Is 'Tanking' Really Bad for the NBA?

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Is 'Tanking' Really Bad for the NBA?
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"Tanking" in the NBA—teams making roster adjustments such as waiving players, making trades or having players receive surgery or just sit out games based on injuries that wouldn't normally keep them out—is done in order to make the team worse and thereby improve its lottery chances.

Tanking has been brought to the forefront most recently by the True Hoop Network at ESPN and spearheaded by Henry Abbott. Abbott argues:

In fact, when I talk about tanking, I'm not even talking about something players, or even coaches, are doing. I've watched the video, and looked at the substitution patterns. It is very tough to come up with strong evidence any players or coaches are doing anything other than trying to win. 

For the GMs and owners of about half the teams in the league, however ... everybody knows it's not smart for them to try to win every game. They don't throw games by intentionally missing shots. But they do strip rosters bare of high-priced talent, hoarding cap dollars for another day, and knowing that the inevitable losses that ensue — the tanking — will come with some of the most valuable rewards in all of sports. 

Suddenly everyone is talking about tanking and how bad it is for basketball. Announcers daily decree that it is "unfair" for the fans to have to pay for tickets that only show their teams tanking. 

There are a host of arguments that have come out in order to solve the problem of tanking, but most of them involve punishing teams for being bad, thereby avoiding the incentive to tank.

Harry How/Getty Images

There are problems with this though. It doesn't distinguish between teams that are just bad and teams that are tanking to be worse than they actually are. Either way, these teams are bad.

Golden State may be tanking, but it isn't tanking a playoff run. The moral outrage being delivered over the stratospheric drop in the standings from 20th to 23rd in the NBA is, perhaps, overstated.

It's also not like the NBA is the only league in which this occurs. In the NFL players are less inclined to play as they fall out of the playoff hunt. Baseball teams call up their Triple-A players when they know they aren't going to compete.

The point is this sort of "tanking" is not exclusive to the NBA, but the criticism of it is. This is all the more ironic since the NBA is the first sport to have a lottery and a disincentive to tank. While the NHL has adopted a similar methodology, neither the NFL nor MLB has.

Beyond that, there's the other side of tanking. For every team that tanks there's a playoff team that gets a reward, which, as far as the game goes, more than offsets the damage done to the sport. For example, the acquisition of Ramon Sessions by the Los Angeles Lakers improves their postseason chances.

Whatever your feelings on the Lakers, their success is good for the NBA. And really, are fans in Cleveland saying, "I paid for these tickets to see Ramon Sessions to play and you traded him!"

Sessions with the Lakers is good for the NBA. Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson with the Spurs is good for the NBA. Ronny Turiaf with the Heat is good for the NBA. The other side of these tanking moves is that the postseason gets more interesting, and that drives up ratings, which is, again, good for the NBA.

Apart from that, the midseason interest from fans primarily regards this sort of player movement, as fans of the winning teams want to know if their team is getting that player. In the short term it might be worse for the tanking team, but it's better for the NBA as a whole.

There's also the long-term benefit for the team freeing up playing time for its younger players. For example, players like Klay Thompson, Derrick Williams and Isaiah Thomas are getting extra playing time due to what some may refer to as "tanking."

Is tanking good or bad for the NBA?

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In the long run their teams benefit not just from the improved draft selection, but also from the development of the younger players. That could be argued to be more intriguing to the fans than chasing down the 21st-best record in the NBA instead of the 22nd.

Right now Cleveland fans don't really worry over Ramon Sessions nearly as much as they are interested in the development of Tristan Thompson. Just because they aren't excited about a playoff push doesn't mean they aren't interested in their team.

Tanking has its drawbacks, but in the grand scheme of things it can actually be argued it is good for the NBA. It generates interest in regards to midseason moves. It positively impacts teams' positioning for the postseason, thus increasing revenue for the league.

For the tanking teams, it gives younger players a chance to develop for the future. It allows them an opportunity to acquire spending room, draft choices or lottery balls for the next year's draft.

Frankly, all the outrage is much ado about nothing. Tanking is not only not a bad thing, it's a good thing. There are other, more serious issues, such as flopping, which Abbott and the rest should spend their time focusing their outrage on.

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