Tanking ain't easy -- why losing games in the NBA is proving nearly as hard as winning them
Tanking is tough. And no, I don't mean that in the "tough to watch" way -- even though that's certainly true as well.
Instead, I mean it in the "it's actually really tough to pull off" kind of way. If there is anything that this lost season has re-enforced, it's that you can't just want to tank, just as you can't just want to contend. There is a tremendous amount of luck that goes in to building a truly terrible team, just as it takes an incredible amount of luck (namely injuries and chemistry) to compete for a title.
Case in point, two pre-season tank favorites, the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz.
According to Vegas, the Jazz were the 28th best team in basketball, while the Suns were 29th (both ahead of the Sixers in projected wins). Last summer, Utah let both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk, and took on $20 million in dead salary in Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson in exchange for two future first round picks. The Jazz handed the keys to their young core, and stripped every other valuable asset out of town. They were following the tanking blueprint to a tee.
When Utah started the season 1-14, the Jazz were the envy of fans of bad teams across the league. Utah was doing it right, and heading towards the #1 lottery spot with their young core developing as well. And then something strange happened -- the Jazz started winning.
Barring a collapse over their last 24 games, the once envied Jazz will have fallen victim to their young talent developing together quicker than expected. Is that a bad thing for the future of the franchise? Of course not. But it absolutely will hurt their chances at a top pick this year, and there's really nothing more they could have done.
What we've seen in Phoenix is even more bizarre. The Suns lost six of their seven leading scorers from last year's 25 win team, and spent the summer stockpiling first round picks in this year's draft (which they potentially have four of). Their roster was composed of two talented (but somewhat unknown) point guards in Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, and then a host of role players, many of whom had not made their dent on the NBA landscape in previous attempts.
But low and behold, the good chemistry bug got Phoenix too. Bledsoe and Dragic have both played great, and role players like the Morris twins and P.J. Tucker have flourished under new coach Jeff Hornacek. The Suns chemistry is so good that they've been able to handle an extended absence from Bledsoe and a ridiculously tough Western Conference, and currently hold the final playoff spot in the West.
Two teams that it appeared were "doing it the right way" -- instead would pick 8th and 21st in the draft if the lottery plays out as projected.
On the flip side, some of the teams we see at the top of the tank standings have not gotten there through shrewd management, but instead because of either horrible injuries, horrible decision making, or in some cases, both.
The team leading the tank race is Milwaukee, who's 11-46 record has them on pace for a 16-win season. When you consider they nailed last year's pick (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and have a few nice young bigs (John Henson and Larry Sanders) it would seem that everything was going to plan for the Bucks. Only this wasn't the plan at all.
Milwaukee handed out $36 million in free agency to the trio of Zaza Pachulia, O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal, and agreed to take on Caron Butler's $8 million in salary for this season in an attempt to make a playoff run. $44 million for four role players, none of whom are particularly good. Does that seem like something a team chasing the #1 pick would do? Of course not.
But thanks to their horrible eye for talent and injuries to both Henson and Sanders, the Bucks have fallen into the "right" mix. But if Adam Silver calls the Bucks name last come May 20th -- does GM John Hammond really deserve credit? I'm not so sure.
And finally we have the Lakers, picked by Vegas to win an even 40 games this season, but currently tied for the fourth worst record in basketball after some of the worst injury luck in recent memory. Kobe Bryant has missed 53 games, Steve Nash 49, Jordan Farmer 30, Xavier Henry 28, Chris Kaman 25, Steve Blake 15 (while with the team), Pau Gasol and Nick Young 10 apiece. Sure, some of these are age related injuries that should have been predicted, but still, LA's master plan was not to grab a top-five pick during this lost season. They had hoped to make a run at one of the last playoff spots, but their poor roster construction and terrible injury luck has put them in position to grab an elite talent in the draft.
There are even more examples that I haven't broken down. The Raptors were reportedly "all-in" on a tank under new GM Masai Ujiri -- but they're about to grab the three-seed thanks to their young talent and fantastic chemistry. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose and dealt Luol Deng for nothing and were sitting at 12-18 in early January (they were actually briefly behind the Celtics) -- but they're simply too well coached and have too much character to fall that low while Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau are still in town. And then there's the Knicks, who have an $87 million payroll and basically the same exact roster that won 54 games last season, and yet they may end up free falling all the way to a bottom-five record. Of course with the Knicks, they don't even own their own pick, so this is doubly painful for them.
What's my point? Simply that all season we've heard some rumblings that the Celtics "didn't do enough to tank" (as in Danny Ainge left too much talent), or that other teams have successfully out-tanked the Celts. And I'm not so sure it's that simple. Tanking is an incredibly inexact science, one that GMs clearly have not figured out yet. Well coached teams with good injury luck and good chemistry will continue to win more games than expected, and teams with bad injury luck and Mike d'Antoni bad coaching/chemistry will continue to plummet. Pro-tanking Celtics' fans should actually be pretty happy with the #4 spot considering the Celts have a great coach and a decent amount of NBA talent on the roster (plus an easy Eastern Conference schedule).
Obviously, there is one outlier to the "tanking is not an exact science" -- and that is the 76ers. But that was the perfect storm of tanking, as the Sixers decided to not only dump all of their marginal NBA talent, but also decided to get rid of nearly all of their good young players as well. Philly dumped Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner for a combined three second round picks and expiring deals, a less than fair value for their talents. This was also made possible by the fact that both guys had expiring deals, and the fact that the Sixers simply do not have a tanking conscience.
But for every other team in the league, tanking has proven difficult. The always awesome unpredictability aspect of sports has reared it's head, showing that as much as we think it should be easy to assemble a losing team, it's not. Chemistry matters. Coaching matters. Injuries matter. And 2/3rd's of those things just can't be predicted (3/3 if you have a rookie head coach like Phoenix, Boston and Philly).
This is not to say that a GM attempting to assemble a losing team for a season is not a worthy cause. The draft is still the best way to get a superstar for any team not named Miami or Los Angeles, and the higher you are in the draft the better chance you have. It's just to say, just like a GM can't snap his fingers and make the playoffs, he can't snap them and assemble a roster that will win 15 games either.