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In Defense Of Tanking: Against Toxic Mediocrity

US Presswire

US Presswire


Embrace entropy! Get rid of the draft! Play the season blindfolded! Tanking is a scourge and we must stop it! Oh young basketball fan, it is your sacred duty, that you would take up arms and crusade against this pestilence upon our fair game! Too long have these teams held you captive, forced you to train your eyes on Aaron Gray’s every movement! Revolt! Reclaim!

This is the polemic against tanking, a practice opposed with increasingly fervent discourse. The patron saint of the conquest, Henry Abbott, has built the thesis that the practice of teams intentionally losing games in order to improve their draft position dilutes NBA games to the unwatchable. He and others push the platform that the league rewards and incentivizes losing too much, which makes the latter third of the NBA season functionally tortuous. The crew also frequently emphasizes that tanking is a risky and unsuccessful move anyway, but their main point of reference is from a fan perspective, that tanking replaces otherwise beautiful NBA basketball with scrub-riddled pointlessness.

This is a reductive argument and obfuscates the small joys of being a fan of non-contending team. In the ideal world proposed by Abbott et al., bad teams are still bad, but their autonomy to bring in top players is taken out of their hands and they would be subject to any number of strange fixes. These include randomizing the draft order further, eliminating it altogether, and instituting laissez-faire free agency for rookies. While these are all good-faith suggestions made by basketball minds and economists much smarter than I attempting to fix what they see as a serious contagion infecting the league, tanking is a relatively small-scale practice that doesn’t disenfranchise anyone without their permission.

As Tom Ziller of SB Nation points out, the only people that tanking really hurts are owners, as falling ticket sales and lower season ticket renewals erode their bottom line. This is an important distinction to make, as ambitious team restructuring plans that necessitate losing most likely get ownership approval.  Ziller also writes at the end of that piece that all proposed systems of talent distribution would create their own inefficiencies and latent problems not apparent until they happen. The actual boots on the ground practice of tanking is not an entirely sinister thing. There are a few desperate examples of purposeful torpedo-jobs at the very end of a season — think Spurs for Duncan in 1996 — but mostly the practice involves flooding the floor with young players, giving them the keys to the family motorcycle, and a general shrugging of shoulders. This is not a problem. It provides a healthy space for unrefined marble blocks like Russell Westbrook to begin to take form, and for dudes like Ben Uzoh to get a triple double, which is really fun, if not as important. The 2011-2012 Warriors performed a brazen and egregious tank-job to lock in the number seven pick and Harrison Barnes, but the deliberate shittiness was short term and helped Golden State pull out of their long cycle of mediocrity. Under the current system, teams in the bottom five of their respective conferences shouldn’t necessarily be sacrificing development for wins in May. 82 games is a lot, and if you’re staring at a lottery slot with a solid amount left, playing veterans for three more wins instead of allowing prospects to clear up whether or not they are worth a roster slot damages the team twofold.


Fandom isn’t a zero-sum game where a season ending in anything less than a title is a smoldering dumpster fire. Most fans want to watch their squads in playoff basketball games, and most fans do, since over half the league makes the postseason. Of the other 14, there are usually a few teams making a concerted effort to work their way into the playoffs who fall short. These are often semi-veteran teams trying to make the leap out of the tanking cycle or underachieving squads on their way down, and they are typically desperate to finish in the money, if only to validate their difficult season. Directly below these teams are a pack of ex-tankers now looking to cement their core in place, and see if any reupholstery is necessary. These teams will try to steadily improve, and often have enough talent that grim awfulness would be antithetical to their systemic development goals anyway. If tanking compromises end of regular season viewing, it certainly affects a minority of NBA teams. For the holistic NBA fan the solution is a fairly simple one: watch games that have postseason implications, avoid games you don’t want to watch. There will be other basketball games on most nights and these will be apathy-free, desperate affairs.

This is not to say that there is no value or fun in games involving bad teams. Unlike other sports — the best example is soccer — dysfunctional basketball can be it’s own weird brand of fun. Elite athletes, especially now in the post-Jordan era, are hypercompetitve people and they would theoretically be pissed off with purposefully losing. Any team of NBA players fielded will be fuming and straining to win, but their attempts will be hamstrung on a team level by management. These games heavily feature young players, who can be the most interesting demographic to watch, since they are often figuring it all out for the first time and are more apt to do silly, GIF-able stuff. This could simply be a byproduct of watching too much Kings basketball over the past few years, but it’s really entertaining to watch point guards attempt and occasionally succeed with superfluous passes or to witness pyroclastic high-fliers push it too far and jump too high, too often. Sometimes fans even get to watch the entire process as players slowly get their wings and leave the nest, and it’s a unique long-term payoff. The joy of basketball isn’t necessarily in the narratives. Watching athletic events out of story-arc context can be entertaining and that fun is equally valid.

