NBA Epidemic of Tanking Is Neither Tanking, nor an Epidemic

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NBA Epidemic of Tanking Is Neither Tanking, nor an Epidemic
David Dow/Getty Images

Last May, Andrew Wiggins—a luminous talent with boundless potential—committed to Kansas and assumed a new title: the likely top pick in the 2014 NBA draft. A can't-miss star. A franchise-changer.

A month later, the Philadelphia 76ers dumped their All-Star point guard in a stunning trade. They earned a new title, too: "tankers." The assumption: The Sixers were more concerned with winning Wiggins than winning games.

Others soon joined the fray. The Boston Celtics traded their two Hall of Famers. The Utah Jazz let their veterans walk. The Phoenix Suns stocked up on journeymen. The Orlando Magic dithered.

Suspicion spread. Cynicism reigned. A meme was born: Competing was out. Tanking was in. The NBA season would be a mockery.

Alarmists warned that a third of the league was tanking for Wiggins—or Duke's Jabari Parker, or Kentucky's Julius Randle, or Kansas' Joel Embiid—that competitive balance would be warped by all of the premeditated failure.

An anonymous general manager disclosed his tanking strategy to ESPN's Jeff Goodman. Rival executives whispered their disdain. Everyone demanded changes: New lottery odds! No odds! No draft! A wheel!

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

There are real concerns here, worthy of reflection. The current system does provide a perverse incentive to lose (although, in fact, the team with the worst record rarely wins the No. 1 pick). Changes are probably needed. But the discussion has become horribly distorted, to the point where the word "tanking" has practically lost all meaning.

Tanking has become a catch-all, used to describe everything from losing intentionally to legitimate rebuilding to simply losing a lot—whether a team intended to or not.

There is little question about the 76ers’ intentions. They spent months stripping the roster of talent and are now reaping the, um, benefits. As of Monday, they had lost 16 straight games, 11 shy of the NBA record.

But not all bad teams are losing with an agenda.

The Milwaukee Bucks, with their league-worst 12-50 record through Sunday, have been mislabeled as tankers despite a pronounced, expensive effort last summer to improve the roster.

The Celtics are considered tankers for trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, though the deal was universally praised as timely and necessary, given the obvious decline of Boston's stars and the wealth of first-round picks the team received.

Worst Teams through March 9: This Year vs. Last Year
2013-14 W-L Pct. 2012-13 W-L Pct.
Bucks 12-50 .194 Bobcats 13-50 .206
Sixers 15-47 .242 Magic 17-46 .270
Magic 19-45 .297 Wizards 20-41 .328
Lakers 22-42 .344 Hornets 21-42 .333
Celtics 22-41 .349 Cavs 21-41 .339
Jazz 22-41 .349 Kings 22-42 .344
Kings 22-41 .349 Suns 22-41 .349

NBA.com, shrpsports.com

But definitions have been blurred, and perceptions warped. It's understandable. We live in cynical times, and the NBA has always inspired more than its share of conspiracy theories.

The hype over the 2014 draft, which has been called the best in 10 years, has only stoked the suspicion.

With the season down to its final quarter, we can safely conclude this much: The tanking trend has been vastly overstated. Tanking exists. It is happening. But it is not an epidemic, and it has not dramatically altered competitive balance. The standings provide some clarity.

As of Monday morning, three NBA teams had sub-.300 records, and 10 were below .400. If we're measuring widespread futility, these figures are in no way extraordinary.

Over the last 10 years, an average of 3.3 teams per season have finished below .300, including a high of six teams in 2010-11 and 2008-09. In that same 10-year stretch, an average of 7.7 teams have finished below .400, with a high of 10 in 2011-12 and 2009-10.

We still have about 20 games to go, so the picture could change slightly. But if tanking were so prevalent, more teams would be diving below .300, or even .200, in a race to secure the best lottery odds. Yet at a glance, this season is unremarkable.

No team is threatening the 73-loss record set by Philadelphia in 1972-73. No team this season will even break the top 10 for lowest winning percentage. There will be no record for "most teams under .300."

BJ/Associated Press
The 1973 76ers set an NBA record for futility.

Indeed, only two teams are poised to finish below the 20-win plateau: Philadelphia (15-47) and Milwaukee (12-50). And the Bucks, it must be noted, spent lavishly last summer in an explicit, desperate attempt to make the playoffs. Most experts predicted they would, or at least come close.

So the worst team in the league this season is not actually tanking. They just misfired, badly.

And the rest of those miserable, comically inept sub-.400 teams? Most of them aren't tanking, either.

The Detroit Pistons (24-39) invested $78 million last summer to add Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, with the clear goal of making the playoffs. They simply spent poorly.

The New York Knicks (24-40) have the league's second-highest payroll, $89 million. They also have no first-round pick and thus no incentive to lose. They're not tanking; they are just criminally incompetent.

The Cleveland Cavaliers (24-40) were a projected playoff team and fired their general manager last month because of their failings.

The Los Angeles Lakers (22-42) have had their season ruined by injuries to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, among others.

