Controversial discussions are happening in the NBA this year regarding “tanking.” Tanking is defined as when NBA organizations purposely lose to improve their draft position in the NBA lottery. Analysts have been on either side of the wall when debating the topic that has prevailed the league this year.
Tanking discussions have strengthened this year as multiple NBA teams have conspicuously displayed this rebuilding strategy. The Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have arguably implemented this strategy at the beginning of the year or adapted as the season persisted. The, Bucks, 76ers and Magic have yet to eclipse the 20 win mark this season at 12-49, 15-46 and 19-44. Warning, resist betting the money line on the 76ers. The 76ers have lost 15 straight games, the longest streak in the NBA.
The 76ers provided evidence of their intended tanking when trading their second leading scorer Evan Turner for Danny Granger on Feb. 21. 76ers management immediately bought out the contract of Clipper forward Granger to open up future cap space. Spencer Hawes, 76ers leading rebounder at 8.5 per game, was traded for draft picks and Earl Clark who was immediately waived.
The Lakers have reached the 20-win plateau, but are last place in the western conference. No team has received greater attention about tanking than the Lakers. Lakers are expected to contend for a championship annually so witnessing their 2013-2014 season demise is uncomfortable for fans that are rooted in a winning culture and dish out heavy prices for tickets. The Lakers-Clippers game on Thursday characterized the absolute role reversal between the two Los Angeles teams.
The Lakers traded their starting point guard Steve Blake on Feb. 19 for two little known shooting guards, Marshon Brooks and Kent Bazemore. The tanking race for the NBA lottery is firing on all cylinders.
The theory of tanking is to secure a top draft pick. A stronger draft class incentivizes teams to sabotage their season. There is a direct correlation between the number of teams tanking and quality of a draft class. The three game changing players coveted in this draft class are Kansas center Joel Embiid, Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins and Duke forward Jabari Parker. This is whom the 76ers and Lakers covet. These are the players a team builds a franchise around and can hypothetically accomplish the ultimate goal of winning a championship.
The benefit of tanking is drafting a player who potentially is the next LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Anthony Davis. Tanking is a great strategy for teams in large markets like the Celtics and Lakers. Lakers get Parker or Wiggins and surround these players with All-Star complements to win multiple championships because the best players want to play for the Lakers, Celtics and Heat.
When small market organizations like the Bucks or Magic harness top draft picks history seems to repeat itself. The 76ers drafted Allen Iverson with the number one pick in 1996 and he went onto win MVP in 2001 when the 76ers lost in the finals to the Lakers. The Cavs drafted LeBron James with the number one pick in 2003 and he lost in the finals to the San Antonio Spurs. The Magic drafted Dwight Howard with the number one pick in 2004 and he went on to become a All-NBA first team when the Magic lost in the finals. Seeing a statistical pattern?
Elite players like Iverson, James and Howard are the first losers on small market teams. These players realize they cannot win in small market situations and now combine forces in large markets like the James with the Miami Heat now and Howard with the Lakers last year.
The 21st market size Indiana Pacers, according to Sports Media Watch, have become the first place team in the eastern conference by refusing to tank and drafting resourcefully. The Pacers have not had a top nine draft pick since 1989, according to Basketball Reference, but instead drafting Paul George at 10, Lance Stephenson at 40, and making a draft day trade for 17th pick Roy Hibbert. The Pacers gamble on middle round draft picks and are rewarded when the players buy into the system.
There are different strategies when rebuilding a franchise and tanking for the NBA lottery is just one of them.
Commentary by Niles Olson
Sports Media Watch