During this time of year, the NBA is all about jostling for a place in the standings. The contenders are fighting for the top seeds and teams in the middle of the playoff pack are trying to ear home-court advantage in the first round.
However, the battles for seeding that matter the most take place near the bottom of the standings.
By this time, teams know where they stand. If you’re on the outside of the playoffs, it’s better to just lose as many games as possible than try to make a run. Why would anyone exchange a chance for a higher draft pick for a brief series against one of the conferences best seeds? Only five eight-seeds have ever upset a number one seed. Losing games in the last half of the season will always be more beneficial to a franchise in the long run than trying to win meaningless games.
Tanking exists in all sports. In 2012, the NFL was dominated by the “Suck for Luck” campaign. The Houston Astros lost 324 games from 2011-2013 as they assembled the building blocks of their eventual 2017 World Series title.
But tanking will always be especially prevalent in the NBA due to how much influence one player can have on a team. Look no further than the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2003, they got the number one pick and drafted LeBron James, the only player to earn the moniker of “Chosen One” before going pro and meet or surpass all expectations. A decade later, they were able to convince LeBron to return to Cleveland due in large part to three first-overall draft picks in four years.
Much of why tanking is so necessary in the NBA is just due to the nature of the game itself. There are only five players on the floor at any time and rosters consist of just over a dozen players. Any one player has a dramatically larger impact on an NBA team than their counterparts in the NFL or MLB.
Commissioner Adam Silver announced last week that teams that were found to be tanking would be met with “the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.” The league gave the Bulls a slap on the wrist for their lineup choices post All-Star break, but ending tanking is an endeavor easier said than done.
The NBA can hardly force non-playoff teams to play their veterans heavy minutes in March. Teams, even if they’re not actively tanking, are still at the point where they are assessing their needs for next season. Part of that includes letting the younger players on the roster see the floor to assess the team’s future and finding any glaring issues that need to be addressed in the draft.
High draft picks are obviously also just how teams acquire talent. It takes a lot of luck to develop a championship team. It’s possible, but it’s really difficult to assemble a contender without high draft picks. Look at how hard the Brooklyn Nets have had it the past couple years. Without a draft pick to call their own, they’ve been stuck in mediocrity ever since former GM Billy King sold the future for a year of Paul Pierce and a year and a half of Kevin Garnett.
If the NBA were to become a totalitarian state and require that teams try their absolute hardest in every single regular season game, I’m not sure we would see a lot of change in the league year to year. We hear all the time how the lower playoff seeds are the worst place to be because you’re not bad enough to be in the lottery and you’re not good enough to win a championship. Teams that keeping try to win while they’re in those spots often stay for years because they lack the means to acquire significant talent. A magical elimination of tanking would likely be the same thing. If a team is horrendous, they’ll acquire talent through the draft. If a team is really good, they’ll be a free agent destination. A team that is simply mediocre will likely be mediocre for a while.
Tanking is like hitting the do-over button. It allows for a clean slate. Yes, teams that are tanking might be a lesser on-the-court product for the fans but it also means lower ticket prices, watching young guys develop and a hopeful future. Tanking is and will always be a part of the NBA as long as there’s talent to be found in the draft.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.