Let’s Talk Tanking

Draft Lottery

How long have I been a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers? I’m such a long-time fan that I remember how the team went from mediocrity to championship in the 60’s. I remember the corny slogan “The Sixers Got Hoopla!” from the 70’s. And now, well into the 21st century, they’re all about “tanking.” Mind you, no one in the organization utters the word “tank.” The Sixers are “rebuilding.” They are engaged in “player development.” But they are not tanking. Even Commissioner Nate Silver has said so. And he’s been very helpful, by providing a definition of the word no one in the Sixers’ organization will speak. The Commish has said that tanking occurs when a team on a given night intentionally loses a game.

Thanks, Mr. Silver. That definition officially clears the Sixers of the charge of tanking. After all, no one would claim that Brett Brown and his young players are not trying to win games. Clearly they’re playing their hearts out. But that’s the problem. Tanking by the Sixers is practiced in the executive suites. The real definition is “exercise by professional team management of the practice of removing veteran players (and their expensive salaries) from a team so that the young, inexperienced players remaining will not have a chance of winning more than a few games, thereby assuring high draft picks in the succeeding season.” The Sixers are in Tank Season II. Tank Season I came dangerously close to failing when the Sixers won the first three games and stayed competitive until January of 2014, when it became clear to veteran players remaining on the team that they would not be included in the team’s future plans. Then – only too late – did Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner in particular become dispirited enough to start playing bad enough basketball for the tanking program. They were traded mid-season and a 26-game losing streak salvaged the Tank. Thaddeus Young never did get the memo – he played hard for the rest of the season, but was traded in the off season in order to assure that Tank Part II would succeed.

But enough history, except this, which makes my point, which is that tanking is an abysmal strategy. In the Spring of 2012, the Sixers made the playoffs. It was worth enjoying and savoring. I particularly recall a weekend against the Chicago Bulls, the East’s top seed. Home for two games, the Sixers won both before a raucous home crowd that enjoyed itself immensely. I ended up in a game-four seat close to former Governor Ed Rendell. The games were exciting and the Sixers rose to the occasion. Cynics will quickly point out that the Bulls had lost Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. How does that matter? Injuries happen. Lots of things can change the games. Nothing happens, though, if your team is not playing in them. The point is that being “mediocre,” but relevant, beats being lousy every time.

There are plenty of advocates of tanking. They say that the Sixers’ future is bright because of it. Some of them will even call you an idiot for not getting it. One tweeter even said in the course of advocating for tanking that he’d be proven right come 2024. Team executives say little on the subject beyond the euphemisms. We can’t know how long it will take for the Sixers to become true contenders. It may be five years, it may be more. When pressed, you might even get them to acknowledge that there is no way to know whether this approach will ever result in a championship for the Sixers. If a couple true superstars don’t land at Broad and Pattison at some point, it’s unlikely that a title will ever come. Tanker advocates revert to something like, “what’s the alternative – perpetual mediocrity?” I’ll take some of the mediocrity I saw in 2012. You can build on it, although you can’t be more certain of success that the Tankers can. But you may have some fun along the way.

Slowly but inevitably, knowledgable basketball guys are starting to call out the Tankers. Larry Brown did it. Ok, he had an axe to grind about not being invited to the Iverson extravaganza – but he meant what he said. Doug Collins, in an unguarded moment, said something like “I’ve got your analytics right here.” (I think you know the nature of his accompanying gesture.) Collins may have some deferred compensation whose terms preclude more comprehensive and articulate criticism of the current regime. I watch the Sixers’ games on NBA-TV, where the other team’s broadcast crew nearly always is calling the game. Some of them have been quite blunt about what they were watching last season. Dominique Wilkins was particularly critical during his commentary.

I hope it works. I hope I’m wrong. I root for this team every game. But the NBA should change the rules – not to mention the unofficial definition of “tanking.” The best way to stop it is to remove the incentive by putting all lottery teams on equal footing. Apparently that won’t happen, so I’ll watch with interest.

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