For fans of teams well outside of the playoff hunt, following the day to day ebbs and flows of a young team is it’s own kind of intriguing. These teams will be geared towards winning basketball games as yet unscheduled, but the Aprils and Mays of the immediate future will be nurseries for players whose relevant days lie ahead. Watching along as a rookie learns to maximize his skills on an NBA level for the first time is a rewarding experience. Any fan that sticks through lean years and then gets to see their favorite players whom they’ve formed a virtual bond with perform in the playoffs will be deeply rewarded for their patience. Now that tanking has it’s niche in the mainstream discourse, more fans are aware of it and the practice has some appeal as a brave gamble designed to infuse the team with dynamic talent.

What tanking does best is create two distinct echelons that heavily disincentivize mediocrity. Teams are all trying to be good eventually, and if success is simply not possible in a given season, the best direction to head is back towards the watering hole. The system embraces the reality that NBA championships require superstars, who are almost always acquired as lottery picks, and sends teams in dire need to where they need to go. There is a natural path of improvement that tends to shuttle teams upward until they reach a crucial plateau around 35 wins. Here, they are usually too high to draft a future all-star, but they typically have the right assets to elect one of two paths. They can push forward with the core in place, often with signings or trades to bolster the squad or they can trade those former blue chips away for players with talent still in reserve and draft picks and try to climb those stairs again.

This juncture can lead to a purgatorial stalling out, and these teams are the least interesting ones of the bunch. The Bobcats are a mess, but there is an element of appealing mystery there. Last year’s Sixers were brutal to watch, and it was all a fairly aimless affair featuring Jrue Holiday as Vladimir, pining for an absent Godot of postseason success. Philadelphia of course traded their all-star point guard for what ended up being a rookie with a non-functional knee and the rights to bring in two more rookies next year. In contrast, Dallas signed two solid domestiques, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, in an attempt to return their faltering team back to the playoffs. The approaches and directions are divergent, but the goal is the same; escape mediocrity. Tanking may push fans and players too close to the uncomfortable idea (particularly with regards to American sports culture) of not doing your best every time, but it is situationally necessary. No other system accomplishes the goal of fairly ensuring bad teams a way to rise out of the muck with as few externalities. Most essentially, horizonless boring mediocrity is minimized. Get busy living or get busy dying.

  • Henry Abbott

    Our point isn’t that tanking is so terrible, nor even that the real problem is with teams at all.

    The point is that the league office has its hands very heavily on the scale, and has for a long time. They are handing very valuable assets to very terrible teams. The present degree of that appears, by very sober analysis, to be a little more than optimal. It has some distasteful and unintended consequences, the most troubling of which, to me, is that it has confused the issue of which team is well run by giving great players to bad GMs, which has slowed innovation and professionalism in the front office business generally.

    Things probably could be a little better, which seems worth pursuing. That’s all.

    And I’m all for rebuilding, thinking long-term and everything else. I’m just not convinced teams need the free candy of the lottery to make good decisions. Business plan for the long term all the time but have no such system. Life rewards good planning, even without a draft. In other words, keep the long-term strategy. Keep going young, saving money, developing prospects and all that. But just take out the part where teams that could be pretty good make personnel moves to make sure they’re pretty bad.

    • nbacouchside

      I guess the question, for me, with what sort of system do you replace the lottery? I assume a flat lottery without the weighted odds is out for the simple fact that it has basically all of the same faults, only it removes the most egregious tanking offenses to increase the odds of getting one of the top few picks. A system like the NFL’s, where the draft order is pre-determined by reverse record order, would exacerbate the alleged tanking problem even further. So what’s the option? A random lottery with all 30 teams? Maybe that’s better, but it’s no guarantee. Getting rid of the draft altogether would be a disaster for smaller market teams or teams with cheaper / poorer owners or both. Removing the draft would be fairer to the players, but it would destroy any hope of teams in certain cities or with certain owners really ever competing. Maybe getting rid of the draft, allowing open bidding, implementing a hard cap, and eliminating the maximum salary restriction would be the best way to structure the league, but good luck getting that negotiated with the players’ union, which is, by definition, comprised mostly of non-max players. I’m just not sure there’s any realistic option that’s better than the current system.

