less count on some competitors dogging it every time out. In casual conversation, I've heard NBA GMs mocking front offices in places like Houston and Milwaukee for "foolishly" trying to win season after season. It's all backward.

The ultimate goal of any professional sports franchise is to win a championship. With minor quibbling, I think most can agree on that. But the ultimate goal of athletic competition is to win every time out. If the system in place rewards those teams or individuals who betray that goal, that system has a problem. That's what the tanking problem is all about. It's why I (and many others) have a hard time feeling good about demanding a full-on tank job regardless of the potential prize. It's not about the uncertainty; modern sports are increasingly about playing the percentages. It's about what it takes to get there. Call it a principle thing--that sounds better than "stubborn" or "naive".

The Bucks are guilty of being too principled, or too stupid, or some combination of the two. It's hard to tell because the results are the same.

The Bucks are guilty of being too principled, or too stupid, or some combination of the two. It's hard to tell because the results are the same. Do they have a real reason to believe losing a whole bunch and landing a high draft pick or two won't bring them future success? If so, I want to see it, because previous work on that very topic hasn't quite convinced me. Are they worried about the "fanbase" costs associated with bottoming out for a few years? Considering the Bucks currently rank no higher than 5/6th in the Wisconsin Sports Fan Interest Level Rankings (behind the Packers, Brewers, Wisconsin football and basketball, and maybe Marquette basketball), there doesn't seem to be a lot to lose.

It's time to get honest about the issue at hand. That means accepting a few truths so we can stop talking about them. High draft picks are no guarantee of future success, or even acquiring good players. They are, however, more likely to provide the latter, which is conclusively linked to the former. The Bucks have had high draft picks in the past and failed to become title contenders due to poor decisions and bad luck. So has nearly every other team in the NBA. John Hammond's responsibility to balance Kohl's win-now mandate with a positive future is extremely difficult, to the point that we don't even really know if he's good at his job. The Tobias Harris trade was a complete disaster from conception to execution. It happened seven months ago. Judging every subsequent move in the context of that trade is unfair and counter-productive.

I really can't emphasize how exhausting it is to frame every single little discussion of the Milwaukee Bucks from opposite angles (I know others feel the same). To qualify every positive move with "Well, it doesn't make them a contender, so it's awful" is mind-numbing. That alone should be taken as a clear sign that there's more going on here than poor management by the Bucks.

With that done, let's also discard tired old sentiment like "winning culture". A winning culture means never being satisfied with less than the best, a willingness to recognize when something is preventing that, and a determination to fix it. Losing begets losing when when a team is resigned to believe things couldn't possibly get better, and mediocrity is no different. A winning culture can defeat a losing record if the team, players, and fans recognize that there is something better in the works. Yahoo!'s Eric Freeman thinks fans are smart enough to figure this out:

A fan base — particularly its season ticket holders — demands some return on their investment, which usually takes the form of winning games. Yet fans also conceive of their commitment to a team as a long-term proposition, to the point where a few seasons of consistent losing can be positive experiences if they appear to lead towards a better future. For that matter, this experience doesn't have to be wholly about earning the best draft pick. There can be great pleasure in watching a new player reveal his skills and in seeing how a potential core learns to play together. A team's record is most often used to judge a team's improvement, but there are other ways of measuring progress.

The Bucks don't need to tank to build a winning culture. They simply need to stop believing they have to win to do it. It's OK to come up short now and then, rather than swapping a valuable chunk of the future for a meaningless crumb of today. More specifically, they need to stop buying at every trade deadline, they need to stop putting value on hazy qualities like "toughness" and "veteran leadership" unless they're sure it makes the team better, and they need to stop ignoring the utter lack of results that striving for a winning culture has brought.

This summer has been viewed as a step in the right direction. The Bucks didn't hand out any massive cap-crippling deals and have put their young players clearly in the spotlight. They swung for the fences in the draft. They've made a move toward more efficient scorers and modern tactics. They even started accumulating assets, though it's unclear what can be had for a pile of second-round picks.

But as usual, they held back. Their veteran acquisitions will likely keep them out of premium draft pick range and limit flexibility in the near future. Their apparent concern over Carlos Delfino's health required burning cap space to grab a veteran replacement (with an admittedly feel-good story) instead of rolling with a young prospect. As a result, the Bucks are likely to find themselves back in the middle next summer. They'll likely have a clearer picture of their young roster, but who knows how that might change as they pursue a playoff spot.

Those mistakes, made year after year, make it easy to declare the Bucks at fault. They've messed up, they've missed opportunities, they got themselves into this mess. But that ignores the multitude of factors working against them, from a cold-weather climate to an aging arena in need of replacement to a system that rewards purposeful handicapping. The Bucks have undeniably stepped on their own feet a few times, but that's not unique to the franchise. What's unique is how much harder it is for them to get back on the right track.

The NBA's tanking problem is a moral one, and as long as it exists things aren't going to be easy for the Bucks. But let's not forget that it is a problem, and that demanding a tank job means gaming the system in a way that draws scorn and ire when it happens in the field of play. Let's admit that it's dishonest and it's the best plan we've got.

The Bucks can rebuild without tanking, but who knows what the results will be. There's a decent chance they'll look just like the past few years. Everyone sees that something has to change; fewer are willing to suggest it's not the Bucks that need changing.

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