You may have heard, Michael Carter-Williams wrote a thing.
Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way: The Players' Tribune is a heap of shit.
Well, wait, hang on a minute, let's unpack that just a little. It seems obvious, to an extreme outsider, that American pro athletes do not trust the sports media very much. This is probably a two-way street: hungry reporters have an obvious incentive to parse and magnify and otherwise spin-up events and comments into something consumable, while athletes and celebrities have an available and largely maligned and mistrusted scapegoat any time something dumb they say or do brings negative attention. Both sides win a little, and at the other's expense, but, you know, winning is winning.
When they don't want to engage that transaction, athletes tend to be cagey and mechanical in their interactions with the press. Tip your cap to those guys, they were the better team, etc. The idea seems to be to deprive the press of anything that could be manipulated in any way into anything remotely controversial. And so we get a bunch of press conferences and media sessions and interviews in which nothing much is said at all. At this point, I am well aware that whenever a team wins credit must be given to those guys. Caps should be tipped. Everyone is taking it one game at a time, as I understand it.
Okay, so, in my life, I pretty much never have to be all that careful with what I say to people. The only people who are ever genuinely interested in how happy I am in my job are related to me in one way or another. There is no expanding ripple when I say a thing — it's not like my mom is running out to tell all her friends what I had to say about the competition. And, anyway, if she does, certainly no one will care. There's comfort in that: I get to say whatever the hell I want, and I'm the only person responsible for how it is communicated, and I am the only person empowered to handle the reverberations.
This is obviously not the case with pro athletes. Michael Carter-Williams does his job in front of a massive audience of strangers, and then at the end someone asks him how it went — if he says the wrong thing, if there's an ambiguity, if his body language conveys something he'd rather not communicate, like that it's gobbled up and interpreted and whisked out to the crowd of strangers and consumed in a million different ways, and the reverberations are everywhere and completely beyond his control.
So, it makes sense that athletes would want a forum where they can speak for themselves to the crowd of strangers without a middle-man interpreter. Right? I want to talk about how shitty this thing is without homeboy mucking up the context.
But the question is, is The Players' Tribune such a forum? Perhaps not. And, more importantly, is it being used for the kind of communication described? Almost certainly not. Here's the thing: whatever your words are, if ultimately what you are trying to communicate is people should like me, you are not entitled to that result. The Players' Tribune, so far, seems to be a forum for athletes to engage in a kind of smarmy brand-management that deserves skepticism and ridicule. Concern that the meaning of your words will be twisted unfairly by shitheel media parasites is one thing, but concern that the media will not meticulously guard your public image is something else entirely. What The Players' Tribune offers to athletes is, yes, an unfiltered forum for public communication, but to the rest of us what is provided is unobstructed brand management. It needn't be done in that spirit — if what you are trying to convey is nothing so much as your own likeability, your unfiltered communication means bupkis.
So, back to Michael Carter-Williams. That thing he wrote, it's stupid. It's stupid for a few reasons, not the least of which is that no one worth paying attention to is accusing Philadelphia's players of trying to lose basketball games. The Sixers are tanking. The organization has deliberately put together a team that cannot win, in the interests of stockpiling assets for a longer-term building project. The key word there is cannot. That collection of players cannot win. It's not that they refuse to win, it's that they're literally not capable of doing much winning no matter how hard they try. Michael Carter-Williams' defense of the players' effort on the floor is sort of cute and hilarious in that context — buddy, you might as well quit giving all that effort because it is so utterly for naught.
The whole thrust of his piece seems to be that popular disgust at Philadelphia's obvious tanking efforts amounts to a media-invented and -instigated witch-hunt, a constructed narrative with little or no basis in reality. Which, look, that's absurd. This is one of those times when the media can totally stand out of the way and let the public look on with grim fascination at something totally unambiguous developing out in plain sight. That it is being reported so thoroughly is a testament not to how aggressively cynical the press is, but how singularly committed the Sixers organization is. The reasonable boundaries of competitive non-competition have been stretched so violently by Sam Hinkie's inside-job that the NBA considered dramatic changes to its draft lottery system as an urgent disincentive. The media couldn't exaggerate this thing if they wanted to.
In a way, this is a sort of detour around that athlete/media two-way street: Michael Carter-Williams has something he wants to say, essentially a media criticism, and he doesn't want to have to go through the very object of his criticism in order to make his point. But, more obviously, what he wants to do is inoculate his personal brand from the toxic stink of tanking — my team is shit, but please don't let it harm my reputation. Which is sort of funny and sad — if my team were that bad, I wouldn't want anyone thinking I was trying my hardest, know what I mean? I would be disavowing that heap of shit left and right. I could have won if I'd wanted to.
