Friday, April 6, 2012

The Honest Cost of Patience.

On June 26, 2009, one day after the NBA draft, David Kahn, who had just been hired as the general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves, took out a full page ad in the The Star Tribune to talk to Wolves fans about the future of the team.  In the letter, he explained why he drafted two point guards with the fifth and sixth picks (Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn), identified the team's major weaknesses, and laid out a game plan for rebuilding the team.  Kahn stated that he needed to find "a special coach who understands that we are very much in the development stage and need to be shaped and molded."  He needed to work out Rubio's contract buyout situation in Spain, and warned fans that they "may have to wait a year, maybe even two, but he will be well worth the wait."  And most of all, Kahn asked the fans for their "interest, passion and patience" as he began a "15 month" plan "to acquire multiple pieces to make this a championship contending team over the next three-to-four years."  Because two NBA seasons occur in a calendar year, Kahn was essentially asking for five seasons of rebuilding time from a team that, at that point, hadn't made the playoffs in five seasons.  It was brutally honest, and almost universally lambasted.

This letter is only one of several letters that Kahn has written to Timberwolves fans.  These letters have either been published in the Strib, or emailed to season ticket holders.  Though each letter's subject matter varies slightly, the message is the same: trust me, trust what we're doing, please be patient and I'll do my best to make it worth your while.  In a May 2009 letter written shortly after his hire, Kahn listed his qualifications as a basketball executive, and argued that he was the best man to take over for Kevin McHale, the disgraced former GM.  In another letter, written in November 2009, he lamented the team's nine game losing streak to begin the season, but pledged to keep working hard.  In September 2010, after a dismal season, and a questionable offseason, Kahn brought fans up to speed on his draft picks, reiterated that they were still on the three-to-four year plan, and asked for another year of patience for then-coach Kurt Rambis.  In February 2010, with the season lost, Kahn sent perhaps his most important letter of all, announcing that all ticket prices for the next season would be slashed by 50% in an effort to bring fans back to the arena.  In that letter, Kahn made a point that many GMs and owners forget: "it's clear that it's not enough to rebuild our team; we need to rebuild our fan base.  We need big crowds to win but we can't expect big crowds until we start we start winning."  In all of his letters, he was brutally honest to Wolves fans about the quality and the prospects of the team.  And, unsurprisingly, nearly all of his letters were rejected and ridiculed -- much like Kahn himself.  As far as I can tell, Kahn hasn't written a letter to fans since 2010.

Why am I bringing up these letters in 2012?  The short answer is that they seemed relevant to me as we enter the height of what I will call Tanking Season.  When I say "tanking", I of course mean the process by which teams intentionally lose games in the hope of securing a better position in the college draft held in the offseason.  While tanking is more prevalent in leagues like the NFL, where there isn't a weighted lottery, it is still an important -- and largely reviled -- practice in the NBA.  And right now, we're in the busiest, clearest point of Tanking Season.  Right now, as April winds up and the regular season winds down, lots of things are going on at once which amplify the tanking process.  By this time in the season, the bad teams know that they're actually bad, and that this year probably isn't going to be their year.  With that in mind, and the NCAA tournament completed, discussion and analysis begins to shift towards the June draft and the draft lottery, and by extension, the hyped college players who will supposedly change the direction and fortunes of a moribund franchise.  With these factors fully in play, teams begin to "tank" -- they rest injured stars, play younger prospects, bench trade assets, and lose, lose, lose.  While these losses destroy the present team, it doesn't really matter.  At this point in Tanking Season, GMs have already begun to look ahead to the offseason, or maybe even the next season.  But this season?  Lost.  Finished.

Now, I don't have a problem with tanking.  Really, I don't.  Perhaps this is because I'm a Warriors fan, and I'm used to seeing my team lose a lot of games on a regular basis (though not necessarily as a part of a larger tanking operation).  But I understand that there are lots of ways to rebuild a struggling team, and the draft is one of them.  Obviously, the Oklahoma City model is currently in fashion -- rebuilding through smart, high draft picks, and using those picks liberally as trade pieces -- but this method involves high levels of luck.  Indeed, losing a high number of games statistically improves your chances of securing a top pick, but it hardly guarantees the pick.  The Celtics learned this the hard way, twice: once in 1996 when they were gunning for Tim Duncan, and again in 2007 when they were banking on Greg Oden.  However, other teams have benefited.  A pretty obvious tank job in the 2002-2003 season netted the Cavs the top pick in 2003, which they used on LeBron James.  The Seattle SuperSonics tanked badly in 2007 in a quest for Greg Oden, but were still rewarded with Durant at number two.  So while tanking won't guarantee a thing, it doesn't really hurt to try, either.  Thus, I see tanking as a necessary evil for a team that is implementing a draft (or draft pick) based method of rebuilding.

