The Trend Sweeping the NBA: Tanking, Explained

Share
Michael Carter Williams

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Losing is becoming more and more contagious in the NBA this season. If your team isn’t the San Antonio Spurs or the Miami Heat, you may not be aware of this trend taking the league by storm.

It’s called tanking, and it means losing games will eventually make your team good.

I know — the logic is sound — but there a number of NBA teams being accused of tanking this season in order to solidify lottery chances and have a better shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft come June.

Some of the teams that fit the mold are the Philadelphia 76ers, once losers of 26 games in a row before running into another tanker, the Detroit Pistons. Then there’s the Milwaukee Bucks, a team with a worse record than the Sixers, as well as the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, and perhaps even the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Orleans Pelicans.

There are varying degrees of tanking among these bottom-feeders, from the overly terrible teams like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee to the talent-laden teams like New Orleans and Cleveland that — for some reason or another — did not play as well as expected.

So let’s give the Cavs and Pelicans a break; they’ve got some talent but they’re records don’t match accordingly. Let’s give tanking credit where tanking credit is due: the NBA’s pioneers.

Last-place Milwaukee is 14-60 as of April 2 with a 1-9 mark over its past 10 games. Now that’s impressive.

Right behind Milwaukee are the Sixers. At a whopping 16-58 and after flirting with historical inadequacy, the team is a good bet to go defeated the rest of the year.

Then there’s the Magic, Lakers, and Pistons, teams that have the ability to win games, but it’s as rare as Halley’s Comet. The Lakers gave us as soon as they knew Kobe Bryant invested in extra suits to wear on the bench, and the Pistons’ puzzling offseason didn’t pan out. Shocker.

As for Cleveland and New Orleans, both quality middle-of-the-pack teams (if such a thing exists): at this point, winning only hampers those teams’ chances of getting a good draft pick, which may be a missing piece before the transform into legitimate contenders.

What all of these teams are hoping is that their losing pays off and results in a top pick in the draft — a chance at Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins or Duke’s Jabari Parker. Heck, they’ll even settle for Julius Randle of Kentucky if they’re stuck picking at No. 4 or 5.

Essentially, it’s the most brilliant yet ironic strategy for winning ever thought of. Why would a team even try to compete when it knows at mid-season there’s a chance it might not make the playoffs? Let’s call it a season at the All-Star Break instead, and instead of game-planning how to make up ground on the No. 8 seeds the teams can focus all of its efforts on how to lose games, convincingly, and make a push for the top pick in the draft.

The creative part is that teams like New Orleans or Cleveland could easily be playoff teams in 2014-15 if they notched a top-five pick. But the 76ers or Pistons or Bucks — they are far more than just a Wiggins or Parker away from pulling off a 180. They’ll need to tank for two or three more years, and land a boat-load of free agents, in order to reverse their fortunes. So I guess this is a long-term tanking strategy.

To me, it’s just nonsense to sacrifice the sake of competitiveness in order to improve through the draft. Obviously, the tanking theory is not and cannot be proven, because no player, coach or member of an NBA front office will admit they’re purposely losing games. But there tends to be substance to rumors such as these, and if that’s the case, the NBA is in bad shape when half the league is vying for a Larry O’Brien Trophy and the other half is vying for Wiggins.

Sam Spiegelman is a native New Yorker covering sports in New Orleans. He likes Game of Thrones way too much. Tweet him @samspiegs.