Professional sports are like many other industries. The goals of management and the employees are not always aligned.
Employees — in the case of pro sports, the players — are looking to perform as well as possible, and also looking to gain as much wisdom as possible at their current location so they can continue to improve. Management wants employees to do those things, but always wants it done in a way that manages costs and maximizes profits.
How that last part is achieved varies across professions, but in sports that might mean it’s in the organization’s best interest to lose games. That most certainly is the case for the Carolina Panthers and Utah Jazz.
Their goals were not the same at the beginning of their respective seasons. The Jazz had jettisoned their two best players, and all of their key contributors, with the exception of Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley. In Charlotte, the Panthers saw a path to a playoff berth in a weak NFC with a strong defense and the return of Christian McCaffrey, so they acquired 2018 No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield in a trade to play quarterback. What was sent away in that deal, as opposed to what the Jazz received in return for trading Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the price comparison is a bicycle to a Mercedes-Benz.
After six games, the Panthers turned out to be in the same position as the Jazz — arguably the worst team in the league. So they went full firesale and traded McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers. On Sunday, the Panthers’ very next game, they pounced on the division-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a dominating performance, with former XFL quarterback P.J. Walker outplaying Tom Brady.
In Salt Lake City, through three games into the 2022-23 NBA season, the Jazz are one of four remaining undefeated teams. They throttled one of the preseason Western Conference favorites — the Denver Nuggets — in their season opener, and pulled out two hard-fought overtime wins against the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans. Lauri Markkanen is playing some of the best basketball of his life — averaging 24 points per game — Clarkson is still a threat to get hot at any moment, and the Jazz are still only playing their best scorers a shade under 20 minutes per game. The last season in which Collin Sexton didn’t go down early with injury, he averaged 24.3 points per game on 47.5/37.1/81.3 shooting splits.
The prize for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL and NBA is truly grand in 2023. The best quarterback prospect is Bryce Young, who is a Patrick Mahomes-like final drive from Hendon Hooker away from still being undefeated, and top-prospect Patrick Wembanyama of France, who plays basketball like literally no one before him.
Management for the Panthers and the Jazz have every right to think that these two players can quickly make them one of the more relevant pro franchises, but where their interest conflicts with the employees is a lot of players currently rostered likely won’t be on either team should they win the ultimate prize: The No. 1 pick.
Losing is not fun on any level of competition. No one wants to practice, then exert game energy to come up short over and over again. Even the athletes who make great money, their competitiveness is a large part of the reason why they are professionals. Also, knowing that these bad teams that they are currently on will likely not be their final stop in their careers, they need to continue to play as well as possible so they can go on to have a financially lucrative career while the terrible team that they currently play for may or may not achieve their tanking goals.
In the NBA, the Western Conference is top-heavy with about as many good teams as there are playoff spots, so the Jazz will most likely be in the lottery. If they finish with one of the four-worst records they will have the best odds at the No. 1 overall pick, and if they have the fifth-worst record, they have a 12.5 percent chance as opposed to 14. For all that the Jazz’s roster lacks, they do have veteran talent, and Danny Ainge might have to find a way to get rid of some of that veteran experience to be sure and anchor the Jazz into the bottom five.
The Panthers have already lost five games, and prior to their Week 7 upset victory, three consecutive defeats were by double digits. However, as bad as they have looked, to stay in the depths of the NFL ocean will require consistent descent. The Houston Texans do appear to be what they were projected to be — the worst team in the league. Also, the hopes for that Detroit Lions turnaround that started with an entertaining season of HBO’s Hard Knocks, have quickly been dashed. Also, the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Jacksonville Jaguars could find themselves in that cluster of bad NFL teams.
Sure, the players are happy and productive employees right now for the Panthers and Jazz, but that doesn’t mean much for those franchises’ bottom lines in the future. They need stars to build around, and next year, two of the biggest enter both leagues.
Landing one of those two is what would be considered winning for management, but all they can do is get rid of talent. In this profession, ironically because of the control management has over players’ contracts that allows them to be moved as quickly as the bosses see fit, what they have no control over is how the players work. The players’ job is to play hard and attempt to win, regardless of how much their employers have to hide their disappointment with every victory.