Requiem for a Tank  
May 16, 2006
“Alright. I guess I just have to pick myself up, dust myself off, and throw myself right back down again!” – George Costanza, trying to get himself fired from his job so that he can accept a better one.  

It is springtime again, a time for college football practice, baseball’s beginning, and the Golden State Warriors’ annual trip to the NBA Draft Lottery. A season which began with so much hype and hope has yet again dissolved into a cornucopia of mental mistakes, missed shots, matador defense, injuries, poor coaching, and an over-reliance on useless veterans. Most Warriors fans have turned to thinking about who the next lottery pick savior will be, how well Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, and Ike Diogu will develop, if Baron Davis will ever find himself on a treadmill or exercise bike, and who the next coach will be when Mike Montgomery is finally relieved of his duties. All of these thoughts have one overarching theme: the desperate need to make the playoffs and do it fast. But my fellow Warriors fans should step back and look at the bigger picture, one that dictates that the Warriors tank next season in order to maximize their chances at landing the #1 pick, Greg Oden.  

First, a little background. Greg Oden is a seven foot, 245 pound center who will be a freshman at Ohio State next year. The humble young center is one of the most decorated high school basketball players ever. He has been the Gatorade National Boys (high school) Basketball Player of the Year each of the last two years. LeBron James is the only other player to win the award twice. Oden is nearly universally seen as the top prospect in his high school class, which is considered one of the best classes of the last decade. Oden is not only viewed as an easy choice for the number one overall pick in 2007, but was also seen as the likely number one overall pick in 2006, 2005, and 2004 (yes, as a high school sophomore, and above man-child Dwight Howard) had he been eligible for those drafts. Additionally, he is an honors student and lacks the ego which accompanies nearly every other highly touted young American athlete, often leading to their downfall or at the very least a poor work ethic.  

I have been a Warriors fan since the early 1990s. In that time I have seen one winning season, one playoff series, and zero playoff wins. I have seen over a half dozen coaching changes and several people of varying qualifications and ineptitude pass the mantle of front office leadership to one another. I have seen an NBA player refer to the Warriors organization and team as a “bunch of clowns” and a player who was on the team skip the last few months of the year to work on his golf game (and then watched in slightly jealous amazement as the team actually sent him home on a paid suspension to continue with this plan). I have seen the team trade a young Chris Webber for Tom Gugliotta, then trade Googs for Donyell Marshall, and ‘Yell for Danny Fortson, who then got a big long-term contract (and an even bigger rear end).  

I watched the team choose coach and personnel guru Don Nelson over Webber and then run off Nelson shortly thereafter (and to top it off, owner Chris Cohan then sued Nelson). I watched them side with Latrell Sprewell in a dispute with Tim Hardaway and give the purveyor of the UTEP two-step (along with Chris Gatling, who would make the All Star team a year later) away to Miami for Bimbo Coles (lesson of the day: never entrust your team to a man named Bimbo) and Kevin Willis, who was seemingly born over the hill. I watched as the Warriors choked with the #1 overall pick (Joe Smith), and as the franchise player (Sprewell) choked the coach. I watched as they tried to void Sprewell’s contract and were rebuffed by an arbitrator, and as they traded Sprewell to New York for Terry Cummings, John Starks, and Chris Mills. Sprewell led the Knicks to the finals; Mills led his posse in an armed post-game attack on the Portland Trailblazers’ team bus in the Oakland Arena parking lot.  

I stayed with them through a refusal to trade Smith for Jason Kidd, and through the drafting of Todd Fuller over the likes of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Peja Stojakovic. I stuck with them when they drafted Adonal Foyle over Tracy McGrady and then held a press conference to announce that Foyle had more upside than McGrady. I stood by the team when Gilbert Arenas’ snake-tongue was revealed on his way to Washington, and the subsequent tearing apart of the first promising team the franchise had seen in a decade.  

Many say they have stayed with their favorite team through thick and thin. I have yet to experience the thick, but I am willing to wait one more year, to lose 60 or 65 games if it means we get to right the wrong of 1985 and get the most celebrated big man prospect to come through the draft perhaps since Patrick Ewing.  

The reason for this is not some kind of masochism or other need for pain. It is simply the recognition that the goal of any franchise should be to be the best, to win at the highest level possible. The playoffs should not be a destination but merely a milestone on the way to greater achievement. The Warriors, as constituted, are good enough to make the playoffs. Given the right matchups, they could even win a series or maybe two. But the Warriors have nowhere near the talent and acumen, not to mention dedication and professionalism, to win an NBA championship.  

Some of my fellow faithful will disagree and say that we have suffered enough, that we need to taste the playoffs and worry about what to do from there later. It has been a long time since we tasted the sweet nectar of the NBA playoffs. This spring there are students graduating from high schools all over the country who were in kindergarten when the Warriors last made it into the postseason. Since the Warriors last made the playoffs we had a tech boom and then the bursting of the dot-com bubble (to wit, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around $3,600 in June 1994; it is currently over $11,000). Google, a fixture of many people’s lives today with a current market value of roughly $120 billion, was years from being founded. When the Warriors last made the playoffs there was an unpopular president possibly involved in criminal activity whose party held a majority in Congress. Ok, not everything has changed.  

