Column: The art of tanking

In this Jan. 16, 2017, file photo, Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid watches during an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash, File)

Tanking: the art of intentionally losing in order to get a top draft pick and help plan for the future of the team. There is a lot of disagreement over whether tanking is good or bad for a team that is not succeeding.

I personally think that there are certain situations where a team should tank and others where one should not. It all depends on the sport and the current state of the team in question. In this column, I will explore the pros and cons of tanking in football, basketball and baseball. I will also give examples of a team that should tank and one that should not in each sport.  

Football:

Tanking in football is pretty straightforward. With only sixteen games in a season a team can generally only win one or two games to get the first pick, just like the 1-15 Cleveland Browns last season. Tanking can be effective in football because teams like to go after their “franchise quarterback” to change the pace of the team quickly. After all, if a team has a good quarterback it is much more likely that they will succeed.

However, it is very risky because of the volatility of draft picks in the NFL, due to unforeseen injuries or poor scouting. Think of some of the biggest NFL draft busts: JaMarcus Russell, first overall pick; Tim Couch, the same; Ryan Leaf, second overall pick. They were all top picks that turned into NFL busts and ultimately hurt the teams to which they were drafted. One other problem with tanking in football is that there are twenty-two starters per game. Usually, one top pick won’t turn a franchise around.

Tank: New York Jets

The New York Jets need to tank. Right away. Josh McCown and Bryce Petty are not long-term solutions at quarterback. And let’s be honest, there is a reason Christian Hackenberg has not seen the turf yet. To put it simply, the Jets need a quarterback and there are several potential franchise quarterbacks in the upcoming draft class including Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson.

The Jets somehow managed to pick up a win this past week and have three more winnable games this season against the Dolphins, Bills and Browns. If the Jets manage to win one or two of those games, it could cost them the top pick of the draft and their choice at QB. There are obviously many other problems with the Jets other than just the quarterback situation, but it is a good place to start.

Stay: Los Angeles Chargers

The Los Angeles Chargers have not had the best start to the season at 0-3, but to be fair, they have also had some pretty bad luck. The Chargers lost their first two games of the season by a combined five points. Special teams blew two game-tying or game-winning field goal attempts at the end causes the charges to lose the first two games.

The Chargers have a lot of the pieces a team needs to be successful. They have a legitimate quarterback in Philip Rivers, a stud running back in Melvin Gordon, quality receivers in Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams and two solid tight ends in Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. That is not to mention a very good defense that is led by reigning defensive rookie of the year Joey Bosa.

So what is the Chargers’ problem? Bad luck. The Chargers have been very unlucky besides the special teams mishaps. Mike Williams was drafted by the Chargers in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, but has yet to see the field due to an injury. While it is looking up for Williams, it is a costly injury to the Chargers’ receiving corps.

However, the most unlucky injury might be second-round selection Forest Lamp is torn ACL, losing him for the whole season. Lamp was going to bolster a Chargers offensive line that is in need of some help. The Chargers could easily be 2-1 this season with a little more luck, so they don’t really need to tank.

Basketball:

Tanking in basketball can be much more effective than in football, mainly because there are only five players on the court at a time. Therefore, it is much easier for a single player to make a big impact on a team. Consider LeBron James and his seven straight NBA Finals appearances. James is one player making a huge difference on the team and the game.

However, tanking can also be risky in basketball because of the draft lottery. In fact, one of the main reasons the draft lottery was established was to prevent tanking. Even though the worst team in the league will have the best odds to win the first overall pick going into the lottery, there is no guarantee that they will actually get it. Any team that is in the lottery has a chance at getting the first overall pick, even a team that just barely missed the playoffs. That means if you are the worst team in the NBA, you could still get the fourth pick at worst.

Tank: New York Knicks

The New York Knicks recently traded Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash, File)

The New York Knicks are on the right track after trading away Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder. I say: Keep going. To put it bluntly, the Knicks are terrible. Last season, they were 31-51 and finished twelfth in a weak Eastern Conference. Now with the loss of Anthony, they will only be worse. The Knicks need to do everything they can in order to get the first overall pick in next year’s draft. Whether that means trading away Kristaps Porzingis, for whom I believe they can get a very nice package, is up to debate. What is not up to debate is that they need some major help.  

