The NBA's Best and Worst Tank Jobs of the Past Decade
The practice of tanking has existed in the NBA for much longer than the last 10 years, but it has certainly increased its share of the overall conversation in that time frame.
The Philadelphia 76ers' so-called Process smoothed the path for other teams around the league looking for a more aggressive approach. For that team, asset accumulation trumped seemingly all else. And a handful of teams in the league right now look like the spiritual successors to that form of team-building (more on them in a bit).
But plenty of tank jobs don't go quite as well. Some aren't worthy of a nickname at all, let alone one that is known by most fans of the NBA.
Over the last 10 years, we've seen plenty of attempts at the full-scale rebuild (and some unintentional tanks). As determined by their eventual success or lack thereof, below you'll find three of the worst and three of the best.
The Jury Is Still Out
The Oklahoma City Thunder leaned hard into a Process-like tank in 2020-21, shutting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander down after 35 games and playing teenager Aleksej Pokusevski 28.4 minutes per game over the last three months of the season.
It was hard to blame them, as trades involving Paul George, Russell Westbrook and others have helped OKC accumulate a war chest of future picks. Between now and 2026, the Thunder have 14 first-round picks (or pick swaps) heading their way (in addition to their own picks). Through 2027, they have plenty more second-rounders. And they have just one first and one second heading out.
Losses now improve the draft odds on those picks, so there's plenty of incentive to get developmental minutes for the young guys.
If Pokusevski, Josh Giddey or some future pick turns into a star, it could all be worth it. Right now, it's way too early to tell.
That last sentiment applies to the Houston Rockets too. Back in January, it looked like they might be able to land a veteran (though still relatively young) multi-time All-Star in Ben Simmons for James Harden. They went with the package of future assets from the Brooklyn Nets instead. Now, they have an intriguing young core with Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter Jr., to name a few, to develop as they wait for seven future first-round picks (or swaps) to potentially convey.
Given their own treasure trove of picks, there's some temptation to put the New Orleans Pelicans here too, but they pretty much lucked out of a tank when they landed Zion Williamson in the immediate aftermath of Anthony Davis' departure.
They may not have made the playoffs in the post-AD era yet, but they've been closer to the middle of the pack than real tankers traditionally are.
Worst: Post-Dwight Magic
Over the course of Dwight Howard's eight seasons with the Orlando Magic, the team was seventh in the league in winning percentage and fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions. He finished top five in MVP voting four times, and he finished top 10 in each of his last five years in Orlando.
So, when he was traded in 2012, it came as little surprise that the Magic were able to secure a ready-made rebuild package for Dwight.
In a four-team trade that included the Los Angeles Lakers (Howard's new home), Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets, the Magic added Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, three first-round picks and a 22-year-old Nikola Vucevic.
Vuc would go on to spend the better part of a decade in Orlando and is third in franchise history in win shares, but the rebuild he headlined never took the Magic past mediocrity.
They went 20-62 in a full-blown tank year immediately after the trade. Then, they selected Victor Oladipo with the No. 2 pick in 2013. More losses led to Aaron Gordon at No. 4 in 2014. Mario Hezonja went fifth in 2015. All three are now gone. Hezonja is out of the NBA altogether.
Thanks in large part to Vucevic, the team stumbled into a couple of playoff appearances recently, but all their shots at the lottery failed to bring a high-end co-star for the center.
Jalen Suggs is the latest player to shoulder the responsibility of bringing hope to Orlando, but if this attempt fails, we may look back on it as the post-Vuc tank job.
Best: Post-Kobe Lakers
Technically, this tank job started before Kobe Bryant retired, but it was certainly after his prime. And though it's fair to credit the organization's history and location for the signing of LeBron James, several hits in a row in the lottery led to a trade package that led to Anthony Davis.
Oftentimes, a tank is about getting as many chances as possible for landing a star. But if you can eventually turn picks and young players into an established star, you can fast-track the rebuild.
LeBron and the youngsters may have eventually competed for championships, but sending the results of the tanking years—Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball (the No. 2 picks in 2016 and 2017), Josh Hart and three first-round picks—to New Orleans led to a title in AD's first season as a Laker.
Regardless of what happens from here on out, that rebuild was a success. It already yielded the ultimate prize. And if Davis' durability improves as he enters his prime, the Lakers have an heir apparent to LeBron's throne in L.A.
Worst: Perpetually Tanking Kings
From 2000-01 to 2004-05, the Sacramento Kings trailed only the San Antonio Spurs in winning percentage. They made their last playoff appearance in 2006 and then hovered around the mid-30s in wins for a couple of years before bottoming out with a 17-65 campaign in 2008-09.
