Why tanking does not work

David Friedman Columnist

By David Friedman, David Friedman is a Roar Expert

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    Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

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    The theory behind tanking sounds good, at least if you disregard the ethical questions about the value of always trying your best and the fraud involved with charging full ticket prices for fans to see teams try to fail.

    Conventional wisdom states that the worst fate for an NBA franchise is to be stuck in 41-41 purgatory, neither contending for the championship nor earning a lottery pick.

    Supposedly, the best strategy for a middle of the pack team is to raze the roster, plummet to the bottom of the standings and take advantage of a lottery pick to recharge the team’s fortune.

    When put this way, tanking sounds rational.

    The problem is that it does not work.

    I wrote about tanking last season but it is worth discussing again because some teams are so blatantly tanking that multiple websites are tracking the tanking ‘standings’, with the leaders being the teams with the most losses.

    The Philadelphia 76ers made the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 with Doug Collins as the coach. In 2012, they pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the second round. Then, the 76ers traded for Andrew Bynum, who was never healthy enough to be the franchise centre that the 76ers hoped that he would be.

    The 76ers missed the 2013 playoffs by four games and Collins resigned.

    The cupboard was not bare and management could have built the roster patiently. Instead, the 76ers fielded a team so comically inept that they made the Washington Generals look like Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics. The 76ers went 19-63 in 2013-14 and then got even more serious about tanking, dropping their first 16 games of the 2014-15 campaign.

    They are currently 14-49, the second worst mark in the league behind only the 12-49 New York Knicks who expected to be good, played poorly and then went into full tank mode.

    In the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson declared, “Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft.”

    Not once! Tanking does not work most of the time or some of the time or if everything falls into place just right. Tanking does not work, period.

    Philadelphia fans who think that they see a light at the end of the tunnel of all of this losing will likely find out that the light is from a train heading straight toward them.

    Hoping to obtain one superstar who will singlehandedly turn around a franchise is not a strategy but a roll of the dice that generally comes up snake-eyes. If a team does not have a winning culture in place from the top of the organisation down, then even if that team lands a superstar it will not have the right infrastructure in place to maximise his talents and surround him with the help that he needs to win a championship.

    A championship team takes care of business the right way, on and off of the court. There are no shortcuts to greatness. It is important to hire a General Manager who understands the sport and whose personality is the right mix of boldness and patience. Such a GM must bring a first rate coach into the fold, one who can teach young players while also keeping the veterans motivated if the team has no chance to win a title.

    NBA teams that turn around and stay turned around have a philosophy of player acquisition that goes well beyond hoping that the number one pick falls into their laps.

    The teams that are losing on purpose are disgraceful. They are following a strategy that is not only unethical but also flawed and they deserve to lose now and in the future, though one does feel sorry for the players on such teams who are actually trying their best but have been dealt an unplayable hand.

    Putting together a roster that has no chance to win breeds bad attitudes and habits within an organization.

    Tanking is not only self-destructive for the teams that do it but it also makes a mockery of the sport.

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.

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    The Crowd Says (15)

    • March 9th 2015 @ 8:35am
      joe said | March 9th 2015 @ 8:35am | ! Report

      In the NBA tanking,or just being so bad you aren’t competitive,can be worthwhile if theres a legit franchise player awaiting in the upcoming draft.
      Problem is,there isn’t a player like that on the horizon.
      In the past 20 yrs or so off top of my head the only “cant miss” guys before the draft where Tim Duncan,LeBron.Blake Griffin was a monster at Oklahoma im pretty sure he was in that same “cant miss” category when entering the draft.Anthony Davis was another in that category.
      There may be a couple more but those 4 stand out just running thru my head quickly.
      Point is there arent very many guys coming into the league worth tanking for.
      So youre right.Other thing is you can tank & get screwed with the ping pong balls & end up with 5th overall selection instead of the #1 pick you tanked for to hopefully get

    • March 9th 2015 @ 11:52am
      Blueberry said | March 9th 2015 @ 11:52am | ! Report

      Another problem with tanking: it’s inequitable between teams. Look at the current NHL season; by far and away Toronto is the largest hockey fan base in the world. It’s also the most captive. The Maple Leafs are tanking in the hopes of a good draft pick but still selling seats. But the same luxury could not be afforded to Florida or Arizona. Fans there would turn away, not caring enough about to hockey to have the patience to stick through a tank year in the hopes of a turnaround.

