Why NBA Teams Should Tank

As the NBA season draws to a close most fans will be following the teams at the top of the standings as they fight for playoff position. However, there is also an equally competitive fight occurring at the bottom of the standings as eight teams battle for the worst record in the league to improve their odds of landing a high draft pick. Intentionally losing, otherwise known as tanking, is controversial throughout the league as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was recently fined for admitting that this was his team’s strategy.

Tanking is unpopular because it strikes many fan as unsporting. They believe, quite reasonably, that the goal of a sports team should be to win as many games as possible. Therefore, tanking seems counter-productive. Due to the nature of the NBA, however, tanking is many team’s only option for acquiring the talent they need to contend for a championship.The NBA is much more dominated by superstars than baseball or football. LeBron James, the NBA’s best player, has led his team to the NBA finals each of the past seven seasons. This means that teams need to be built around dominant players like LeBron James and Steph Curry in order to contend for championships. For most teams, this requires drafting early in the first round.

The most famous example of a team adopting this strategy is the Philadelphia 76’s. Sam Hinkie, the team’s general manager, decided in 2013 that the group of players they had would not be good enough to build a championship core around. Therefore, Hinkie decided to tear down the roster and horde young, talented players who might one day develop into the stars his team needed. Hinkie traded away All-Stars for future draft picks and unproven prospects. This strategy lead to Philadelphia setting franchise records for futility and Hinkie losing his job.

Five years later, however,  the success of the players he acquired is beginning to vindicate Hinkie as his former team is poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Since 2013, the 76’s have had six top ten draft picks. Two of those picks, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, look like they could be elite players for the next decade. Simmons and Embiid have the potential to form the core of a championship contender for years to come. Additionally, because Hinkie traded most of the 76’s older, more expensive, players, the team has the financial flexibility to add star players this offseason who could help put the team over the top. A final benefit of Hinkie’s strategy is that it forced head coach Brett Brown to give opportunity to players who could not have gotten playing time elsewhere. Most of these players did not perform well but Robert Covington, a former NBDL player, thrived in Philadelphia and is now a vital part of the team’s future. None of this could have happened had Hinkie tried to maximize the number of games the 76’s could win in the short-term.

The Detroit Pistons further illustrate the wisdom of tanking. Like the 76’s, it was clear going into the 2013 season that they did not have the talent to compete with the league’s elite teams. However, they were unwilling to bottom-out as dramatically as Philadelphia was and attempted to maintain short-term competitiveness. In the summer of 2013, while Philadelphia was acquiring draft picks and preparing to tank, Detroit signed veteran Josh Smith to an expensive contract and traded promising rookie Khris Middleton to Milwaukee for Brandon Jennings. They have continued this strategy for the past five years and have avoided the embarrassingly bad seasons the 76’s had to suffer through but this mediocrity has come at a cost. Since 2013, they have drafted in the top ten only twice, and never higher than eight. While the 76’s were in a position to add future stars, none of the Pistons recent picks appear to be the type of players they could build a franchise around. Additionally, in their effort to win as many games as possible in the short term, they have not been able to develop undervalued talent in the same way Philadelphia has. Khris Middleton and Spencer Dinwiddie were both drafted by the Pistons but traded away before they had a chance to develop. Both landed on teams with more patience and have both blossomed into good NBA players. By giving up on these players too quickly, Detroit limited their own ability to build a foundation for long-term success. By winning just enough games to remain mediocre, they robbed themselves of an opportunity to acquire young talent. Now, their future remains bleak as they sit, outside of the playoffs, saddled with expensive, long-term contracts, and not in a position to draft the help they need. There commitment to maximizing short-term success has made sustainable long term excellence impossible for this franchise anytime soon.

By tanking, Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76’s moved much closer to an NBA title than they could have otherwise. Some fans might say that it is wrong for a sports team to spend multiple seasons not trying to win. This is shortsighted. The purpose of a professional sports team ought to be to win championships. In light of this, Philadelphia’s tanking was not only moral, it was wise. They were willing to lose a few battles to give themselves a chance to win the war. There is nothing dishonorable about this, and it is what the fans of every bad NBA team should hope that their team does.