The Step Back’s 2018 NBA Guide to Tanking

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 11: Josh Jackson of the Phoenix Suns and Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks poses for a photo during the 2017 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot at MSG training center on August 11, 2017 in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Brian Babineau/Getty Images)
TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 11: Josh Jackson of the Phoenix Suns and Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks poses for a photo during the 2017 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot at MSG training center on August 11, 2017 in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Brian Babineau/Getty Images) /

How to pull off the proper tank job is one of the great mysteries of the NBA universe, so we decided to make everyone’s lives a little bit easier.

College basketball is finally here, and you know what that means: Tanking Season has officially arrived!

Much like the Christmas decorations at your local Walgreens, it seems like Tanking Season comes earlier and earlier every year. We’re already hearing about how great a pairing Zion Williamson would make with Luka Doncic or that Bol Bol is the lob threat Trae Young so desperately needs and people haven’t even finished their Halloween candy yet.

It can be a bit much, and not just for fans. Head coaches around the league are rarely prepared for a switch in mindset so early in the season. A few weeks ago, they were still trying to teach their teams how to fly; now they have to worry about falling with style.

This would be a daunting task for even an experienced coach, let alone several newbies in their current positions, so we thought we’d lend a hand. For your convenience, the Step Back’s 2018 Guide to Tanking, presented in easy to understand FAQ format by our sponsor, Ex-Lax: “keeping your difficult season moving along”

My name is Scott Brooks. Do I need to read this Guide?

No, but if you’d kindly print out a copy and leave it in your top desk drawer, the next person who opens it will likely find it very helpful.

I am a Kings fan. Is it possible we’re actually good, and thus, can my head coach bypass this helpful tool?

Yes, but not because you’re good. Your team traded away it’s 2019 draft pick years ago. Enjoy what little pleasure this season has left to offer and try not to think about it.

How do I know if I should be tanking?

The best thing to do is check out the handy dandy page and look up your team’s overall net rating. Over the least four seasons, only four teams that have reached (roughly) the 10-game mark with a net rating of minus 4.0 or worse made the playoffs. If you’re below this line, it’s probably best to keep reading, just in case.

But my team was supposed to make the playoffs, and it would be a massive disappointment to my owner and fan base if we didn’t. And my name isn’t even Scott Brooks.

As of right now, the only such teams below the 4.0 cutoff are the Washington Wizards — covered above — and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets. Going into Thursday night’s games, Derrick Rose was leading Minnesota in made field goals, while Carmelo Anthony was third in Houston. If a prominent member of the 2016-17 New York Knicks plays a prominent role in your offense, you are probably tanking.

My team currently has a net rating above minus-4.0, but it still feels like this Guide might apply to us. What should I do?

Keep reading. All apples are fruits but not all fruits are apples.

This is Larry Drew. How much of this guide can I read before being legally obligated to coach my team past the current season?

66.6 percent. So you’re good for a bit longer.

What is tanking anyway?

Tanking is being purposefully worse than you’re capable of being.

But my team is already bad…can I still tank?

Yes. Everyone can tank, but contrary to popular perception, the worse you are, the more difficult tanking becomes. The two easiest ways to tank are to sit good players or overplay bad ones. If your team has no one that’s good and many who are bad, this is a lot tougher than it sounds.

I coach a bunch of guys who are bad but are also young, and there’s a chance they may someday be good. If I play them a lot of minutes, am I tanking?

Possibly. You need to play young players to find out if they are any good, and in-game experience in low-pressure situations is a great way to accomplish that goal. However, you also have to put your players in positions to be successful. Putting kids on the floor without a prayer in the world of remaining competitive is the textbook definition of tanking.

An example: Trae Young is a barely 20-year-old rookie point guard who might also be the greatest nightly defensive liability in basketball. He’s also the best playmaker on his team, so having him in the game facilitates the offense, which makes life easier for the other young players on the roster. This not only helps development but is probably Atlanta’s best chance to win games. Playing Young 30 minutes a night might not always look pretty, but it’s not tanking.

Jeremy Lin here… you know I play for the Hawks now, right?

Nobody cares.

When are times when playing young players on my roster is not acceptable if I want to avoid tanking?

A good rule of thumb here is to look at what the Suns have done for several years now and then do the complete opposite. Phoenix currently sports a minus-13.0 net rating. If they finished the season that bad, it would be the lowest number since the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, the team that made tanking cool before those hipsters in Philly ruined it for everyone.

