At What Point Do Rebuilding NBA Teams Stop Tanking?

Jim CavanContributor IMarch 30, 2014

Philadelphia 76ers' Michael Carter-Williams, left, and Brett Brown talk during an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum

Whether it begins with a coup on draft day or a signature regular-season win, there comes a point in the life of any rebuilding NBA team where the decision is made: It’s time to stop tanking.

No one would put it quite that bluntly, of course. For admitting your franchise has taken such a cynical detour—bypassing tried-and-true notions of organic, gradual growth for the quick-fix appeal of lottery largesse—has become one of the biggest taboos in professional sports.

Still, there’s bound to come a time when your young guard’s “sore right knee” gets more readily written off the team injury chart; when late-game play calls become more controlled than cavalier; when worries over next year’s prospects take a back seat to tomorrow’s game.

To be sure, the finer financial calculus of an NBA team—regardless of standing—is bound to be far more complicated than the headline pull of a simple tanking trope.

In a terrific piece penned back in January, SB Nation’s Mark Deeks underscores the semantic nuances of what we mean when we accuse a particular team of intentionally tossing in the towel:

By now, teams have evaluated what they have and where they are going. Some of them won't like it. Some will identify a core of players, identify the tradeable remainder and pawn off that which is pawnable. They might weaken their current product in exchange for future flexibility and assets. That is not mere terminology talking: That really is what happens. This is exactly what the [Luol] Deng trade was for Chicago. And there will be more of this. Teams out of the hunt will look to the future. Is that tanking? Is that deliberate losing? Sure, if deliberate losing and tanking are hereby defined as the weakening of the chances of winning the next game.

Case in point: the Philadelphia 76ers, a team pointed to more than any other as pathetic paragons of the tanking phenomenon, thanks in large part to the silly-savvy moves—which depends on whom you ask—of first-year general manager Sam Hinkie.

On its face, the decision to deal Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, two of the team’s most productive players through the season’s first few months, served as Exhibit 1A of the Sixers’ true intentions—particularly the former, who ended up fetching Philly nothing more than a bit of extra financial flexibility.

Matt Slocum

Viewed through the lens of some of the more caustic anti-tankers, these are the kind of moves that—while not egregious on their face—suggest two wins in the bush are worth far more than one in the hand.

But if more losses now (26 in a row, if you’re the Sixers of late) lead to better future performance and more stability, what, exactly, is the harm?

It’s the kind of patience head coach Brett Brown—a disciple of Gregg Popovich who knows a little something about fostering a winning culture—was taking to heart as far back as last summer, when he had this to say (via CSN’s John Gonzalez):

It was important, and I’m extremely grateful for the owners to take a step back. It’s a reflection on what they think in that it’s going to take time. They really do have a tolerance and patience. And for as much as it was about security for me, it’s going to take time. It sends a message to the marketplace that they are in it for real.

That last sentence might be the most instructive, if only because it’s not exactly clear what “marketplace” Brown is talking about.

Does he mean the fans? Television partners? Advertisers? The rest of the NBA? All of the above?

It's not always the players, if the following quote from the Miami Heat's Udonis Haslem is any indication (via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick):

A draft pick doesn't guarantee anything. It just guarantees that you're gonna get a player. You never know what these players are gonna turn out to be. It just guarantees you that you're gonna get somebody. Who, or what they're going to be capable of still remains to be seen. Unless you trade that pick for a proven guy who can come in right away and help the team. You just never know nowadays. A draft pick is sometimes two, three years away. If they even pan out.

Philly’s stunning opening-night upset of the Miami Heat notwithstanding, it was clear from the onset that Brown’s new charges—a bevy of draft picks behind them, “led” by rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams—weren’t being built for the here and now.

And you know what? That might not be such a bad thing.

Writing at ESPN’s TrueHoop blog, Tom Sunnergren argues that, in fact, there’s a very real emotional-financial value to being very terrible today for the sake of a future free from the lottery, a future distinctly full of hope, even.

When the game ended with the Sixers’ 22nd consecutive loss, the crowd was buoyant, even affectionate. It was like an arena full of besotted parents had just finished watching their snotty, uncoordinated, beautiful infants take their first clumsy steps. A few stumbles and scrapes, sure, but what do you expect? The kid’s skull hasn’t even fused yet.

Sunnergren’s smart take underscores a broader point: Just because a team’s roster moves and rotational miscues reek of something nefarious to the broader basketball world doesn’t mean the plan hasn’t been tacitly accepted—emotionally adopted, even—by its fanbase.

The more cynical observers might point to Philly's most recent win, a 123-98 thrashing of the Detroit Pistons Saturday night that ended the 76ers' record-tying 26-game skid, as a perfect example of a team only willing to put its best foot forward with historic infamy on the line.

Viewed from the opposite perspective, however, the win proved not how low the Sixers had been, but rather how deep they were willing to dig for the sake of franchise pride and, to a certain extent, the future.

Whether Philly returns to relevance next year or five years from now, it’s impossible to say. So much hinges on the X-factors—the growth and development of Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, whom the Sixers draft with their lottery loot this June, the list goes on—that even an educated guess amounts to little more than soothsaying sorcery.

Matt Rourke

Which is all going a long way to say that there may be no one indicator for when a particular team decides it has ceased subjecting itself to the temptation of tanking—or “strategic losing initiatives,” if you prefer a more diplomatic label.

As fans, we have a tendency to read dissertations into road signs—of chalking up a string of losses here or a deft trade there to a stone-set front-office dictum. In reality, the process is much more nuanced than that, even for the brains we believe run every decision, from starting five to franchise logo, through the NBA equivalent of a Deep Blue supercomputer.

Three years from now, maybe the Sixers will be awful and maybe they won’t. But if and when the narrative focus shifts from tanking to competing—or, alternately, from competing to contending—we’ll know such seeming intention not by any one player tweet, public statement or press release.

Rather, as is the wont of a sport so dependent on seeing plays seconds before they happen, it’ll be the players themselves who know the next-level switch has been flipped.