A History of Tanking

There’s a consensus among NBA experts that the 2014 NBA draft will be one of the deepest in NBA history. It’s expected to go down in history alongside the class of ‘84, ‘96, and 2003. Most teams are reluctant to deal even lottery picks, because the draft is predicted to be so deep that even lottery picks stand a chance of being players you can build with. If the internet is to believed, Andrew Wiggins is what you would get if Allen Iverson’s crossover had a child with Michael Jordan’s leaping ability, and Dominique Wilkins dunked the baby. 

So naturally, there are teams tanking.

Tanking isn’t new. While some people will say that it’s not how things were done in the old days, you’d be hard pressed to agree looking at the history of the NBA. In fact, the draft lottery system was first implemented in 1985 explicitly to stop tanking. The 1983-84 Houston Rockets was not a bad team at all, starting the season at 20-26. They could have made some trades, acquired talent, and tried for a playoff push, but instead started a tank of epic proportions. In that upcoming year’s draft class was University of Houston standout Akeem Olajuwon. Houston could not risk seeing both of these players, both projected to be future All-Stars, go to another team. Just the year before, Houston had already passed on fellow U of H star Clyde Drexler.

So they sank to a 29-53 record, and walked away with the #1 draft pick, and a future Hall of Famer. In the other conference, the Portland Trail Blazers held Indiana’s pick, good for #2 after the coin flip. In those days, the worst team from each conference called heads or tails on a coin toss, to decide who would pick first in the draft, before proceeding by record.

So the old practice of tanking had to go. It was an aberration in the league, designed to help ailing teams, but eventually used to effectively create unwatchable basketball. While there was never any effort on the players’ part to fail, the front office and management did them no favours. In tanking for Olajuwon, the Rockets played rookie Ralph Samson over 30 minutes per game. At one point, 37 year old Elvin Hayes played 50 minutes in an overtime game. These aren’t signs of teams trying to win. While tanking existed before the 1984 Draft, there was never more obvious an example of it. So the practice of tanking had to be tempered by the possibility of a draft lottery. The worst teams would have their names go into a bin, and the order that names were drawn in would determine draft order. The last name drawn in 1985 was New York, and so they won Patrick Ewing, and the renewal of their franchise. But this didn’t stop criticism, and a conspiracy still prevails that New York had entered a devil’s bargain with Stern to guarantee them Ewing. Google “frozen envelope.” 

By 1990, a new weighted system was created, ensuring that poor teams were given a large chance to win the first overall pick, but by no means a guarantee.

Since the implementation of the weighted lottery, only three teams have won the number one draft pick with the worst record in the league. The 1989-1990 New Jersey Nets, the 2002-2003 Cleveland Cavaliers, and the 2003-2004 Orlando Magic. Even Charlotte’s horrifying 7-59 season during the lockout was only good for #2 overall.

On the surface, the weighted draft has helped curb tanking, as anybody looking at the numbers will see no correlation between poor performance and promises of the #1 pick. However, that has done nothing to stop owners and management from deciding they need to slightly increase the odds in their favour by creating unwatchable basketball. Certain players have created teams that will go down as tank artists. The 1990 New Jersey Nets were so desperate for a first overall pick, they fielded a team in which no player averaged over 16ppg. 0-time All-Star Dennis Hopson was their primary offensive option. Perhaps the biggest tank race in recent memory however, was the race to the bottom to grab Tim Duncan.

Eventual winners San Antonio played their hand cannily, letting superstar David Robinson sit out the remainder of the season, after breaking his foot. The extra time would lead to a better healing schedule for his foot and back, and also led the Spurs to a 20-62 season, and Tim D. However, Boston would set a franchise worst 15-67 record, on the way to one of the worst tank jobs in history. The lottery gave them the #3 pick, which they used on Chauncey Billups – a man who would be regarded as a draft bust until landing in Minnesota. Boston would deal Billups to Toronto for the aging Kenny Anderson. That’s what 67 losses gets you.

Worst of all, the weighted lottery system means perpetual losing teams sometimes completely fail to earn top players. While the most obvious example is the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats, the Vancouver Grizzlies finished with league-worst records in 1995-96 (15-67), and a mind-numbing 8-42 recording 1998-99.

With that in mind, the NBA seems set to continue its proud tradition of tanking. Statistically, it’s unlikely for the worst team in the league to get the first overall pick. So teams should be looking to do badly, but not Charlotte Bobcats bad. Philadelphia looks like they’ll be cautious with Nerlens Noel’s playing time, hoping the added time off will get them some L’s, and help his ACL heal. In the meantime, they have one-time tank target Kwame Brown on the bench. Boston’s highest paid player at the time of writing is the former Mr. Kim Kardashian. Phoenix at one point was seriously considering making Michael Beasley their starting power forward.

Though lots of people are down on the tank, it’s as essential to basketball as the slam dunk or the crossover. It’s become a part of the lore. It gives hope to losers, and gives something for teams in the basement to compete for at least. It can make perennial losers into overnight winners.

Most importantly however, we effectively draft based on potential. We have no idea how good or bad Andrew Wiggins, or any other projected #1 could possibly be. We can see teams mortgage their season, and losing games as quickly as possible to pick a player, that as far as we know, could become the next Kwame Brown.


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