Tanking in the NBA: A Broad Systemic Approach

A look at the anti-tanking arguments pervading NBA discussion and a counter-argument for a more systemic approach to the issue.

Have you ever settled down in a darkened tent on a summer camping trip only to have the high-pitched whine of a single mosquito drive you to distraction as you tried to drift off to sleep?  Have you covered your head with a pillow, tried in vain to swat at the noise, reminded yourself that 99% of the cabin's airspace remained unsullied...all without success?

If the 2013-14 NBA season is that tent, "tanking talk" is the droning buzz preventing us from enjoying it in peace.  The hum started last summer, before the first games of the new year commenced.  "Teams are going to tank for next year's draft.  This team is going to stink.  That one will suck.  They're not even trying!"  Few middling or low-level squads can experience a loss without the specter rising.  ESPN.com's NBA page runs a periodic "tank watch" [Insider required] to measure a team's tanking "success".  TrueHoop has made the issue a cause célèbre, citing league executives and lamenting the practice.  Radio and television hosts now talk casually of the NBA's "tanking problem" as if definitions were firm, effects vast and obvious, and solutions vital.

Not even the most casual NBA fan fails to hear the the mosquito at this point.  The buzzing has become an obsession, the go-to topic when games get lopsided, losing streaks get long, draft envy sets in, or the season becomes staid enough that hosts need a more entertaining, visceral topic to get them through the day.

But behind this low-level buzz lies a danger.  Repeat something often enough and it will seep into the consciousness as truth.  Believe that truth deeply enough and it will become its own reason for existing.  Though the actual discussion is nascent, the speed with which the internet operates and the facility with which its memes become truisms already threaten to speed us past critical thinking into judgment and action on this matter.  When we perceive a problem we want a solution yesterday.   See some weeds?  Spray them with DDT.  What could possibly go wrong there?

I do not propose to argue against the existence of tanking.  The NBA might indeed have a few weeds in its orchard.  Maybe that needs to be addressed.  But before we start dumping chemicals across the plot of land, we better understand how the system works, how those weeds and their environment interact, lest the solution end up more damning than the problem.

Discussions vary, but the following have become oft-repeated, if not reflexively-accepted, maxims of the current tanking discussion:

1.  Tanking exists and is a serious issue, perhaps the most prominent facing the league at this time.

2.  Tanking affects the NBA product adversely, destroying competitive balance, eroding the sanctity of the sport, diminishing the fan experience.

3.  Removing the incentive to tank--no longer rewarding bad teams with good draft picks--will eliminate the practice, restore competitive balance, raise the level of play from organizations who would have otherwise tanked, and assure observers that the sport remains pure.

4.  "The Wheel"--fixing draft position independent of record--would be an efficient way to remove incentive and deserves consideration.

5.  Much of the blame for tanking can be laid at the feet of General Managers who seek to improve their team's status through shortcuts, who depend on lottery luck to conceal their lack of skill, who survive by "selling hope" with future draft choices rather than demonstrated success.  These general managers are not only poor but self-serving, looking to preserve their own jobs longer at the expense of team competitiveness.

6.  A draft order independent of record would put all General Managers on an equal playing field, exposing the bad ones and allowing the good ones to flourish.

I do not summarize these claims in order to lampoon them.  The aggregate of research, creative problem-solving, and collective intelligence required to reach them is staggering.  The assertions are meritorious as far as they go.

These assertions also share a common thread, a limiting factor.  They spring from the assumption that tanking is real, harmful, and must be solved.  The question, "What can we do to stop it?" guides all further discussion.  The road forward becomes clear:  That which stops tanking is good.  That which allows it, isn't.  Let's find a solution.

But what happens if the issue isn't that simple?

To the extent tanking is a problem, it's a weed sprung from a greater, interconnected ecosystem.  Tanking didn't grow in a vacuum.  It exists because to someone, somewhere it makes sense.  Maybe the people to whom it makes sense are irrational.  Maybe they're non-conformists or their rationale isn't acceptable.  But what if it's not them at all?   What if the system--meaning the entire NBA ecosystem and not just the draft lottery--leads to the conclusion that tanking is not only a smart choice but the only choice?

