Win at any cost—even if that means losing.
Tanking, a franchise’s approach of sacrificing a season or multiple seasons to better set up the future, is a necessary evil in today’s NBA’s rebuilding process.
The strategy still has a shameful reputation, as walking a decided path toward losing is despicable to some fanbases that would never think to root for losses.
So why is it gaining popularity among NBA teams? Because there is no other option.
As the league’s talent gap widens between superteams and perennial losers, choosing among chasing a title, standing still and developing a young roster, and tanking the season becomes a cognizant offseason decision.
You either have enough talent to win a championship or are stuck in purgatory.
The NBA is an asset-based league. If a team is not considered a contender, its wealth is predicated upon movable parts that include draft picks, cheap contracts and expiring deals that open up payroll for future seasons. The collective bargaining agreement rewards success through the draft, as rookie contracts are more favorable longterm.
Thus, depending on the demands of a particular fanbase, sacrificing a single season by trading away remaining talent is a low-cost exchange for future assets that could result in an expedited rebuilding process.
The most recent example of tanking
The Boston Celtics are a recent illustration of tanking. The team once heavy in aged talent has now crippled its shot at contention in the 2013-14 season by trading away coach Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for draft picks and non-guaranteed or expiring contracts.
For the Celtics, a franchise with championship expectations, it was more valuable to collect assets and future salary space than it was to dwell in mediocrity. An ultimate rebuilding was inevitable, so Celtics decision-maker Danny Ainge only hurried the process by essentially forfeiting this upcoming season.
Because it’s still taboo for a general manager to admit he’s taking a backward step to set up a quicker sprint forward, Ainge told newcomers Kris Humphries and Keith Bogans that Boston is "not tanking."
What else is he supposed to say?
Tanking is still against the NBA culture. There’s a pride in competition, and no team wants to admit purposeful losing. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, in a recent blog post explaining his team’s offseason, told a story in which Don Nelson, the team's coach when Cuban bought the team, asked if the new owner wished to "bag the season in order to get the best draft pick that we could."
Cuban says he responded, "No. At some point this franchise has to learn how to win and develop a culture of winning. You don’t create that culture by tanking the season. I don’t know how many games we can win, but we are going to try to win every one of them."
Cuban’s point is valid. If you are developing young talent, they must grow up in a culture that strives to win games. Lottery teams don’t often pull top free-agent talent either.
Is the draft really a quick ticket to success?
There’s no guarantee of success through the draft anyway. Teams forfeiting this season in hopes of landing Andrew Wiggins, the alluring prize of the 2014 draft, still face unfavorable odds.
The league’s worst record receives a 25 percent chance of the No. 1 draft pick, but the lottery doesn’t promise anything. Since 1991, the league’s worst record has won the lottery only twice: the 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers landed LeBron James, and the 2004 Orlando Magic won the rights to Dwight Howard.
Though the Cavaliers and Magic obviously gained a franchise-changing talent by way of their awful preceding seasons, the reality is that most No. 1 picks come with far less certainty. For every James or Howard, the draft offers Greg Oden, Andrea Bargnani, Andrew Bogut or, like this past June, Anthony Bennett. None of those guys were worth tanking a season.
Most teams, however, do recognize that tanking a season in the hopes of a high lottery pick isn’t enough to change direction by itself.
The Philadelphia 76ers are hoping multiple young players will do the trick. The 76ers have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 2001, and turning over their roster this summer to compete with East superteams like the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets seemed far-fetched.
Instead, general manager Sam Hinkie opted to sacrifice the 2013-14 season to develop Philadelphia’s young players and stockpile future assets. The new general manager shipped away the team's top talent, Jrue Holiday, to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the rights to 2013 first-rounder Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round pick.
Teams need a superstar to win, so trading away a top-tier talent is a difficult decision. But moving an All-Star like Holiday in exchange for a potential marquee superstar in next year’s draft is worth the gamble if the 76ers want to contend for more than just a postseason appearance.
For Philadelphia, is that considered tanking, or is it just sound strategy to escape mediocrity and instead strive for a championship? When losing in the immediate future to chase greater goals down the road, it’s all the same.
Nothing is worse than being stuck in the middle
While an argument can be made that the Celtics and 76ers have improved their chances of one day becoming contenders, the contrary illustration are those teams that fail to go one way or the other and become stuck in mediocrity.
Other than teams like the Miami Heat, who became a superteam through the free-agency signing of James, there are few examples of teams moving from the middle of the pack to contention without first bottoming out. Cuban’s 2011 Mavericks, for example, always made a run into the playoffs with Dirk Nowitzki before adding the right talent to finally win a championship.
A similar instance took place with the Los Angeles Lakers, who rebounded from down years after Shaquille O’Neal’s departure while always keeping Kobe Bryant as the centerpiece, but even then they had to struggle first. Still, neither the Mavericks nor Lakers had to completely tear down and start over.
But there are few other recent examples of elite teams that didn’t first bottom out before rising back to the top.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the most recent example. As the Seattle SuperSonics, after losing in the second round of the 2004-05 playoffs and failing to make the postseason in both 2005-06 and 2006-07, the franchise decided to scrap its talent and move in a new direction.
On draft night in 2007, the Sonics traded Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics moments before the team drafted Kevin Durant. The team drafted Russell Westbrook with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 draft and later picked Serge Ibaka with the No. 24 pick, a selection it received through a 2007 deal that sent a trade exception to the Phoenix Suns.
Why tanking is the trend
The tearing down of the Sonics led to the success of the Thunder.
Tanking is often necessary to truly rebuild an NBA franchise and escape the dreaded in-between of the NBA, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the overall health of the NBA.
Fans don’t get excited over teams that enter an offseason with a plan to get worse for the next season.
As long as the NBA continues to reward failure, and cap space and economic terms of contracts are more significant than actual talent, the league will continue to see franchises take the approach of tanking.
It’s not the only path to success, but tanking, for some teams, is the best option in chasing a superstar and championship success.
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