NBA

Tanking in the NBA: Does it Work?

Mar 11, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; With less than a minute left in the game key magic players watch the game from the bench (left to right) Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) and guard Evan Fournier (10) and forward Aaron Gordon (00) and guard Elfrid Payton (4) and forward Terrence Ross (31) during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. The Cavaliers won 116-104.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic made a big decision at this most recent trade deadline. They blew up their current core to build for the future. They traded away Nikola VucevicEvan Fournier, and Aaron Gordon, arguably their three best players. This trade makes their plans clear. They couldn’t compete for a title with this core, so they blew it up and started new. But it remains to be seen whether tanking in the NBA is a viable path to contention.

Orlando’s Tanking Experience

December 8, 2009; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard (12) moves the ball against the defense of Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman (35) during the second half at the Staples Center. Orlando defeats Los Angeles 97-86.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2014 off-season, the Magic drafted Aaron Gordon and traded for Evan Fournier. At this point, Vucevic had already been on the roster for a couple of years. It’s safe to say the 2014-15 season was the first for this core, and this current one the last. But to best explore this team, let’s go back a bit further.

Throughout the late 2000s, the Magic were contenders. They were consistently one of the best defenses in the league, anchored by Dwight Howard. They even went to the finals in 2009. But all good things must come to an end, and in the 2012 offseason, they traded Dwight to the Lakers. But in this massive 4 team trade, they acquired Vucevic. The trade ended the Howard era in Orlando, and as a result, they fell to the bottom of the league.

The First Tank

Dec 5, 2012; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Orlando Magic players huddle prior to a game against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Magic were the worst team in the league in 2012-13, completing a year of tanking. For their efforts, they were rewarded with the 2nd pick in the draft. They picked Oladipo, who didn’t exactly pan out for them, but when you look at the other players picked in the top 5, you have to give a lot of credit to the scouts for Orlando. Anthony Bennett was first, then Otto Porter Jr., Alex Len, and Cody Zeller rounded out the top 5. Orlando was just unlucky that they got this great pick in such a weak draft.

Next year they finished with the 3rd worst record in the league and picked Aaron Gordon 4th in the draft. It wasn’t a bad pick, but it stings as they were just one spot behind the tanking mastermind Sam Hinkie and his Philadelphia 76ers who got Joel Embiid.

A New Era

Jun 26, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Aaron Gordon (Arizona) is interviewed after being selected as the number four overall pick to the Orlando Magic in the 2014 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014-15 season is up next, and this is the first year of the new core in Orlando. That doesn’t mean the tanking stopped, though. They had the 5th worst record in the league and picked Mario Hezonja 5th in the draft. This was just one spot behind the Knicks selecting Kristaps Porzingis. Once again, the lottery balls refuse to bounce in their favor. In the 2015-16 season, they improved! They finished 10th in the east and picked Domantis Sabonis with the 11th pick in the draft.

I know what you’re thinking now. “Wait they had Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Fournier, Oladipo, and Sabonis on the same team?!?” Technically they did, but really, no. They traded Sabonis and Oladipo to the Thunder for Serge Ibaka, which is probably the biggest mistake they made this era. If they kept those two guys and trusted that their young core would improve, they would have a solid roster now. But they didn’t.

The Peak

Apr 13, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) drives to the net against Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) during the first half of game one of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.
 John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, in 2019, all their tanking came to fruition. They made the playoffs as the 7th seed!!! Then they won the first game against the Raptors!! But the Raptors swept the next 4 games and sent Orlando packing. They made the playoffs again the next year as an 8 seed and had the same result as the first time: losing 4-1 to the Bucks. As sad as it sounds, those two years were the peak of this era in Orlando.

They made the playoffs, which is a big deal. But ideally, the playoffs aren’t the end goal; you want a title. Festering at the bottom of the NBA for years only to make the playoffs twice doesn’t seem like a good trade-off.

The Magic blew it up in the early 2010s. They tried going rock bottom in hopes that they would come out on top. But this is an example of tanking in the NBA gone wrong. Every year their picks were just a little too low. Or they made bad decisions with their young players. But here we are in the early 2020s, and the Magic are doing it again. Why should Magic fans believe this time will be any different? Is there any proof that tanking in the NBA can work?

Can Tanking Succeed?

Feb 10, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings at Wells Fargo Center.
 Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last decade, tanking has become a popular strategy in the NBA. The concept lies at the root of management in the sport. For a long time, the only way to acquire a star player was through the draft, and it remains the best way to find a franchise player. Therefore, to get a high pick and a good player, you must have a bad record. This system keeps the league even: if you are already successful, you will have a tough time getting good players through the draft. If you are struggling, it will be much easier.

Popularized by Sam Hinkie, former general manager of the 76ers, tanking is simply being terrible taken to the extreme. Purposely making moves that make the team worse to obtain high draft picks. But it remains to be seen whether tanking in the NBA can lead to a contender.