With the Phil Jackson disaster finally over, there is strong hope for improvement. However, what Jackson left behind is nowhere near the level that they would need to even make the playoffs. Even if they somehow managed to sneak their way into the playoffs, they would stand no chance at all against teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Boston Celtics.  There is no use for them to even try to compete this season. They just need to start planning for the future.  Knicks fans just have to pray that the front office can finally make some good decisions.

Stay: New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis is a NBA superstar, no doubt about it. Davis needs some support around him and then I believe that the Pelicans can be a playoff team. With some pieces like Demarcus Cousins and Jrue Holiday around Davis, they are possibly only a few more players away from becoming contenders even in a strong Western Conference. Another factor is if Rajon Rondo can return to form and be the piece the Pelicans need to compete as they are planning on starting both Holiday and Rondo at the start of the season.

The Pelicans’ future is largely centered around ifs. If they can get Cousins to commit to New Orleans, if Davis and Cousins can learn to play better together, if Rondo returns to form. One thing is certain though, while the Pelicans have a superstar franchise player in Davis, they need to do everything that they can to win because a player like him does not come around often.

Baseball:

Tanking in baseball is much different than tanking in football and basketball. Once a player is drafted in the MLB, it is usually years before that player makes it to the MLB, as they have to develop and work their way up the minor leagues. As a result, it is usually a while before a player drafted can directly impact the MLB team, even if they are one of the top draft picks.

Even when that player gets to the MLB, cannot carry a whole team. Just look at Mike Trout, the undisputed best player in baseball, playing for the Los Angeles Angels, who have made the playoffs just once since his debut in 2011.

There is a certain way to tank in baseball though, and that is through trading. Instead of acquiring draft picks like in football and basketball, teams in baseball acquire minor league prospects. The Chicago Cubs built up their farm system over the years partly through the draft, but also through trading for players in order for everything to finally come together. That is a major reason they got their first World Series win in 108 years. If a team can successfully develop a roster through trades, then their future will be bright.

Tank: San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds

Two teams in the MLB should tank in my opinion, and both for the same reason. The San Diego Padres are 70-86 and the Cincinnati Reds are 66-90 as of Sept. 25 and both are out of playoff contention for this year and the following year due to the stacked divisions they play in. I know that it might seem like these teams have already tanked, but they have not fully committed to overturning their rosters. Both teams have superstar first basemen wasting away on their rosters in Wil Myers and Joey Votto.

New York Mets' Travis Taijeron watches his single that drove in the winning run during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in New York. The Mets won 4-3. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

There are multiple playoff-hopeful teams that could use a superstar first baseman or even a designated hitter such as the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota Twins or even the Houston Astros. Myers and Votto are big-time talents and could warrant a boatload of prospect talent in return. If these teams are able to pull off a blockbuster deal and ship their star players out of town, it could potentially set them up for very successful futures.

Stay: New York Mets

The New York Mets have been nothing short of horrendous this year. However, they have suffered an incredible amount of injuries, which hasn’t helped their cause. Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Stephen Matz, Zach Wheeler, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman have all spent time on the disabled list. And that is just the starting pitching staff.

That’s not to mention also losing Yoenis Céspedes and Michael Conforto to the disabled list as well. Needless to say, the Mets have had some pretty bad luck this season. That does not mean they should throw in the towel for next year though. They just need to make some minor improvements. The main thing they need to do is improve the health of the players, which falls on the training and conditioning staff.

“Get (the trainers) in a room with some of the old trainers and people who took care of baseball players and (know) how to keep them healthy… and try to tap into their knowledge on how to train baseball players,” Mets broadcaster and former Mets pitcher Ron Darling said.

Darling was referencing the type of conditioning and training that baseball players do today, which is not the most conducive to playing baseball.

Besides the injury woes, the Mets have a solid team, provided everyone stays healthy. They have an above average pitching staff, two All-Star caliber outfielders and two up-and-coming prospects in Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith. The Mets should make some improvements to their bullpen this offseason and maybe go after an extra bat like Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain in free agency. If they can stay healthy, the New York Mets can be legitimate contenders in MLB.

Tanking is unquestionably a part of the way sports are played today. Whether you like it or not, there is no way of getting around it. In the end, it is up to the front office to decide what each team will do and how they will do it. The fans can only hope and pray they make the right decisions.


Jorge Eckardt is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jorge.eckardt@uconn.edu.