      It’s a consequence of ring fenced leagues AND draft lotteries. No one has any incentives to see out the season at hand and there’s no possibility for a new team to enter the market if an incumbent team doesn’t want to work with what it has already. But the lottery only redoubles these perverse incentives…

    • March 9th 2015 @ 12:31pm
      astro said | March 9th 2015 @ 12:31pm | ! Report

      Firstly, I agree that tanking is horrible and I don’t like it one bit.

      However, I’d argue that the Soncis/OKC built very effectively through the draft. Durant, Westbrook, Green, Ibaka and Harden, all in a couple of years…so I don’t think we can say using the draft to build a team cant be done.

      But a major aspect of tanking being overlooked is the concept of assets and cap flexibility.

      Yes, Philly are tanking in order to get a high draft pick. By being the worst in the league, they are assured of a top 3 pick, and so far, Noel and (probably) Embiid have been successful outcomes of that strategy. Saric is also likely to be a quality player.

      However, by dumping players for picks, and committing no players to long term contracts, Philly are the most flexible team in the league. Assuming they land in the top 3 again this year, they’ll trot out Embiid, Noel, Saric and someone like Mudiay/Russell from this years draft, but also have the future assets and money to chase any established NBA star they want.

      This is a league where Goran Dragic was just traded for a couple of picks, one of which was top 7 protected, so they could easily put together a package for Jimmy Butler, or throw a tonne of money at Kawai Leonard, just as examples.

      In the same way the Rockets had the flexibility and assets to jump on James Harden, Philly are in the same situation, and would be looking to make the same kind of move.

    • March 9th 2015 @ 1:26pm
      express34texas said | March 9th 2015 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

      Correct if I’m wrong, but didn’t SA draft Duncan and LAL draft Kobe, just to name a few examples? Unintentionally or intentionally, tanking has worked. SA would still probably not have even 1 title if their 96 squad wasn’t so awful, allowing them to get Duncan in the lottery. Without him, nobody would be saying they’re the best org. in the league. They might not have tried to tank, but once the season was lost, why try to win 30 games, when you can 20 wins and get a probable better pick? It might be unethical and I don’t like it at all, but it’s not illegal, and it’s smart to do.

      These smaller markets are going to have a tough time getting big-time players. There isn’t a title team that hasn’t had a superstar-type player and/or bunch of stars. Even if you get 3-4 stars, it’s much rarer to win than with 1 big-time star, but still possible. There’s 3 ways to get players: draft, trade, and FA. Teams aren’t going to trade away a superstar unless they fear that player won’t resign with them. FA can be a crapshoot even for the biggest markets. That leaves the draft, which can definitely be hit-and-miss.

      The 76ers weren’t going to do anything in 2013 unless they made some changes. They tried to get a top center in the game, but it didn’t work out. That stuff happens. Now they have lots of flexibility and lots of pieces to work with. None of their players look like true stars yet, so who knows, but maybe one or more of them pan out. Should they sign a guy Melo for a max contract? That’d be bad for any team. Now it sounds like Dragic will get a max contract next year, what a waste of money/cap space to the team who gets him. That’s a terrible plan. If you can get that superstar or 2-4 stars, the rest of the pieces can move in around them, and it’s easier to attract players. If the goal is winning a title, which it should be for every team, you need big-time players, that’s the only way, and even then, it’s super hard.

      • March 9th 2015 @ 1:45pm
        joe said | March 9th 2015 @ 1:45pm | ! Report

        The Spurs were going to be a top level team the season they crashed & burned & ended up with the top pick & landed Duncan.David Robinson went down with serious injury & San Antonio went down with him gone.Sean Elliott also missed most of that season.
        The Lakers didnt tank to get Kobe.He went to them via a trade with the Hornets for Vlade Divac.I think Charlotte took Kobe with the 12th overall pick or somewhere in that range then traded him to LA
        Theres times when tanking is definitely worth while,if you have a Tim Duncan or Lebron on the horizon that can change your franchises fortunes.But all time great players like that dont just roll out that often.
        Do these teams tanking now are doing it for what? Or who? Jahlil Okafor from Duke?
        His game has a lot of holes in it,he isnt gonna carry a franchise for the next 10 seasons to multiple titles.
        This draft you could have the same success with a guy taken #1 overall as with a guy taken #6 overall,theres no Anthony Davis like talent waiting to be selected.