The Process

Jun 24, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers number one overall draft pick Ben Simmons (R) is greeted by center Joel Embiid (L) during a press conference at the Philadelphia College Of Osteopathic Medicine.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Any list of teams that have been built by tanking must start with the Philadelphia 76ers. They underwent a long period of tanking, living by the now-famous mantra “Trust the Process.” From 2014-18 the 76ers had 4 top 3 picks, including two number one overall selections. With those picks, they selected Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor, and Markelle Fultz.

Embiid and Simmons are now the two most important players on the team. Fultz and Okafor didn’t pan out for the 76ers and got traded. On the backs of Embiid and Simmons, the team has made the playoffs the last 3 years and will likely be a high seed in this year’s playoffs. They haven’t made it past the 2nd round yet, but this year may be the year for them.

Not only did the draft give them superstars, but they also flipped some of their picks and young players in deals to strengthen their core. They may be the best example of a successful tank because they have come out the other side as a successful club.

The Suns

Jun 25, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Devin Booker (Kentucky) greets NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number thirteen overall pick to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft at Barclays Center.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Suns are another franchise that took to tanking through the 2010s. They followed a similar timeline to the Magic. Successful on the back of Steve Nash in the late 2000s, but that came to an end. They traded Nash to the Lakers the same year the Magic traded Howard (this is eerily similar). They had slightly better luck in the draft than the Magic but had many of the same issues.

In that weak 2013 draft, they had the 5th pick and took Alex Len. The next few years, they had picks in the high teens, but in 2015 found a diamond in the rough with Devin Booker. They squandered 2 4th overall picks but had the top pick in 2018 and drafted Deandre Ayton, who has proven to be a solid player so far. The most significant difference between them and the Magic is that they capitalized on the young players they drafted rather than trading them away too early.

The Suns have now built a real contender around Devin Booker, and acquiring Chris Paul this offseason pushed them to the top level. This is only their first year as a playoff team, but their young core gives them a chance at many more.

Tanking Gone Wrong

Feb 25, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett (21) waves to fans during a game against the Washington Wizards at Target Center.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Suns and 76ers are examples of teams that found success through tanking, but on the other end of the spectrum are the Minnesota Timberwolves. If your favorite team is currently tanking, please skip this section. Reading this will only lead to a level of fear that doesn’t belong in NBA fandom.

In 2004 the Timberwolves made the western conference finals on the back of their star Kevin Garnett. In 2007 he was traded to Boston. The Timberwolves have made the playoffs once since the 2004 season. What have they been doing that whole time? Tanking.

Over this period of time, they have had 12 picks in the top 10. 7 of those picks have been in the top 5. Yes, that’s right, all those high picks and all they have to show for it is one playoff series. That’s tanking gone wrong. Actually, scratch that it’s tanking gone horribly wrong.

It started with drafting poorly. O.J. Mayo with the 3rd pick in 2008? Not great. Derrick Williams 2nd in 2011? Yeah, that’s rough. But they’ve also made some good picks, and that’s the scariest part. They made some good decisions but still haven’t broken out of this cycle. Karl Anthony-Towns is an amazing player. Finding Zach LaVine at 13th is great. Trading him, Kris Dunn (picked 5th), and Lauri Markkanen (picked 7th) to have Jimmy Butler for 1 year is considerably less great. Granted, Jimmy led them to their only playoff appearance in the last 17 seasons. So maybe it was a good deal in some sickening Timberwolvesian way?

They had the number 1 overall pick again this last draft and picked Anthony Edwards, who looks good so far. But at this point, it feels like it will take a miracle to save this franchise.

The Verdict on Tanking

May 17, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan represents his team during the NBA draft lottery at New York Hilton Midtown. The Philadelphia 76ers received the first overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves’ are stuck in tanking limbo now, with no signs of leaving anytime soon. The NBA needs a little booklet that covers this whole period of the Timberwolves’ history. It should be used as a disclaimer surrounding the risks of tanking:

“Oh so you’re thinking about tanking? Don’t worry we’ll send over the disclaimer immediately. Just read it through then you’re good to go. If you still want to that is”.

I bet that would make many teams think twice about the risks of tanking in the NBA. In this modern era of extreme tanking, the Timberwolves are the only team to go belly up as a result. But another point must be considered. Are the years of being abysmal worth it for a chance to contend?

This answer depends on who you ask. I’m sure many owners would be glad to middle out, barely making the playoffs some years and just missing others. They get their money from those playoff series and can make their profit from the team. But if you asked fans the answer would be different.

Many fans would willingly take a couple of years of being at the bottom of the league if it got them some star players and a chance to compete for a title. Tanking is a risk, but for a team trying to reach the top in the NBA, risks aren’t optional they’re a necessity. The Magic are just the latest of many teams to take this risk, it’s not even their first time on this ride. They’ll have to hope it can pay off big this time.

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