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Reports of the NBA's Tanking Epidemic Are Greatly Exaggerated

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Reports of the NBA's Tanking Epidemic Are Greatly Exaggerated
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Much has been made of 2014’s expected NBA draft class.

The hype surrounding players like Duke’s Jabari Parker, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins—just to name a few—has many fans and media members declaring that this is the best NBA season for losing that we’ve seen in a long time.

And while there is certainly some sense to bottoming out in a league that favors the downtrodden in its draft system, the “tanking” paradigm is still one of rare exception. Most bad teams in the league—and there are more than ever this season, as the Eastern Conference has hit an unfortunate basketball vortex—are simply bad.

The buzz of the day may have you believing otherwise, but such discourse takes one very important factor for granted: business. NBA teams are still profit machines ultimately run by the commands of owners who care more about sustained attendance and ratings than they do about the long-term quest for a championship.

More simply put: the NBA is not a rings-or-bust league. Middle-of-the-road competition is exactly what most organizations strive for in the day to day.

A calculated frontier of losing, for the majority of front offices, is every bit as insane as it sounds on its face.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

This season, only the Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics have had clear prerogatives to go for broke and bank on the heightened power of the draft lottery’s bouncing balls of probability. Theirs is that uncommon circumstance, in which a team’s GM has been given the proper amount of faith from up the ladder to risk hemorrhaging talent in the short term in order to improve in the long term.

These are front offices fortunate enough to have owners with gold in their sights—men who want more than to be passively mediocre or bad. They'd rather be actively bad for a season and start over.

This is what they're trying to do, anyway.

The rest of the league’s bad teams aren’t struggling by design. They’re losing because winning still isn’t easy in the NBA.

The Milwaukee Bucks, basketball’s worst team, can you tell this as well as anyone. They entered the season like they enter all seasons: with the intent to win.

But bad personnel decisions—and worse luck—have conspired to take them in the very opposite direction. If and when the Bucks land a top-five pick, it’s probable that their “accidental tanking” will have benefited their long-term winning chances more than anything else could have.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

But don’t expect this instance to change the team’s approach. The organization is unhappy with the extremely sagging attendance all this losing is causing, and has opened a number of campaigns to re-spark fan interest. They’re interested in putting a playoff-level product back onto the floor (even if it means winning fewer than 40 games and a first-round sweep) as soon as possible.

Ownership regimes like Utah’s, Philadelphia’s and Boston’s are not necessarily wiser or more forward-thinking than Milwaukee’s for their tolerance of tanking.

Building strong cultures with personnel continuity and a knack for player development remains the surest path to sustained success in the standings, and tanking means not only putting something of a freeze on that development, but it also usually involves a purge of assets.

And this year's Phoenix Suns are showing just how wrong such a purge can go. Losing Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley in favor of young, cheap contracts has actually improved their fortunes. They're a better team now; it's an instance of tanking gone awry.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Boston, Utah and Philadelphia—and any other franchise that tries tanking—should see the case of the Suns and be wise to how fickle fate can be, as they give up today to machinate so far down the road.

Teams like the the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings—who some suggest should initiate tanking—are trying and failing to win this season. They would love some of Phoenix's luck; this is still a league that yearns to win.

The Orlando Magic can be said to be another tanker, but that assertion doesn't exactly add up. The team's fall from relevance has not been optional—they tried to retain Dwight Howard, but eventually had to trade him to the Lakers for a slew of younger, less tangible assets. They're rebuilding because it's their only option.

So despite the questionable nature of the draft lottery, and despite widespread losing, the gambit of tanking is still a high-risk quagmire in the NBA. Only three teams are trying it this season. The next time you hear about the cancerous spread of intentional losers throughout the league, don’t believe the hype.

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