“Tanking” has become a buzzword in the NBA, and a regrettable one at that. It’s a too-widely embraced, wink-wink term for teams that sorta-kinda allegedly do as much as they can to lose games – or as little as they can to win them – without stepping over a line of integrity that would drop the league to the level of professional wrestling.
The franchise most commonly associated with the accusation, the Philadelphia 76ers, has had two years to get callous to the charge. And lately “resting,” tanking’s cousin, has taken over as the ethical issue du jour deep into the 2014-15 season, pushing lottery-obsessed shenanigans out of the spotlight for now.
But Flip Saunders is old school and he didn’t like it when what he felt was a gutty, gritty, resourceful performance from his Minnesota Timberwolves was met – even as it happened by Utah Jazz broadcasters Craig Bolerjack and Matt Harpring – with derision. Bolerjack and Harping portrayed the Wolves’ limited roster (seven players!) Monday in Salt Lake City as yet another tanking production by one of the league’s bottom feeders.
The Wolves are in obvious rebuilding mode, force-feeding presumptive Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins heavy minutes while scouting heavily for the Draft in June. At 15-54 when their skeleton crew took the floor at Energy Solutions Arena, they trailed only New York (14-57) in the spiral down to the most lottery chances.
Let’s let Wolves beat writer Jerry Zgoda pick up the umbrage that flared from the Minnesota coach and president of basketball operations when he learned afterward about Bolerjack’s and Harpring’s disparaging asides during the telecast:
[Saunders] had just seen his team with only seven healthy players win in OT, at altitude, on the second night of back-to-back games. Instead of being in a celebratory mood, he was incensed after he returned to a joyous locker room and found what he said were 25 text messages informing him of comments made by Utah’s television broadcast earlier in the game.
… Jazz announcers said, to paraphrase, that teams purposely losing games to improve draft lottery odds by dressing only seven available players is bad for the league, bad for fans who pay good money to see Kevin Garnett and the league needs to do something about it.
Utah fans didn’t see Garnett, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Gary Neal or four other injured Wolves players Monday. They did see newly signed D League guard Sean Kilpatrick make three three-pointers in a fourth-quarter comeback, and they also saw Zach LaVine ignore a mental mistake with the game on the line and make two clutch threes in the final 21 seconds of regulation to force overtime anyway.
“That’s totally irresponsible, we’re not tanking games,” Saunders said. “If that’s so, then [Utah] got beat by a team who was tanking. … We’re playing to win. Our guys are out there: We won two games ago at New York, we lost in the fourth quarter against Charlotte last night. We’re not tanking games. It is irresponsible for them to go on TV saying that. If you work at ESPN, you get fired for saying stuff like that.”
The Wolves won for the second time in three games after they had lost 10 of 11 before that. They did so Monday by beating a Jazz team that had won 14 of its previous 19 games and had led by as many as eight points before the Wolves pulled a most improbable comeback.
It’s tempting to conclude, as The Bard might, that Saunders doth protested too much. His comments about people getting fired made it seem as if the Jazz announcers might have struck a nerve. Minnesota, after all, spent all but eight of its first 25 seasons prior to this one out of the playoffs, yet never, ever has gotten lucky enough in the lottery to move up even one spot in the draft order. Diving down for the worst possible record might be seen as their only way to land a franchise prospect – now that they have no more Kevin Loves to trade.
But the circumstances were all wrong Monday night. No team tanks, or does anything else, by using only seven players. And, ahem, the Wolves wound up winning in overtime.
Even Harpring seem reassured enough by that to tweet out an apology overnight: