Tanking vs. Rebuilding: Where’s the Line?

Are you tanking or just losing? Is it a “rebuild,” a “development year,” or is that just code for “tank”?

If your team lands top prospect Zion Williamson in 2019, will it feel like good fortune after a grueling year or merely like ill-gotten gains?

A “tank” is an NBA franchise’s deliberate, concerted effort to finish a season with the league’s worst record to obtain the highest selection in the upcoming draft. This often may lead them to some drastic measures. A “rebuild” is when an aging or struggling team scraps what it has, refocuses on player development and builds around young stars. Both may include trading star veterans for draft picks, and both may consist of a whole lot of losing.

The difference lies in just how much sportsmanship you want to sacrifice in the process.

‘THE PROCESS’

Tanking is not new. The draft lottery was created in 1985 to combat questions about integrity that had spun out of the 1984 season when the Houston Rockets (and others) appeared to be doing their very best to do their very worst. The bottom teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences would flip a coin to select first, and everyone wanted Hakeem Olajuwon at No. 1. (The consolation prizes were John Stockton at No. 16, Charles Barkley at No. 5, and Michael Jordan at No. 3.) Houston’s undignified slide to 29-53 did win them Olajuwon, but it forced the league to change its practices. There were still, perhaps more subtle, tank jobs after that, like the 2002-03 Cleveland Cavaliers, 2005-06 Minnesota Timberwolves or 2006-07 Boston Celtics.

Now we sit at the beginning of another draft rule change: In 2019, the bottom three teams in the league will all have equal odds going into the lottery because one team took tanking to new heights (lows?).

The Philadelphia 76ers and its infamous “The Process” was (or is) most definitely a tank…but oh so much more than that.

Feb 10, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, new Philadelphia 76ers general manager and president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie’s vision was not merely to lose a lot of games, draft the best player and build a new team around him.

Oh, no! His vision was to collect the greatest basketball assets and turn those into a team. Trade for draft picks, far more than you’d need, draft the best players, even if all of them were 7-foot centers, then eventually, trade them to someone else. It would take time and a lot of losing, but ultimately, it would pay off.

Somehow Hinkie sold Philadelphia fans on this idea. A plan based on losing and patience was employed in Philly, the town that (typically) celebrates wins by laying waste to itself. It was an audacious, reckless plan that appealed to the spirit of a people who lustily sing “We are Philly, f—ing Philly, no one liiikes us, we don’t care!”

So they donned their “Trust the Process,” “In Hinkie, We Trust” T-shirts and settled in for the tank.

And oh, what a tank it was! Old Sixers fans gathered their grandchildren, pointed up at that bright, glorious ball of flaming failure streaking across the league and watched with starry-eyed wonder as the 76ers smashed to the bottom of the NBA standings. It was like a meteor crashing to Earth, and nearly as destructive.

At first, Hinkie’s experiment looked peculiar, maybe laughable. Yet, as the Sixers’ collection of top draft picks got bigger, other front office executives thought “ooooh, I want one too!”

Even after Hinkie was fired, his popularity stayed high, as fans donned “Hinkie died for our sins” T’s and sang “Here they come, team of the year!”

Other teams weren’t quite as bold right away. But as the years went on, “if the Sixers can do it, why can’t we” attitude caught on.

Signs your team is tanking

SIGN 1: THEIR WIN PERCENTAGE FALLS OFF A CLIFF IN FEBRUARY

The 2017-18 season was an insult to the sport. An unrestrained bacchanalia of losing. If children were present, I hope you covered their eyes through the whole thing.

Have a nice close look at the win percentages for the bottom 10 teams going into Jan. 31, 2018, and then see how they begin to drop off Feb. 1. In 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16, only the Sixers were so brazen to let those win percentages dip by more than 12 percent.

Last year? Four teams were that shameless!

The Memphis Grizzlies were 0.321 until Jan. 31, 2018 and the Phoenix Suns 0.305. Then the battle to the bottom really kicked into low gear: Memphis ended the year .154 (4 wins), but Phoenix outdid them with .130 (3 wins). Tanking is so popular, it’s actually become dang difficult to do. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks or the New York Knicks. On Feb. 1, 2018, the Mavs were in 28th place league-wide. After finishing the season winning only four of their final 30 games, they only dropped from 28th to 29th.

Nov 28, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) shoots the ball against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the second half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It worked out okay for the Mavs, who ended up with Luka Doncic after a trade with the Atlanta Hawks. However, the New York Knicks, who were 19th on Feb. 2, put forth a similarly foul performance during their last 30 games (an impressively horrible six wins). Yet, they didn’t come within spitting distance of the bottom; they only dipped from 19th to 22nd.  Fans lamented “The Knicks can’t even lose right.”

SIGN 2: DEFEAT IS STOLEN FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY

Hinkie had the good grace to do all the hard work: He put together a team that was so bad it didn’t need to throw games to lose them. And he had the good luck to have two top draft picks who got severe injuries, so he sat them for the season. He made it so that head coach Brett Brown didn’t have to be such an active participant in the art of losing.

