Words come into our vernacular and sometimes never leave. Like most things, this can be good and it can be bad. One term that drives me crazy is “tanking”. This is something that has been attached to the NBA and many aren’t letting it go. Please let it go. I believe it is meant to describe losing on purpose to help get a better draft pick. That premise seems simple to it’s core but it is an awful thought and flawed take in my opinion. First off, how do we separate a bad season, or lack of talent from tanking. Just because you are losing games does not mean you are tanking. Secondly, if you are losing it doesn’t mean the best idea is to keep losing so you can get a better pick. Does that work? Is that the answer? I say no.
1985 was one of the most famous NBA draft lotteries. The conspiracy theory people love that fateful day when the New York Knicks won the lottery and landed Patrick Ewing. The ideas that were floated about included a frozen envelope, a folded corner, or that the Knicks envelope was taped to the bottom so it would be easy for David Stern to get the Knicks the much coveted big man. I am not sure if any of those things are true but they make for a good story. So does losing on purpose to boost your franchise to championship heights. Since that memorable draft lottery of 1985 there have been 32 NBA drafts. Of those 32 seasons only 4 players that were taken number 1 went on to win a championship with the team that drafted them. So 30 plus years of “tanking” has resulted in 4 top picks netting a title for that team. FOUR. In 1987 David Robinson went to the Spurs and in 1997 Tim Duncan went to the Spurs. Those two won a title with San Antonio. 2003 LeBron James changed the fate of the Cavs franchise but didn’t win a title with Cleveland first as he took his talents to South Beach to win a couple in Miami. He of course came back to win one for “The Land” and getting them that much coveted title. The other player that joins the list is LeBron’s teammate Kyrie Irving. That is the full list.
This doesn’t mean that the top pick hasn’t been successful. Allen Iverson, Yao Ming, Chris Webber and many others had incredible careers but not a single title for the team that drafted them. Shaq has several rings but not with Orlando. Lets even look at recent history too. Since the 2004-2005 season the team that ended the year with the worst record in the NBA with the best chances to get that coveted top pick has actually received the top pick just 3 times out of 13 opportunities. The 3 have actually happened over the last 3 years. The players that have gone #1 since that Kyrie Irving draft have just 1 playoff appearance combined. Anthony Davis made the post-season one time before a quick exit. Anthony Bennett is out of the league, Wiggins and Towns will make it this year and Simmons and Fultz might too.
Lets add more more thing to the great tankathon debate. I went back to look at just the lottery picks since 2004 to see where the best players fell in the draft and the results are not that surprising to me. This past season looks to be a good draft but at the moment it feels like the best pick from the lottery is #13 Donovan Mitchell. In 2016 Ben Simmons was definitely the best pick and he went first. 2015 gave us Karl-Anthony Towns at #1 but Porzingis did go 4th. The following list is what I feel are the best picks of the other drafts and where they were selected:
- 2014 Joel Embiid #3
- 2013 Victor Oladipo #2
- 2012 Anthony Davis #1, Bradley Beal #3, Damian Lillard #6, Andre Drummond #9
- 2011 Kyrie Irving #1, Kemba Walker #9
- 2010 John Wall #1, DeMarcus Cousins #5, Gordon Hayward #9, Paul George #10
- 2009 Blake Griffin #1, James Harden #3, Steph Curry #7
- 2008 D. Rose #1, Russell Westbrook #4, Kevin Love #5
- 2007 Kevin Durant #2
- 2006 LaMarcus Aldridge #2
- 2005 Chris Paul #4
This is only counting the lottery picks. There were some drafts where one of the best players was even taken later than the lottery. So my entire point here is that trying to lose isn’t the full proof answer. Philadelphia is an example that is used a lot. Trust the Process right? I also dislike this term. What exactly was their process? They drafted a rookie of the year in Michael Carter-Williams and have moved on from him. They took Embiid and Elfrid Payton in 2014. Embiid is a stud and Payton is now on his 3rd team. The next year they took Jhalil Okafor and couldn’t wait to get off of his contract. Now they are working with Fultz and Simmons. They had to go through seasons in which they won 10 games, 18 and 19 as well. Is it worth it? What are they even now? They are a better team but where are they going?
There isn’t one way to build a team in the NBA. It takes incredible skill and good fortune by organizations to select the right player. If the draft order always played out and each pick went as planned then maybe but that is never the case and it never will be. I think losing on purpose makes you question your talent that you currently have and builds a losing mentality. I would never try and run an organization that way and look to find ways to make my team, players and everyone better. Make the right trades, develop players, sprinkle in key free agents and draft well and that to me is the real process that I trust.