Approaching the issue by asking, "What can we do to kill off tanking?" ignores the surrounding environment.  It's far too narrow of an approach for such a complex problem.  Asking why tanking makes sense in the first place opens possibilities beyond those listed above.  This, in turn, may lead us to a different set of solutions.

Why Do NBA Franchises Tank?

The currently-vogue isolationist argument pins reward and greed as the primary motives for tanking.  Bad teams get good draft picks.  Their financial and competitive future depends on those picks.  General Managers operate not just on behalf of their organizations but to save their own skin.  They'd rather sell hope following a 20-win season than reality following a 38-win campaign.

This is true as far as it goes, but we haven't extended the focal point near far enough.  Yes, rookies and draft picks are exciting, but what is the ultimate purpose for obtaining them?  Picks are not an end to themselves.  They represent players coming to the franchise.  Players are not an end to themselves either.  They represent victories, advancement, a chance to grab the brass ring, establish the franchise as viable and important, define the General Manager as successful and worth paying.

If you took a straw poll of 30 NBA General Managers and asked, "Which would you rather do, scuttle your team for a chance at a top five pick next year or have a legitimate chance to win the NBA Finals next year," what do you supposed the answer would be?  My guess: 30 out of 30 would say, "Put me in the Finals!"  That's where your franchise becomes visible.  That's where legacies get established.  On that hallowed ground executive paychecks get earned and inflated, tenures stretch towards infinity.

Teams don't tank so they can get better draft picks.  Those are just numbers on a board.  Teams tank so they can succeed.  The question isn't just, "How can we keep bad teams from getting higher positions?"  The real questions are:

"Why do these teams equate success and high draft picks so closely?"  And...

"If General Managers would prefer to be at the pinnacle of the league, why does going the exact opposite direction make sense?"

The answer:  Even with the lottery incentive in place, tanking only makes sense when you feel that it is the clearest, maybe the only, route for your franchise to get to the mountaintop...when no amount of forward progress will get you where you need to be.

People often attribute this perception to a lack of vision or skill among General Managers.  Good GM's win, inferior GM's tank.  It's a painfully easy explanation.  It's also tautological.  Tanking exists because of bad General Managers, bad General Managers are identified by their tanking, and everybody who isn't already winning gets branded with the same ink.  Within this tight circle of reasoning eliminating the reward for tanking becomes a victimless crime.  The only people hurt are lousy executives who shouldn't be in power in the first place.

Neither life nor the league are that simple, though.  If league practices help create an environment where tanking is the smart move, is the real problem incompetent GM's getting rewarded for stupidity or is the problem actually those environmental factors that trap smart GM's into a backwards play because the way forward appears shut?

Factors in the NBA Ecosystem that Encourage Tanking

Here are three practices which create competitive imbalance and thus encourage the perception that tanking is a viable, or maybe the only, way out of NBA purgatory.

1.  The NBA runs on a star system.

The league markets its stars heavily.  They are its public face, its favored sons.

Officiating may follow suit.  To the common eye a foul not whistled against Kevin Durant will be called thrice against Victor Claver.  As Henry Abbott suggests in this fine article, the actual validity of any officiating claim takes a backseat to the perception among most observers--including coaches and executives--that bias exists.

Even dismissing all of that, we're still stuck with the reality that a limited number of franchises have won an NBA title in the last three decades and the overwhelming majority of those champions featured an undisputed superstar, if not two.

M.V.P.-level players are the key to ultimate success in this league on the floor and off.  There is no substitute.  With rare exceptions, if you do not have one, you do not exist.

2.  The NBA throws its weight behind marquee, "tent-pole" franchises.

You don't even have to ask which ones they are.  You know already.  They're the ones ABC will televise and ESPN will cover no matter what their record.  Meanwhile the other 24 franchises struggle for national recognition no matter what their record.

