Let's talk about tanking, and let's start by defining a term that can be used in broad fashion. To me, tanking means intentionally trying to lose games. The methods involved range from as extreme as unleashing Mark Madsen, three-point specialist upon the world to as subtle as keeping players out due to minor injuries. Tanking does not necessarily have to involve draft picks. Sometimes, it can be a matter of setting up matchups for the playoffs, as we may have seen with the Memphis Grizzlies last April.
As important to this definition is what it does not include. Trading away veteran players for young ones is not necessarily tanking. That accusation was lobbed in the direction of the Portland Trail Blazers after this year's trade deadline, when the Blazers sent away starters Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace in exchange for draft picks, injured players and little-used former 2009 lottery picks.
Portland's acting general manager, Chad Buchanan, made clear in his comments after the trades that the Blazers still hoped to make the playoffs. While that prospect may seem unlikely with this roster, keep in mind the previous group lost three of its last four games together by at least 17 points, which can hardly be described as a playoff push. Indeed, if Portland is tanking, somebody forgot to tell interim head coach Kaleb Canales and his players, who went on to defeat the Chicago Bulls in Canales' debut on the sidelines and have gone 3-3 since the moves.
The takeaway from this particular story is that a binary choice--tanking or not tanking--is insufficient to describe the decision-making of NBA teams, all of whom are at dramatically different points in the success cycle. In every choice they make, teams must balance success in the immediate future with their long-term goals. This is true in every sport, of course, but especially so in one with a restrictive salary cap. Spending money and other resources on players who help win games now means paying the alternative cost of sacrificing the development of other, younger players who could be more effective in the long run.
To the extent it exists under my definition, tanking is the ultimate example of this kind of long-term thinking. For the cost of a handful of wins now, teams can reap the potential benefit of a star player for years to come. The only downside for front offices is the danger to their own jobs. That's why I can't believe Malcolm Gladwell's argument that the reverse-order draft is a boon to general managers.
"If you give me a lottery pick for being an atrocious GM," Gladwell wrote, "where's my incentive not to be an atrocious GM?
Well, there is the whole matter of being fired. Teams not owned by Donald Sterling aren't really in the habit of sending the same general manager to the lottery year after year. It's hard to think of GMs who have really successfully tanked their way to the top. For one thing, evidence is mounting all the time that as important as one player can be in the NBA, a single star is insufficient to win big. How front offices manage players 2-12 is critical as well. Sure, the San Antonio Spurs got a gift in Tim Duncan 15 years ago, but the Minnesota Timberwolves were unable to parlay the similar talent of Kevin Garnett into four championships. The Spurs' coaching, and their success drafting in the second round and finding role players on the cheap, are more responsible for their lasting run than lottery luck.
If anything, the moral hazard in this situation probably runs the other direction. General managers and especially coaches, wary of being judged by wins and losses, tend to play for short-term gains to the franchise's detriment. If it doesn't work out, well, that's somebody else's problem. That's what makes the situation in Portland so interesting. As problematic as not having a permanent GM may be, it probably made it easier for the Blazers to blow things up at the trade deadline because the man making the final decisions--owner Paul Allen--is committed for the long haul, health permitting.
In my experience, fans are usually more supportive of tanking than anyone. That's why, this time of year, we often see "tank standings" on message boards and blogs. From a fan standpoint, there's a useful asymmetry of attention. It's easy to stop watching games and following obsessively during a lost season only to step up your fandom as soon as a team starts winning again. Even for fans resigned to sitting through the entire year, better that it at least yields a promising talent, right?
I find something more rewarding about watching young players lose games than seeing veterans clearly heading nowhere. These rookies and prospects, no matter how promising they really are, represent some kind of hope for the future. As I've often borrowed from USC coach Kevin O'Neill and repeated in this space, NBA teams are either selling wins or they're selling hope. Taking that hope, in the form of lottery picks, from losing teams would be crushing to their ability to keep fans engaged.
From that standpoint, I find aggressive rebuilding to be a victimless crime and a crucial part of managing a team. Tanking is more sinister, in that it robs the rest of the league of the level playing field we expect and demand, especially during a playoff race. I just don't think it's that common in the NBA outside of seasons, like 2006-07, when the top of the draft is considered exceptionally strong.
What about the statistic shared by Adam Gold as part of his presentation on curing tanking at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conferences? Gold found that teams drop from winning 37.5 percent of their games to 32.0 percent after they're eliminated from playoff contention. Viewed in terms of pure wins and losses, the difference might not seem as large. Take this year's cellar-dwelling Charlotte Bobcats, for example. The Bobcats still aren't eliminated, though their playoff hopes could die this week (their anti-magic number is two losses and Knicks wins). At most, Charlotte will play 18 games after being eliminated, so the same drop-off seen historically would mean winning one fewer on average.
I find that kind of difference well within the acceptable limit because it means rebuilding teams are taking chances like playing Terrence Williams extended minutes to see if he can be an NBA contributor. It's those kinds of experiments that keep April games between losing teams interesting to me. You might consider them tanking. I don't.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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