The Mysterious Disappearance of Tanking

Posted: 02/14/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

In the last six NBA seasons, 20 teams have ended the year with a sub-.300 winning percentage (fewer than 25 wins), which, in my estimation, is the true definition of a horrid team. Last year, for example, Phoenix won 23 games, Brooklyn won 21, the Lakers won 17, and the Sixers won 10. We’ve all heard a lot about the pros and cons of “tanking,” largely because the Sixers tanked unabashedly but partly because a number of other teams have also clearly tanked seasons. We’ve also all heard that tanking (to be clear, this is about the front office gutting a team rather than the players actively trying to lose, which obviously doesn’t happen) is an issue that will continue to plague the NBA until it can find some way to discourage teams from doing it in order to gain high draft picks. There have been a lot of interesting ideas, from giving each lottery team similar odds to get the #1 pick (I hate that idea, because it’ll just mean that teams who would otherwise be fighting for the eighth seed will start tanking), to the wheel idea (too complicated for me to quickly explain). But no matter how people have felt about tanking, they’ve generally agreed that it’s not something that will just go away.

This year, however, the Lakers are favored to win their 20th game tonight and will have a good chance to win in Phoenix tomorrow night. If they win either of those two games, all but two teams will enter the All-Star break with at least 20 wins. Only one team is under my entirely arbitrary (it just seems right) .300 mark. And that team is the Brooklyn Nets, who, ironically, have nothing to tank for. They owe their first round pick to the Boston Celtics. Sure, some of those 20 teams of the last six years went on cold streaks to end the year, and one or two more teams may end up losing enough to go sub-.300 to end the year. And it’ll be impossible to really tell who’s tanking until we see what happens at the trade deadline. Already, the Magic have traded Serge Ibaka to the Raptors. But the three year stretch of multiple teams winning fewer than 20 games is almost certain to end, and the one team that will win fewer has no reason to tank and really just has a horrific roster. Why is nobody tanking this year? Well, any conversation about tanking (or lack thereof) has to start with the Sixers, right?

For the first time in four years, the Sixers aren’t tanking. That’s largely because they have a guy named Joel Embiid, as Philadelphia has a net rating of +3.2 when he’s on the court (they’re outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court), which is really incredible given that their overall net rating is -6. But the Sixers are also 7-15 without their star center, which is a heck of a lot better than they’d played any of the previous three years. The gut reaction to “why aren’t teams doing “X” anymore?” is to say “because “X” didn’t work before.” But that’s not the case here, because Philadelphia’s tank has clearly worked. They have Embiid, they have Ben Simmons, they have Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric, they have uncovered hidden gems like Robert Covington, and they still have a boatload of assets. Their future is undoubtedly brighter than it’s been since Allen Iverson was in his prime (and probably longer than that). No, Philly’s tanking results aren’t the reason that nobody’s bottoming out this season. But here are some other possible reasons:

There are a lot of options to choose from in the draft.
Last year, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram were the clear top draft options. The year before, it was Karl-Anthony Towns and then everyone else. Before that, it was Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid. The last time there was no clear top rung of the draft class was in 2013, which just so happened to be the last time nobody won fewer than 20 games. That year, there were no good options, which explains why Anthony Bennett was the #1 overall pick. This time, there might be too many good options to tank for a top pick. I don’t know where I stand with this draft class yet (I can tell you that I love Josh Jackson), but I know that draft evaluators have said that there’s not a huge difference between Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball (who are at the top of most draft boards) and De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk (who reside between 8th and 10th on most boards). Again, I’ll know more about what I think the tiers are in the coming months, but it’s a lot harder to rationalize tanking when you can “settle” for a guy like Malik Monk without tanking and when there’s no Karl-Anthony Towns at the top (I like Fultz, who I’ll likely have #1, but I don’t think he’s a Towns-level prospect).

The teams that should tank are refusing to.
This can be true for a number of reasons. The Knicks should have traded Carmelo Anthony a month ago and bottomed out, especially since they’re so close to the bottom of the standings as it is. But they are the New York Knicks and play at MSG, so it’s understandable that they’re hesitant to do that. The Heat seemed on their way to dealing Goran Dragic and tanking, but then they went on a long winning streak. And Pat Riley doesn’t seem like the tanking type of GM. Same goes for Mark Cuban and the Mavericks, who will be trying to win as long as Dirk Nowitzki is on the team. The Mavs were 4-17 at one point and the Heat were 11-30 before their winning streak. Those are the types of teams that would have called it a season in past years. Maybe it’s just that the teams for whom tanking would make sense can’t for whatever reason. That’s why the Suns, Lakers, and Nets were three of the bottom four teams last year and are the three worst again this season, even though the Lakers signed vets Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov and the Suns signed Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa, clear signs that they aren’t trying to bottom out.

GMs are scared off by what happened to Sam Hinkie.
I said that Philly’s tank couldn’t be called a failure. It just so happens that the architect of the tank was run out of town before he could see it to completion. Hinkie, who did a marvelous job as GM, was replaced by Bryan Colangelo, who’s done bupkis. Yes, I’m still angry about it. But seriously, don’t you think GMs who might have wanted to tank are a little wary of doing so now that they saw what happened to Hinkie?

It’s random.
It’s hard to know from just glancing at the standings, but so many games are decided by just a few points. TeamRankings.com keeps track of each team’s record in games decided by five or fewer points. The Nets naturally have a league-worst .214 winning percentage in those games. The Lakers are at .286. But other teams who might otherwise tank — Phoenix (.450), Orlando (.400), Dallas (.500), Miami (.467), Philadelphia (.526) — have been solid in close games. Last year, the four bottom feeders I mentioned earlier were all in the bottom quarter of the league in close game winning percentage, with the Sixers coming in last with a dreadful .118. It’s very telling that the second worst team in close games this year has been the Toronto Raptors, who I still consider to be a very good team. It takes a bad team to tank, but it also takes a lot of bad luck. Aside from the Nets, who have no reason to tank, and the Lakers, whose coach is strongly against tanking, nobody’s luck has been that terrible.

Likely contenders to tank the rest of the year:
Magic — maybe the Ibaka trade was just the beginning of an Orlando attempt to maximize its lottery chances.
Lakers — they need to finish in the top three after the lottery to keep their pick. Otherwise it goes to the Sixers.
The fact that I could only point to those two really says it all. Of course, an Eric Bledsoe or Jimmy Butler or Carmelo Anthony trade would change things. Stay tuned.

I personally think that tanking is the best way to maximize future success, because it’s impossible to win in the NBA without star players and the best way to get star players is by drafting from a top-three slot. But I must admit that it’s more fun to watch the NBA when everyone (uh, besides the Nets) seems to have a legitimate chance of winning every game. I don’t see any reason that this’ll be a longterm shift, aside perhaps from the Hinkie factor, but maybe this is a taste of how things will be if the NBA eventually changes its draft rules.

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