The tangible, game-to-game effects of this are debatable, though many have argued that officiating runs towards these franchises just as much as towards stars.  Whether refs flock towards the marquee lights or not, those all-important superstars tend to.  When an elite-level player comes up for grabs, which teams are speculated destinations and which are never mentioned?  One could argue exceptions...perhaps Dwight Howard going to Houston which is not a tip-of-the-tongue organization despite being in one of the country's largest markets.  But Howard only went there after the Lakers got him first (and in some ways showcased his lack of utility).  Would a non-marquee team have dared make a trade for Howard in the final year of his contract the way L.A. did, banking he'd stay?  Or did they have to lean against the wall while L.A. got to dance?

3.  The NBA's revenue-sharing plan doesn't create an equal playing field.

Television revenue in L.A. and New York runs in the hundreds of millions.  In smaller markets it's more like tens.  Those tent-pole franchises not only have cachet to attract superstars, they have the dollars to pay them while still paying for premium secondary players, absorbing luxury tax penalties that would bankrupt more modest organizations.

These three systemic factors have nothing to do with drive, talent, or ability on the part of their executives.  A brilliant General Manager in Utah will not be able to play with a triple-digit payroll and sell national television exposure to prospective free agent stars the way the General Manager of the Lakers will.  The Jazz GM is not doomed by any means, but a Los Angeles GM will always have more avenues to acquire stars than the guy in Salt Lake.   Therefore the Utah executive will be more prone to perceiving disadvantages in the system than the L.A. executive will.  Under those conditions, even if that Jazz GM is the smartest guy in the world, getting good draft position by any means necessary will start to make sense.

Let's put it this way.  If the General Manager in Milwaukee thought he had a clear and legitimate chance at acquiring LeBron James when James' contract ends sometime between now and 2016, would the Bucks be "tanking" right now or trying to build a financially prudent, talented, successful squad so they could both afford him and convince him to come?  That they're not taking this route shows that...

A.  Players like James are ultra-rare and indispensable.  If he doesn't come, Plan B Free Agent won't do any good.  Nor will the rest of the team they were trying to build around him contend in his absence.  And...

B.  No matter what kind of team they try to build and what pitch they make, that franchise has zero chance of signing LeBron James.  Absolutely zero.  None.  That's not because they're dumb or because their GM is inferior.  It's because they're Milwaukee and in the NBA, LeBron James does not go to Milwaukee unless he's drafted there.

The Fallacy of the Incentive-Curbing, Isolationist Solution to Tanking

Examining these systemic, environmental factors helps us understand the shortcomings inherent in defining tanking itself as the problem (as opposed to a symptom of disparity in the ecosystem) and in proposing reward elimination as the cure.  You'' address the symptom but the disease will remain unchecked.

As the discussion has progressed The Wheel has become the iconic incentive-robbing solution to the tanking issue.  As explained by Zach Lowe at Grantland, The Wheel would apportion picks on a regular, cyclical basis, independent of team record.  50 wins or 20, your pick in a given year would remain the same.  The next team in line would get that pick next year.  Fair is fair.

But is it?

We said above that, for better or worse, the NBA is a star-driven league.  Correcting the "worse" end of the star system would be nearly impossible but it's surely worth as much consideration as tanking currently receives.  It's been visible for longer and has affected more franchises.

But even if we put in the time and even were it possible to make the game independent of star-bias--say by marketing non-stars heavily, slanting the rules to favor team basketball, comparing calls against stars to those against ordinary players and reviewing referees accordingly--nobody expects that to happen.  You could never sell it to the networks.  You couldn't sell it to the casual fan either.  There's a reason kids in Dubai sport Dwyane Wade jerseys instead of Luke Ridnour.  The former is a guaranteed $109.95 sale, the latter 90% off in the clearance bin.

Everybody understands that some level of star-favoritism benefits the league and increases the excitement we get watching it.  Legislating that out, making stars more "normal" would be suicide.  We admit the current system is imperfect and bends competitive balance, but we live with it.