The rebuild appeared to be off to a decent start when Tyreke Evans won Rookie of the Year in 2009-10, but all of his averages for points, rebounds and assists decreased in each of his next three seasons. The Kings never reached 30 wins in the Evans era. And the lottery picks who followed him didn't lead to much success either.
Sacramento took DeMarcus Cousins with the fifth pick in 2010 and landed Jimmer Fredette in a draft-night trade in 2011. The next several shots in the first round led to Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Harry Giles and Justin Jackson.
With the additions of De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, the draft record would appear to be better of late, but taking Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic is the kind of blunder that could haunt the organization forever.
Perhaps this analysis might fit better in a slideshow about poor drafting records. It's hard to point to an exact moment when the Kings intentionally set out to tank. But a decade-plus as an unintentional tanker might be even worse.
Best: Bright Future Suns
This one may have taken a bit longer to yield success, and it was temporarily thrown off by a better-than-expected 2013-14, but the Phoenix Suns' drawn-out tank job led to something Steve Nash was never able to claim: a Finals appearance.
Between 2012, when Nash was traded to the Lakers, and 2019-20, their most recent losing season, Phoenix got several shots in the lottery.
There were some notable misses, including Alex Len, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson, but the Suns also landed Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Deandre Ayton during this stretch. And, like the Lakers, the Suns pounced when a star became available.
Trading young players and a first-round pick for the opportunity to add Chris Paul to an already improving core (Phoenix was plus-7.3 points per 100 possessions with Booker, Ayton and Bridges on the floor in 2019-20) brought instant credibility and signaled the end of an up-and-down rebuild that lasted nearly a decade.
Worst: Artists Formerly Known as Bobcats
The Charlotte Bobcats were mediocre in 2010-11, going 34-48 overall and 25-29 after Paul Silas took over midseason.
The following summer, they traded their two leading scorers, Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace, and leaned into a youth movement led by rookies Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, D.J. Augustin, Byron Mullens, Reggie Williams, Derrick Brown, Tyrus Thomas and...Gerald Henderson.
The leading scorer on the 2011-12 Bobcats team was 24-year-old Gerald Henderson, who was out of the league before his age-30 season.
Each of the team's top seven in total minutes was in his age-25 (or younger) campaign. And the results, including a 7-59 record, were predictably terrible.
Among the 1,485 teams with a campaign in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55), this team is 1,484th in simple rating system (SRS combines point differential and strength of schedule) and dead last in winning percentage. Its 43.9 effective field-goal percentage was nearly five points below the league average.
In 2012-13, the Bobcats went 21-61, but the back-to-back abysmal years led to nothing remotely close to a star. They drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after the seven-win season, ahead of Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and North Carolina product Harrison Barnes. Draymond Green, Khris Middleton and Jae Crowder were all taken in that year's second round.
In each of the next three drafts, they took Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh and Frank Kaminsky.
The development of Walker and the free-agency addition of Al Jefferson led to a couple of years of mediocrity, but bottoming out did little beyond embarrassing the franchise.
Team owner Michael Jordan would later say he doesn't believe in tanking, but the 2011-12 Bobcats suggest otherwise.
Best: The Process Sixers
Sam Hinkie and the Process Sixers may very well be the face of modern tanking.
Shortly after Hinkie was hired as the team's general manager in 2013, he traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a future first-round pick. From there, the Process was off, and Hinkie would move heaven and earth to deal every veteran off the roster.
With no one else to use possessions, rookie Michael Carter-Williams averaged 16.7 points and 6.2 assists in 2013-14, and his Sixers eventually went on a 26-game losing streak.
That offseason, they drafted Joel Embiid, who became the personification of this rebuild. But Embiid, of course, didn't set foot on the floor for two full seasons. During that time, Hinkie continued to unload seemingly anyone who could help Philly win in exchange for future assets.
All told, the Sixers went 47-199 during Hinkie's tenure. He resigned shortly after the league intervened in the Process, foisting Jerry Colangelo on the organization. He wasn't around to see the fruits of his labors start to bloom, but his philosophy worked.
Some of the high draft picks, like Noel or Jahlil Okafor, didn't work out. But the Process gave Philadelphia two cornerstone-level talents in Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Of course, Simmons may be on the move this summer. And Embiid has yet to lead the team to the Finals. So, there's probably an argument to include Philly in the "jury's still out" slide, but this tank job influenced more than just the Sixers.
Hinkie brought a philosophical shift during his time in Philadelphia. Teams like the current Thunder and Rockets are emboldened to aggressively tank. And the league voted to level the lottery odds in an attempt to dissuade teams from losing on purpose.