Your favorite team has just won a game on the road against the second-best team in the Eastern Conference…and you’re upset.
Your favorite team has lost almost twice as many games as it’s won this season…and you’re happy.
This strange mirror world is a reality for many who follow the Phoenix Suns. Here, losses are glorified as a means to an end, with that end being the opportunity to draft a transformational player in what many experts are projecting to be the strongest draft class in years. Whether that player be Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, or someone else, those fans who inhabit the mirror world will judge this season a success or failure by the team’s ultimate ability to acquire one of these lauded-if-unproven talents.
Then there are those fans outside the mirror world, those who still see wins as positives and losses as negatives, those who stomach the word “tank” as ably as they would lutefisk and who still root for their team to scratch and claw for every victory while performing as close to its peak as possible.
Both elements exist like parallel universes within a Suns multiverse, and when they collide with each other, the results can be dramatic (See: Almost any recent comment thread.) Each side wishes for the Suns to return to relevance but are diametrically opposed in how to ultimately arrive at that point. Or how to define that point. Or who should be there when they do. Or, well, go read the threads.
It is not difficult to imagine that if all factions present on Bright Side of the Sun were somehow molded into a single human being, that human being — upon receiving the spark of life — would find itself at once compelled to repeatedly stab itself in the chest with the nearest sharp object.
But in the Great Tank Debate, which side is justified, pro-tank or anti-tank? The answer is that both sides are justified…and Ryan McDonough is to blame.
Both factions exist because McDonough, as general manager, never chose a direction. He tried to tank in 2013-14, but the team foiled that plan by performing better than expected. Then he tried to compete in 2014-15, but the team wasn’t ready (among other issues) and faltered. In 2015-16, he tried to compete again, but the team fell flat on its face. Now in 2016-17, he went back to tanking but left competing pieces on the roster — pieces tank commander Earl Watson has not hesitated to lean on heavily in place of tank-ready rookies.
(This is a good place to note that in this article, the word “tank” is being used for fielding a team not yet ready to compete, not as a term for intentionally losing.)
The end result is a team no one knows how to root for. Everyone loves a winner, but at 15-29, this team isn’t one. In lieu of that, fans oftentimes get behind their favorite players, like they did Steve Nash and Grant Hill at the beginning of the playoff drought. But the last player everyone rallied behind was shipped to Miami two-and-a-half years after returning to the desert. How many players on today’s roster can fans be certain to have around come March, let alone training camp 2017? As they say, once bitten, twice shy.
Fans can root for the young players, who represent the future, but Devin Booker is the only Phoenix rookie since Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire to engender real hope in the fan base instead of merely optimistic projections. And it doesn’t help matters when most of those young players spend more time on the bench than on the court. Perhaps had Marquese Chriss been the one to record seven straight games of 15 or more rebounds, fans would have abandoned the tank talk in favor of the future staring them in the face. But when it’s a veteran like Tyson Chandler, all many fans see is the absence of sustainability.
So with little presently to latch onto, fans look for greener pastures and halcyon days, hoping that someday soon their team will emerge from the dregs of the NBA and return to prominence once more. The idea of tanking for a high draft pick becomes appealing to some because it offers the best chance of landing that star player who will help Booker carry the team from the morass the way Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have or Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook did. Of course, the Draft is a crapshoot littered with Michael Olowokandis and Kwame Browns and Darko Milicics and Hasheem Thabeets and Anthony Bennetts — all high picks who washed out spectacularly — but it’s the Michael Jordans and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars and LeBron Jameses and Allen Iversons and Tim Duncans and Shaquille O’Neals and Hakeem Olajuwons who keep the dream alive, for while talent can be found anywhere you pick, Hall of Fame talent tends to concentrate in the first few selections. Losing is just the cost a desperate cross-section of the fan base is willing to pay to potentially escape the treadmill of mediocrity, and it is hard to blame them for their desperation.
It is equally hard to blame those who stubbornly refuse to ride that purple-and-orange Abrams. After all, if fans are going to invest time and money into following a team, why wouldn’t they be justified in wanting to see a return on their time and money in the form of an entertaining product put forth by the team’s best players? If losses are the endgame for the team, then that could be accomplished just the same without fans blocking out a couple hours on game days to watch them on TV or spending money on tickets and merchandise. And if the team is able to start winning more under its own power, perhaps that is a sign the team as constructed isn’t in need of as much outside help as previously believed. If anything, it is a compelling argument for the anti-tankers…even if it is unknowable at present.
For their part, the players are aware of the tank talk but haven’t bought into it. “Everybody has their own opinion,” Booker told azcentral.com’s Doug Haller after the game in Toronto, “but us as a team, [tanking] hasn’t been thought of in here. We’re not giving up until the last game, and hopefully that last game gets you in the playoffs.”
That’s the right attitude for the players and coaches to have in this situation. No one in that locker room should entertain the thought of losing — ever. Their job is to win games, and they should settle for nothing less.
The fans are also doing what they should do in this situation. Whether they agree on the strategy or not, every fan wants to see the team move forward. The fact that passion exists at all around a team that has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons should be seen as a positive; when fans lose interest to the point they no longer care to debate, then there’s a problem.
The one in the equation who has not held up his end of the bargain is McDonough. His job, besides constructing a roster, is to provide the team with its direction, but what kind of rebuilding team leaves high-usage veterans in front of its core of the future? He has never fully committed to the idea of a teardown and rebuild, clinging to perpetual hope that his strategy of collecting assets to swap for a star would yield said star if he just held out a bit longer. In the meantime, who wants to buy the jersey of an asset?
In the words of Wilson W. Wilson, the sage neighbor from the 90’s sitcom Home Improvement: “When you try to go in too many directions at once, you end up going nowhere.”
McDonough has tried to go in two directions at once since his arrival from Boston in 2013, and all the Suns have to show for it is a fan base as confused as its roster. Neither the pro-tank nor anti-tank crowd can be judged as wrong here…at least not until McDonough picks a direction.