We said above that marquee franchises get marketed heavily and that they have an advantage in attracting those critical, M.V.P.-level players.  This would be simple to fix.  First you require that every team be featured on national television equally.  The Bobcats are as important and visible as the Lakers.  Second, you use The Wheel not just for a rookie draft, but to re-draft every player in the league each year.  One year the Knicks have the first crack at King James or whomever they choose, the next year the Warriors get their shot.  You have now solved all competitive imbalance problems caused by favoritism or star-attraction.  The playing field is level.

For obvious reasons--not the least of which that it would destroy the fabric of the game as we know it--this is not going to happen.  We admit the current system is imperfect, it bends competitive balance, but we live with it.

We said above that some franchises gain a financial advantage through television contracts and the like.  The solution here is obvious.  Combine those revenue streams into a single pool and divide by 30.  Everybody has the same amount of money to offer and that's your cap, period.

Of course the Player's Union would have a fit over the hard cap.  Plus the guys owning the big franchises would never agree to share revenue like that.  Not even the other owners would like that arrangement because the gain in annual revenue wouldn't offset the decline in franchise value across the board should the largest-market teams cease to be worth a billion dollars each because their revenue was getting sucked out.  Therefore this completely fair and radical solution won't happen.  We admit the current system is imperfect, it bends competitive balance, but we live with it.

We accept these levels of imbalance every year, every game, with every franchise.  Occasionally someone will get bent out of shape enough to write about one aspect or another (say officiating favoritism after the Dallas-Miami finals in 2006) but for the most part we count these things as the cost of doing business.

Note that all of the factors we just mentioned preserve the status quo, favoring star-wielding, money-splashing, marquee-level teams.

But the league does provide one corrective mechanism...one place where where the Have-Nots get a chance to gain ground...one place where even the "lesser" teams can acquire that all-important superstar player to improve their lot.  That place is the draft.

Even so, success is not automatic.  A Have-Not team has to get the right bounces, holding a high pick in the right year.  Then they have to be pretty good even after acquiring their superstar because in a few years he has the option to take off, just as James left Cleveland for Miami.  Have-Nots don't buy titles or careers with these picks, just a chance at a running clock delaying the water rolling downhill towards the usual suspects for a while.

When the Haves sport the superstars, we'll live with it.  When the Haves get the benefit of publicity, national coverage, the "smart" name-brand GM's, and become synonymous with the league itself we'll live with it.  When the Haves can afford to spend more money than anybody else we'll live with it.  But when the Have-Nots get a small percentage chance at a five-year trial period with a young potential superstar to prove that they, too, are worthy of consideration despite their apparent disadvantages...we just might have a competitive problem here.  When a few teams, seeing no other avenue of approach--in part because of the factors mentioned above--appear to jump in with both feet and lose more than we think they should? We cannot stand for that!  We therefore suggest this draft playing field be made perfectly level so the competitive balance and sanctity of the game will not be disrupted even though nothing else in the league is made perfectly level and that's why teams find losing easier than winning in the first place.

Teams aren't tanking to get ahead.  Teams are tanking so they don't fall so damn far behind.

You know the problem with poverty?  It's those stupid poor people.  Let them eat cake...once every 30 years.

I'm all in favor of considering solutions like The Wheel as long as you apply them to every facet of the game.  But Wheeling up the only part of the system that actually seems to favor the disadvantaged parties while leaving the rest untouched is pretty much a joke.

Considering tanking as part of the whole instead of an isolated problem allows us to see that removing the perceived "reward" for poor performance doesn't fix the system or balance it out.  It all but engraves the already-existing imbalance in stone.  All the reasons a team would want to tank--the ills of the environment--would be even worse in post-Wheel world.  You got rid of the weed but poisoned the orchard.  You'd get rid of tanking without touching any of the reasons people tank to begin with.

