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Mark Cuban isn’t the only owner talking about tanking

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Other teams are embracing the same strategy. Why is Cuban the only one fined for it?

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

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The NBA knows it has a problem. There’s a built-in concession prize that increases in value the worse a team becomes, and it’s much easier to be bad in the NBA than good. Rebuilding used to come in cycles for every team. Then a few teams (okay, maybe just one) decided to game the system by gutting their teams of any veteran talent. Now, the only word anyone has for this phenomenon is ‘tanking.’

Even the mere notion of tanking is a fineable offense for owners and front office personnel. Most recently, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for his comments on the “House Call with Dr. J” podcast when he recalled telling his team that “losing is our best option.“ The fine was the biggest Cuban has ever paid—which is saying something.

The magnitude of the fine should indicate how potentially detrimental the League Office thought Cuban’s comments were to the NBA. But if he had just workshopped his comments with one of his fellow owners, he might not have had to dig in his couch for spare change.

Jeanie Buss co-hosted the Mason & Ireland show on ESPN 710 in LA for an entire three-hour show last Thursday. When co-host Steve Mason brought up what he called “the T word” and asked Buss for her general feeling about it, she said, “I think that it’s irresponsible to use it as a strategy.” Which might strike some as odd considering she employed Byron Scott for the two worst seasons in Lakers franchise history and signed 35-year-old Kobe Bryant to a cap-strangling two-year, $48.5 million deal, leading the team to select second in the NBA Draft three years in a row.

Even though Buss condemned tanking, she did manage to spin the exact notion that Mark Cuban was fined for, and it sounds like something she’s put a lot of thought into recently.

“Tanking sounds as if you are sabotaging,” Buss explained. “That you’re going out and finding players that can’t play... so I think if you say ‘we’re going to invest in our young players, we’re going to give players a chance to play in the NBA and get some minutes.’ That might not be your best option to win, but you’re certainly not sabotaging.”

Buss is correct, and if Cuban had just framed his comments this way, then it would’ve been much harder for the League to justify such a large fine. They’re both expressing the same sentiment, but one is apparently not fine-worthy because the Chicago Bulls just got away with it, too.

Just a few days ago, Bulls Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson announced that his team would be starting to invest more time in their younger players.

“We’re going to start looking at blocks of games where we’ll be having a few guys who haven’t been playing much or at all have a significant role,” Paxson said, according to Sam Smith of Bulls.com. “The whole goal in our position is to evaluate what we have on this roster.”

Paxson continued, “It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37, with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Totally harmless comments, but the only difference between what Cuban said and what Paxson said is that Cuban admitted that there was another benefit to playing younger players—rising up in the draft lottery.

Buss’ comments went a bit farther than this, though. A few minutes after she explained how Cuban should have framed his comments, Steve Mason (a Lakers fan) admitted to Buss that he has been “rooting for losses the last couple of years.” Mason isn’t the only member of “Team Tank;” more and more fans actually want their favorite team to lose during the season to improve their odds of drafting a star.

Buss quickly responded, saying, “It’s okay to root for losses, but to actually put players in, like, only start four players instead of five that’s when you’re making a mockery of the game.”

An NBA owner telling fans that it’s “okay to root for losses.”

The only difference between what Cuban said and what Buss said is that the Mavericks are actively doing what Cuban implied. The Lakers have no incentive to tank since they owe their first-round pick to either the Celtics or 76ers this season. Also, the Lakers roster’s average age is 25.3, and they only have one active player over the age of 30 (NBA Champion Corey Brewer).

It seems questionable at best that the Mavericks, Bulls, and retroactively the Lakers could employ the same strategy but only Cuban has to pay up. But Cuban’s comments were the most pointed and specifically mentioned losing games on purpose—in a way.

The official statement from the NBA called Cuban’s comments “detrimental to the NBA.” But with a whole batch of NBA fans that actually want their team to lose, what’s so detrimental about it?

The answer came back in January when ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the NBA ”formally requested a set of laws that could be the basis for professional sports leagues pushing for national legalized wagering on games.

Like the great James Madison rapped in Hamilton: An American Musical, “follow the money and see where it goes.”

The NBA has a problem. There’s an incentive to be a bad team, and there’s an easy non-organic path to do just that. The addition of two-way contract players gives teams two more roster spots for young players that they can “invest in” as well. But as the NBA moves closer and closer to legalized gambling, they have to punish teams that take matters into their own hands when it comes to tanking (though apparently only if you admit it). The League is going to have to find a solution sooner rather than later.