Many people are in outrage over the strategy called tanking. Tanking is a method in which a team seemingly loses games on purpose to get a higher draft pick, and the higher the draft pick the better chances a team can get a potential superstar in the NBA draft. This strategy has been popularized by Sam Hinkie in recent years with the Philadelphia 76ers. Teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns have caught on to the Hinkie plan, and have implemented their own form of tanking in 2017 in essence to be better in the future.
The concept of intentionally losing games is not just a recent phenomenon. Losing on purpose has been in practice since the NBA began in 1946, and it was an even bigger problem before the NBA lottery system was put in place by David Stern. The team with the worst record in the NBA today still only has a 25 percent chance of receiving the top selection in the NBA draft. Before the lottery system the two worst teams in each conference both had a shot at the top draft pick. A coin was flipped to determine who would receive the number one pick and who would receive the second pick, and the rest of the teams would select in the order of worst record to best record. There have been moments when tanking has been successful and times it has failed in NBA history.
Here are 8 times that tanking worked and 7 times that it failed miserably:
15 Worked: Milwaukee Bucks 1968-69
The Bucks were a brand new franchise in the NBA, and everyone who was a fan of basketball was aware of the Goliath like figure that was playing at UCLA under John Wooden in Lew Alcindor. You may know him today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The entire 1968-69 roster was comprised of all rookies acquired through the 1968 NBA draft. Everyone was aware of how much the Bucks would struggle early on, but there was one team the Bucks were successful against. The Phoenix Suns lost six out of the eight meetings against the Bucks in 1968, and were hopeful to get the first pick in the 1969 NBA draft. The Bucks won a coin flip for the first pick in the draft over the Suns, and with Alcindor on the team quickly became one of the best teams in the NBA.
14 Failed: 1984-85 Los Angeles Clippers
The San Diego Clippers were owned by the highly racist Donald Sterling, and Sterling made it quite obvious that his team was losing on purpose in order to get a young center from Georgetown Patrick Ewing. The Clippers had been tanking for quite some time, but kept getting beat out by the Houston Rockets for the worst record in the West, which prevented them from participating in the coin flip between the worst teams in the eastern conference and western conference. The Clippers finished the 1984-85 season with the second worst record in the West. In previous years this would be disappointing, but the new NBA lottery system was in place giving the Clippers a chance at the top pick. The Clippers again missed out on the top pick and were awarded the third pick where they drafted Benoit Benjamin who was most certainly not Patrick Ewing.
13 Worked: 1983-84 Houston Rockets
The first year of the NBA lottery was in 1985, and the Houston Rockets were the main culprits in pushing young commissioner David Stern’s hand in creating a lottery system. The Rockets had just gotten the first overall pick in the 1983 draft when they selected Ralph Sampson. Sampson was a good addition to the team, but the Rockets wanted to create a contender and knew they needed another top pick in the draft to be able to do so. The Rockets did not seem poised to get that top overall pick when they started the year winning 20 of their first 49 games. Then the hardcore tank began where the Rockets only won nine more games on the year, and started to give a lot of minutes to players sitting at the end of the bench figuratively. This strategy worked and landed them Hakeem Olajuwon.
12 Failed: 1984-85 Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors had been a team in turmoil for most of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the 1984-1985 season was one of the most strenuous seasons in Warriors history. The team struggled to win 20 games the entire year. With a record of 22-60 the Warriors seemed poised to get Patrick Ewing in the draft until the lottery system put in place gave all non-playoff teams an equal shot. Adding insult to the new system in place there are conspiracies to this day that it was fixed for the New York Knicks to win, and the Warriors ended up getting the seventh pick which was the lowest pick in the lottery.
The Warriors were fortunate to get a decent player in Chris Mullin from this selection. Ewing was a generational player that could have helped the Warriors ascend out of the basement of the western conference, but the organization chose a bad season to tank with the lottery being instituted.
11 Worked: 1984-85 New York Knicks
The most controversial tank job on this list belongs to the New York Knicks prior to the 1985 NBA draft. The Knicks were fortunate that the lottery system had been put in place, and under the previous system the team would not have been able to get a top two selection in the draft. The Indiana Pacers finished with the worst record in the east and the Golden State Warriors finished with the worst record in the west. Under the previous system these two teams would flip a coin to determine who would get the first and second picks in the draft, but in 1985 all seven non-playoff teams had an equal opportunity at nabbing the top spot. The Knicks won the lottery but many believed it was fixed. The injury bug hit New York hard in 1985, and tanking was the only solution for this unfortunate string of bad luck health wise.
10 Failed: 1989-90 New Jersey Nets
The New Jersey Nets had some competition in getting the worst record in the NBA during the 1989-90 season. The team had not been relevant since they were in the old ABA and Julius Erving was leading them to winning championships, and they needed some help through the draft. The roster was depleted featuring players such as Sam Bowie and Roy Hinson. The Nets had losing streaks of nine, 14, and the final seven games of the season, and were lucky enough to land the number one pick in the draft.
The team selected Derrick Coleman with the first overall pick, but the Nets did not become successful until their two finals run in the early 2000s over 10 years later. The Nets thought Coleman would be a transcendent player. What they got instead was a good player, but not one that could not lead the team to success in the tough eastern conference of the 1990s.
9 Worked: San Antonio Spurs 1996-97
The San Antonio Spurs won 59 games during the 1995-96 NBA season, and were considered contenders in the western conference. The next season the team regressed and won only 20 games. The teams best player David Robinson suffered a broken foot just six games into the season, and Sean Elliot the teams second best player only played in 39 games. Other players on the team also battled several injuries through the season. Many look back and accuse the Spurs of intentionally fabricating their players injuries which caused them to play primarily bench players for a majority of the season.
