In the modern NBA, the common thought is that a team has to be really bad before you get really good. This season, numerous teams started the season with no intention of winning games. ESPN.com went as far as to have a running “Tank Rank” that measured how well teams were tanking. Fans of teams across the league have already given up on competing for the next few years in hopes of acquiring future stars in the draft. But what are the side effects of tanking? How long must you tank? Is it even worth it?
First, let’s look at the side effects tanking has on a team. The first and most obvious of them is losing. It is rationalized as losing with the purpose of winning in the future. But it is still losing. Even worse, it’s forfeiting. If you are a fan of a tanking team, what are you watching for in the games? The whole concept of losing to improve is counter-intuitive. The losing that comes along with tanking, especially for an extended period of time, breeds a culture of losing. Young players in tanking situation miss out on the continuity necessary in building winners. Coaches’ tenures rarely survive tank jobs. A perfect example of this is Avery Johnson’s tenure with the Nets. He was patient through years of subpar only to be fired 28 games into the first season that he had tools to work with. Many times, coaches that are in charge during a tank job are made scapegoats and represent losing to the fans. In an era ruled by numbers, a coaches winning percentage is one of the most important factors in how he is perceived. Tanking ruins the winning percentages and reputations of otherwise solid coaches.
Tanking also has league-wide implications. It lowers the overall quality of the league by killing what little parity there was. By the end of February, most teams have about 25-30 games left in their respective seasons. Unfortunately, about half of the league is waiting for the playoffs to start or an abysmal season to end. This leaves us, the fans, with 2-3 months of bad or boring basketball. In an NBA ripe with tanking, fans are either watching one team overpower and outclass the other, or two teams that don’t necessarily want to win the game. Thankfully, we have this year’s Western Conference that consists of 10 teams trying to compete.
But what is the alternative? A mediocre team in the NBA is essentially in basketball purgatory. Making the jump from playoff participant to championship contender isn’t easy. Teams like the Atlanta Hawks usually make the playoffs but never contend for the title. In a sport like basketball, where one player can change a decade’s worth of outcomes, what can an organization do to compete at the highest level without hitting rock bottom? The first and most important rule is to never overpay niche players. This rule especially applies when you don’t have a star to build around. Following this rule takes a lot of patience and self-control. We tend to overrate specialists and underrate versatile players. This leads to the second rule. Versatile players are an integral part to any championship contender. Stockpile them. The Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and just about every team looking to get past the first round of the playoffs are built on the versatility of their players.
The third is simple. Acquire a point guard that isn’t a liability on either end of the floor. Your point guard doesn’t have to be the best player on your team, but he should be one of your most consistent. Good point guard play can keep you above water over the course of a season (see: Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, etc.). Inconsistent point guard play can lead to disappointing results (see: Raymond Felton, Brandon Jennings).
The last rule I will touch on has to do with coaching. Specifically, it’s about the coach’s relationship with his team and organization. If you don’t have a star player or a player with star potential, acquire a star coach or a coach with star potential and let him coach the team how he sees fit. The NBA isn’t a players’ league, it is a star’s league. A good coach like Tom Thibodeau or Jeff Hornaceck can get the most out of his players. Players like Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, Jimmy Butler, and Miles Plumlee have more value than anyone could have imagined thanks to their coaches. With that added value, teams can acquire stars via trade and other players looking to improve their value would be willing to play for your team.
Tanking is the easy way out. Some organizations need to do it for financial reasons. But it isn’t necessarily the best or most efficient way to build a team. Many times, the result isn’t worth the process. Prudent management gives teams necessary flexibility to be opportunistic while still providing fans with a team worth rooting for. At the end of the day, isn’t that all we ask?