I sympathize with these fans and feel their pain and frustration. However, we are adults and should be able to hold off on immediate gratification for a much larger, infinitely more satisfying reward. For the current Warriors, the playoffs would last a week. A championship would last a lifetime. Lets not be the Celtics of recent years, striving for .500 and the brink of the playoffs, only to be swept aside if they happen to get there. Let us aim to be the Celtics of the 80s, to win championships and a seat at the table of immortality.  

Would getting Oden be a guarantee of championships? Of course not, but recent history shows that when there is a seemingly surefire franchise player in the draft, a player that every team in the league is drooling over and would take without hesitation or so much as a conversation with him, that player almost always turns his new team into a contender. Looking at the last fifteen years, there have been just four such players: Shaq, Chris Webber, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James. It could be argued that Allen Iverson belongs in that group, but there were some questions about his size, durability, and character. Interestingly, three of these franchise players were taken between 1992 and 1997, and then there wasn’t another such player until 2003, which may explain why a team (Detroit) lacking even a single Hall of Fame player can win a championship and contend for more.  

In 1991, the Orlando Magic were a second-year expansion team that had experienced a 13 win improvement from their first year in the league. The very next year, they took what seemed like a step backwards by winning ten less games. But because they didn’t stay in the mediocre purgatory of 30-something win totals and dropped all the way to 21 wins, they had the second worst record in the league and ended up with the first pick. They used that pick on Shaquille O’Neal and three years later they were in the NBA Finals.  

In 1996, the Spurs won 59 games, a fantastic win total but only fourth best in the league that year. When David Robinson was injured the following year, the Spurs went into full tank mode and finished 20-62, dropping their win total by a staggering 39. Lo and behold, the Spurs got the number one pick in the draft and took Tim Duncan. Two years later, the Spurs won their first ever NBA championship. Duncan has led them to two more championships since. 

In 1992, Don Nelson’s Golden State Warriors won 55 games. The next year the team had some injury problem, incorporated a rookie (Sprewell) who would soon be an All-Star, and wisely tanked the season. They left the draft lottery with the third overall pick. Nelson then parlayed that valuable commodity, which soon became Penny Hardaway (as an aside, people forget just how good Penny was before all his injuries), along with three future first round picks into the number one overall pick, Chris Webber. The next year, despite Tim Hardaway missing the entire season and Chris Mullin missing a big chunk, the Warriors won 50 games and made the playoffs. The situation was set up for a decade of championship contention, but poor franchise leadership blew it up. Still, the tank worked and the Warriors got their man, who led them to the playoffs and if they had held on to him, to title contention (to which Webber later led Sacramento).   

Off course merely tanking is no guarantee of landing the much ballyhooed Oden. The team with worst record in the NBA only has a 25 percent chance at the number one pick, and there is the possibility that Oden stays in school. But having a one in four chance of landing Oden is better than having no chance of getting him. Next year’s draft is a deep one, with the bumper crop of prospects who were held out of this year’s draft due to the new age limit coming in. In 2003, Denver also tanked for James and only got the third pick, thus having to settle for Carmelo Anthony. They are now a playoff regular and look to be a contender in the near future. Miami also tanked that year, and drafted Dwyane Wade fifth overall (on a related note, I’d like to congratulate Chad Ford on his hyping of Majiec Lampe and his prediction that Lampe would go fifth overall to Miami). In a deep 2007 draft, picking anywhere in the top five gives a team a good chance of landing a future All Star.  

It should be noted that tanking, like any other strategy, is not foolproof and can blow up in a team’s face. In between Webber and Penny Hardaway, Philadelphia drafted Shawn Bradley. After Shaq was taken first (and Alonzo Mourning taken second), a 15 win Minnesota team took uber-bust Christian Laettner (moral of the story: never draft upper classmen from Duke). Losing also builds a bad atmosphere within the organization, which can take years to recover from (but if you’re the Warriors and haven’t seen the plus side of .500 in over a decade, one more bad year can’t possibly do much more damage). Despite all this, extreme failure requires extreme action to counteract. The Warriors have to fight failure with failure, to accept unlucky number thirteen in order to get the lucky number one, and finally begin striving for the same brass ring that every respectable professional sports organization strives for: a championship.  

So I call upon the Warriors to summon the courage, foresight, and chutzpah to put together one more atrocious season. No more meaningless end of season winning streaks. No more playoff aspiration facades. Don’t just fail to win, fail miserably and with flair, fail to the brink of being investigated for tanking, fail to the point where you assure yourself the worst record in the league and the maximum chance of landing Oden that comes with it. But do it with the pride that comes from knowing that you are losing with purpose, with a vision for a better tomorrow, so that when people tell you that you suck, you, much like the esteemed George Costanza, can proudly reply, “I know!” 

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