TANKING DOESN’T PAY: A BRIEF HISTORY OF FAILURE

May 28, 2017
Jon Giles

On January 29, 2014, the Philadelphia 76ers won a nailbiter on a last second shot from Evan Turner, beating the Boston Celtics 95-94, and giving the 76ers a measly record of 15-31. A quick look around the NBA at that point however would show the Philly squad was far from the worst team, as three teams had worse records, and a total of 11 teams were in contention for the league’s worst record.

That draft was extra top-heavy, with three near locks at the top, in Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid. The 76ers were lacking at every position but the point, with the strong Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams. That being the case, they would have loved to have any of the three men at the top of the upcoming draft, so the key was locking down a top pick.

Remember the date, January 29, 2014. The 76ers wouldn’t win another game for two full months when they beat the Pistons by 25 on March 29. The 76ers won only four of their last 36 games, bringing their calamitous season to an end with a record of 19-63, securing the second-worst record in the league (and even had a two-game winning streak at the end of the season, when results didn’t matter, as the second-worst record was already locked up for them).

The Draft Lottery then did what it always seems to do, giving an outside team the top pick. This time, the Cavs were said team with only a 1.7% chance of getting the top pick. The 76ers did not ultimately fail though, getting the prized third overall pick, Joel Embiid—a pick that could somehow win the Rookie of the Year three years later…but that’s another story entirely. Ultimately, the system worked, and Philly got what they wanted, by being terrible—a logic not seen many places outside of sports.

The 76ers did not invent this strategy, of losing to get talent, or “tanking.” Ever since the NBA Draft moved to a Lottery system in 1990, the issue of tanking a season has been a prevalent one. Since 1990, when the Draft Lottery was instituted, we’ve seen team after team stop trying in the second half of the season, yet only two of the worst second halves since 1990 have proved effective.

20 teams who went worse than 7-34 in their final 41 games, and even in those only two teams were given the first overall pick. That’s a 10% success rate, with a near 100% chance of driving your fans and profits away. Sometimes, its not just the second half of the season, and a team is bad from the very beginning…even those teams turn out to be fruitless in the draft.

Since 1990, there have been 30 teams with the worst record in the league (two teams tied for last place in ’02 and ‘03). Of those 30 worst teams, only six have been given the top pick, while 17 in total have been in the top two. The teams that have been getting the number one pick instead include the likes of a 41-41 Orlando Magic squad in ’93, a 2008 Bulls team that was the ninth-worst, and the aforementioned Cavaliers in 2014—the tenth-worst team in the league, and only five games out of the playoffs.

Looking back on drafts in the last 27 years, there are significant super stars that went #1 overall, who were also players teams tanked for:

In 1997, the Grizzlies and the Celtics fought tooth and nail to get the top pick, both going 6-35 to finish their respective seasons. They were falling hard to the bottom of the standings, because a prize was waiting for them at the end: Tim Duncan.  Duncan ended up in the possession of the San Antonio Spurs, who actually won four of their last 14 (as bad as that sounds, when you’re losing for a generational talent, it’s pretty easy to throw together a 1-13 streak).

Later, in 2003, the Cavaliers and Nuggets were racing to the bottom to get LeBron James. The Cavs were easily the worst team in the NBA that year, at one point posting a 9-40 record, finishing at 17-65 (astoundingly winning three of their last seven). The Nuggets took every opportunity to lose games they were in to keep up with the Cavs, with losing streaks of 14, and eight to end the season. Finishing with the same record, the Cavs got the first pick, with the Nuggets forced to pick third, getting a decent participation trophy, in Carmelo Anthony.

In the strike-shortened 2012 season, the Charlotte Bobcats saw the clear cut #1 pick, Anthony Davis. While they were a bad team, they finished the season losing 23 straight to more than solidify the top draft odds. As it turns out, being the worst team in the league by 14 games means nothing to the Draft Lottery. The Bobcats lost out on Davis to the city that stole their original Hornets, New Orleans. The consolation prize of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been a solid defender, but the franchise would have been changed for good with the selection of the Unibrow.

Only once in the vast history of the Draft Lottery can we even say that tanking worked, when the Philadelphia 76ers tanked again (for the fourth year in a row) to get the top overall selection in the draft. With that pick they selected Ben Simmons and only time will tell if that pick is successful.

Since the Draft Lottery has been in effect, tanking has proved ineffective, as the chances of actually getting that elusive #1 pick by throwing away a perfectly cromulent season is slim to none. Many people say the NBA should step in, as these teams are making a mockery of the NBA. I submit to you that these teams are only making a mockery of themselves. Each time a team does this, the league itself benefits, and the team fails. The league will sell jerseys, TV rights, and merchandise every day of the week. If the 76ers don’t sell tickets, they look like the fool.

Parity has never been a thing in the NBA. Since the NBA’s formation in 1950, only ten teams have won multiple titles, while 14 have never won once. Looking further, only five teams, the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Spurs, and Warriors account for 70% of all titles won in 67 years.  If a team wants to tank, let them, because the last seven decades have proved poorly for most. In this day and age of advanced metrics, data, and vision, it should be easy for any GM to see the inefficiency in the plan. The teams that win will always be on top. Teams that tank, will always tank.

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