To my mind, this is sort of where the legitimate criticism of 23-year-old Michael Carter-Williams ends: his stupid and obvious straw-man argument ultimately only makes him look worse, in more ways than one. Criticism beyond that line — stuff that engages his commitment or effort — is, to my way of thinking, just as wrong-headed and off-track as his notion that the players are being blamed for tanking. And it's beyond that line that Kevin Draper and Deadspin wandered in the immediate aftermath of Philadelphia's horrific all-time disaster of a lopsided loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
So, again, let's start with the obvious: Michael Carter-Williams never tanked. Whatever else comes in that article, the headline is not correct. It's important to understand what is meant by the term tanking, in the context of professional sports: tanking is angling to lose because of a perverse incentive. Here is a list of things that are not tanking:
1. Being so bad at your job that you cannot help but lose.
2. Admitting that victory is unlikely or even impossible.
3. Conceding victory at any point after the outcome has been made inevitable.
4. Giving something less than maximum effort in pursuit of victory.
5. Accepting a loss and moving on instead of, you know, committing seppuku.
The distinction between sucking and tanking is important because sucking is not something that can be dealt with administratively — the NBA requires that some teams win more than others, and there have always been and always will be teams that suck. Tanking is bad, to whatever degree it actually is bad, because it takes something that must be competitive in order to be valid and renders it deliberately non-competitive. A contest in which one side is trying not to win is not a contest.
So, yeah, right there at the top, Michael Carter-Williams did not tank. He never tanked.
The bigger problem with the post, though, is the underlying intellectual dishonesty of it, and in order to make this point, I'm going to need everyone to put down their hero worship and athletic myth-making for a moment and acknowledge something obvious: every player in the NBA, every player who ever played, every player who will ever play, everyone who has ever played a game of competitive basketball has failed to run back on defense. Every player in the NBA will fail to get back on defense at least once per month for the entire rest of the season and the rest of their careers.
Here is video of the entire Lakers team failing to get back on defense:
Here's a fun video of Dwyane Wade pretty much never getting back in transition defense during the NBA Finals:
Here's a video of John Wall being an amazing two-way player and Carmelo Anthony saying ah the hell with it:
These instances paint an incomplete picture of a thing that happens several times in every game: there's a turnover or missed shot at one end, maybe the shooter took some contact and expected a whistle, and one or two guys give up on chasing the ball in transition. Fringe players, bad players, good players, great players, superstars — every player in NBA history has failed to get back on defense. Failing to get back on defense is as much a part of a game of NBA basketball as missed free throws.
But let's step back from the NBA for a second: if you've played a sport, you've had the moment when something went to hell at one end and your head dropped and you maybe missed an opportunity to do something at the other end. The last time I played competitive basketball — last winter — I don't think I crossed either three point line for the last half hour I was out there. I was dying out there. It was all I could do to keep from falling over. Yes, I'm a busted-down out-of-shape tomato can. But I was dying out there — I badly wanted to win, and I was exerting myself to an outrageous degree. It happens. Sometimes you don't make it back on defense.
Michael Carter-Williams was playing for the first time this season, and his team was being absolutely blown out. Maybe he'd been momentarily demoralized by a bad play or missed call or something. Maybe he was suffering the greater demoralization of having his ass brutally kicked in front of thousands of fans. And maybe he was worn out — it's not, like, out of the question that the guy isn't yet in regular season shape. For whatever reason, on the same day that he published an article defending his efforts, he failed to get back on defense at least once in an NBA game.
Here's the way to think about this: athletic competition requires an exertion of mental and physical effort. At the NBA level, that exertion is downright outrageous. During the course of the competition, there will be times when the reservoir of energy depletes, which is why there are timeouts and substitutions. Failing to get back on defense isn't necessarily the moral failure fans and coaches want it to be, is what I'm saying.
All of that makes Draper's implied assertion that there is something hypocritical in Michael Carter-Williams' admittedly bogus and self-serving editorial, well, unfair, and more than a little ridiculous. The Sixers were toast pretty much from the opening tip. Anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of a total thrashing like that ought to be able to recognize the heavy toll such a humiliation takes on a competitor's reserves. More importantly, failing to get back on defense once in a game should not itself open a player up to any serious criticism of his overall effort and dedication to winning, especially not when it cannot represent more than a difference of a few points in an absolute massacre. Detectable behind the nonsense about media culpability and player complicity in the whole tanking "narrative" is a young player's earnest defense of his dedicated efforts toward success, toward winning, and absolutely nothing that happened in last night's game undermines that defense whatsoever.
None of this is likely lost on Kevin Draper, who seems to pay enough attention to basketball to observe all of this all on his own. My sense is pretty much everyone was eager to jump up and down on Michael Carter-Williams and The Players' Tribune as soon as the post went public — self-promotion masked as media criticism is at least reckless and yucky — and there was certainly plenty of fodder there for the blasting. But laying in wait for him to have a single lapse in effort over the course of a 48-minute bloodbath and then using it to level criticism at his self-celebrated work ethic is lame, lazy, unfair, and disingenuous. Athletes speak often in defense or support of their professionalism, and with good reason: they've got much, much more at stake in their business than anyone else, physically, competitively, monetarily, and by way of their reputation. If we're going to accuse them of tanking and attack their professionalism — and that's what last night's post did, make no mistake about it — we ought to have a lot more ammo than this.