The First Solution: Improving the Conversation

When put into perspective, connected with the greater NBA ecosystem, the topic of tanking becomes maddeningly complex.  One of the attractions to defining it narrowly is the clear, simple solutions that flow afterwards.  I doubt fate will be so kind to us or the league.  I, myself, have an elegant disincentive to tanking that allows the Have-Nots to level the playing field.  I don't think it's perfect and even if it were, I don't think we're there yet.

Instead we need to start at the beginning: defining terms, counting context, shining a spotlight on unconscious assumptions, and making sure the discussion is honest even if it's not entirely fruitful.

Some authors are more conscientious than others, some venues more congenial to the kind of deep thought required.  But no matter where this conversation is held, no matter what its parameters or goal, we're going to need to address the following at some point.

How, exactly, is tanking defined?

Here's a hint: you can't define it just in terms of draft rewards.  In other words, you can't say, "The draft rewards poor teams therefore there's tanking!"  We need more specificity.  Is tanking defined by results? Intent?  Some process?  Or is it like pornography...you just know it when you see it?

If it's the latter, who has to see it in order to name it accurately?  Who's the arbiter, the enforcer?  Who has decided it's a problem?

If tanking is defined by results, by what metric do you differentiate the expected results from the actual?  Also, as Howard Beck points out, teams in this season of tanking aren't doing appreciably worse than teams in last year's season of draft-avoidance.

If tanking is defined by process, what does that process look like?  What's the difference between divesting your team of talent that has become too expensive or that you don't intend to use and divesting your team of talent in order to get better lottery odds?

If tanking is defined by intent, how in the world do you determine that?

It's important to point out that finding an executive willing to share an anecdote about tanking shows that the possibility exists--at least for tanking as that exec defines it--but does little to answer these questions.  Nor does it prove the larger case for frequency or intensity any more than any anecdote would.

My perception, right or wrong, is that we have serious trouble answering any of these questions...maybe that we despair of ever being able to answer them definitively.  Since we can't define or prove the problem, we settle for removing the incentive.  "We must take away reward for tanking to make sure it doesn't happen" rings hollow when we can't pinpoint what it is, how often it actually occurs, and what damage it causes.

What Do We Hope to Achieve Here?

The consensus seems to be that Philadelphia's massive losing streak makes the case for tanking and that preventing NBA fans from having to watch such an eyesore is a large part of the purpose for altering the draft system.  But as Beck points out (again), somebody's going to stink no matter what.  The '72-'73 Sixers did a pretty convincing tanking imitation with a 9-73 record.  They overachieved, in fact.  The next-lowest win total that year was the Portland Trail Blazers with 21.  Would The Wheel have prevented that miserable .110 winning percentage?  Or would it have the unintended side-effect of cementing certain teams near the bottom of the league until their number came up (provided it came up in the right year and not in, say, a Michael Olowokandi-led draft)?  If the Sixers hadn't had the opportunity to draft Doug Collins, Caldwell Jones, George McGinnis, Darryl Dawkins, and World B. Free would that horrible record have defined them for the next decade or more?

Speaking of fan enjoyment...provided we can define tanking and provided that we can prove certain teams are engaging in it, do we know that the follies of this limited number of teams are tangibly affecting the fan perception of the game?  Obviously tanking is a huge issue among NBA devotees, the hardcore fans and media.  Anyone who had to watch a Sixers-Bucks game this year could be excused for making a fuss.  But how many casual fans are actually watching that game?  Is it on ABC or even TNT?  Other than parroting the sarcastic memes we hardcore folk throw out, would casual fans have anything more than a passing interest in the phenomenon?  Is tanking really destroying the integrity of the league more than the perception that superstars get every call, that the Kings should have won the 2002 Western Conference Finals, that the Patrick Ewing envelope came from a freezer, or any number of other controversies that have surrounded the NBA over the years?

We Need to Be More Careful with Our Labels

However we define tanking, we don't apply the label very scientifically in common parlance or in the media.

Milwaukee has been dealing with injuries and is fielding an odd, inexperienced team.  They're tanking.

