Tanking has become a fixture in the NBA over the last several years. It is a strategy in which teams position themselves to lose games to better their chances at a top pick in the draft. It’s often used in sports leagues towards the end of any given season by non-playoff clubs. However, in the NBA, several teams spent whole seasons deliberately exercising it in the past decade.
Like any phenomena, there are many contributing factors to this development. In this case, such factors include the dominance of LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors and the successes of the Philadelphia 76ers rebuild. The league has tried to eliminate tanking by introducing new rules to the draft lottery and a play-in tournament at the end of the season.
Tanking is bad for business, but does it work? Given how many teams have tanked the last few years, the answer should be “yes.” It’s just not that simple. In this piece, we’ll analyze the surrounding factors of the tanking concept. The goal is to answer whether or not tanking works in the NBA.
Starting The Trend: Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers were the first team of the 2010s to adopt a full-season tank strategy. Once they decided to rebuild, they traded all the top players from the old guard. This included moving on from the likes of Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala, among others. Between 2013 and 2017, they posted a collective win-loss record of 75-253, averaging 15 wins per season.
While they were terrible, all the losing wasn’t without purpose. Coined “The Process,” the goal for then-GM Sam Hinkie was to position his team atop the draft to get elite young talent. This part of the plan was largely successful. The Sixers drafted third overall in 2014 and ’15, and first overall in 2016 and ’17.
What makes people think fondly of the 76ers four-year tank isn’t really the players they ended up with. It more so had to with who they could have had in hindsight. Instead of drafting Jahlil Okafor third overall in 2014, maybe they take Kristaps Porzingis. Rather than taking Markelle Fultz first in 2017, they could have taken Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell instead.
Maybe in the future, someone else tries to replicate “The Process” and builds a “superteam” from the ground up. That said, the odds don’t lean in favor of that
What Turned Tanking Into A Problem?
The 76ers weren’t the first team to throw a season to land a top pick in the draft. Even as adamant as Philly was about it, the league only went so far as to stop tanking altogether back then. Tanking has always been a part of sports leagues, especially in the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs tanked to land Tim Duncan in 1997. The Cleveland Cavaliers tanked to get LeBron James in 2003. So what changed between then and now?
The 2017-18 season saw several milestones reached. The same two teams met in the NBA Finals for the 4th straight year. The Warriors became a modern dynasty with their third championship in four seasons. James Harden took home his first league MVP. And at the bottom of this list, a league record of nine teams finished with under 30 wins.
The Hawks, Suns, Magic, Grizzlies, Bulls, Mavericks, Nets, Kings, and Knicks were as bad as you could fathom. For some of these groups, it wasn’t intentional. The Nets were trapped in the basement with no draft capital, and the Grizzlies were hampered with injuries. Even the Clippers, who finished at 42-40, traded Blake Griffin away mid-season, purposely bowing out of the playoff race.
The league couldn’t afford to have a third of its teams look as if they aren’t even trying. And so, they’ve been trying to implement changes to remedy the issue ever since.
What’s The Alternative?
Some teams never go into the tank. These groups rarely ever commit to a full-scale rebuild. In the current NBA, clubs like the Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers come to mind. Even in losing stars like Dwyane Wade and LaMarcus Aldridge, both teams made the best of the players that remained. It mostly worked out. Portland is a consistent playoff contender that made the West final in 2019. The Heat made the Finals just last season.
Another glowing example of a team who kept pushing for success includes the Toronto Raptors, who won a title without a top ten draftee on their roster in 2019. So we know that choosing not to tank can yield positive results. However, it isn’t all good and well on that front.
In the past decade, there were teams that never committed to a rebuild including a tank year or two that were stuck in competitive limbo. Never bad enough to get a top draft pick; rarely ever good enough to crack a playoff spot. Fitting of this bill is the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, Detroit Pistons, and more.
For some of these unlucky teams, tanking a season could have put them back on track by now. As we are today, none of the aforementioned teams are in the playoffs. All that said, never tanking has it’s ups and downs, and varies with the results.
The Play-In Tournament
This past week saw the introduction of the play-in tournament. The seventh through tenth seeds in both conferences competed for the last two playoff spots on each side. It was created to, among other things, give incentive to teams typically far out of playoff contention to compete instead of tanking.
Admittedly, the results were mixed. On the Eastside, it was just three blowouts. The West, however, really highlighted how beneficial the play-in tournament could be. The Lakers-Warriors game was the highest-rated game since the 2019 West final. Memphis’ games against San Antonio and Golden State went down to the wire. There was urgency and suspense. It made for exciting basketball content and ended with a play-in qualifier clinching a playoff berth.
While the inclusion of the tournament cost us Steph Curry and the Warriors in the playoffs, it kept teams in the hunt during the season. The Raptors, Bulls, Pelicans, and Kings kept fighting for the play-in position despite the down year they’ve all had. Some teams still tanked, but much fewer than in years past.
The Downside To Tanking In The NBA
This feels needless to say, but tanking reflects badly on the sport. Inside a league that displays professional basketball at the highest level, employing a rotation of low-level players is unbecoming. Additionally, even if the tank job works and a team attains a top draft pick, who’s to say that they take an elite prospect? Draft busts exist. The Suns made Josh Jackson a top-five pick. The Grizzlies drafted Hasheem Thabeet second overall in 2009. The list of draft day blunders stretches quite far.
Moreover, tanking for a season or more can manifest a failing culture inside a locker room. Despite the talent, it wasn’t until Monty Williams and Chris Paul arrived that the Suns were truly able to thrive. Even with DeMarcus Cousins in his prime, the Kings could never figure themselves out. The tank strategy isn’t foolproof. So is it wise to exercise it?
The Upside To Tanking in the NBA
Any team that opts to tank opens up an opportunity to start fresh while also seeking out underrated talent. Take the Oklahoma City Thunder, for example. Sam Presti spent the 2020 offseason trading nearly every serviceable veteran on his team. He traded away Chris Paul, Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Dennis Schroeder, Danny Green, Steven Adams, and James Johnson. During the season, he moved George Hill and Trevor Ariza.
Given this list of names, the Thunder could have easily tried to compete for playoff contention this year. However, by trading all these players, they acquired a massive haul of draft picks. Additionally, they’ve opened up rotation spots for guys like Theo Maledon, Moses Brown, and Aleksej Pokusevski. They’ve also given guys like Lugentz Dort and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander room to flesh out their game.
Considering all the promising talent they currently have developing and will draft in the coming years, the OKC Thunder have a promising future. They may even become a title contender before we know it.
To answer the question at hand, I don’t think tanking in the NBA works. It yields positive results in many ways, but I fail to see the point since the results vary. That said, it’s understandable why some teams do it. Especially for smaller markets, tanking appears to be the best option more often than for bigger markets. The league could only do so much to end tanking, but it won’t stop them from trying.