Others have been more complicit. The 2005-06 Minnesota Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey’s clearly threw that season’s final game by sitting Kevin Garnett and having Mark Madsen attempt seven 3-pointers (despite making only one in his career to that point. Doc Rivers and the 2006-07 Boston Celtics, in the race for Kevin Durant, slunk down to a 24-win record by yanking Paul Pierce.

If all your best players are taking turns being inactive because of a nebulous “illness,” or the coach mysteriously yanks the shooter who can’t miss (and he never gets back in the game), or empties the bench for “garbage time” when there’s only a five-point deficit and six minutes left on the clock… then you’re tanking.

SIGN 3: THE FRONT OFFICE IS MEDDLING WITH THE COACHING STAFF.

If a successful coach decided not to renew his contract, or head coach is rumored to be on the chopping block when he’s winning, then you probably have a front office that’s in “lose now” mode.

Example: the Sacramento Kings and current head coach Dave Joerger.

Nov 9, 2018; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger reacts to a call during the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Credit where it’s due, the Kings front office has drafted very well recently, picking up De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson in 2017 and Marvin Bagley III this summer. Trading away All-Star Demarcus Cousins has so far worked out well.

The Kings, who’ve not made the playoffs since 2005-06, are suddenly relevant again with a 10-11 start. No. 2 rookie Bagley is playing over 22 minutes per game, but according to reports from Yahoo News’ Chris Haynes (which management denies), the front office wants Joerger to start Bagley ahead of veteran Nemanja Bjelica, 30. The Kings are off to their best start in years, with both their 2017 and 2015 draft picks in the starting lineup. However, the rumored rift could lead to the coach’s dismissal.

The Atlanta Hawks front office realized they couldn’t get along with now-former head coach Mike Budenholzer because he also had an inconvenient need to win. That team is most certainly in the middle of a tank. The Hawks had the best regular season record in the 2014-2015 Eastern Conference, made it to the conference finals and were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The next season, the team progressed to the conference semifinals and were again swept by the Cavs.

So they flipped the game board over and said “I’m not playing anymore. Lebron never lets me win.”

They traded point guard Jeff Teague in 2016 after the disappointing finish, and began a slow, clumsy tank, allowing their best free agents and coach of the year to walk away.

Signs your team is not tanking

Sign 1: They Came by Being Bad Honestly

The Brooklyn Nets have suffered. They finished 28th in 2015-16, dead last during 2016-17, (though did them very little good because they didn’t own their first round draft picks). Woeful mismanagement earlier this century left the Nets a mess. Their salary situation was horrifying, and they haven’t had a lottery pick in ages.

Nov 6, 2018; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert (left) against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

However, since changing leadership, they’ve made smart roster additions while developing young players (particularly Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and their 2017 pick No. 22 Jarrett Allen). Neither their late-season record nor anything else about their performances showed anything but a team trying to improve.

Sign 2: They are Developing

Statements like “this is a development year” might be euphemisms for “we’re gonna lose as much as we can.” Or it could genuinely mean that first: develop players, second: win. That’s different than first: lose more than everyone else, second: develop players in your spare time.

Constant lineup tweaks may be confusing, but they give a player experience in various roles, positions, game situations and against different types of opponents. A coach might make a game-time decision necessary to build an individual player’s confidence or skillset, even if it puts a win momentarily at risk.

Development also may show itself in team cohesion. When a giant highlight poster dunk is celebrated not only by those on the court but by those who are inactive, wearing suits—jumping up and down cheering on their teammates with just as much excitement as the fans—that’s not a tanking team.

A truly “developing” team will celebrate a win in April, even if it ruins their draft order.

WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT A TANK?

If a team can’t get past the middle, shouldn’t you just blow the whole thing up instead of expecting it to get better? Kemba Walker’s greatness may never bring the Charlotte Hornets a championship, and the Washington Wizards might finally have to break up Bradley Beal and John Wall. Tanking is not the only way to achieve this though: trades, free agency, player development, better international scouting are also options.

Just look at the L.A. Clippers: None of their young squad were selected above No. 10, but the Clips are currently best in the league!

Encouraging a group of people to lose could have unintended consequences, too. Winning an NBA game requires everyone on the team to believe it can be done. They need to think they can win despite the 20-point deficit, that they can nail that buzzer-beating longball despite their shooting slump, or trust their teammate to catch that critical inbounds pass even though he’s turned it over six times. That kind of faith is difficult to maintain when you lose for years.

It’s also too much to risk. The losingest team might not get better than the fourth pick in the draft. And, no matter whom they select, they won’t know if he’ll be worth all the tickets they didn’t sell, the contracts they bought out and the enemies they made along the way.

I know this much: When my father took my brother, sister and I to New Jersey Nets games during the 1990-91 season, I knew it was a stretch financially. (Not because he said so; but because things were always a stretch, especially since the divorce.)

If, in that year right before my big brother’s college tuition bills started coming due, Bill Fitch decided to sit Derrick Coleman and young Drazen Petrovic because the Nets needed to race the Nuggets to the bottom of the league, no amount of “It’s okay, Daddy, maybe next year,” or “It’s okay Daddy, it will help their draft ranking,” would have consoled him.

And maybe, that’s the difference.

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