The Suns are currently starting Isaiah Cannan at point guard. You may remember Cannan from the Bulls’ first-round loss to the Celtics two years ago when he started games over Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant after Rajon Rondo fractured his thumb. If you are starting someone based on the fact that they were once better than Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant, you are indeed tanking.

But wait a minute — Canaan might be the best point guard on Phoenix’s roster…how is this the coach’s fault?

It isn’t. A front office can tank too. In this case, Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough would be the one to blame, but he was fired a week before the season started. As a side note, if your owner fires the person responsible for all basketball decision making immediately following an offseason in which he made several high-level basketball decisions, including selecting the first overall player in the draft, you are most certainly tanking.

Trevor Ariza here…can I have a do-over?


How much do the other players on my roster matter when determining whether or not I’m tanking?

It depends on your team. Going back to Phoenix (if the 2011-12 Bobcats were the Alpha of tanking, the Suns are most certainly the Omega), sitting Eric Bledsoe at the end of the 2016-17 season is the classic example of how roster construction can play a large role in whether a tank is even possible. At the time, Eric Bledsoe was a borderline All-Star, so sitting him for no discernable reason moved Phoenix squarely into the tanking zone. If he wasn’t on the team, this might not have been possible.

On the other hand, it may be the case that your “best” veteran players are such a mixed bag that sitting them might actually help you. For example, Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. are the most reliable options for an offensively challenged Knicks team. New York also defends at a higher level than the league-leading Celtics when they’re off the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s impossible to say whether benching these types of players is good or bad, so their presence basically precludes the possibility of a true tank. Jabari Parker, JR Smith and most of the Lakers offseason additions also fall into this category.

I thought the Lakers made those moves to try and win basketball games?


Speaking of Bledsoe, is there a chance I have a veteran on my roster right now who might lead to unwanted wins?

Not really. Poor Kevin Love would have qualified, but the Cavs are so horrifically bad that even if Love hadn’t suffered a toe injury that will likely keep him out through Christmas, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Luka Doncic here. Is there anything in this guide that tells me how to morph my backcourt partner into literally any other human? They don’t have to play basketball.

No. Be thankful you’re not in Atlanta.

Will tanking impact my job security?

It depends. Is your name Larry Drew?


Then no.

Can I blame management for putting me in a position where tanking is an inevitability, even if they’re the ones that hired me just a few months ago?

Absolutely. In fact, this is encouraged. In Orlando, Steve Clifford’s four best players – Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Nikola Vucevic – are all probably best suited for the same position in the modern game. This is unavoidable tankery and there is nothing he can do to avoid it.

Tankery is not a word. Also, no one cares about Orlando.


Has there ever been a more complicated web of tankifications than the one currently being spun in Dallas?

No. Dallas has:

  • A rookie in Luka Doncic who needs playing time to develop, but who
  • Also happens to be the first-year player most helpful to winning games since Tim Duncan, which is unfortunate since
  • The pick they owe Atlanta for the Trae Young trade is only top-five protected, but they’re in luck because
  • Dennis Smith Jr. might be the single greatest tanking asset in the league this season.

Yes, strictly speaking, playing Smith alongside Doncic does qualify as tanking because the numbers make it quite clear they are far better when Luka or DSJ run the show solo.

How ironic is it that the Nets are going to be competing for a playoff spot in the first year they have their own draft pick since before the first time LeBron James left Cleveland?


Next. Are the Cavaliers veterans right about Collin Sexton?. dark

Tyson Chandler here. The weather is beautiful in LA…it’s warm all the time, but without that nasty humidity.

That wasn’t a question. Also, how did you get editing access to this document?

Should I even want to tank?

Have you seen Duke play yet?

Does any coach in the league today even have a choice as to whether to tank or not?

Not a realistic one, no. These rosters are so bad, especially in comparison to the top 20 or so teams, that there is very little by way of self-sabotage that can take place. Sure, there are always decisions that could be made to keep teams from harmful wins — playing Mitchell Robinson at point guard, mandating Collin Sexton shoot double-digit 3s every game, allowing a disgruntled star to sabotage your entire franchise — but clearly, no reasonable person would do any of these things.

Tom Thibodeau here — hold my beer.