Exploring the NBA’s double tanking problem

Feb 6, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; A view of an official NBA game ball with the signature of new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at Barclays Center before the game between San Antonio Spurs and the Brooklyn Nets. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As the NBA grinds its way into the All Star Break, professional basketball finds itself in an unfortunate contrast with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.  Whereas Olympians regardless of nationality are competing ferociously for even the slightest chance at medal contention, about a third of all NBA franchises appear to be jockeying for best position in the upcoming 2014 NBA Draft.  Or, to use the generally accepted but often misguided nomenclature, tanking.

I initially hesitate to use the word “tanking” because it confuses the strategy and has become inherently pejorative.  Tanking has nothing to do with professional basketball players intentionally losing games.  Why would an NBA player sacrifice his statistics and winning mentality when his very livelihood relies on such things?  The simple answer: he wouldn’t.  Tanking is hardly nefarious; it more so resembles a rational Wall Street investment strategy than it does a clumsy point shaving operation.

In professional basketball, the concept of tanking is nothing more than savvy NBA front offices tactically placing their respective franchises in positions to perform at suboptimal levels in order to ensure the greatest likelihood of securing a top draft pick.  An investor would equate this to holding onto a particular stock through a temporary rough patch knowing that profits are on the imminent horizon.  Similarly, a corporation could compare tanking with a corporate social responsibility investment in a more sustainable product—sure, the costs of manufacturing the product might increase, but the prospect of more consumers purchasing the product now than ever before make the decision fiscally responsible.  In any event, tanking is supposed to serve as a short term sacrifice to bring about a long term gain.

The problem with tanking, however, is that sometimes the strategy becomes a long term sacrifice to bring about a long term gain.  If you’re a general manager pulling the proverbial strings to make his team more likely to lose, it would be almost impossible to question such a decision when a player like Tim Duncan is in the draft pool.  Sacrificing a season for a franchise-changing talent who could immediately turn a team into a winner for almost two decades is literally a no brainer.  But what if there is no Tim Duncan available?  What if the best player in the draft averages just 10 points and 7 rebounds per game in college?  What if the best player in the draft is a project who has only been playing basketball for slightly less than three years?  What if the best player in the draft could realistically have the same career as either Hakeem Olajuwon or DeSagana Diop?  What if the best player in the draft was Joel Embiid?

Joel Embiid is more than just the basketball prospect du jour amongst NBA scouts; in a draft likely to feature Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, and Dante Exum, Embiid finds himself as the presumptive favorite to be the number one pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.  In a league where the most important player through one half of the season might be Roy Hibbert—the 7’2″ Indiana Pacers center who leads the NBA equivalent of the Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom”—seven foot freak athletes with apparent talent are going to be highly coveted.  But Embiid is more than just a guy like Bismack Biyombo of the Charlotte Bobcats—a lanky athlete with a one dimensional projected ceiling of a classic defensive stopper such as Ben Wallace.  Embiid already knows how to finish at the rim in a variety of fashions.  Embiid also showcases a subtle softness on his jumpshot that hints at the future development of a reliable 18 footer, much like the offensive weapon favored by veteran and Hall of Fame lock Kevin Garnett.  And perhaps the most impressive thing about Embiid is his passing; he frequenting throws passes that remind viewers of Vlade Divac, Arvydas Sabonis, and the historically-underrated assist man Shaquille O’Neal.

There is no question about it: Joel Embiid could be great.  But he is also just 19-years-old.  And he has only been playing basketball for a little less than three years.  And he only gets 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 assists per game—numbers trumped by a guy like New Mexico 7-footer Alex Kirk, averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds per game while ranked as just the 26th best Junior prospect in college by the highly respected Draft Express.  Draft a guy like Tim Duncan, and your franchise becomes a championship contender overnight.  But draft a guy like Joel Embiid, and your franchise will likely have to wait a few years before becoming a legitimate playoff team.

In 2014, a lot of sports fans are incredibly savvy.  Fan bases in general are willing to experience a grueling NBA season in exchange for a draft pick that can immediately turn around a franchise.  But I’m not so sure fans want or should be expected to embrace tanking in order to draft a player like Embiid, a guy that might turn into Hakeem Olajuwon in five years.  Unless Embiid shocks me and proves NBA ready after just three years of organized basketball, tanking in order to draft Embiid first overall would not be the desired short term loss to achieve long term gains; rather, it would be an example of a strategic long-term loss to achieve longer term gains!

As of the date of publication, the Boston Celtics; Cleveland Cavaliers; Orlando Magic; Philadelphia 76ers; Milwaukee Bucks; Los Angeles Lakers; New Orleans Hornets; Utah Jazz; and Sacramento Kings all appear to be in the process of tanking for draft position.  And this is not simply correlating the teams possessing the worst records with the teams clearly tanking; rather, this is a list of teams with front offices that are proactively taking steps to hurt their respective teams’ chances of success during the 2013-2014 season.

You want evidence?  The Celtics traded Jordan Crawford—arguably their most valuable player to start the season—and received no immediate help in return.  The Cavaliers are still letting the inept Mike Brown coach their roster of young, impressionable players in dire need of strong leadership and coaching.  The Magic are only letting burgeoning star forward Andrew Nicholson play 16 minutes per game, despite him opening the season with 18 points in 19 minutes.  Sam Hinkie, the 76ers general manager, has literally admitted to a tanking strategy.  The Bucks are still allowing the perpetually confused Larry Drew coach this nine-win team, and in the process, Drew has decided to give big minutes to players like Khris Middleton and Nate Wolters as opposed to Gary Neal—the former San Antonio Spurs star Bucks management signed to a $6.5 million dollar contract during the offseason.

Meanwhile in the Western Conference, the Lakers recently decided to play an NBA game with only 8 available players on the bench in uniform, as opposed to doing what any other team trying the least bit to win would do and bringing up some players from the D-League to fill the roster.  The New Orleans Hornets still employ a coach who only gives Tyreke Evans—a young star player with a $44 million contract—23 minutes per game.  Similarly, the Utah Jazz still allow Tyrone Corbin, a quintessential lame duck coach who hasn’t proven to be a competent game strategist, to lead the team.  And perhaps most incoherently of all, the Sacramento Kings brought in Rudy Gay via trade to play “alongside Derrick Williams and DeMarcus Cousins,” but Williams has been relegated to the bench in favor of the steady but plateaued Jason Thompson.

These nine teams all are likely competing to determine who is the best at tanking in the National Basketball Association.  Whichever team that wins the metaphorical Embiid sweepstakes should prepare for at least a few more years of struggle until Embiid is ready to be a 35 minute a night dominant NBA center.  In the meantime, the losers of the Embiid lottery might end up better off in the interim by drafting more NBA-ready players such as Jabari Parker and Julius Randle, and then devoting efforts to bringing in accompanying talent to win immediately.

I have no problem with tanking, but if a team partakes in such a strategy, it should make sure that the coveted player can immediately benefit the franchise.  Otherwise, the team is simply engaging in a double tanking strategy—losing on purpose to draft a high upside player who will immediately only yield additional losses.  And that is just doubly unfair to fans.

Topics: NBA

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