There are only so many ways for NBA teams to improve their standing among their NBA peers, and franchises that are not attractive free-agent destinations must often hope to improve either via trade or the draft. Since the accumulation and development of draft assets is often the best way to land a valuable player via trade, the NBA Draft is frequently considered the best means for teams looking to acquire a franchise-altering player.
The problem with building through the draft is that in order to land a high draft pick, teams have to first endure a losing season. This is how tanking was born, as the teams with the worst records in a given NBA season have the best shot at landing the first pick of the lottery. In years when a draft class is considered particularly deep or includes a can’t-miss prospect, the number of teams tanking in the NBA seems to grow exponentially.
This is not something that the NBA necessarily wants, as it does not sit well with players, coaches, fans or the media that a team has been specifically assembled for the purpose of losing. Tanking is an affront to the integrity of the game, but the NBA has incentivized tanking through its lottery system. Because of this incentive to lose, many fans have bore witness to some terrible basketball as a part of the most flagrant examples of tanking.
It is not always the high draft pick that teams are after when they tank, as there have been examples over the years of teams intentionally losing in order to ensure that they face a specific opponent in the playoffs. While this does occur, it is most often that tanking happens when there are game-changing players available in the upcoming draft lottery. The following 10 teams engaged in the most egregious examples of tanking games because of some ulterior motive that is most often a chance at a high draft pick.
10 2006-07 Seattle SuperSonics
Sometimes tanking works, and well, sometimes it doesn’t. For the 2006-07 Seattle SuperSonics, tanking was the best idea possible given the way it ultimately worked out for the team. Finishing the season 31-51 and 14th in the Western Conference, the soon-to-be Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Kevin Durant, a future MVP out of the University of Texas and now the face of the Oklahoma City franchise.
9 1989-90 New Jersey Nets
The NBA has tinkered with its lottery system several times since instituting it in 1985, and the New Jersey Nets thought they could take advantage of the fact that the 1990 draft would be the first draft that was weighted according to losses. At 17-65, the Nets were terrible and assured a very high draft pick. They landed the first overall pick, selecting the talented but mercurial Derrick Coleman of Syracuse University.
8 2005-06 Minnesota Timberwolves
The 2005-06 T’Wolves famously tanked the final game of the season in order to keep its own pick in the 2006 NBA Draft. Minnesota had dealt a pick to the Clippers that was top-10 protected, meaning that the pick would go to Los Angeles should the Wolves win too many games. As the season’s end approached, the Timberwolves were clearly losing games intentionally and the last game of the season was the most flagrant example.
7 2005-06 Phoenix Suns
6 2006-07 Boston Celtics
With Greg Oden and Kevin Durant both viewed as future NBA superstars, the Boston Celtics did all that they could to ensure that they had a shot at one of either Durant or Oden. At 24-58, the Celtics finished with the second-worst record in the franchise’s long and storied history, and they got there with some of the most egregious late-game performances in the league that year. Doc Rivers, then still the coach of the Celtics, used some very odd late-game lineups in games the team was winning.
The most obvious example that the Celtics were heavily invested in tanking was a game against the Charlotte Bobcats late in the season. Despite having been up by 18 points in the third quarter, Rivers benched his best player in Paul Pierce and went with a lineup that featured Allan Ray, Leon Powe, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes and Gerald Green. The Celtics obviously couldn’t close out the game and the Bobcats won.
5 1996-97 Boston Celtics
4 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs lost their star center, David Robinson, to an injury that allowed him to appear in just six games that season. They replaced Robinson with Will Perdue at center and relied on an aging Dominique Wilkins as their leading scorer, which helped them to a meager record of 20-62. The lottery balls bounced their way that season, as they beat out the Celtics to land the highly coveted Tim Duncan in the 1997 Draft.
3 2002-03 Cleveland Cavaliers
Everyone who paid even the slightest bit of attention to basketball in 2002 knew about the hype surrounding then-high schooler LeBron James, and the Cavaliers were well aware of how their franchise could benefit from landing the homegrown future superstar. While the owner of the team at the time, Gordon Gund, denied that the team was intentionally losing, head coach John Lucas knew exactly what was going on, telling AOL Fanhouse back in 2010, “They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team. You can't fault the Cavaliers for wanting to get LeBron. It was hard to get free agents to come there."
2 1983-84 Houston Rockets
1 2013-2015 Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers have been in full-blown tank mode for what seems like forever now. The tanking has helped the Philadelphia franchise land some very talented players, but they have also drafted players in two consecutive drafts with no chance of playing in the following season. Philly traded for Nerlens Noel as part of the 2013 Draft knowing that Noel had a torn ACL and would be unlikely to contribute in 2013-14. That led the Sixers to a 19-63 season the following year and helped them land the third overall pick in the draft, which turned into Joel Embiid, another injured prospect with no chance of playing for the Sixers anytime soon.
So for the third consecutive season, the Sixers hold one of the worst records in the league, and at one point this season had as many as nine undrafted players on its roster. Through 63 games, the Sixers own the second-worst record in the NBA at 14-49 and are trailing only the New York Knicks for futility. Over the past two seasons, the Sixers have only managed to accumulate 33 wins in total, a figure that 22 teams have already surpassed in this season alone.
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