ESPN.com has devoted a lot of attention to the issue of tanking recently. While there are variations on the definition of tanking and disagreement as to whether it actually works or not, there is no doubt a problem when a substantial number of teams decide that the best way to achieve their goals is to be really, really bad for a substantial length of time. While it is not clear whether the Cavs have been tanking or just inept over the last three-plus years, there is no doubt that the win-loss record was not the highest priority. If tanking is defined as any time a team depletes its roster at the cost of short term gain in order to increase its chance at future success, then that also fits the Heat getting rid of every respectable player except Dwayne Wade in order to create cap space for LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
In essence, there are three issues with tanking: does it work, is it bad for the game, and is there a way to prevent it that does not damage the game in some other way? To be clear about the first question, tanking is a viable strategy for rebuilding a team. It is like any other strategy: If your general manager makes good decisions and you get lucky at the right time, tanking is one of several ways a team can get from the bottom to the top. Pundits point to Sacramento and Minnesota as teams that are stuck in failure mode despite a constant stream of top-5 draft picks and use that as proof that tanking is not a good way to build. However, one could point easily to choices that those teams could have made over the past several years that would have resulted in much better talent than they currently have on their rosters. For example, in 2012 the Kings chose Thomas Robinson over Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond. The bottom line is, if your GM is a putz, tanking will work no better than spending wildly on free agents or trading all your picks for veterans.
As to whether tanking is bad for the league, I would say it depends on how you go about it. The 76ers, for example, have been eviscerated for dumping every viable player and leaving themselves with a roster that has lost 24 games in a row. But ask yourself, how much better would they be if they had kept Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes? Certainly not a playoff team. Turner and Hawes were on expiring contracts, and the Sixers had decided that neither player was part of the future. If you have an opportunity to get usable assets in return for such players, is that wrong? Or do they owe it to their fans, who have already paid for season tickets costing, in some cases, hundreds of dollars per game, to put the best possible team on the floor every night, right up until the end of the season? Keep in mind that we all knew well before the season began that the 76ers intended to strip their roster bare as soon as a deal came up that made sense. Any season ticket buyer who thought otherwise was simply not paying attention. Even in that case, ticket buyers can express their outrage by not renewing next year. With Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, and two incoming lottery picks on next year’s roster, I have a hunch not many will stay outraged for long.
Here’s where I draw the line: If a team has decided that it has veteran players who won’t be around long enough to be part of a winning team, and it moves those players for the best assets it can get in return, even if those assets will not help the team for several years, I have no problem with it. However, when a team just dumps players without making an effort to get the best possible return in order to either save money or improve its draft position, which is a problem that the league should address.
The question is how to do it. The NBA is at a disadvantage in that in all other pro sports a team can just barely sneak into the playoffs and still have a realistic chance at competing for a championship if it gets hot, whereas in the NBA the eighth seed is essentially road kill. So the league needs to alter the equilibrium so that a first round playoff loss or coming close to the playoffs is more attractive relative to completely sucking. One proposal has been to eliminate won-loss record entirely as a criteria in establishing draft order. That would do the job, but just imagine where the Cavs would be after LeBron left if they had spent the last three years drafting in the middle of the first round. Teams that suck need some reason to hope, or else their fans will abandon them. Another idea has been to allocate lottery balls according to how many games teams win after they are eliminated from the playoffs. This has some attraction; once teams are out of the race they would still have an incentive to win. But a system this complicated seems like it would have the potential for manipulation. I can’t say for sure how teams would do it, but it seems like someone would find a way.
Here’s a couple of ideas: One would be to let teams that lose in the first round of the playoffs into the draft lottery. You could skew the ping pong balls in such a way that they would still have some chance of getting a decent pick. Any lottery system that is overly complex opens itself to manipulation, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to devise a system that benefits, say, Charlotte over the Cavs in this year’s draft. Whether that is a plus or not is subject to debate, but if the goal is to eliminate tanking that would do it.
Another idea being floated is drafting based on some sort of weighted average. One version of this is to base the draft order on the team’s record over the past three years. That way teams that decide to rip it up and start over would take longer to reap the benefits of such a decision. This idea has some merit, but in a situation such as the Cavs, they would have been penalized for the two 60-win seasons they had with LeBron for three years after he left. Also, a team like the Sixers this year would have been even more motivated to be lousy, because only by being bad enough to negate the wins from the previous two years could they guarantee themselves a good pick. An alternative to this idea would be to skew the draft odds to favor non-playoff teams that won more games than the previous year. In the case of this year’s Sixers, they would have to choose between trying to beat last year’s record or being so bad that they are certain to be better next year; if they choose the latter strategy, they would delay the benefit and face less predictability about the quality of the available picks. The increased risk inherent in that option makes it significantly less attractive.
To wrap it up, the current rules make various forms of tanking a viable option for improving a team. The best way to prevent tanking is to make it less advantageous to be terrible, but most strategies for doing this rob the worst teams of hope, so a balance needs to be struck. In my opinion, tanking is less of a problem than the unintended consequences of many of the complicated schemes that have been proposed to prevent it, so here’s hoping that Adam Silver thinks long and hard before he “fixes” this.