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.
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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.
The team wasn’t done tanking there however, as the Sonics sent star guard Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics in order to acquire the fifth pick of that year’s draft as well, Jeff Green. The team struggled even worse the following season, going 20-62 and finishing dead last in the Western Conference. The team ultimately landed Russell Westbrook in the following year’s draft, so the consecutive seasons of tanking allowed OKC to land two franchise cornerstones. Durant already has his MVP, and Westbrook is looking more and more like the frontrunner for this year's award.
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.
Coleman was expected to be a game-changing power forward, as he was excellent in the low post but could also step out and shoot the three. He won the Rookie of the Year award during his debut season, but he never lived up to expectations and certainly was not the franchise cornerstone that the Nets had given up the 1989-90 season for. Coleman did have a long and productive career, but the Nets were never able to go deep in the playoffs with Coleman as the team’s centerpiece.
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.
Aside from sitting both Kevin Garnett and Ricky Davis, coach Dwane Casey utilized forward Mark Madsen as his main perimeter threat. The only problem with this was the fact that Madsen was no sharpshooter and the only threat he represented was to the game’s integrity. Despite having previously shot 1-for-9 over the course of his six-year career, Madsen fired away from deep seven times, making none. The ploy worked and the Wolves kept their 2006 pick, ultimately drafting and trading Brandon Roy on draft night.
7 2005-06 Phoenix Suns
The Timberwolves weren’t the only team engaged in tanking during the 2005-06 season, but the Phoenix Suns’ tank job was done for an entirely different reason. The Suns believed they matched up better with the Los Angeles Lakers than the Sacramento Kings in the playoffs, so they intentionally dropped a game against the Lakers to help make them more likely to earn the 7th seed in the Western Conference. Coach Mike D’Antoni benched the reigning NBA MVP in Steve Nash along with Raja Bell, and the Lakers cruised to victory. The plan nearly blew up in the team’s face, as the Lakers took the Suns to seven games in the first round of the playoffs that season.
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.
The tanking did not work out as intended for the Celtics who, despite having the second-highest odds of landing the top pick in the draft, ultimately landed the fifth overall pick. This may have actually been for the best, as the Celtics used the fifth pick to trade for Ray Allen and then persuaded Kevin Garnett to waive his no-trade clause to join Pierce and Allen on a team that would win the 2008 NBA Championship.
5 1996-97 Boston Celtics
While the 2006-07 team had the second-worst record in the history of the Celtics franchise, the worst season the Celtics ever endured was most certainly the 1996-97 edition. Coached by M.L. Carr, with the understanding that Rick Pitino would be his successor, the Celtics went 15-67 that season while hoping to land the most coveted player to enter the draft in years, Tim Duncan. The Celtics actually had two picks in that draft, and figured they could turn around their struggles with the help of two high draft picks. The strategy backfired horribly, and the Celtics wound up with the third and sixth picks in the draft, which they used to select Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. To add insult to the whole incident, Pitino traded away Billups after just half a season in Boston.
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.
Since the Spurs’ struggles were so closely related to the loss of Robinson, the tanking strategy they used in 1996-97 was amazingly effective. With Duncan and Robinson in the middle, the Spurs immediately became a dominant force in the Western Conference and were able to win their first of five titles with Duncan in 1999. Celtics fans still look at the Spurs and wonder what might have been if not for the randomness of that 1997 NBA Draft Lottery.
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."
The Cavs did indeed trade their three best scorers – Andre Miller, Wesley Person and Lamond Murray – without getting much value in return. As a result the team turned to the oft-maligned Ricky Davis to lead the Cavaliers, resulting in a record of 17-65 and the top pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. The Cavs happily took LeBron James with the first pick, and LeBron's arrival turned the franchise around and helped them to the NBA Finals in 2007.
2 1983-84 Houston Rockets
The 1984 NBA Draft is one of the most notable drafts in the history of the NBA, yielding future Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. This draft is also the last time that a lottery system was not employed, and the Rockets intentional losing that season is the reason that the NBA went to a lottery system in the very next draft. Before the lottery was instituted in 1985, the top pick was determined by coin flip between the league's two worst teams, assuring the Rockets that they would be able to select either Olajuwon or Jordan. The Rockets got Hakeem and would eventually win a pair of titles in 1994 and 1995 behind the 7-foot center. Of course, the lottery system has not changed the fact that tanking still very much exists in the NBA, it’s just much more of a gamble now than it was then.
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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