I love the NBA. Practically every night I seem to find myself enthralled with a marquee matchup thanks to the NBA league pass. Unfortunately, I happen to be a diehard Philadelphia 76ers fan and the days of watching my favorite player of all time, Allen Iverson, seem like a distant memory. The seasons of competing for a championship have been long gone for the Sixers (about 10 years now), which has led us to be a part of one of the biggest debates facing the NBA today; tanking.
First, it is important to establish how a team puts itself in a position where it needs to tank. To do so, let’s start by doing the opposite: looking at NBA champions. One common feature can be found on every NBA Championship team, dating back to 1980, with the exception of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, they all have a superstar. In that time, only 9 different teams have won the NBA Championship. 9 different teams in 35 years! That is absurd. Take into account that in the same time frame 19 different teams won the World Series and 16 different teams have won Super Bowls. Now why is it that the NBA has so few teams win their championship? Let’s take a look at those teams.
The 1980’s Championship teams of the Lakers and Celtics were led by greats such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, respectively. Dr. J and Isiah Thomas led the other two teams that won titles in the 80’s, the Sixers in 1984 and the Pistons in 1989. Detroit repeated in 1990, which preceded the first of the Chicago Bulls three-peats of the 90’s. Led by arguably the best player of all time, Michael Jordan, the Bulls won 6 titles in the 90’s and arguably would have won 2 more had Jordan not gone on his baseball hiatus. But even during Jordan’s absence from the league, the Houston Rockets won back-to-back titles, led by another hall of famer, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. That takes us all the way up to 1999, where the Spurs won it all with Tim Duncan and David Robinson leading the charge and igniting a Spurs team which would see 4 more Championships, the latest of which was just this past year. After the Spurs in 1999, the Lakers pulled off the 3-peat behind the play of a young Kobe Bryant and one of the most dominating big men to lace up, Shaquille O’Neal.
By this point, I think you get the picture; it takes Hall of Famers to win titles 99% of the time in the NBA. It’s no wonder why Duncan, Kobe, Lebron and Dirk have won the last 6 titles, they are superstars and put their respective teams in an immediate position to win a championship every year. Of course it also takes good players, if not stars, around Superstars to win titles; Jordan had Pippen, Duncan has Parker and Manu, Kobe had Shaq, (or Shaq had Kobe depending how you look at it), and Lebron had Wade.
Building around the likes of a Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant is one thing, but actually getting one of those players is another. It is incredibly difficult in the current NBA environment to land a superstar. It often takes dumb luck. In the current NBA system, the best way to get one of these superstars and consequently a sustained period of success is to draft one, but that is easier said than done. The worst spot any NBA team can be in is to be one of the last teams in the playoffs or one of the first teams out of the playoffs. It means you are not good enough to win a championship, but not bad enough to have a real shot at landing a superstar. So while you could try and gather assets at that point and attempt to trade for a star, it can be extremely difficult. Those teams’ draft picks are generally not very good, and they want to keep their talent as potential role players on an ideal championship roster. Therefore, the only way to have a realistic shot at getting one of these superstar players is to be really bad, or as it’s been dubbed in today’s NBA, to tank (intentionally or unintentionally).
Now, don’t be mistaken, being really bad does not guarantee anything. Getting the number one pick in the NBA draft involves quite a bit of luck itself. The NBA lottery system rarely gives the last place team in the standings the first pick in the draft (only one time since 2004), which makes it even more difficult to get one of these marquee players. Even when you get the number one pick in the draft you are not guaranteed one of these superstars. You only need to look as recently as Cleveland selecting Anthony Bennett number one in the 2013 NBA draft to see a case where it wasn’t a slam dunk (see what I did there?). There essentially needs to be the perfect storm to acquire one of these players through the draft. First and foremost there has to be one of those players in the draft. But often times, even the players in the draft we think could be superstars, never end up reaching their full potential, while lower draft picks end up thriving. Even when there is one of these players, you still have to win the lottery, which often means beating odds that are not in your favor.
Let’s now look at how some teams fared in their attempts to tank. In 1990, the first year this current system for the NBA draft was introduced, we saw first hand how tanking can backfire. During that campaign, the New Jersey Nets (whether they admit it or not) took to tanking. One of the biggest pieces of evidence that a team is tanking is when they start trading away their star players. (If you want to see all the steps, click here) In the offseason prior the 1989-90 season, the Nets traded their only All-Star, Buck Williams. This left them with an extremely depleted roster, and that was before they shipped away their starting center midway through the season. The Nets were all in. There is no better evidence to suggest tanking, than when your team, in this case New Jersey, finishes behind 4 teams that were only in the NBA for 1 year or less. Yes, the New Jersey Nets who had been around since 1967 finished behind 4 expansion teams! Now what was the Nets grand prize for this impressive feat? Well, they did get the number one pick in the draft, and took…..Derrick Coleman. Certainly not the worst first pick to ever go number one overall, but not a great prize for such an impressive tank job.