        • March 9th 2015 @ 2:39pm
          express34texas said | March 9th 2015 @ 2:39pm | ! Report

          I know SA had injuries in 97, but only 20 wins was still pathetic for what they had. While they may not have been consciously trying to tank that year, I find it hard to believe they tried to maximize their win total, and I can’t blame them. Why try to squeeze out 5-10 more wins? They knew it was a lost season. I was referring to the sentence in that article talking about how ‘no teams have ever become title teams through the draft.’ And that’s just not true. A lot of title teams have gotten 1 or more stars plus several other rotation-caliber players through the draft. Technically, Kobe was traded to LAL, but it was really a draft pick. They traded for the pick, and then told CHA who to draft for them. They were slightly lucky to get an all-time great @ #13, but also nobody picked Kobe before that. Most of it is actually luck. I don’t condone tanking, and unless you’re already knowing you’ll be really bad when the season starts, it probably shouldn’t even be an option. Very few teams, if any, do a full scale tank. They’re just trying to get young players in and give them a chance to see how good they might be.

          Regardless if you’re trying to tank on purpose or not, being a bad team allows you to get a high pick. Whether intentional or not, it doesn’t really matter, the product you put out there is still awful. I don’t agree it works all the time, but if you’re looking for that star player, and the draft is basically your only option to acquire one, it could be an option. Every HS or college player has some holes, that’s why they’re called prospects.

          • Columnist

            March 10th 2015 @ 1:21am
            David Friedman said | March 10th 2015 @ 1:21am | ! Report

            Express34texas:

            The exact line in my article, which is a direct quote from Derek Thompson’s piece, is “…a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft.” That has a much different meaning than the way you paraphrased it (“no teams have ever become title teams through the draft”). Of course the draft is an important tool for building a team but the point is that in the past three decades no team has ever intentionally become awful (as the 76ers and other teams are doing now) and then become a title team. The Spurs, as mentioned above, did not intentionally become awful; they suffered through injuries, most notably to David Robinson, but they never succumbed to a losing mentality/philosophy.

            • March 10th 2015 @ 3:34am
              express34texas said | March 10th 2015 @ 3:34am | ! Report

              I understand that, but that guy’s article and that line is very misleading. What is more relevant is not necessarily if a team is awful, below average, mediocre, good, or great before landing their superstar-type player. It’s what actually happens when they do get that type of player. I can’t think of one true big-time player that hasn’t at least won a title or at least gotten to a finals. Maybe Malone/Barkley, but they aren’t really on anyone’s top 20 list. And very few teams have ever won without at least one, and often 2 big-time players.

              • Columnist

                March 11th 2015 @ 2:38am
                David Friedman said | March 11th 2015 @ 2:38am | ! Report

                Express34Texas:

                How is Thompson’s article misleading? The point is that no team in the past three decades or so that intentionally hit rock bottom has subsequently won a title. No one denies the value of drafting good players or the impact that a great player can have but the point is that the strategy of intentionally being bad for one or more years with the idea that this is a shortcut to greatness has been proven not to work. Teams that develop losing cultures are not going to fully develop the talents of a great player even if they luck out and get such a player. It is also possible to have a terrible record and not even get the number one pick. It makes much more sense to methodically improve one’s team as opposed to razing the roster and hoping for the best.

    • March 9th 2015 @ 2:51pm
      Optimus Prime said | March 9th 2015 @ 2:51pm | ! Report

      You’re right obviously. But what you gonna do to stop it?

    • Columnist

      March 11th 2015 @ 2:42am
      David Friedman said | March 11th 2015 @ 2:42am | ! Report

      Optimus Prime:

      That is a very good question. One possible solution would be to get rid of the draft entirely and make all teams bid for players on the open market. That is the way that hiring practices work in most industries. Teams would still be limited by the salary cap and by a maximum roster size of 15, so one wealthy team could not just buy up all of the best players. If there were no draft then there would be absolutely no incentive for a team to lose and in fact losing teams would have to pay a premium in order to get players to join their rosters.

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