Tanking in the NBA: Worth It?
Issue   |   Wed, 04/16/2014 - 00:53

One of the most controversial talking points of the NBA over the past season has been the matter of tanking. Adam Silver, the NBA’s new commissioner, has declared that tanking does not exist: teams are simply looking to rebuild. On the other hand, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, has claimed that tanking is absolutely an ongoing issue. So what gives?

Success in the NBA is reliant on star power. More so than any other major sport, individual basketball players significantly impact the game. In 2006, the Miami Heat won a championship behind the play of Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal. Together, these two stars averaged 47 points and 15 rebounds per game. Just two years later, Shaq and D-Wade combined to play in just 84 games as the Heat finished with the worst record in basketball.

When a team loses or gains a star player, you can expect their position in the standings to fluctuate dramatically. The Boston Celtics have experienced both the positive and negative effects of this phenomenon. Following a disastrous 2006-07 season, the Celtics acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to pair with Paul Pierce and promptly won a championship. This current season marked the disintegration of the Big Three and the C’s will finish at least 30 games below .500. The importance of stars in the NBA cannot be denied. So how does a team go about acquiring one?

There are essentially three paths that teams can follow in order to become a contender. Teams can opt for a proven star in the NBA — either through free agency or trade — or they can draft and mold a promising college player. The first option, signing a star in free agency, is primarily reserved for big market teams such as the Heat, the Lakers and the New York teams. Players generally favor these teams due to national exposure, endorsement deals, a winning tradition. And money.

These teams almost always approach their business with a ‘Win Now’ mentality (a willingness to far exceed the NBA’s salary cap) and rate tangible production today over potential value tomorrow. The Heat brought LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade — three stars in their primes — together in hopes of a championship, and they’ve won two so far. Recently, the Lakers have been riddled with injuries, but last season ideally would have fielded a star-studded lineup featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

Other franchises may place a premium on draft picks, but these do not. Prior to the season, the Brooklyn Nets signed two of the aforementioned Big Three (the Heat got Ray Allen) and traded for Joe Johnson’s bloated contract. This experiment netted Brooklyn the fifth seed in a weak Eastern Conference. In return, the Nets are an astonishing $45 million over the salary cap and have no draft picks until 2019. They haven’t had one since 2010. The Knicks also went all out this season but missed the playoffs due to my Atlanta Hawks (and their poor play). In a loaded draft, the Knicks have all of no draft picks and are already looking forward to free agency after next season, when several large contracts will come off the books. Combined, these five teams are $128 million above the cap.

It is impossible (and unintelligent) to attempt to outspend these teams. Franchises looking for a proven star are thus forced to trade. The main goal of teams following this path is to accumulate assets, which can then be traded for a star. Assets in the NBA generally come in the form of contracts, young players and draft picks. Acquiring contracts, either expiring or undervalued, can be, well, valuable. Teams value expiring contracts — meaning players whose contracts terminate at the end of the season — because they (in time) afford teams with additional cap space, which is space between the team’s payroll and the salary cap. Players — including young players whose salaries are predetermined — who are paid below what the open free agency market would otherwise dictate provide teams with additional value.

Draft picks provide access to the third contention path. The Houston Rockets are the trade option’s City Upon a Hill. Faced with losing a star player for nothing in free agency, the Oklahoma City Thunder — a small market team — were forced to trade James Harden in order to recoup some value. In return for their burgeoning superstar, the Thunder received a promising guard, Jeremy Lamb, an expiring contract/stopgap in Kevin Martin and three draft picks. The Rockets, after failing to land Dwight Howard in a trade, landed the elusive star player Harden. The next year, they were able to lure Dwight to Houston and will make a push for the Finals in this year’s playoffs.

Success like the Rockets’ is exceedingly rare. Teams who have proven stars are naturally reticent to let them go. Although the major market teams have more power in free agency, they are not restricted from operating via trade. Indeed, their relatively undervalued draft picks and willingness to exceed the salary cap only provide advantages. As such, these teams seem to dominate trades for star players. When Dwight made it clear he would leave Orlando, the Magic traded him to the Lakers. While it hurts for teams like the Magic to move on and essentially start over in the quest for a star, there is an established path for them to follow.

This path is commonly referred to as tanking. These teams generally have little NBA talent and ‘tank’ to the bottom of the standings in the hopes of receiving a high pick in the draft — a risky strategy. A lot has to go right in order for a franchise to be successful.

Teams have actually quite frequently been successful to varying degrees. The Thunder drafted Kevin Durant and then stayed bad long enough to draft Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Harden. After losing Chris Paul, the Pelicans turned around and drafted Anthony Davis who already looks like a once-in-a-generation talent. The Bulls took Derrick Rose, the Wizards got John Wall, the Clippers received Blake Griffin and Cleveland chose Kyrie Irving. Of the last five drafts, it’s safe to say that the number one pick in all of them has been a star.

Teams following this path have generally either lost a star or given up on mediocrity (being decent without being in contention also means less valuable draft picks). In other words, these teams have entered rebuilding mode. When teams tank, their most important assets, their own draft picks, become that much more valuable. It’s important to note that tanking teams are not intentionally trying to lose. The coaches and players undoubtedly do their best to win on any given night. The results come down to the front office putting out a lesser product. Players don’t try to lose — their teams simply don’t have enough talent to beat the majority of teams on any given night.

Tanking receives more than its fair share of harsh criticisms. As it stands, tanking is the mechanism for franchises outside of major markets to transform themselves into contenders. Mark Cuban and Adam Silver are both correct. Tanking is certainly happening, but only because it is the most viable manner in which to rebuild. In order for the smaller franchises to stay competitive with the big teams, they ought to avoid a stagnant period of mediocrity. Disadvantaged against wealthier franchises in the free agency and trade markets, they must choose the draft.