Is Tanking In The NBA Truly Worth It? by Cam Archer

See, back then, there wasn't a lottery system. A coin flip decided the top pick between the two teams with the worst record.

Jul 2

Sam Hinkie is not the father of tanking. Instead, the charismatic former Philly front office honcho merely treated tanking the way DaBaby has treated his only flow on 95% of his musical catalog. He ran it into the ground. Want to truly hand out the kudos for the practice of modern-day "tanking"? You have to take it back to 1984. The Houston Rockets had just used the number one pick the year before landing university of Virginia big man Ralph Sampson. Unfortunately, the roster around Sampson wasn't nearly as impressive as he was. The 1984 Draft, arguably the greatest draft in league history, featured another dazzling Center named Hakeem Olajuwon. Realizing the thought of teaming Sampson with Olajuwon was too irresistible to pass up, the Rockets did what any sensible organization would do; they lost and lost spectacularly.

See, back then, there wasn't a lottery system. A coin flip decided the top pick between the two teams with the worst record. While Houston was not the only team to tank going into the 84 Draft, they perhaps did the worst job hiding it.

The idea of tanking is pretty simple. A franchise deems the talent on their current roster incapable of genuinely contending for a championship. Whether it is due to roster age, fit, or actual lack of ability-- and decides their best course of action is to hit the reset button for lack of a better term. The execution has evolved, but the perceived goal has not. Amass assets, turn assets into high-level talent, win a championship.
But how often has that happened? The Houston Rockets caused the league to ditch the coin flip in favor of the lottery and didn't win titles until a decade later. Michael Jordan had been banned for two seasons by NBA commissioner  David Stern; I mean, he retired to pursue baseball.

The most immediate turnaround has to go to the San Antonio Spurs, who famously threw a majority of the 1996 season in hopes of landing a specific Wake Forest big man by the name of Tim Duncan in the draft. Of course, having an already Hall of Fame level talent beside him in David Robinson, as well as Greg F'n Popovich, certainly didn't hurt. Still, the Spurs would win the NBA Championship in 1999 over the New York Knicks (more on them shortly) and become a Dynasty.
You could tack on the Cleveland Cavaliers as another successful tank story, albeit a tumultuous one, thanks to LeBron James. Still, beyond that, you'd be hard-pressed to find another example of tanking ending in the ultimate prize. The 2007 Trail Blazers tanked as hard as possible to obtain the number one pick in the next year's draft. Their grand prize? Greg Oden (Kevin Durant went second overall). The Celtics tanked that year as well and failed to net a top pick they hoped for.

This is in part thanks to the lottery mentioned above format. Having the worst record may give your franchise more ping pong balls, but it doesn't guarantee you walk away with a top-four selection, let alone number one overall. A lesson the Knicks learned the hard way once again leading up to the 2019 draft. The Knicks were terrible, but the offseason would be plentiful with lottery balls and cap space to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Instead, the Knicks signed ten forwards, none of which were named Kevin or Durant, and found themselves drafting RJ Barrett instead of Zion Williamson.

The road is littered with franchises that threw away seasons while promising fans the next season would bear the fruit of new young franchise-altering talent, only to receive Kevin Knox at Media Day. The Philadelphia 76ers, however, thought they had successfully beaten the game. After seven seasons of mediocrity that netted them lottery picks like future Hall of Famers Mo Harkless, Michael Carter-Williams, Elfrid Payton, Jahlil Okafor, and Nerlens Noel (in a draft-night trade that saw the Sixers ship out JRUE HOLIDAY). That doesn't include the 2010 number two pick Evan Turner, or lottery Nikola Vučević who would end up on the Orlando Magic, or 10th overall pick Mikal Bridges, who was traded on draft night as well.

You guys get the point. The Sixers deemed the process a rousing success after netting All-Star talent out of only Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The 2021 offseason very well may culminate in a trade to get Simmons out of Philly after he refused to even look at the rim during the Conference semifinals. Is one Conference Finals birth a rousing success after intentionally losing for the better part of a decade?
The Sixers overlooked what a lot of fans and organizations do. If you don't know how to evaluate talent and fit for your roster, you'll fail.

This is a warning that should be heeded by the latest Tank Darlings, the OKC Thunder. Sam Presti has hoarded an obscene amount of draft picks that will convey over the coming years. I would give the exact number, but the way this front office swaps players for draft capital it may be inaccurate by the time you read this. This is a more sophisticated way of tanking, but it is tanking nonetheless. The Thunder already felt the first sting of the tank process as their hopes of landing a top 5 pick in the upcoming 2021 Draft was dashed by the lottery. Unless you're willing to give up some of that sweet future draft coin, Oklahoma City will be sitting at sixth overall in what many deem to be a draft with five true top talents.
Most dynasties start by chance and excellent talent evaluation. The Timberwolves famously took two-point guards right before Steph Curry. Large amounts of draft picks do not equate to multiple all-stars, banners, and parades.

Tanking is like a carnival game that you rarely have a chance of being successful at. The largest stuffed animals hang so close, yet so far, and rather than just going and buying one of these honestly cheap tokens of trickery, we try to beat the system. We attempt to prove we're more intelligent than the game itself. You might get a consolation prize, but you won't take home the most obnoxious trinket on display.