We're asking all the wrong questions about tanking.
Instead of focusing on the ethics of intentionally decreasing a team's chances of winning and hoping to build through the draft, the world should be wondering if such a strategy actually works. And thanks to the commonplace nature of the tanking subject heading into the 2014 NBA draft, there's a solid chance the dangers could finally be exposed once and for all.
"Tanking — the idea that teams lose games on purpose to procure top draft picks — permeated the discussion at the start of 2013-14 season," wrote USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt back in March. "And with three weeks remaining in the regular season, it remains part of the conversation."
Well, it still does now that we're a good way into the postseason festivities.
Is this deep class going to explode into flames, leaving the lottery teams eating crow throughout the foreseeable future? Nope, probably not.
But if it doesn't live up to the hype, it will most certainly highlight the dangers of tanking.
And there are a lot of them.
Unpredictability of the Lottery
This is admittedly more generic and doesn't speak to just the current draft class, but it did come up a few times during the 2014 proceedings.
First is the curious case of the Detroit Pistons.
They admittedly weren't tanking during the 2013-14 campaign, instead doing everything possible to promote a playoff berth. They signed Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith before the start of the season, then fired the head coach when it was clear things weren't working.
But what happened to them is a cautionary tale for teams who are actually banking on the sheer randomness of the lottery. The Pistons were set to pick at No. 8, but when the Cleveland Cavaliers moved up to No. 1 despite having the ninth-worst odds of any lottery team, they dropped back a spot. And since the pick was top-eight protected, it was conveyed to the Charlotte Hornets.
All of a sudden, the Pistons were up a creek without a paddle.
And speaking of the Cavs, they're the other reason that teams shouldn't ever bank on the lottery when hoping to turn around a franchise.
When the Cavs defied the odds, there was a trickle-down effect for the rest of the teams involved in the proceedings. Just think about the poor Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic, two teams who most assuredly weren't going to end up making the playoffs this past season and were hoping that the draft could change the fortunes of their respective franchises.
The Magic went from No. 3 to No. 4, which effectively knocked them out of contention for one of the three elite prospects in this draft class—Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
Orlando will surely be happy with Dante Exum at No. 4, given its dire need for a franchise point guard, but he's still not nearly on the same level as the trifecta of can't-miss prospects right ahead of him. Sure, he has a similarly high ceiling, but the mysterious aura swirling around him clouds perception of his floor.
It doesn't seem likely, but there's a bust possibility.
Things are even worse for the Jazz.
Even though the team would've had to move up to have a shot at a top-three pick, falling down to No. 5 effectively ends Utah's chances of landing Parker or Wiggins. There was always a chance Orlando would spring for Exum over those two forwards, which gave the Jazz a small chance at picking the hometown hero with the No. 4 pick in the proceedings.
Now, their inability to win games doesn't help them out quite as much.
It just goes to show that you really can't trust ping-pong balls.
Are Sure Things Really Sure Things?
Let's play a game called: "Identify that Prospect!"
The following are all real quotes about NBA players with names redacted, written by various scouts and analysts before they entered the professional ranks.
First, we have this gem from ESPN.com's Chad Ford:
He's the real deal. He's really one of a kind. He runs the floor, handles the ball, shoots the NBA 3-pointer, plays with his back to the basket, so you can slot him in at the 3, 4 or 5. What sets ____ apart is his toughness in the post. You have to love a guy who has the footwork to spin by an opponent, but still prefers to lower a shoulder and bang. Fact is, ____ plays in attack-mode at both ends of the floor. The more you push, the more he pushes back. He's got a great frame. He'll definitely get stronger. He'll have no problem holding his own in the post.
Next, this succinct prediction from Todd Gallagher on ESPN's TrueHoop network: "But it's my belief that these things will come. No matter where he's drafted or by whom, if he doesn't get 15 and 5 (or close to it) right away and 20 and 8 at some point, I'd be shocked."
