After losing to mighty Angola, which finished 2-3 in group play at the FIBA Basketball World Cup and outside the round-of-16 cut, Australia was accused of tanking by one Goran Dragic.
Basketball is a beautiful sport, there is no room for fixing the game like today Australia vs Angola!! @FIBA should do something about that!
— Goran Dragic (@Goran_Dragic) September 4, 2014
Only Dragic -- the Slovenia and Phoenix Suns point guard -- didn’t call it "tanking," a basketball euphemism so commonplace as to sound benign. He called it "fixing," as in "match fixing." It describes the same thing, but "fixing" a match conjures scandal -- a far uglier framing.
One of the joys of travel is you get to see how other cultures perceive what's normal to you and vice versa. On the international stage, cynically throwing games is received as a form of corruption that FIBA should address. In our domestic league, cynically throwing games has been normalized as just another strategy. Or, in Philadelphia, the defining feature of your franchise.
In this particular instance, Australia benched two of its best players, Aron Baynes and Joe Ingles. They also barely played Matthew Dellavedova and David Andersen. This, one presumes, was part of an effort to finish third in Group D -- which is currently led by Dragic's Slovenia at 4-0 -- and change its position in the bracket to stave off playing Team USA until further down the road.
In some ways, this alleged iteration of tanking is less galling than the NBA version. At least in FIBA, players and management share incentives. Everybody wants to win big in this year’s tournament, so throwing a game is all part of a broader effort to capture more immediate glory for everyone. Australia's players might not love throwing in the towel, but this gives everybody a better chance at a better finish. This isn’t so in the most common form of NBA tanking, where the losses are meant to pay off years in the future, when many of the players involved have already moved on to other teams.
NBA tanking comes from the top, pressure from the bosses who will be around long enough to withstand losses. Players are rarely incentivized to tank, given that an influx of draft lottery talent may take away future minutes. Coaches aren’t well-incentivized to tank, because their careers are too short for them to fret about a team’s long-term plans.
So what you’ll sometimes see is an ugly scenario where management undermines competitive people with bad roster additions and pressure to bench certain "injured" players. NBA tanking comes with tension and internal recriminations. The international version gives us the intentional losing, but without so much nasty sabotaging of hardworking employees who won’t benefit from the indignity.
Yet Australia’s loss will be framed as something more insidious than the issue we've become inured to stateside. Perhaps Australia’s PR should get the players and coaches on message: Say, "No tanking happened here," and hope the easier-to-ignore “tanking” label sticks. That's one way Australia can fix this.