The NBA is entering the Adam Silver era, after David Stern was the commissioner for the past 30 years. In comes new commissioner Silver to build on the work done by the Stern administration.
One of the most controversial topics right now in the league is the topic of tanking, or losing on purpose to try and get a better pick in the upcoming draft. In the NBA, it’s great to be a winning team, but it isn’t that easy to build a contender. One method is the way the Miami Heat won the championship: adding a couple big-time free agents — Lebron James and Chris Bosh coming to help star Dwyane Wade in 2010 — and building the team around them. This method is not practical for every team, though, especially teams in smaller markets that can’t attract stars as easily.
Another way to build a contender is to stockpile assets — first-round picks, promising young players — and trading those assets for a superstar. The Houston Rockets combined these strategies when they traded young assets for star guard James Harden before last season and signing star center Dwight Howard in free agency.
The only other way to build a contender in the NBA is through the draft. Technically, gems can be found anywhere in the draft. Most of the stars are drafted with high first-round picks, though, and the way to get high first-round picks in the NBA is to be bad. This is how the Oklahoma City Thunder was built. As the Seattle Supersonics, the team drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in consecutive drafts, all in the top five.
In the NBA draft, the way the draft order is determined is all the teams that don’t make the playoffs are put into a lottery. The teams with the worst record have the most lottery balls and the highest chance at the No. 1 overall pick with each ensuing team having less and less lottery balls. This system rewards losing in an attempt to try to have more parody in the league. Therefore, the worst place in the league to be is in the middle, the seventh or eighth seed in a conference, or right outside the playoffs, a basketball purgatory of sorts. Year by year, teams on the cusp of the playoffs will fight for a berth, but teams who have no chance at the playoffs are essentially in a race to the bottom. This is where tanking comes in. Are the bad teams trying too hard to be bad?
Tanking is a more pertinent topic in years when there are more and better potential “prizes” in the upcoming draft. This year, it is such a big topic because this upcoming draft class is considered to be the best since 2003, with promising prospects like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. It’s obvious teams are tanking: The 76ers have lost their last 20 games and the team they put on the court every night just doesn’t look like it can compete. They’re the most obvious example, but a lot of the other bad teams in the league appear to be tanking as well.
With all this said, I don’t think tanking is an issue in the NBA. Even if they aren’t playing that well, the players on the tanking team are still playing hard. These players are playing for contracts and pride. Do you think 76ers forward Thaddeus Young, who has been a solid player in the league for a few years, is just going to stop running on the court and not look to score? Do you think Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, another solid player, is just going to suddenly start taking bad shots and dribbling the ball off his foot?
No player wants to play badly, even if they know their team is tanking, and coaches don’t tank either. If your team performs too poorly, you can get fired and you may struggle to get another coaching job on par with your current one. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens knows the team he has lacks some talent, but he’s not going to coach to lose. He’s still going to run offensive and defensive sets. He’s still going to emphasize good ball movement, good effort and smart play from his team.
Tanking pertains more to the front office and the organization as a whole. General Managers of a tanking team may look to trade decent players they don’t see as part of their future to open up more playing time for young players (while at the same time worsening their current year roster). Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie traded his starting center Spencer Hawes to the Cavaliers midseason because he wasn’t going to be a part of the team’s future, and he could help the team win. Team owners and presidents may talk their coaches into giving younger players more playing time over veteran players who might be better for the current year’s team. They may encourage their talented players with injuries to sit out as long as possible.
Even though tanking might be rewarded in the NBA, it isn’t an exact science. It isn’t like the NFL where the worst team gets the best pick. The worst team only has a 25 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick. The team with the worst record has only won the draft lottery and the No. 1 pick four times in the history of the draft lottery, which has been around for almost 30 years. There also aren’t players coming into the draft that are considered can’t-miss star prospects every year that are worth tanking for.
One of the biggest issues some analysts have with tanking is that it hurts the fans. The paying customers that drive the league are being punished by these organizations when their tanking teams aren’t competitive. This may be the belief by some fans, but I think a lot of fans, especially the bigger fans, can see the big picture. Fan bases for bad teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz have started campaigns like “Winless for Wiggins” and “Sorry for Jabari.” They see that the organization realizes that they aren’t currently talented enough to compete for a title and getting a star prospect or two in the draft can help them compete in future years.
The NBA wants fans of teams of struggling teams to have hope that their teams can be successful in the future and they want the league to have as much parody as possible. All of these factors make me believe that tanking is not as big a problem as some people make it out to be.