Is It Cheating Not To Try?

Typically, the general goal in the NBA is to win as much as possible. In general, a higher seed means better odds in the Playoffs.

But not always.

So is it wrong not to try? Or are there times when a chance at better overall success makes it okay to lose today?

In a recent post at Detroit Bad Boys, a Pistons fan suggested that the Magic wanted not part of the #2 seed and (at the time) a potential matchup with the Pistons — and that they'd use any excuse necessary to stay behind Boston in the standings and avoid Detroit in the playoffs.

While I won't be accusing any team in this league of deliberately trying to lose, it raises an interesting question: As part of an overall strategy intended to foster greater overall success, is it cheating to essentially let the other team win?

Allow me to present a more relative scenario to this audience. Currently, the Jazz occupy the eighth seed in the Western Conference. But they are only one game behind the Mavericks. With a Dallas win tonight, Utah's odds of regaining the seventh seed have decreased. Nonetheless, if the Jazz were to win their last game, and the Mavericks were to lose theirs, the Jazz (who own the tiebreaker due to a better conference record) would regain the seventh seed.

While this would require a very specific series of events — only the combination of a Utah victory and a Dallas loss would propel the Jazz into the seventh seed — it's certainly very possible. The Mavs' final regular season opponent is the very capable Houston Rockets.

Here's where this gets interesting: It just so happens that Utah's final game is in Los Angeles. (No, not against the Clippers.)

As bob banshee mentioned earlier today:

It’s fair to say many of us would have preferred avoiding the Jazz in the first round, even with their current slump. The Mavs, Blazers, Hornets would be a sweep….I see this series going 6 or 7.

Regarding a series against the Jazz, AzFatty elaborates:

Although the bruises won’t show up on many of these players, trust me, they are there.

We'll talk more about preferred playoff paths in the near future, but I think it's safe to say that as far as playoff opponents go, most of us Lakers fans would agree with bob and AzFatty in preferring the Mavericks to the Jazz. Though there's no real doubt in our minds that the Lakers would emerge with a win in either series (sorry, Jazz and Mavs fans!); it's Utah's physicality that bothers us. We're fairly confident that we'll get to the Finals — and we'd like to be the more rested, less banged up team when we get there.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have now locked up the best record in the league, and since the Lakers #1 seed in the West isn't in question, the motivation to continue playing hard is much less now than it was a few days ago.

So, considering that Houston has a good chance of beating Dallas on Wednesday... wouldn't it make sense for the Lakers to "rest their star players" on Tuesday, most likely resulting in a Jazz win? In that scenario, if the Rockets do beat the Mavericks, the Lakers will face a significantly easier first round opponent — on the body, if not on the scoreboard.

I put it to you again: Is it wrong not to try, in situations where a win is really not in the team's best interest, overall?

The immediate answer would seem to be, Yes, it absolutely is wrong! But I'm not convinced.

If I may be so bold as to compare the NBA season to a war, and each game to a battle, then doesn't that blur the moral lines a bit? After all, the goal is to win the war.  If that means implementing a battle plan that results in facing a weaker opponent, that's called good strategy. (See: Lose the battle, win the war.)

I know that this is probably considered border-line "tanking," and currently, that's considered unethical. But then, there was a time in war when fighting from cover was unethical. There was a time when officers were off limits. Now, it is considered perfectly valid to fight from cover and take out any officers. In fact, it's considered stupid not to. Protect your generals and colonels, because if I see them, they're fair game! (For that matter, we've got smart bombs now, so even if I don't see them, they might still be fair game!)

Of course, another point to consider is how that specific game affects the fans. You all know this argument well. Fans pay good money to see the game, and they pay to see Kobe, not DJ Mbenga. Thus, intentionally benching the stars seems unfair to those fans who paid to see the game.

Even then, I'm not convinced. Sure, the fan experience may be less than ideal for that single game — but the strategic move, by providing an easier and less physically draining road to the Finals, could increase the Lakers' overall championship odds. And you can't tell me that a championship isn't in the interest of the fans.

So I ask you: Would it be wrong for the Lakers to bench their starters and let the Jazz win? Is it wrong for the Magic to be perfectly satisfied with the third seed, and not try very hard to catch the Celtics for the second seed?

You tell me.

UPDATE: It seems my poll would have been better with a fourth option: No — it's not wrong, but I still want the Lakers to try for the win.

A bit to my surprise, most of the commenters seem to be okay with the idea of letting a game go if it is truly in the best interest of the team. In fact, it seems to me that many of the "No" voters had no ethical objection to losing a game if it is in the team's best interest, strategically; instead, most of them felt for other reasons — such as reintegrating Bynum, improving team chemistry with lineup changes, gaining a psychological advantage over Utah, and keeping the starters in rhythm — that the best option, strategically, was still to beat Utah, even though it means facing them in the first round.

Be sure to check out some of the great discussion below.

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