LeBron James and Team USA pose a matchup other Olympic teams would be wise to avoid until the last possible moment if they hope to go home with a medal. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
The sports world is still recovering from the news that four badminton teams have been booted from the Olympics for attempting to throw preliminary round matches in order to draw a more favorable opponent in elimination play to come.
Badminton, like a lot of other sports in the Olympics and elsewhere, uses non-elimination preliminary matches to determine which teams advance to the knockout rounds and where those teams are seeded. As The New York Times reports here, teams from China, South Korea and Indonesia, already assured of spots in those elimination rounds, were blatantly attempting to lose their final (and meaningless) prelim matches to avoid specific opponents locked into various seeds in the elimination tournament.
This might be a scandal in badminton, but it’s a familiar form of tanking to fans of any number of team sports — including the NBA and professional basketball in general. For as long as leagues have set up postseason seeding systems in which teams can look ahead to potential playoff opponents, teams have sought to cozy into a bracket spot that better suits them. Memphis pulled this at the end of the 2010-11 NBA season, happily sitting several core players with “nagging” injuries in its last two games in order to drop to No. 8 and draw the top-seeded Spurs — a team that the Grizzlies had played well during the regular season, and one that did not have the kind of front-line bulk required to stop the Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph duo. And in 2005-06, the Clippers out-tanked the Grizzlies down the stretch, resting star players in a head-to-head loss that helped Los Angeles “win” the “race” for the No. 6 seed — and a date with the 44-win Nuggets, slotted into the No. 3 seed ahead of the 60-win Mavericks (No. 4) under an antiquated set of seeding rules the NBA abolished that offseason.
These kinds of shenanigans have popped up in several international competitions, including the (gasp!) Olympics. In the 2008 Beijing Games, Serbia’s water polo team allegedly threw its final group play match against Italy in order to draw an inferior set of elimination-round opponents, including the U.S.; the aquatics gods punished it with a thrashing at the hands of the angered Americans in the semifinals.
Keep your eye on Group B of the basketball tournament in these Olympics. Barring a shocker, the U.S. is going to win Group A, and you can chart Group A’s full elimination path to the gold medal game right here. Read it carefully, and you’ll notice the team that finishes third in Group B can avoid facing Team USA until the gold-medal match, while the second-place Group B team would have to face the U.S. one round earlier. The easiest way to avoid Team USA until the final possible moment is to “control your own destiny” and win Group B, but Russia and Brazil — the latter looking very shaky so far — would likely have to upend Spain to do that. If your overriding goal is to avoid Team USA as long as possible — and it should be, if you want a medal — the system has incentivized someone among the Spain/Brazil/Russia crew to dive for third place. Read More…