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Tanking in the NBA: Why It's Happening and Why It's Terrible

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Tanking in the NBA: Why It's Happening and Why It's Terrible
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Tanking isn't a new idea. In fact, it was the primary reason that the NBA implemented the lottery system in 1985.

In essence, the lottery system pits the league's worst teams against one another in a random drawing that awards the winning team with the draft's first overall pick.

Well, actually, it is a little more complicated than that.

More specifically, the draft lottery takes the league's worst 14 teams, and the drawing process isn't altogether random. The teams are ordered beginning with the worst-of-the-worst through the best-of-the worst, and subsequently assigned probabilities. These probabilities reflect the team's odds of winning the first pick. For example, the league's worst team has just a 25% chance of winning the first pick. 

The lottery system exists in order to prevent teams from losing games at the end of the season in a last-ditch effort to get a draft class's most sought-after prospect. And the system has been largely effective. 

However, due to the basketball world's version of a perfect storm, tanking has made an intense resurgence.

In my opinion, this "perfect storm" began in Boston during the summer of 2007. It was during that summer when the Boston Celtics obtained Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett by way of a roster overhaul that united the two stars with Paul Pierce to form the NBA's first "Big Three" of the modern era.

In their first year together, Garnett, Pierce and Allen turned the Celtics around. In just one season, the Celtics improved from 24-58 to 66-16 en route to the Celtics' first NBA Championship since 1986.

The Celtics' move served a second purpose, though: it proved that teams can be transformed overnight.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics team that won an NBA title in 2008 was not a unit that had been meticulously crafted and gradually perfected over a number of seasons. It was certainly not a team that had spent years teetering on the brink of excellence, plotting a calculated next move. 

On the contrary, the Celtics confirmed the once-objectionable supposition that great teams can be built on paper.

Or at least that's what we thought. 

Since then, the formula has been replicated numerous times with varying degrees of success. In 2009, the Cavaliers acquired Shaquille O'Neal, hoping his size and propensity for winning could finally get LeBron James and company a title. 

The Shaq and LeBron duo ultimately failed, and LeBron decided to take his talents elsewhere, thus sparking one of the most publicized free-agency periods in NBA history. 

Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Boston's Big Three

Fast forward one summer, and LeBron and Chris Bosh have both joined Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. The Heat met a few struggles at first, but have ultimately had great success, winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. 

In 2012, the Los Angeles Lakers tried to assemble a cast around Kobe Bryant that could compete with Miami's Big Three. They brought in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to form their own manifestation of the super team model.

Teams such as the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks have also followed suit, signing multiple stars in an attempt to stay relevant.

This type of management inherently strips the NBA of its parity. It encourages the league's elite players to become condensed into a narrower set of teams. Moreover, it is a perpetuating phenomenon. As the NBA's dominant franchises further distance themselves, the teams at the bottom are unable to attract top talent. 

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. 

The second component of the tanking problem is a handful of extremely talented 18-year-olds. This year's NCAA freshman class is widely regarded as one of the strongest and deepest in recent memory.

Players like Andrew Wiggins of Kansas and Jabari Parker of Duke are already predicted to be NBA All-Stars. Analyst Fran Fraschilla of ESPN believes six or seven freshman will be selected in the first eight or nine picks of the 2014 NBA draft. 

Larry Busacca/Getty Images
LeBron James during "The Decision"

Therefore, for the teams at the bottom, and sometimes middle, of the NBA totem pole, the prospect of drafting a franchise-changing player is understandably enticing.

How do those teams ensure they will get one of these coveted diaper dandies? Simple, lose as many games as possible.

These unfortunate teams realize that given the current nature of free agency, their best chance to land a star is through the draft. So why bother floundering through yet another season of mediocrity?

The answer is simple, yet harder to rationalize within the economic confines of professional sports. Rather, the answer is rooted in the most intrinsic ideals of competition.

The answer is: every team should try to win every game. 

As soon as a single team begins losing games on purpose, the NBA's role as the world's preeminent professional basketball league is undermined. Its reputation is tarnished and its credibility derailed. 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Kansas' Andrew Wiggins

In many regards, purposeful under-performance is no different from "throwing" games. Any game that is decided based on factors outside the game of basketball disregards the assumptions around which the league is able to function successfully. Those assumptions being that the league is comprised of the world's most talented athletes, and that those athletes compete to the best of their ability. 

It might seem naive to view the NBA with such innocence. But the fact remains, tanking could serve as the opening of the floodgates for a host of other detrimental strategies. 

The teams that might view tanking as a viable path to improvement ought to revert back to basketball's fundamental approaches to team composition.

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