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NBA Tanking Primer: A Guide for Fans

By Edited May 16, 2015 0 4

Title Winners Meet the President

So your favorite NBA franchise is tanking, or at least is said to be tanking.  Is it the end of the world for you as a fan?  Is it the beginning of a new and better era?  The answer to the first question is probably no and the answer to the second is possibly yes.  A “tanking” team isn’t the end of the world if you don’t let it become that way for you.  That’s on you as a fan.  Whether having an extremely poor team for a period of time leads to the Promised land later depends on the gentlemen selecting new talent for your team.  A positive end result is not a certainty, only the potential for improvement is a given.

Why Not Try to Have the Best Possible Team Every Year?

Great players on great teams expect to be compensated.  Keeping a very talented core group of players together for any length of time is difficult now.  The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners discourages prolonged periods of exceeding the salary cap.  Each franchise in the National Basketball Association has a salary cap, currently $57,679,00  in the 2013/2014 season.  Squads over the cap pay a penalty.  The penalty is $1.50 per dollar over the cap for non-repeat offenders who are just over the cap.  The penalty becomes especially harsh for teams deemed to be repeat offenders (ie. those over the cap in each of the three preceding seasons).  Their  penalty rate begins at $2.50 per dollar over the cap and potentially increases to $4.75 and above if $20, 000,000 or more over.  Even the most profitable teams will feel the pinch.

The draft system creates an ability for teams to have an influx of young talent every year.  Significantly, the young talent is also cheaper talent.  Drafted players are paid on a rookie wage scale for two years with team options to extend for up to another two years.  Teams have a financial incentive to “go young.”

An additional incentive created by the NBA draft relates to the impact one or two great players can have on a squad.  Most elite NBA franchises have at least one superstar and probably two.  Selecting the right player in the draft can have a profound positive impact on a squad for years.  Picking a franchise player is something like hitting the lottery.  They create more wins and more fan enthusiasm.

If a franchise currently does not have one or more elite level players they can, at best, aspire to mediocrity.  Unfortunately for team management, our sports culture abhors prolonged middle of the pack play.  Fans lose interest and no longer attend games to the same extent.  The franchise loses its buzz factor.  Team owners feel the need to show they are doing something for the squad to improve.  Standing in place in the middle is not rewarded, either by the fans or the draft methodology.

Pro sports franchises sell hope to their fans.  Maybe you’re having a bad day or a bad week, pushing aside those things to cheer on your favorite team can make the bad things melt away for a while.  Even a bad franchise can sell hope if things appear on the upswing or even could be on the upswing after losing for a time.  Remaining in the middle of the standings doesn’t inspire much hope.  Mediocrity inspires slogging around and humdrum.

Title Winners at the White House

Does Tanking Work?

The current poster boys for the tanking model are the Oklahoma City Thunder, which copied their model from the San Antonio Spurs before them.  Before leaving Seattle, the squad jettisoned their top players and embarked on rebuilding.  Successive top five draft picks brought Kevin Durant, Michael Westbrook and James Harden.  The team became a league power and is considered a title contender, even making the NBA finals in 2012.  This is the team the others are copying now.

Unfortunately, uneven draft classes and an inability to pick well can doom this strategy.  Not all draft classes are equal.  The consensus of most commentators in 2013 was that the draft class had no sure fire franchise changers.  Compounding this problem is the failure to pick well.  The Cleveland Cavaliers looked on the brink of being a contender again after picking Kyrie Irving and having the number one pick in 2013.  Their pick, Andrew Bennett, has been a non-factor and rarely is allowed to venture on the court during live games.  The team still appears stuck in a rut.

Some franchises never seem to get better even with top picks.  The Charlotte Bobcats have been down for quite a while.  Similarly, the Wizards have been bottom feeders for eons, even with the benefit of several high draft slots.  Without the benefit of the first pick in a draft year with an obvious franchise altering star, some teams continue to flounder even if they are not maximizing their wins in a given year in hopes of lottery luck.  The best answer in terms of potential success through tanking is a “maybe.”

Do the Teams Really Try to Lose?

The front office may purposely not stock the squad with the best possible talent in a given year; however, the coach and the guys on the floor generally don’t tank on purpose.  The coach is graded on wins and losses.  Sometimes, a coach may get pats on the back for player development, but their jobs are defined by what they do with what they have.  Likewise, the players are competitors and no one likes to lose.  They also have their good names to protect.  They will give good effort most of the time.

What seems to happen is that losing teams will start to give in when they get down in a game.  You can rarely count out the best teams.  The losing teams get down on themselves and stop playing well together as a team.  Guys try to keep their own statistics looking good and fail to do the little things to maximize wins.  A losing culture becomes the norm.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying, the circumstances cultivate the right winning team attitude.

What Should Fans Do?

As a fan of a  franchise in a rebuilding mode, you have to root for competitiveness and hard fought games.  Revel in the close ones even if the team doesn’t win.  Competitive games are fun even when the end result doesn’t go your way.  In other words, cheer for effort.  Reward the guys on the court for trying hard. 

You also have to have an abundance of hope that the tanking or apparent tanking will result in great players arriving on your team’s roster in the year or years ahead.  Buy into the hope mantra.  To some degree, it’s all you’ve got!



Feb 27, 2014 11:10am
The fact that the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats had a .106 winning percentage, worst in NBA history, and still couldn't get the Number One pick in the draft should be proof enough that tanking doesn't always work.
Feb 27, 2014 12:46pm
I hope MJ sells the team to someone else. They might have a fighting chance then. The race for the bottom is getting interesting. The Sixers started off pretty well and now they're playing as poorly as most expected. Hopefully this year's crop of draftees has enough can't miss types for them to choose a good player.
Mar 4, 2014 2:03pm
It's funny. Sports Illustrated picked the Sixers and Suns to finish last in their respective conferences. Both teams got off to great starts, but the Suns have maintained it while the Sixers have completely fallen apart.
Mar 5, 2014 6:45am
The Sixers look like they are even more determined to tank by trading Evan Turner. Michael Carter Williams will get a good running mate next year.
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