Book Review: Built to Lose by Jake Fischer

The only thing more morally corrupt than intentionally losing games is charging fans top dollar to watch you do so.

There’s no more effective way to alienate an NBA fan base than losing basketball games on purpose while simultaneously assuring them it’s the right strategy, telling them things will eventually get better, while sending them e-mail after well-intentioned e-mail asking them to trust you, that you know what you’re doing.  That dog will hunt for only so long.

As a fan, how long are you willing to sit and wait as the team you root for continues to lose with the promise of a brighter future lingering intangibly ahead?

As recent as the mid-2010s, NBA fan bases in Philadelphia, Oklahoma, Houston and Orlando found their teams intentionally losing games, allegedly, to leverage position in the upcoming drafts.  Of course, the league has perennially tweaked its draft by adopting a “weighted lottery system,” yet “even with limited odds attempted to dissuade tanking, front offices and coaching staffs still pulled subtle strings to plummet down the standings.”

Jake Fischer’s “Built to Lose: How the NBA’s Tanking Era Changed the League Forever” is an entertaining trip into the league’s world of tanking, why it happened, whether it worked and the toll it took on those both on the floor and off.  This book is unlike so many others before it for it does not focus on the championship teams of that area, although it does not neglect discussion of them.  It is instead a rather unique look at the teams that were struggling to get back to relevance and the efforts they put forth in pursuit of that goal. 

I’m a sucker for juicy NBA trade rumors and forgotten draft details and this book is chock full of them, i.e., how the Sacramento Kings drafted Ben McLemore over CJ McCollum and how badly Atlanta’s Danny Ferry wanted to trade up to land then relatively unheard of, and once considered risky, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

When it comes to tanking, however, Fischer reminds us that fewer franchises were more active than the Philadelphia 76ers.  “Philadelphia wouldn’t intentionally drop games on a nightly basis, but losses were an absolute side effect of trading the team’s best players like Jrue Holiday for greater draft ammo.  Losing, garnering greater lottery odds, and then netting a top draft pick, they’d select high-upside prospects and mold them into champions.”  Meanwhile, “naysayers accused Sixers’ ownership of incompetence.”  Why wouldn’t they?  After all, this was a franchise was still reeling from an Andrew Bynum trade, and injury, that left him not playing a single game as a Sixer and in only 38 more games as a professional. 

Fischer takes you into the war rooms to meet the personalities and discuss how players and franchises are affected when traded from one team to another.  The book includes hundreds of interviews.  Fischer outlines draft time jockeying between franchises, agents and college coaches trying to get their kids drafted as high as they can.  It’s commodities trading for a brighter future.  “The agent business can be cutthroat, replete with backstabbing and shadow dealings.  Many representatives, too, have formed competitive friendships with their rivals, sharing in the unique moments their profession brings.”

You’re reminded of what a crapshoot draft night actually is.  For example, in 2015, Devin Booker was on few teams’ radar.  After Detroit (Stanley Johnson), Charlotte (Frank Kaminsky), Miami (Justise Winslow) and Indiana (Myles Turner) all passed on Booker, he finally went 13th to Phoenix.  It’s hard to imagine that happening knowing what we know now. 

Jake Fischer reminds us how much “an executive’s job security can influence transactions in pro sports,” especially with the constantly changing nature of professional basketball.  A dying breed are the NBA lifers, “more and more, franchises were empowering statistical-driven basketball executives.”

Not only is the book a fun read for NBA transaction geeks, it’s a detailed look at a historical time in recent NBA history.  Look no further than the 2014 NBA Draft.  With Cleveland beating the odds and landing the first pick, they along with Milwaukee and Philadelphia had looks at the three hottest prospects: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid.

“With Embiid, Parker and Wiggins seeming to slot in at Nos. 1,2 and 3, Cleveland’s doctors red-flagged Parker’s foot injuries that disrupted the end of his high school career. Embiid’s agent announced the big man underwent surgery, inserting two screws into the navicular bone in his right foot.  No skeptic could criticize Cleveland if they grabbed Wiggins first.  Even with Joel Embiid having enamored David Griffin, his broken foot left the Cavs’ general manager with no choice.  Wiggins also boasted the most trade value among the draft’s top prospects. No sensible owner would approve drafting a 7-footer who’d suffered the same injury that ended Yao Ming’s career.  Embiid’s ailing foot simply presented a size-17 question mark.”  Oh, what a difference a foot makes.

We all know how it turned out, with Wiggins never playing a day in Cleveland and Philadelphia getting the man they wanted after all, a big man who despite all the question marks turned into the best player of those three.

It’s these minutiae that Fischer reminds us of, from the tiniest wheeling and dealings to the most newsworthy, all shaping an NBA roster, that either wins championships or gets people fired.

The book highlights both locker room and front office difficulties that accompanied losing for that era’s cellar dwellers. “If any teams were stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity, look no further than the Suns, Magic and Kings.”  Only one of those teams has since become relevant.

Fischer’s work concludes with yet another change in draft rules in 2019, designed with the intent to discourage teams from losing in exchange for higher draft capital.  “No league personnel expected their reform to completely abolish tanking but flattening the odds would at least help dissuade any years-long futility that Hinkie’s Sixers, and the rest of the NBA’s tanking era, had so famously demonstrated.  That’s why David Stern first introduced the drawing in 1985.  Houston’s blatant tanking effort in pursuit of the 1984 No. 1 picks, where the Rockets drafted future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, first set the wheels in motion, just like Hinkie’s rebuild eventually sparked Adam Silver’s lottery reform over 30 years later.”

If we learned anything from the tanking era and drafts in general, it’s that nothing is guaranteed.  While Philadelphia is finally relevant, all those years of draft positioning resulted in not a single Finals appearance.  Odds to the top pick will never diminish in importance.  How teams struggle to land that pick just might have to.

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