Rumbling through the mental streets of the WNBA come the tanks of Brittney Griner – and Elena Delle Donne. Sinister and not-so-subtle, there are the unstoppable rumors that teams would do just about anything to find their way to the lottery, where these two great treasures of the 2013 draft lie waiting to be claimed.
These tanks, however, do not have treads, but rather are marked by odd coaching decisions, mysterious injuries and sudden collapses. And they are, despite the claims of more than a few WNBA fans, unconnected with reality.
The idea is that teams will lose on purpose during the course of this Olympic-marred summer so that they can then be in position to draft Griner, who will improve any franchise dramatically from day one, or Delle Donne, a 6-5 shooter who has the potential to be the much-better looking Dirk Nowitzki of the WNBA, simply doesn’t take into account the many possible pitfalls.
In the parlance of the trade, losing on purpose is known as “tanking," and it has been done before -- check out how Los Angeles wound up with Candace Parker – but not only is it way too early for teams to be even thinking of losing on purpose, it’s also a gamble that has too much risk to go along with its potential reward.
First, of course, there is a lottery, so only one of the four teams that finishes out of the playoffs will get to draft Griner, who is the prize of the draft. The 6-8 Baylor post is already the best shotblocker the women’s game has ever seen, and it certainly appears there’s more to her offensive game down the road.
Delle Donne is a decent consolation prize, as she should have an immediate impact on whatever team drafts her, and she is the kind of player that a franchise can be built around.
There are those who feel Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins is at the level of Griner and Delle Donne, but even though she had great statistics for the Irish last season, and is also very promotable, she is much less a sure thing as a game-changer. Yes, she’s very good, but she also played on a team with two top ten picks in the WNBA draft, and could wind up being just a nice player in the league.
And after that? Um, well, whoever gets the fourth pick next spring is going to wind up with someone very much like the last two fourth overall choices: Glory Johnson and Amber Harris. Sure, Johnson is having a nice year, but is she worth losing for?
And speaking of that, there is a cost to losing. WNBA franchises don’t make a lot of money, and reaching the playoffs is important for a couple of reasons. First, it results in at least one more home game, and if a team gets hot (think the St. Louis Cardinals winning the World Series), there could be as many as four. A couple of home games with big crowds, could generate as much as $100,000 in extra income, and in this league, that’s a big boost to the bottom line.
At the same time, sponsors love winners. They want their products associated with winners, and a company is more likely to put its money behind a team that has been successful – not one that might be successful.
And “might” is the operative word when it comes to the draft. If the ping-pong balls bounce the wrong way, the franchise might not get Griner or Delle Donne, or even Diggins; if the injury gods frown, any one of the three might not be available at all; and it’s also possible that any one of them might not turn out to be as great as projected.
On top of all that, tanking also cheats the paying fans and hard-working players. It’s not only morally wrong, it’s a hugely risky move, because if there is any evidence at all that teams are losing on purpose early in the season, there’s a huge chance of alienating the fan base, the existing sponsors and the team’s employees.
Now maybe the situation will change in the last couple weeks of a season. If both Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird are hurt, say, and Seattle is hanging onto fourth place by a thread, it might make sense for the Storm (or any other team in a similar situation) to not quite go all out in their last two games. But it’s still June, and there’s a long way to go, not only in the WNBA season, but in the NCAA season as well.
People may want to believe the tanks are already rolling through the WNBA, but it’s just not happening. The players and coaches are too competitive, and the potential reward simply isn’t worth the substantial risk.
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