However, not all fans share my opinion.  This season, Cleveland, Washington, Charlotte and Golden State are all certifiably tanking, losing games in an effort to improve their chances of getting a top pick in a draft that seems far more hyped than normal.  In Golden State's case, they're trying hard to keep their top seven protected pick, and add another piece to a roster built around two currently injured players.  But Cleveland, Washington, and Charlotte all have their eyes on consensus number one pick Anthony Davis, a power forward/center out of Kentucky.  But while front offices are thinking about the future, fans are suffering in the present.  These four teams are basically unwatchable, and fans pay good money to see their team, whether its in person or on TV.  Moreover, many of these fans are already frustrated by their teams' overall losing cultures.  While all four of these teams have had some recent playoff success within the last five seasons, they have been largely irrelevant for the last twenty years.  Indeed, patience has worn thin among these bedraggled supporters, and their displeasure has become far more demonstrative.  We Boolieve, of course, put these feelings on dramatic display, and in the key of "BOOOOOOOOO."  The fans were not going to be abused any longer.

I assert that NBA fans in the information age have become a savvy, no-nonsense group of consumers.  Information and opinions from an endless supply of sources are readily available and easily consumed.  It is far easier to craft arguments and see through tired, old bullshit.  And most of all, the fans do not like to be lied to.  It is easy to tell when a front office or a player is being disingenuous.  The fans can pick up on that, and they hate that it happens.  They're busy folks and time and money are in short supply.  Fans of shit teams could spend time, energy and money on other things besides their perpetually terrible basketball team -- especially a basketball team that's purposefully trying to lose games.  Yet, we must come to grips with the fact that tanking is a universally accepted practice in professionalized sports.  It's part of any sport that has a draft that awards bad teams with nice things. Until that changes, tanking will remain an important part of the NBA for those who seek to make their fortunes on high draft picks.

So, how can the logic of tanking be reconciled with the needs of fans?  How can a front office appropriately, but firmly explain the benefit of tanking without a fan base leaving them completely behind.  How can a fan base possibly benefit from this trying period?  I don't have the answer, but I do have an idea: write your fans a letter.  Be like David Kahn.  Yes, I just said that.  Be like David Kahn.

Okay, follow me, here.  David Kahn has made a number of mistakes, and his run as Timberwolves decision-maker has been far from perfect.  The team was certifiably terrible during his first two seasons as President of Basketball Operations, but he obviously realized this, and worked hard to fix his mistakes.  His letters, read chronologically, portray a basketball executive learning on the job.  He is forthcoming about his mistakes, honest about his weaknesses, and attempts to correct them.  With the benefit of hindsight, we see that Kahn did four things right with his letters to fans.  First, he explained who he was, and why he was qualified to rebuild an NBA franchise.  Second, he laid out a plan for the future, and stuck to it even as critics howled in the distance.  Third, he was open and honest about team weaknesses, long term prospects for success, and the ultimate time frame of the rebuilding project, even if the number seemed daunting and unfair.  Fourth -- and most important -- he cut the fans a deal on tickets in exchange for their "interest, passion, and patience" over the course of the rebuilding operation.

In my opinion, every GM overseeing a tanking operation needs to write letters like David Kahn did.  If owners want to write them, that's fine too.  But simply put, heads of basketball teams need to communicate with their paying fans.  Kahn provided a simple rubric that could be easily adapted to another GM working for another team.  All they really need to do is lay out the plan in simple terms.  They need to explain who they are, where they came from, and why the owner of the team is paying them good money to rebuild the roster and change the culture.  They must lay out a detailed, yet easily understandable plan that addresses team weaknesses, and offers solutions for improvement.  They have to give fans an idea of how long they expect the process to take, so they can hold themselves accountable.  And most importantly, they have to make it cheap for us, the fans.  When they gave up on winning games, they gave up on the fans.  As such, they gave up on making a profit.  It is necessary that they make a sacrifice for the good of their fan base.  Kahn was right when he said that a rebuilding team also must "rebuild its fan base."  The best way to do that is put money back into the peoples' pockets.

And in exchange, the GM, and by extension, the team will get the patience they deserve from the fans (and the media) as they try to rebuild a broken institution and revise organizational culture and practice. Honesty isn't always the best policy, but in this particular case, I argue that it is.  Fans are smart and don't appreciate being lied to, especially when the product is already bad.  Conversely, rebuilding a bad team is a harder job than any of us will ever know, and people need to be allowed time to do their jobs. I think fans should give GMs time and patience, but in return, those GMs must be honest, open, transparent, and ultimately, successful.

The proof that this could work?  Well, how about David Kahn?  Again, he's made mistakes, for sure.  But he's fixed a lot of them.  Adelman, Love and Rubio are helping his cause.  He's gotten a bit lucky -- no one expected Love to become the best American-born White player since Bird, nor that a probable HOF coach like Rick Adelman would take the Timberwolves job this past summer -- but all rebuilding operations involve some degree of luck at some point.  And right now, three years in, his team is 25-31 but clearly on the rise.  And the fans are back, too.  The Timberwolves are 14th in the league in attendance, up from 27%.  This is what rebuilding looks like.  This is a team with hope.

And David Kahn?  He's likely to be back as GM next season.  A little honesty has gone a long way.  It'd be nice if Chris Grant, Ernie Grunfeld, Rich Cho and Larry Riley took note.

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