By the time you read this, the Boston Celtics will have likely been swept in four games by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Most people would have expected this to happen, considering that the Cavaliers have arguably the two best players in the Eastern Conference, and are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference Finals. Even so, the Celtics and their incredible coach Brad Stevens deserve praise for even making it this far. Last season, the Celtics completely bottomed out, finishing with 25 wins and 57 losses. People criticized the team that year for tanking, and that criticism was pretty legitimate.
Tanking, as it is referred to in basketball, is the practice by which a team that knows it will not be able to make a successful run in the playoffs decides to lose as many games as possible that season. The rationale for this behavior is that the teams with the worst records have the best odds of getting a high pick in the NBA Draft Lottery. The ownership for these teams feels that the best way to create a powerhouse team is to gradually draft future superstars out of college, and develop these players until they end up with a team like Oklahoma City Thunder. Over a period of several years, the Thunder acquired Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden, Harden has since been traded. Kevin Durant has already won an MVP award, Harden and Westbrook are both in contention to win one this year, and before his injury, Ibaka was a defensive beast who has developed his offensive game and three-point shooting more in recent years. Since 2010, the Thunder have made it to the playoffs every year where they have reached three Western Conference Finals and made it to the NBA Finals in 2012 where they lost to the Miami Heat in five games. Teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers are currently trying to emulate the Thunder model by tanking during the regular season.
The issue with all-out tanking is that there is little guarantee that the practice will actually be successful. Last year, the 76ers had a win-loss record of nineteen and sixty three. This year the team’s record was an abysmal eighteen and sixty four, proving the method doesn’t always work. There are two methods to tanking, one is by having the players on the floor actually attempt to lose games. Former Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Mark Madsen has become the poster child for in-game tanking. At the final game of the 2006 regular season, the Timberwolves would have been in danger of losing a first-round protected pick if they had beat the Memphis Grizzlies that night. In order to ensure their defeat, Madsen was encouraged to take seven three-point shots in a span of nine minutes. Madsen, who had not made a three-point attempt one hundred and thirty five games prior missed all seven shots and the Timberwolves would go on to lose the game.
The second way teams can tank is by filling their roster with bad personnel, such as what the 76ers have done. Philadelphia’s roster currently consists of these players: Ish Smith, Thomas Robinson, and Henry Sims. These players are NBA unknowns, but they play for cheap contracts and render the 76ers uncompetitive. So far under this strategy of losing, the 76ers have acquired numerous draft picks from other teams, and they have drafted Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams and Joel Embiid. Embiid, the third pick in the draft last year, has been out all season due to injury. Scouting reports last year said he would be the next superstar big man, but without having seen him play it is hard to tell. Also, tall guys who suffer injuries in the beginning of their career tend to never recover. Greg Oden is an example of this; he was the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, yet he was plagued by injuries to his knees and has barely been seen in the league over the last six or so years. Noel is a defensive juggernaut and is actually quite promising for the 76ers. The team traded Carter-Williams after his first season where he won the Rookie of the Year award. Now the 76ers hope to draft a future star this year.
The issue is that the 76ers have no guarantee that the strategy will work. Both the draft and NBA free-agency are highly unpredictable and teams frequently stumble into good situations. The Thunder more than anything else were lucky to draft all of those stars. The Cleveland Cavaliers lucked out by getting three first-overall draft picks over a span of four years. One of those picks turned into Kyrie Irving, while the other two were traded to Minnesota for superstar Kevin Love. Of course the Cavaliers were incredibly lucky back in the summer when LeBron James decided to leave Miami and return to Cleveland. NBA teams can be unlucky as well. After becoming the youngest league MVP in history in 2011, Derrick Rose was supposed to lead a Chicago Bull’s team that included stars Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer to the finals. Unfortunately, Rose suffered multiple knee injuries and missed two season of basketball, and has never been quite the same since.
Tanking is risky, and the only results you can expect from it are alienating the fan base and causing fans and players to lose interest in your team. For these reasons I am glad that the Celtics decided to abandon tanking after only one season. At this year’s trade deadline, Boston acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns. Thomas was the favorite to win sixth-man of the year honors for his scoring off the bench. On the Celtics he has been able to emerge as a scoring leader, and the team has gone nineteen and ten since the trade. Even if the Celtics are swept by Cleveland in the first round, playoff experience is good for young players who can build their confidence as they play under high stakes. Playing for a competitive team teaches young players good habits, whereas playing for a team such as Philadelphia does not force young players to grow.