If the Nets tank job can be seen as an epic fail, then the San Antonio Spurs of the 1996-97 NBA season can be seen as a massive success. Despite the Spurs vehemently denying that they tanked for Duncan, we will take a look at them anyways. What makes these Spurs interesting is that they already had a hall of famer in David Robinson. In fact, the previous two years they finished with a record of 59-23 and 62-20. However, stuck behind perennial powerhouses Utah, led by Karl Malone and John Stockton, and Chicago, who we already described, the Spurs desperately needed more firepower. With David Robinson starting the season on the bench due to back spasms and some other minor injuries, the Spurs started 3-15. Robinson came back for 6 games, where the team went 3-3, before breaking his foot, costing him the rest of the season. In addition to missing Robinson, the Spurs saw their two starting forwards miss a combined 125 games that season due to knee tendonitis and back spasms. This brings us to more evidence of tanking: “resting” players who may have been able to play under regular circumstance. There is no doubt that these players were actually injured for San Antonio, but there is also little doubt that the Spurs were telling them to take their time getting back on the court, given their record. Despite finishing with the 3rd worst record, the Spurs beat the odds and won the number one pick in the lottery (sorry Boston), selected Tim Duncan that off-season, and 2 years later won an NBA Championship.
Throughout the years, many more teams have been accused of tanking. The Celtics tanked in 1996-97 for Duncan and again in 2006-07 for Durant or Oden. The Cavs acted similarly in 2002-2003 in pursuit of Lebron James. A multitude of teams took on losses this past year in the hopes of landing Andrew Wiggins.
Now my beloved Sixers come into play. Just three years ago, the Sixers were coming off a season where they pushed the Boston Celtics to 7 games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. At this time they decided to trade for Andrew Bynum (yes, the same Andrew Bynum who gave us this gem). At the time, I loved the trade. How could anyone not? We got rid of Andre Iguodala, whom many considered to be overpaid, and got arguably the best young center in the league at the time. This was supposed to be a move that pushed them into legit talks for an NBA title. Pairing Bynum with Jrue Holliday and Thaddeus Young equated to a pretty good roster, especially in the scope of the Eastern Conference. However, an unhealthy Bynum never played a game for Philadelphia, causing the Sixers to shake things up in the front office.
Enter Sam Hinkie and the theory of tanking as he immediately blew up the roster. In his first offseason, he traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holliday to the Pelicans and landed Nerlens Noel when he slipped to the sixth slot in the draft thanks to a torn ACL. He then selected the rookie of the year in the 11th slot in Michael Carter-Williams. While the actual value of these two players can certainly be debated, the tanking was evident, and Hinkie was not done. The Sixers fire sale continued as midway through the 2013-2014 season they traded Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes for second round draft picks. In fact, the Sixers stockpiled what seemed like a million second round picks throughout the course of that season. The team went on to match the NBA’s losing streak record, yet finished second to last in the league and wound up with the third pick in the draft. With a full year of tanking in the books, Hinkie chose to continue in his way in the 2014 draft. With the first pick he selected yet another player who will be inured for an entire year, Joel Embiid (master of the twitterverse), and a player who will not come over to play in the US for another two years, Dario Saric, with their second first round pick.
Sixers fans were enraged, myself included, that after a hyped season plus of tanking we did not even have a first round pick on the court to show for it. But, the tank must go on. The Sixers have pulled the trigger on the two biggest methods of tanking (trading their best players and sitting their “injured” ones), and the Sixers brass even admits to their tanking efforts. Currently in year two of the Hinkie’s master plan, it still remains extremely unclear whether or not any of this will pay off. But, hey, at least we have a plan?
The only people who insist they aren’t tanking are the current players, and rightfully so. They are not out there losing games on purpose. They actually play extremely hard and have gotten praise for their efforts from the likes of Greg Poppavich. Just ask what Michael Carter-Williams has to say when you suggest tanking around him.
Now having said all of this, as a Sixers fan, I find myself accepting and rooting for the tanking. I see the plan. I cannot justify being stuck at the 8 seed as the Sixers were for so long, and never really having a strategy for getting significantly better. So I say blow it up. I am aware of the luck needed and I feel crazy to be willing to endure terrible basketball for an extended period of time, but if it means at some point we are competing for a championship for a number of years then it is worth it.
I do not think there is one definite path that NBA teams can follow to achieve success. If there were then more than 9 teams would have won the title in the last 35 years. Maybe I have been brainwashed by Hinkie, but maybe he is smarter than all of us. I just have to pray that Hinkie’s tanking model can lead Philly to a fraction of the success that teams such as the Spurs have experienced. If the Sixers plan works out and they land the top pick in the draft, which in all likelihood will be Jahlil Okafor, then five years from now I may be confirmed for believing in the tanking. But until then, I just have to sit and hope that Hinkie’s plan is the right one. It’s all luck anyways right?
By Peter Gumas