Tanking is no secret in the NBA. Teams like the Chicago Bulls or the Sacramento Kings openly sit their top veterans in an attempt to “develop young talent,” but in reality, they are intentionally losing to get a better pick. It’s not a new phenomenon. The Philadelphia 76ers did it for three or four years to get Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz. Even the San Antonio Spurs did it so they could draft Tim Duncan first overall in 1997, and he helped them win five NBA Championships. But tanking is a serious problem that kills the competitive nature of basketball, and commissioner Adam Silver must find a solution, no matter how drastic it may be.
At the end of the 82-game regular season, the top 16 teams compete to play in the finals, while the remaining 14 wait for the NBA Draft to retool. While LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and James Harden of the Houston Rockets get another crack at the championship, simply missing making the playoffs wasn’t bad enough for one anonymous NBA owner. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, an NBA owner “berated” his coach for playing hard and beating a .500 team late in the season. The Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks, and Orlando Magic are all bad enough to care about getting late season losses, but that owner’s reaction is still egregious. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets had to battle for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference on the last game of the regular season, but they may not have been tied at all if their opponents actually tried to win.
The 76ers had the most jarring tanking stretch from 2013–2016, posting an abysmal 47–199 record. While they did get three franchise players and create one of the NBA’s most memorable slogans through their “Trust the Process” era, they still remained competitive in the trade market, making shrewd deals that sped up their rebuild. On the other hand, teams like the Kings — who haven’t been competitive in over a decade — have simply become a place for NBA careers to die.
What’s more embarrassing than teams stuck in tanking limbo are the ones who try to be good, but still lose more games than teams that are outright tanking. The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, who have failed to make the playoffs for several years now, traded away most of their picks. Although the Knicks finally had a first-round pick for this draft, both they and the Nets have been atrocious in years when they can’t actually benefit from their poor play. Both of these teams, and the aforementioned tankers, usually hide behind the rationale of giving their younger players extra minutes — despite it seriously hurting their chances of winning.
Charlotte Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford denounced that strategy. In an interview on Wojnarowski’s podcast, The Woj Pod, he pointed out that if young players get extra minutes to play, it may help them develop as players. However, if they’re playing in games where the coach expects them to lose and don’t have veterans on the court to guide them, then they aren’t getting good NBA experience. Instead, they’re just hurting their development, and creating a losing cycle. While Clifford is no Gregg Popovich or Phil Jackson, he has had a respectable career with the Hornets, managing to make the playoffs without top-tier talent. His is a team that would benefit from getting a top three draft pick, and his insight on how tanking teams manage their top prospects that they sacrifice so much to get is a testament to why teams need to compete. Even if they do end up with a franchise player, they would need to give him a chance to win.
The Suns, who have the highest odds of landing the number one pick after going 21–61, will likely end up with an alluring pick like DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic, but there’s still no guarantee that those players will pan out. Even picks who land in ideal situations to develop, such as Darko Milicic on the Detroit Pistons in 2003, are not a lock to dominate. For every Stephen Curry or Ben Simmons, there are at least a dozen guys who end up like Alex Len or Kwame Brown. Whoever ends up with the first pick might even get the next Anthony Bennett. No matter how good a rookie is, it’s tough for a 19-year-old to be expected to bring a franchise from terrible to great all by themself.
Unless a team drafts Michael Jordan or LeBron James, no one player can turn the franchise around. Instead of tanking teams and letting a carousel of coaches and former busts bring them to the bottom of the standings, teams need to prioritize winning. Even if they come in last place, planting the seeds for a winning culture is far more valuable than increasing lottery odds. Look at Oberlin’s sports program. Whether commissioner Silver makes lottery odds for all non-playoff teams the same, or does something as simple as fining teams for unnecessarily benching players, he needs to start doing something.