Here we have Jonathan Watters, writing for DraftExpress.com:
_____ is undoubtedly a top 5 pick, and could go as high as number one depending on which team is selecting there. ____ isn’t a lock to be a star, but will be a very successful NBA player in the right system. There is little up in the air when it comes to ____ skill level and feel for the game, but there are questions about his physical abilities on the next level. Does he have the footspeed and overall athleticism to create his own shot in the NBA? To put up a fight on defense? Opinions on ____ probably vary greatly depending on which person is making the decisions, so his final draft position will probably be locked in only when the draft order is. If the GM with the top selection needs a wing and believes ____ can be a go-to scorer, it is hard to imagine him being passed on.
Those players, in order, are Darko Milicic, Joe Alexander and Adam Morrison.
Were any of them successful at the NBA level? Nope, not even remotely.
And those are just three of many examples. We can't forget about other can't-miss prospects like Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, Hasheem Thabeet, Marvin Williams and a myriad of other notable busts.
Point being, Wiggins, Parker and Embiid might seem like sure things.
What if Embiid's back issues flare up? It's a possibility, no matter how good he's looked during workouts. Back issues don't always go away, and there's no telling what happens when he's forced to bang around with the big bodies the NBA has to offer night in and night out.
What if Wiggins never develops the aggressiveness necessary to be a star? He certainly didn't at Kansas, and NBA teams are relying on his ridiculous upside, potential that isn't guaranteed to be realized.
Parker seems like the safest option of the bunch, but is there really such a thing as a safe prospect in the NBA draft? Otto Porter was supposed to be one of those players who could contribute right away in last year's draft class, and he spent the year floundering away on the Washington Wizards' bench.
I'd like to believe each of the three will turn into a superstar. I really would.
But counting on that happening is foolish. It completely ignores history, and that's perhaps the biggest danger of tanking. After all, a team is putting all its eggs in one basket without any way of checking whether or not they'll hatch into lame ducks or beautiful swans.
And yes, I'm assuming that swans are the equivalent of NBA stars. Work with me here.
The timing of tanking is truly a strange concept.
A team basically has to decide that it's giving up on the season before the trading deadline—if not earlier—and that's far before scouting reports are all compiled in their complete forms. Between then and the draft, there's a chance elite players drop out of the proceedings, electing to spend another year in the ranks of collegiate basketball. Devastating injuries can occur, and serious flaws can be identified.
"The mistake that was made in this year's draft was everything was predetermined before the players had an opportunity to necessarily prove it," an anonymous Eastern Conference executive told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck in early April.
The closest equivalent to this process is committing to spend a large sum of money at a restaurant before you even get to see the menu. You might know the type of cuisine and see some favorable reviews, but you have no way of knowing whether you'll actually like any of the entrees.
Would any fiscally responsible person/couple/family do that on a consistent basis? Better yet, would they commit to such an adventure when their future relies on the enjoyment of that meal?
High Picks Don't Necessarily Lead to Titles
Let's take a stroll through history.
The draft lottery was instituted in 1985, so there have been 28 players drafted at No. 1 overall in the lottery era. Of those, only two have won a title with the team that originally drafted them—David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
Of course, both did so with the San Antonio Spurs, an organization that should basically be treated as the model for nearly every other one in the Association. They're the exceptions, not the rules, and Duncan benefited from playing for a team that was already stacked and suffered from enough injuries to make tanking a distinct one-year possibility.
The remaining 26 players didn't find as much success with their original teams. LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Glenn Robinson all won titles, just not with the organizations that used a No. 1 pick on them.
So does this change for other high picks?
Only two No. 2 selections from the lottery era have ever won a title with their original teams. Darko Milicic did so as a bench player for the Detroit Pistons, playing only 14 minutes throughout the postseason portion of the title run in 2004. Jason Kidd did so with the Dallas Mavericks, but that came 17 years after he was drafted and following stints with two other teams.
Sean Elliott (No. 3 in 1989) followed a similar path by winning a title with the San Antonio Spurs, but that happened after he was traded to and from the Pistons. No other top-four picks have won with their first teams.
Explain to me how exactly teams expect to turn things around by tanking?
Do you believe in tanking?
Admittedly, some smaller-market teams have few alternatives, as they aren't going to lure in any marquee free agents. The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, almost have to rely on landing a star in the draft, because no established ones are going to join a downtrodden organization with a limited fanbase that has spent so much time middling away in mediocrity.
But still, tanking isn't just a magical solution.
It's a risk-filled venture that just might work out for the best.