To Tank or Not to Tank: An NBA Struggle

This NBA season fans are salivating over the talent in college about five months early. Usually interest peaks in March, when the tournament showcases the best of the collegiate level and some NBA teams have given up on their seasons, but that’s not so this year. Supporters of some NBA teams, like Milwaukee (2-10), Utah (1-11), Boston (5-10), and Philadelphia (6-9) want their teams to “tank” and lose purposefully in order to gain a better draft spot.

The NBA is a unique case for tanking because each sport has inherent risks. Baseball, where no draft pick is ever guaranteed – much less a first-rounder – it is impossible to tank to even 40-122, which is the winning percentage (.250) where NBA teams want to be if losing purposefully. In the NFL and NHL, it would be foolish to set foot on the playing surface while purposefully not trying because of the violence within each sport.

The system that David Stern created in 1985 was to deter tanking. The NBA implemented the method of a lottery to decide the drafting order in which ping-pong balls representing all non-playoff teams are drawn. That means they all have a chance (with the worst team having the best, weighted odds) to earn the top-pick.

In regards to demeaning tanking, one commonly-heard argument is that the number-one overall pick is not a guarantee. The fact that Kwame Brown and Greg Oden were once first-overall selections serves as a severe reminder that it is impossible to predict exactly how well college talent translates in the professional paradigm. 

However, with the outstanding play so far this season by Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) and Jabari Parker (Duke) has provided incentive to throw away games. (Riggin’ for Wiggins and Sorry for Jabari!) A hope of snagging either of those franchise players is in the forefront of the mind of those fans.

Another thought is, “What’s the point of trying to win even if you’ll never make the playoffs? Get the best odds at someone like Wiggins or Parker and be happy!” Although even making the playoffs would be worse. In fact, it is the worst thing in the NBA to be just meh. Being the 8th seed in the NBA is the most futile position in sports. A guaranteed first-round loss and no shot at the number-one overall pick.  Even Brandon “Guarantee” Jennings couldn’t alter that fortune against the Heat last season.

A different take on tanking would be a sly approach. Such as: should a coach on a terrible team find himself giving a developing rookie more court-time than a veteran on a one-year deal even though the rookie is currently worse…that may not be such a bad thought.

Conversely, there are many downsides to tanking. For one reason: the team loses revenue as the fan-base loses interest because the organization purposely fields a poorly-performing team. Another: In the 24 years of draft lottery, only thrice has the worst-team in the NBA been rewarded with their choice of collegiate talent. Therefore, the loss of revenue and uncertainty of draft slot puts many problems into the ideology of tanking.

Tanking may make sense strategically for an organization, but asking a Point Guard to exhibit a string of bad performances decreases his value and could prevent a fringe player from playing with another team. Off the court and on the bench, the same goes for a coach, whose win-loss record may be inaccurately skewed and cost him a job offer. For example, this year the Boston Celtics hired former Butler coach Brad Stevens to manage the team. As of now Stevens presides over the “rebuilding” (a nicer word for tanking) that the C’s are going through. Say that, perhaps, in five years Boston decides they have seen enough and let him move on. Stevens owns a .300 career winning percentage as a coach because the Celtics did nothing but tank during his tenure. Coaches know this, they are smart people. Therefore, it is difficult for the upstairs management and front-office brass to convince the coaches and players to buy into tanking.

This year, even with the strength of Parker and Wiggins, seems to be a bad year to tank because of the overall depth. Even though LeBron James headlined the 2003 class, there were many talented, future-NBA superstars taken. Likewise, this upcoming class seems to mirror that with depth through Dante Exum, Julius Randle, and Marcus Smart just as a few examples. That way, struggling teams can still get talent in the draft without undergoing the shameful process of purposefully removing competition.

The final point is this: you shouldn’t tank. It is bad form, it alienates fans, and it does not even guarantee the top slot in the draft. 

 

*Side note on Boston Celtics as the aforementioned example for tanking. Do NOT trade Rajon Rondo right now. Do not. It would be a bad idea because, primarily, his value is way down currently and, because of Derrick Rose’s predicament, other teams will not trust a healing knee with a formerly torn ACL. Another reason is because the nucleus of a “rebuilding” team starts with who but Jeff Green, who is merely six months younger. Therefore, if you are a Celtics fan who says, “Get younger! Trade Rondo!” are you then willing to part with Green, too?

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