At the time of this article two teams who were thought to be prime candidates for tanking, Philadelphia and Phoenix, are 3-0 and 2-1 respectively. The Sixers can boast of wins agains the the Heat and Bulls while the Suns’ lone loss came to Oklahoma City in their home opener and on a night Russell Westbrook made his return. Despite this, they still played OKC tough, having been down only 2 in the final minute. Of the other potential tanking contenders, Utah, Milwaukee, Boston and Charlotte have all gone on the record to vehemently denounce the tactic.
This should all come as welcome news to NBA fans.
The most overstated storyline of the upcoming season has been tanking. A draft that is loaded with talent is the incentive for purposefully not playing up to the best of a team’s capabilities. At the surface level, it makes sense – play bad now in order to get better for the future. But the lingering narrative is not entirely accurate, nor is it what we should want the game to become.
What makes a good franchise is still determined by how well a team is run, top down, from owners, to management, to coaches, to players. That will never change. The notion that a team can tank their way to a high lottery pick, secure a potential superstar and have their fortune forever changed for the positive is an incredibly simplistic and embellished argument that runs contrary to what actually happens. Ask perennial lottery mainstays Charlotte, Sacramento and Washington how well being in the lottery year after year has worked for them.
Even the Clippers’ fate did not change with multiple lottery selections; it changed with the acquisition of Chris Paul and owner Donald Sterling finally taking a backseat and allowing basketball people to make basketball decisions.
And for a team like the Thunder, who built their success through the lottery, nobody has accused them of tanking to get there. They were lucky Portland was still enamored with going big in order to get Kevin Durant, and the selections of Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden earned GM Sam Presti and Thunder management a reputation as being one of the best in the NBA. Very few had Westbrook going as high as his fourth overall selection, not to mention changing him to a point guard. Ibaka was picked 24th overall where few players manage to etch out a solid career. And how many envisioned Harden to be as good as he is? The irony is that the Thunder were a victim of their own drafting prowess as they were unable to pay all their star selections their worth, leaving them to deal Harden to Houston.
There are a lot of problems with tanking. First, you have to lose a lot of games, and you might not be the only team tanking, thereby having to compete for the worst record in the league. You run the risk of becoming perpetual losers and alienating a fan base, your own players and potential free agents. And let’s say you do secure the worst record, this only guarantees you a 25% chance of picking first.
Boston found this out the hard way. In 1997 Tim Duncan was the prize of the draft and a reason to lose. Ten years later Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were the incentives for being horrible. The best they could manage was the third and fifth pick. Now, it’s worth noting that they parlayed their fifth pick along with other assets in 2007 for Ray Allen, and, on an unrelated deal, picked up Kevin Garnett about a month later to bolster a team that won a championship in 2008. Yet the point remains, their plethora of losses did not help them to a top pick. What turned them around was good decision making by their brass.
And even if you get the coveted top pick of the draft, there is no assurance that translates into championships. Since 1985, the year the NBA implemented a lottery system for the draft, only two players have been selected first overall and have gone on to win championships for the team that drafted them – David Robinson and Tim Duncan, both for the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most respected organizations in the league.
One might argue the Cleveland Cavaliers tank job in the 2002-2003 season was a success since it netted them Lebron James in the subsequent draft. However, one could just as easily counter argue his departure to the Heat and the ire it caused nullifies any notion that it ended successfully for the Cavaliers as they retreated back to where the they started, the depths of the lottery.
If you analyze that Cavaliers team, you see their tanking was a management decision. They made a conscious effort to stock their roster with a team that was certain to lose. When Ricky Davis is your best player, you know you’re in for a losing season. No amount of coaching or effort can resurrect that team.
This brings us to an important distinction about tanking: Tanking is often thought of as losing on purpose – either the players don’t play hard or the coach is purposely making decisions that cost his team victories. This is often held in a more negative light than what is called rebuilding. Did the Cavaliers tank, or were they just rebuilding?
I’m more inclined to call it tanking. They wanted to be bad. They did so with a team they knew would lose. Their plan was to go all in on Lebron James, and they got lucky. That seemed to be their only plan. But what does rebuilding look like?
Take this year’s Utah Jazz team for example. Many expect them to be bad this year, but it comes with a caveat – their future looks promising. They have a solid young core in Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Trey Burke. GM Dennis Lindsey also has a plan in place – multiple first round picks in upcoming drafts, ample cap space and a developing young roster. This is the difference. They have options. They are not going all in on one scenario. And as stated before, they are on the record saying they will compete every night while readily acknowledging their youthful team may take some lumps along the way. It’s all part of development. They are not alone. The Suns, the 76ers and perhaps others have similar plans in place to improve their fortune.
This, of course, is a good thing for the NBA and its fans. It can’t become a league where purposely losing is legitimate strategy. Nor can it be talked about as the only strategy for young teams who are likely to be bad. There is a difference between tanking and rebuilding. One is a sound strategy, the other is not.