The Philadelphia 76ers are this season’s “tanking” team. Yet, practically every young, bad team has been accused of “tanking” this year (just like every other year).
The verb itself has become an integral part of NBA lingo, more so than any other professional US sport. The notion that a team will give up their entire season and lose on purpose (to some extent) in order to obtain a high draft pick is indeed quite controversial.
Sure, it makes sense, but it deprives fans, players and coaches of their respectability. The concept of “tanking” has become an explanation and even an excuse of sorts. If a team is bad, they must be “tanking.” If they have low expectations and no big names at the beginning of a season, they will be expected to “tank” that year. This notion of which teams are purposely losing is quite often a fabrication from fans, yet the way it’s covered within the media can be distracting and downright disrespectful to players and coaches.
Naturally, a team’s coach is going to tell the media that his team is always playing hard and fighting for their lives each and every night. Losing on purpose sounds, and is, unprofessional, especially for players and coaches who are collectively earning millions upon millions of dollars each season.
Former NBA coach and current analyst Jeff Van Gundy believes “tanking” is very real, particularly this season. However, he is quick to defend the players themselves. According to CBS Detroit, he stated, “It doesn’t necessarily mean the guys on the floor aren’t trying hard, but it means teams have put some really bad rosters on the floor.”
Here lies the problem in professional basketball. Players and coaches have no control over who is on their roster. Ownership wants to build a winning product because winning teams produce more fans. But, the majority of teams in the NBA cannot afford to sign the big free agent the following year, nor do they want to play the odds as all-star free agents. They rarely want to sign with a losing team (unless they are in New York or Los Angeles).
Thus, the realistic option is to build through the draft. The Thunder did it. Yet, teams like the Cavs, despite their multiple high draft picks, did not. The draft, too, is a lottery. Teams could have everything work in their favor, land the number one pick and wind up with the next Kwame Brown. So, the word “tanking” gets thrown around a lot more often during years with a talented draft class.
The problem here lies in more in the front office than anywhere else. As Van Gundy articulated a few months ago, “A lot of teams right now are happy with losing and that’s really too bad for the league. That’s too bad for the fans.” While players and coaches bear the brunt of frustration from fans and the media, front office executives are removed to the point that they may feel no remorse for negative results if they lead to positive ones in the future. The league’s playoff structure certainly doesn’t help this problem. With eight teams in each conference making the playoffs, it is fair to say that only four to five total have realistic championship aspirations. This year, the East is particularly pitiful. For example, a sixth seeded team is in perhaps a worse situation than a team who only won 20 games. They are good enough to achieve a low playoff seed, yet not nearly good enough to win a title. It is extremely difficult for them to improve, as they will not obtain great draft picks and are most probably not good enough to attract a-list free agents. Accordingly, from the perspective of a front office, their best option is to completely blow up their roster, get younger and lose a lot of games with the hope of obtaining a high draft pick. Most often, “tanking” happens before the season even starts.
Next year’s draft class is supposed to be incredible. Some have called it potentially one of the best ever. If there were ever a time for a team to tank, it would be now. The Sixers are terrible, yet have a glimmer of hope with Michael Carter-Williams. The Lakers, too, have been awful, but their history and large market appeal give them better odds for success in the near future. “Tanking” has become a loaded and overused term, particularly in seasons like this where stars are clustered into an elite set of teams. While many teams are young and particularly unstable, they play hard and simply have no other options. With little hope of obtaining current stars, small market teams and fans throw their dreams of a franchise player into the draft. Sure, it stinks and seems contradictory to the ultimate goal of winning in professional sport, yet the solution to this problem remains a mystery. Perhaps tanking has simply become a part of the game. Whether it’s this year or next, nobody likes to lose.