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What actually is tanking, and which NBA teams actually do it?

Our current discussion of the "tanking epidemic" fails to really define what tanking actually is. Once you dig deep into this definition, it's hard to find a reason to be outraged at all.


Tanking is a scourge, apparently. Tanking is endemic to NBA culture, we are told. The very nature of the NBA and the US collegiate system necessitates a draft by which the most unsuccessful teams get the best players, and this, it is said, encourages tanking. Tanking is an evil to be rallied against, hence the recent Zach Lowe story about the new proposed NBA draft system that dispenses with positional relevance and distributes draft picks in a far more arbitrarily democratic way. Every now and then, a remedy to this universally-accepted problem comes around.

But how deep does this problem really go? Is it deep at all? Who out there is actually tanking? Quite what is it that we are fighting against? What is tanking, who does it, why, and when?

"Tanking," as we are to understand it, is a team's intent to do less than everything it can to win. It is a concerted effort over several months (and perhaps several seasons) by a team to deliberately not be as good as it could be. It is considered cheap, disingenuous and dishonest, the byproduct of a flawed system where a team can be rewarded for being bad and where deliberately losing is thereby a strategic decision.

It's true that any game can be deliberately lost. While tanking is a mechanism usually employed with regards to the draft, the most egregious example of deliberate losing in recent history perversely had nothing to do with it. An April 2006 game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies featured an overtime win for the Grizzlies that they simply did not want. They were unable to play worse than the Timberwolves, who unashamedly let Mark Madsen shoot seven three pointers in a bid to have one of the 10 worst records in the league, thereby keeping a conditional pick they owed to the Clippers. You couldn't try harder to lose, and any veneer of competitiveness was dispensed with. It was noxious. It was toxic. It was everything professional sport should not be.

The aforementioned Grizzlies victory notwithstanding, though, players (almost) always play to win. This is partly due to the pride of being a professional athlete, partly due to the instinctive nature of human competitiveness and partly because no player wants to tank their statistics. After all, this is a league in which players deliberately and persistently shoot half-court heaves a split second after the game clock expires so as to not ruin their field goal percentage.

Similarly, coaches are evaluated based on their win totals. Even coaches who are hired by bad teams knowing that they will remain bad for a short time regardless of the coach's abilities and impact can often be fired if the team loses a lot. All coaches therefore coach to win. If your coach plays the mediocre but reliably-predictable veteran over the mistake-prone young upstart, even on the way to a 25-win season, it's because he really believes it gives him the best chance to win and that winning gives him the best chance of job security. He's right about at least one of these things.

Any deliberate designs on losing, then, come from the front office. But how often does this actually happen?

Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports

A look around the NBA at the present moment does not reveal much in the way of tanking right now. Not even in the Eastern Conference, where most of the losing resides. Two of the teams at the bottom of the East --New York and Brooklyn -- infamously are not supposed to be there. The team at the very bottom, the Milwaukee Bucks, are notoriously shackled by a playoffs-every-season edict that they aren't good at actually achieving. Further back of Brooklyn with a 12-23 record is Cleveland, a team intending to start pushing for the playoffs, yet held back by a series of underwhelming signings and a worryingly poor start for their No. 1 pick. One could argue that they should be tanking, yet this week's trade for veteran all-star forward Luol Deng trade clearly indicates they are not. Charlotte is attempting to make the playoffs -- after all, they have a draft pick going elsewhere -- and were only one game below .500 as of a fortnight ago. Detroit is trying to make the best of a mishmash of talent with genuine potential, but little cohesion. Boston is in a similar situation with much lesser talent, except their coach is too good for this to be a problem.

That leaves only Orlando and Philadelphia, both teams committed to a youth movement and not long removed from trading quality stars, as the potential "tankers."

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Meanwhile, in the West, there are only six sub-.500 teams. Memphis and the Lakers are where they are because of injuries, not through tanking. In trading two first-round picks for Jrue Holiday and spending all their flexibility on Tyreke Evans, the Pelicans emphatically signaled an intent to end their losing days, even if it hasn't strictly worked out yet. Minnesota is half a game below .500 and a preseason playoff pick, slightly behind the curve due to Ricky Rubio's slow start. Sacramento is losing due to a confused, duplicating roster and remarkably poor team defense, yet their recent trade for Rudy Gay signifies their intent to not tank their way out of it.