Philadelphia has been dealing with injuries and is fielding an odd, inexperienced team.  (Obviously even more so after the trade deadline, admittedly a self-inflicted condition.)  They're tanking.

You know what other franchise has been dealing with injuries (admittedly more prominent and severe), dealt away veterans at the trade deadline, has fielded an odd, experienced team, and currently sits in a virtual tie for last in the Western Conference, yet never gets pegged as tankers in the common discussion?  I'll give you a hint.  Milwaukee posted 1 and Philadelphia 2 winning seasons in the last 10 years.  At least they've set a precedent for performing poorly.  In that same period this Southern California team has been above .500 in 8 seasons, appeared in the Finals 4 times, and won 2 World Titles yet just happens to be bottom-trawling in a season which will conclude with the most anticipated, deepest draft in recent memory.  They could conceivably dip down for a single year then bounce right back to the top thanks to a fortuitous pick.

I'm not saying that tanking is happening,  I'm not saying it isn't.  That's the point.  Who can tell?  Does tanking happen with roster moves, in minutes distributed, through combinations of players put on the court, via people returning or not returning from injury?  Who knows?  But if you were going to look at those teams, couldn't you point the finger at all three?  If we're not so sure in one case, can we be sure in the others?  And if we're not sure, shouldn't we be more measured as we discuss this phenomenon?

Also consider the inverse for a moment.  Charlotte and Cleveland (bless their Cavalier hearts) made active decisions not to tank this season...to go for every win possible.  Where is the recognition for them?  Where are those stories to counterbalance the "everybody's tanking and this is an epidemic" narrative?

The "Bad GM" explanation is insufficient.

Some executives are bad.  Some executives deserve to be fired.  But those are best described on a case-by-case basis.

Selling hope has become a cottage industry among General Managers.  It's the mantra of every lottery club.  It's also become the practice of not-quite-good-enough playoff teams who sign extra veterans to help a push that's never going over the top.  Maybe those are bad decisions.  But maybe bad decisions are the only ones possible when LeBron James and Kevin Durant are deemed to be on a collision course and 98% of the populated world wants to see that happen.  When hope is all you have to sell, well, you gotta sell something.

If style of play, talent pool, and the vagaries of ping-pong balls allowed more teams a chance to build coherently, more than hope would be in  the offing and more GM's would look good.  Until some of those things change franchise failures and the need to sell hope reveal as much about the system as the overall quality of its executives.

The insidious thing about the Bad GM explanation is that it will likely become self-fulfilling.  Institute a record-independent draft system and the teams currently behind with no financial or prestige advantage to offset their position will have a hard time catching up.  Their GM's will look bad while the GM's of the Haves will continue to look better.  The system will have enacted and cemented a bias rather than proving it, yet it will be taken as confirmation that those "tanking" GM's were inherently incompetent.

I have no problem with anyone calling out a specific executive for poor drafting, bad trades, inopportune signings, general laziness and lack of attention to detail, or any shortcoming.  Bad GM's should be exposed.  But the opportunity to gain by losing doesn't mean that every losing team is gaming the process.  When we figure out how to tell the difference between the GM making the system and the system making the GM we'll be able to make that kind of blanket claim with certainty.  Until then the more the anti-tanking argument leans on "bad GM's should be exposed" the less water it holds.

Conclusion

This conversation needs to continue.  I admire everyone who has contributed so far, plus the passion that has gone into the work.  The direction of the discussion is still open to change and needs to be examined in a broader light than is currently being put forth.  Major changes, such as altering the nature of the draft, must be considered in their systemic context, not just in response to a perceived problem...however grave that problem may be.

It's my hope that along with the broadening out, more care and precision will enter the conversation.   If we're just shooting the breeze and stating the (apparently) obvious that a 24-game losing streak in a prime draft year equals tanking, speculating that this one example represents many more, so be it.  But as soon as the speculation rises to an actionable level we need terms, evidence, and a well-considered, context-sensitive plan...all of which are lacking at present.  Without those in hand, the cure we leap to embrace may turn out worse than the sickness we thought we were solving.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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