Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY

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The tanking conundrum


Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY

We are only one game into the season and the shouts about team tanking have already begun.

First it came when the Magic gave up the first 12 points of the game against the Pacers. Then it came again when the Magic opted to keep Andrew Nicholson on the bench the entire third quarter despite his 18 points in the first half.

These calls will be coming throughout the season as many suspect the Magic will compete for the worst record in the NBA this year and a high Draft pick in this potentially loaded 2014 Draft class.

Nobody likes tanking. Nobody likes the idea of a team purposefully losing games. Players certainly do not like it and no one will admit it is happening. Purposefully holding players out while they recover from injury or using playing time to develop young players might be tanking or it might be part of the process. Each individual can define that.

What is important is that losing does not become systemic. And so, as the Magic enter a second year at the bottom of the standings, there is a legitimate concern that the hunger to win and the culture to keep that hunger might wane.

So, yes, even one season and one game into this massive rebuilding plan, let the doubters come. First, in the form of Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel.

Bianchi, with some help from known sabremetrician David Berri, determined that teams with high lottery picks rarely go on to win the championship. It is a mathematical long shot, in Bianchi's words. Of course, winning a championship is a mathematical long shot.

The rationale is losing to win is illogical and makes little sense in actuality. Here is what Berri told Bianchi:

"From a mathematical standpoint tanking doesn't work, and any GM who sells ownership on this strategy should be fired. Tanking would be like a newspaper columnist turning in a completely horrible column that makes no sense and is terribly written. And then you explain it by telling your readers, 'I purposely made the column horrible so we can be a better newspaper in three years.'"

Of course, this comparison does not work. A newspaper does not get to pick its upcoming writers based on its performance in Nielsen ratings or Pulitzer Prize winners. They operate in a free market.

The Magic do not. Orlando has to play by the rules the league sets. The best players and the highest draft picks more likely than not go to the teams with the worst record.

The lottery was initially created to counteract this idea of purposeful losing. Then the Magic won the lottery with a 41-41 record and a single ping pong ball, and everyone cried foul. The weighted system the league currently uses was created giving teams with worse record even more of a chance to win. The incentive only grew.

No one said the Magic's chosen path to return to the championship window is as long a shot as any other. Orlando tried the quick-fix, free agent path in the early 2000s. Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill were supposed to save the franchise. Instead, Hill's injury made the Magic mix and match. Poor drafting did not help that franchise.

At the time, Bianchi wrote the Magic were stuck in the purgatory of mediocrity. This was nowhere for the organization to be if it is to win a championship. That tune has changed now that the Magic are suffering through what some would call "tanking."

Again, the important message for now is to make the rebuild a short one. The Magic have to be patient and draft smart. That is the way a team like the Thunder and Spurs grew organically through some lottery luck.

In the end, winning a championship and creating a dynasty takes careful planning and a stroke of luck. It is too hard to see down that road right now with the Magic.