      • Bobby Karalla

        I like the idea of Bill Simmons’ “Entertaining as Hell Tournament,” where the teams that don’t make the playoffs play in a single-elimination tournament, the winner of which gets the No. 1 overall pick. From the league’s perspective, it might work. Americans love single-elimination tournaments in every sport. From the team’s perspective, it might not work, because if I’m Dallas I don’t want Dirk getting injured in the quarterfinal of some consolation post-season. Regardless, it makes the end of the season more exciting, and maybe the best team not to make the playoffs deserves the best amateur player. Or maybe I’m just a Mavs fan.

        • nbacouchside

          It’s really one of Simmons’ best ideas ever. I hope Adam Silver takes a serious look at it. Obviously, it won’t be called anything like the “Entertaining as Hell Tournament,” but if we got the NBA Consolation Tournament sponsored by T-Mobile (or whoever), I’d be really happy.

        • Jeremy Conlin

          I would actually disagree – I think part of what makes competition in the NBA so enthralling is the sample sizes are large enough that the more deserving team ends up winning the majority of the time. It’s a level of definitiveness that doesn’t exist in any other sport or league, except perhaps the NHL (and even then, a goalie can swing a postseason), and I think that’s what makes the NBA so appealing, especially to analytic-minded people like us. A single-elimination tournament deciding which team gets the most prized asset of the year seems to contradict playoff teams needing to win four out of seven games, four times in a row, in order to be crowned champion. I don’t think the league can have both of those systems co-existing.

    • Ian Levy

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Henry. My concern is part of what Patrick said, and others have mentioned, is that other solutions may offer other unintended consequences that may reveal themselves to be equally as disruptive and disturbing. I agree the system is not ideal as is, but I would have to feel really certain that an alternative would bring the balance closer to ideal before I’d get excited about a different structure.

      I felt the same away about Kevin’s piece about the possibility of doing away with free throws. In general I don’t like them. But I don’t think I like any of the alternatives any better.

    • Patrick R

      While this is the central thesis of the anti-tanking argument from a managerial perspective — and this position has been developed with incredible depth by everyone involved — I think the failures of the Bobcats to emulate the Thunder model and the successes of Memphis and Indiana disencentivize tanking on their own to the point that it’s been realized as a risky, possibly dangerous path to take. My main point is that it doesn’t really hurt fans and can be a good way of polarizing teams away from a boring middle, and I feel the lottery’s talent distribution method is the fairest way to give every team a weighted chance of upward mobility. If talent distribution is liberalized or somehow equally spread across all teams, it becomes difficult for less privileged teams to attract any kind of top talent or make the necessary moves to compete.

      To your point that pretty good teams make bad moves: sometimes, this can be less frustrating for fans etc than being ‘pretty good’. This may sound like a contradiction against the ‘fandom as a zero-sum game’ theory, but the appeal of being awful is in it’s wild, open promise. I guess the point is that there are different ways of self-sabotage, and many of them (New Orleans etc) don’t involve protracted awfulness, but merely a decisive, quick reset. At least if done properly.

      Once again, thank you for taking the time to give a thoughtful repsonse and for provoking discussion around this.

    • Dodgson

      Wait, no sport in the country has better parity than the NFL and that is a system which rewards tanking unequivocally. The problem isn’t tanking, the problem isn’t a team being bad, the problem is horrible owners and unless an owner is tossed after 4/5 horrible seasons or 8/10, the issue will never be solved. Dumb or cheap owners who hire bad general managers make the game unwatchable, not a few teams trying to tank. I do not understand a movement to get rid of tanking, it will do nothing. Getting rid of bad owners would do a lot but no one will ever push it because the owners are horrendous tyrants who get their way on almost everything. If you actually want the sport to get better Henry ask a good owner every single time you see him why the maloofs or sarver should have ever been allowed to keep a team. Or why Seattle (a top tv market which means money) should have lost a team to an ownership group so cheap they split up a championship contender AND moved to a very small tv market. The vast majority of problems could be pretty easily resolved if there were a mechanism to get rid of the one thing that truly haunts sports: bad owners.

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