The New Orleans Pelicans (26-37) made every attempt to build a contender—acquiring All-Star Jrue Holiday from Philadelphia, then spending $88.7 million on Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon—but injuries have wrecked them, too.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

The Sacramento Kings (22-41) let Evans leave last summer, but that was hardly an indefensible move. They also acquired Rudy Gay and the $37 million left on his contract; whatever you may think of Gay, this was clearly intended as a win-now move. The Kings are just lousy.

The Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors were initially tagged as tankers, but they are instead a combined 70-52, proving that assumptions can be faulty. It is true that both franchises set out to make this a rebuilding season.

When we talk about tanking or rebuilding, we should be careful to separate the motives of the front office—which sets the long-term agenda—and the coach and players, who are focused on the here and now.

Coaches want to win. Players have professional pride. And there is no accounting for great chemistry. The largely anonymous Suns have proven to be better than the sum of their parts, and rookie coach Jeff Hornacek has been a brilliant orchestrator. Raptors coach Dwane Casey is in the final year of his contract and surely has no incentive to lose for management's sake.

That leaves four sub-.400 teams that can be loosely accused of tanking by design: Philadelphia, Boston, Orlando and Utah.

Cross Boston off the list. The Celtics' championship core had badly eroded by last spring, with Garnett and Pierce in their late 30s and Rajon Rondo recovering from major knee surgery. It was time to blow it up and start over, and the Celtics did very well in obtaining three first-round picks from the Brooklyn Nets. That's not tanking; it's just a team facing reality about its future.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

The Jazz had reached their own sort of dead end last spring. They were a mediocre 43-39, with a glut of talented big men and a very expensive decision to make: whether to re-sign starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, or let them walk and hand the starting roles to recent draft picks Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.

Everyone in the league knew that decision was coming, and the result was not surprising. Jefferson left for a $41 million deal with Charlotte. Millsap signed a $19 million contract with Atlanta.

The Jazz, in one of the smartest moves of the summer, then used their cap room to acquire two first-round draft picks from Golden State, by agreeing to take Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins off the Warriors' hands.

That's not tanking. That's smart asset management. Jefferson and Biedrins will be off the books after this season. The Jazz now have extra picks in 2014 and 2017. And they sacrificed nothing in the process.

Had the Jazz kept Millsap and Jefferson, they likely still would have missed the playoffs and had less money to pay free-agent-to-be Gordon Hayward, as well as (eventually) Kanter and Favors. And they wouldn't have received those two first-round picks.

Orlando (19-45) took a similar approach in 2012, when Dwight Howard forced his way out of town. Rather than spend wildly in a desperate attempt to replace him, the Magic began stockpiling assetspicks and reasonably priced young players—to begin the slow rebuild.

Does the NBA have a tanking problem?

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The Magic aren't bad because they chose to be; they're bad because one of the top 10 players in the game decided to leave.

Could Orlando have rebuilt faster by splurging on free agents last summer? Maybe. But probably not. The 2013 free-agent class wasn't particularly great. Just ask the Pistons and Bucks.

Most of the teams regarded as "tankers" were already bad. Some simply allowed themselves to get a little worse, whether to protect future cap room or to position for the draft or both. Does it matter if you win 25 games instead of 30? Is it worth overspending to get from 30 wins to 35?

A losing season is a losing season. No one dismantled a contender to tank for Wiggins.

And this is the most troubling aspect of the overheated tanking discussion. It allows no room for actual, honest rebuilding. The NBA is a salary-cap league. Teams have limited resources to acquire talent. If they spend poorly, they are trapped in mediocrity for years to come and shut out when the top free agents hit the market.

We mock the foolish spending binges by the Pistons, Bucks and Knicks. We howl over bad contracts, like the six-year, $123 million deal the Hawks gave Joe Johnson in 2010. We should praise teams when they instead manage their cap wisely and plan for the long term.

In a normal year, no one would be criticizing Utah's tactics, or Orlando's. But the allure of Wiggins, Parker, Embiid and Dante Exum has skewed the discussion. Scouts fell in love with this draft class, and the draft thus became the prism through which every team's moves were (cynically) viewed.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images
Australia's Dante Exum.

Let a free agent walk? You must be tanking. Trade your high-priced veterans? You're tanking. Oddly, no one made the same accusations in 2009-10, when teams were madly clearing cap room to chase LeBron James. 

The real concern is not what teams did last summer, but what they will be doing the next two months. True tanking is about manipulating the roster you have: “resting” veterans, promoting fringe prospects and otherwise messing with the game plan to make winning less likely.

This is not to say that teams haven't considered the draft in their planning. They would be foolish not to. But the allure of the draft did not suddenly warp every team's agenda, or induce teams into questionable decisions.

So here's the test I put to a dozen team executives over the last few months: If this draft were considered poor, or even average, would the so-called tanking teams have made the same moves last summer? Would we view them as simply smartly rebuilding? The answer I got from every executive was "yes."

Except for the 76ers. They're totally tanking.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @HowardBeck.

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