Then, there's Utah. While the Jazz are certainly mired in an asset gathering/youth movement phase, they are absolutely, correctly (and finally) playing said youth.

Is what Utah are doing really tanking? And if so, what is wrong with it?

It needn't be examined as to whether front offices have tanked in the past. Of course, they have -- egregious examples include multiple efforts by the Timberwolves in the Kevin Garnett era to keep hold of the pick they recklessly traded for Marko Jaric, and the Warriors's 5-22 end to the 2011-12 season (one which had started with a playoff guarantee) that enabled them to keep the pick that became Harrison Barnes that otherwise would have gone to the Jazz.

But keep in mind this reality: Executives, too, are often on short term contracts. They too are accountable to a team's on-court performance. Only in circumstances of supreme and unfound loyalty born out of the NBA's nepotism and old boys networks do we see executives survive at the head after lengthy periods of moribund play. "Tanking" teams, as evidenced by those outlined above, are usually new regimes brought in to rectify previously-unsuccessful ones. Sam Hinkie in Philadelphia didn't make the franchise-altering Andrew Bynum trade, Rob Hennigan in Orlando wasn't the one who wasted the Dwight Howard years, and Dennis Lindsey in Utah neither assembled nor deconstructed the Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer years.

Indeed, because of their short term contracts and high job turnover, executives are instead more prone to quick fixes and instant gratification. Even now, rare is the instance where ownership and executive relationships are so harmonious and trusting that the owners can accept the GM playing the long game. The NBA has come a long way in this regard over the last decade, as greater awareness of team building and strategy have passed into the public conscience (and thus team accountability), yet often a disconnect remains.

You would expect, then, for management and ownerships to not want their teams to be bad. And that does not reconcile readily with the concept of a league-wide tanking epidemic.


Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Even if these executives are indeed free to take the long view, are they "tanking?" Were Orlando and Utah tanking when they traded for so many young players and future first-round draft picks? Surely that is only true if all the priority is given to the present. Yet if these teams really were tanking as emphatically as they could, they could do it much better than this. The Jazz, for example, are 11-12 with Trey Burke starting and rapidly becoming too good to be bad. They are mediocre, with a lot of internal growth yet to come. They acquired one of the best players in a weak draft, in doing so taking themselves out of the running for drafting right at the top of an extremely strong one. If this keeps up, Trey Burke might cost them Andrew Wiggins.

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If the Jazz were specifically trying their best to lose this year, in a draft when doing so would behoove them far more potential superstar talents than the previous one did, they would have trodden water for longer. They didn't. They capitalized on the weak perception of the 2013 draft and traded up to land one of the best players in it for a minimal cost. The 76ers did something similar; they paid a slightly higher cost, but also created a foundation in 2013 with Nerlens Noel and the best rookie in the NBA, Michael Carter-Williams. And Orlando could have picked Noel, have him miss the season, continued to trade away anyone looking vaguely useful and been even worse for the 2014 draft, whereby they could then flank the returning Noel with a superstar talent and be half way back up the Ziggeraut again. But they took Victor Oladipo, perhaps the most NBA-ready high lottery pick in last year's draft, instead.

The worst team in the NBA, it must be remembered, is one who tried to be good.

Perhaps it is the case that the supposed tankers are actually just better managed, better at asset accumulation and management, better at strategizing, better at building a team that'll last. That sounds like a team trying to win, not lose. And one step backwards can mean three steps forwards.


Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Keep this in mind now that we've reached the point of the season where so-called "tanking" begins in earnest. By now, teams have evaluated what they have and where they are going. Some of them won't like it. Some will identify a core of players, identify the tradeable remainder and pawn off that which is pawnable. They might weaken their current product in exchange for future flexibility and assets. That is not mere terminology talking: That really is what happens. This is exactly what the Deng trade was for Chicago. And there will be more of this. Teams out of the hunt will look to the future.

Is that tanking? Is that deliberate losing? Sure, if deliberate losing and tanking are hereby defined as the weakening of the chances of winning the next game.

But no matter how important or attainable the short term goals are, the big picture is always present. It is not an endemic problem permeating the entire league. It is a strategy shift teams adopt if circumstances demand it. Often times, it is the best strategy there is.

And without a truly free market, it will stay so.

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