The Hornets Are Losing, but They Aren't Tanking

The NBA rewards losing.

And it rewards losing like few other sports. The NFL? Sure, a Suck for Luck comes around every few years, but ultimately, there's actually a fair amount of financial downside to getting a high pick. The draft itself is loaded with players for rounds and rounds and rounds. The MLB? It has its occasional Strasburg, but collegiate baseball players have so much to navigate before hitting the big leagues that pushing for, say, a 5th pick over a 9th pick by intentionally easing up during as season is completely ridiculous. And in both leagues, individual impact is capped at a reasonably low level. Got the best pitcher in the AL? Feel free to use him every fifth day. Best running back in the NFC? Good luck building your pass rush.

The NBA requires star players for success, and there are two ways of obtaining them - poach them from their original teams (read: be a big market, or Miami) or draft them. The NBA salary system only exacerbates this; star players produce more wins than they're allowed to be paid by max contracts. So even if a team of average players and a superstar gets you the same number of wins as a team of above average players, you will, by definition, pay less to the team with the superstar.

In fact, it will be prohibitively expensive to pay a team full of 5-6 win share type guys unless you (a) are literally, or at the very least figuratively, made out of money (2011 Dallas Mavericks), or (b) happen to collect multiple inexplicably undervalued players during a transition year for the league (2004 Detroit Pistons). I won't say the Pistons were "lucky" because in a lot of ways they weren't, but their model - 4 to 5 almost equally valuable players - isn't replicable. Nor is the Thunder's "model" for that matter.

The Hornets, on account of being neither a big market nor Miami, need to build through the draft. And to get there, they need to lose. Obviously, this won't sit well with every NBA observer, nor should it. Rewarding losing is counterintuitive, and the NBA is worse off for making it so (even if rewaring losing is ultimately unavoidable because of the way basketball fundamentally works).

There is a distinction to be made here, though. The Hornets aren't intentionally losing; they're just bad. It's a stupid distinction, sure, but it's still one worth making. By rejecting the Lakers' trade and accepting the Clippers', they earned the right to lose without being questioned on a nightly basis. When Monty Williams starts DaJuan Summers for three games, it's because he has few other alternatives. When he experiments with an all-backup front court to close out an entire fourth quarter, it's not particularly "risky" given what the starters would probably accomplish.

The Hornets paid full price for their tank up front; now we simply get to watch it roll.

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