The Spurs finished with the third worst record in the NBA, and won the NBA draft lottery which landed them Tim Duncan. The Spurs went on to win multiple championships with Duncan playing the lead role.
8 Failed: 1996-97 Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics general manager Paul Gaston hired M.L. Carr to be the team’s new head coach, and Gaston’s instructions were for Carr “to take one for the team.” The front office coveted Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest and knew the only chance they had of getting him was to lose a lot of games. They did lose a total of 67 games, but they had to rely on the ping pong balls to bounce their way on lottery night. The Celtics who always seemed to find a way to be successful in the NBA were unlucky when they were awarded the third pick in the 1997 NBA draft. They selected Chauncy Billups who they traded away in his first year with the team, and wouldn’t be able to maintain continuous success until 10 plus years later.
7 Worked: 2002-03 Cleveland Cavaliers
The 2003 draft class was looking like it would be one of the strongest classes to ever enter the NBA, and a young high school basketball player out of Ohio was the cream of the crop. LeBron James was the most sought after player in the 2003 NBA draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers were the perfect place for him to land, and it would keep him close to his hometown. The Cavs tanked games to be able to acquire the top pick in the draft. Players such as Smush Parker and Jumaine Jones got lots of minutes, and the team owner seemed poised to sell the team. The team would have much more value if LeBron James was drafted by the team. The Cavaliers just recently won their first NBA title led by LeBron James, and the tanking method used to draft him worked out in the long run.
6 Failed: 2000-01 Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls were coming off of a dynasty, and thought they had acquired a franchise building player in Elton Brand in the 1999 NBA draft. Brand averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds a game in his rookie season showing he could be a star in the league. These great statistics did not lead to the Bulls winning games on the court in Brand’s rookie year, and the Bulls decided they needed to add more talent through the draft. During the 2000-01 season the Bulls played seven rookies and had a roster with an average age just under 23. The Bulls only won 15 games, and drafted Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler in the 2001 NBA draft. They traded away Elton Brand to get the young Tyson Chandler, but the Bulls still would not make the playoffs again until 2005. Curry and Chandler both turned out to be flops in Chicago.
5 Worked: 2006-07 Seattle SuperSonics
The then Seattle SuperSonics decided to not just tank for one year. They only won 31 games during the 2006-07 NBA season, and were able to win the second pick in the draft to draft perennial all star Kevin Durant. The team then traded their own star players Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics, and Rashard Lewis was dealt to the Orlando Magic. The next two drafts also gave the franchise two dynamic players in Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The trio would lead the relocated Oklahoma City Thunder to success in the playoffs reaching multiple conference finals and one NBA finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the most successful small market teams in the NBA in recent years, and tanking led to this success.
4 Failed: 2016-17 Los Angeles Lakers
This is still only speculation that their tanking has been unsuccessful, but their tank has their fans in a state of confusion. The Los Angeles Lakers are a proud, historically great franchise, but they have turned to tanking because they have not been in the playoffs since 2013. The Lakers needed to finish as low in the standings as possible to ensure that they keep their first round selection this season. If their pick falls outside of the top three, their selection goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Lakers have taken methods in trying to bolster their chances of keeping their selection. They sat free agent signings Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov for the last third of the season, and started D leaguers such as David Nwaba at times.
They ended up winning their final five games of the regular season, and this moved them up the standings giving them only a 47 percent chance of keeping their draft pick.
3 3. Worked: 2016-17 Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves possess the longest playoff drought currently in the NBA. The last time the Timberwolves were in the NBA postseason was in 2004 when Kevin Garnett led the franchise to its most successful campaign by reaching the western conference finals. Now the team has young talented players to build around in Andrew Wiggins, Zach Levine, and Karl Anthony-Towns. The Timberwolves were only able to win 31 times in the 2016-17 NBA season, but they were without Zach Levine for over half the year which contributed to their poor finish. Wiggins and Levine are both entering the last years of their rookie contract next year. Management has expressed interest in retaining their young stars, and if they can get that out of the way Minnesota could become an enticing destination for free agents with another lottery pick set to join the team in 2017.
2 Failed: Brooklyn Nets
Is it tanking or is it incompetence? Who knows, but either way the Nets are hopeless. The Nets are not truly tanking, but they have not exactly fielded the best team together on the court. The team has been set back years by a trade with the Boston Celtics where they gave up multiple first round picks to acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett at the end of their half of fame careers, and because of this deal the Nets will have to give their first round pick to the Celtics. That pick could likely be the first pick in the draft. The Nets do not have much of a reason to be tanking especially when they have one of the best big man in basketball on their roster in Brook Lopez, but the rest of the team consists of young borderline NBA players. The people of Brooklyn are hopeful that one or two of these young borderline NBA players can turn into serviceable rotation players in the future.
1 Worked: 2016-17 Philadelphia 76ers
It is is hard to come to the conclusion that a team that has only won 28 games this past season has had a successful tank, but the time for the Philadelphia 76ers seems to be near. The Sixers got a glimpse of one of the assets they acquired with Joel Embiid in the 31 games he played being a dominant force both offensively and defensively. In addition the Sixers might have two high lottery picks in the upcoming 2017 pick, and they possess the Sacramento Kings' first round pick for the 2019 NBA draft. Players such as Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell have carved out roles as future bench players for this team when it becomes competitive in the near future. The first overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft Ben Simmons has not even stepped on the court yet for the team, and at 6’10 he will be the tallest point guard in the league when he finally makes his debut in 2017.