SALT LAKE CITY — Congratulations are in order for the Phoenix Suns. They are the big losers in the NBA — or the big winners, depending on how you view it. They won the race to the bottom. With two days left in the season, they have already clinched the worst record in the NBA and, with it, they will have the best chance at landing the top pick in this year's NBA Draft.
The Grizzlies made a game effort — they are two games “behind” the Suns (or ahead, if you prefer) — but you can’t lose ’em all. The Magic, Hawks and Mavericks also made a good, poor effort, as well, but accidentally won some games they could’ve lost with a little more non-effort. As Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything; there’s also tanking.” Or something like that.
All of the above teams are the big winners in the Tanking Sweepstakes. They earned their high draft picks by tanking — for you kids out there, that means they tried to lose so they could get high draft picks, which are given to the worst teams (ask your dad to explain it).
Tanking is the game within the game, and no league suffers from it as much as the NBA. Teams decide at some point during the season that they can’t win so they throw in the towel and tank for the draft. Half the league is trying to win, the other half is trying to lose. It’s no secret. Mark Cuban, the Mavericks’ owner, came right out and said “losing is our best option.”
Other teams have reached the same conclusion. On March 30, the Grizzlies trailed the Jazz by just four points after three quarters. That was too close for comfort, so they benched center Marc Gasol for the entire fourth quarter because he was playing too well. He already had 28 points, having made 11 of 12 shots. “We gave our young guys an opportunity to play,” was the way coach J.B. Bickerstaff explained it. Riiight. The Jazz won 107-97 and both teams got what they wanted.
The Chicago Bulls benched two of their players, Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, even though both are perfectly healthy. After playing 25-30 minutes a night the first half of the season, Lopez has missed 14 games even though he was healthy enough to play in occasional games during the stretch. Holiday has missed eight games.
In an epic April tankoff, the Magic played three players from the G League, and the Mavericks listed seven players out with injuries and benched another of their top players for the second half. The Mavericks won, which means they lost, if you follow.
Teams have become creative tankers. Matt Bonesteel of the Washington Post wrote that teams are “resting key players during important stretches of a game, making such players inactive altogether even though they are healthy or taking extreme caution in letting injured stars return to the court. Active tanking is when teams actually use data to figure out which lineups would be the least effective, ‘reverse analytics' as one NBA executive told the ESPN scribes.”
Tanking seemed to reach an all-time high this season. Purists such as former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan disdained such tactics. He believed fans spent their hard-earned money to see the best players play and to play hard, and that’s what they should get.
If teams don’t care about winning and effort, then why should fans care enough to buy overpriced tickets and souvenir jerseys? What is there to cheer for — a double-digit loss?
Tanking undermines the integrity of the league. In essence, they are throwing games, which of course is illegal. Tanking indirectly involves money.
The tanking strategy seems to get results. The 76ers have been reputed serial tankers going back years, and now it is paying dividends. After four years of tanking — with an average record of 19-63 during that stretch — they topped 50 wins this season and seem poised to be one of the powerhouses of the league for years to come.
As Business Insider’s Scott Davis wrote more than a year ago, “While the merits of that process — intentionally building a non-competitive team in hopes of acquiring high draft picks and drafting a superstar — can be debated, the 76ers did not try hard to hide their intentions.”
At the All-Star break in February, NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent a letter to all teams stating that tanking “has no place in our game” and threatened action against teams that tanked. He fined Cuban $600,000 for saying it was better for his Mavericks to lose than win, but otherwise Silver has been ignored, and there isn’t much he can do about it since tanking is fairly difficult to prove.
The problem has defied a solution. Like the NFL, the league uses the draft as a way to create parity — something sorely lacking in the NBA — by giving the worst teams the first picks. All teams missing the playoffs are placed in the lottery. Teams with the worse records get more chances at receiving a top-three pick (more ping pong balls). This system was adopted as a way to prevent tanking; it has failed.
NBA writer Dave King wrote about a way to stop tanking, which was actually provided by a reader named David Holady. He suggested that the draft order be frozen at some point during the season — perhaps after 30-40 games. At that point, the teams are placed in groups (based on record) and the team with the best winning percentage after that freeze date within their group gets the first pick, and the team with the second-best record gets the second pick and so on.
It’s an idea worth considering. Any plan will have flaws, and this is no exception. A good team could lose a lot of early games with the loss of a star player to injury, only to rally after the freeze date and secure a high pick. And teams that lose even when they’re not tanking will fall even lower in the draft, but only within their group.
But at this point anything is better than the current system.