The Psychology of NBA Tanking, Part 2: Lose Like a Champ

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran March 9, 2019, but is so awesome we wanted to give more people a chance to read it.

Is it possible to actually go through a “tank” with a winning record, high ROI, and no piles of corpses along the sidelines?

Is that even a tank at all then?

As you’ll see, defining a “tank done right” might preclude the word itself, though that’s part of the whole point versus the alternatives.


Despite the need for better overall player development, teams can help their success by drafting rookies who are better equipped for the challenges.

“I think you can make some predictions,” says Dr. Jack J. Lesyk, who was head of the Cavaliers’ interview team at the NBA Draft Combine during his Cleveland tenure. “We would ask questions that were situational: ‘Tell us about a time when you weren’t playing well. How did you feel? What did you do about it? Tell us when you were angry at a coach.'”

They also asked prospects about the challenges they expected to face once they joined the NBA, to see if they had realistic expectations: “We did look for those who had insights and were mentally preparing themselves for the change.”

Many international players have also had very successful transitions to the NBA in their rookie season. But is there any evidence that they’re better prepared for the shift than many Americans, or is that just a stereotype?

Sullivan says “it’s a fair assumption,” that many international players have already experienced some important milestones before Draft Day, like playing pro basketball and living away from home.

Another factor, he says, might be that international rookies are accustomed to different treatment by their employers in the sports industry.

In the United States, the sports industry sees athletes as commodities; it often doesn’t want its athletes to be empowered or well-informed. Conversely, international rookies’ easy transition “could be that they came from an enlightened environment that saw them as an asset, and that asset comes with knowledge. So they can be scientists of their sport, take care of themselves, advocate for themselves, ask questions and engage with resources,” Lesyk says.

INCREASE Sports Science

“In North America, we are the least evolved in sports science,” says Dr. John Sullivan. He explains that the US has not developed talent, because it hasn’t had to, historically, to win big in international competition.

“We generally win because, if we break six athletes, we have eight more in the wings. If we look worldwide, we’re falling behind in the development of talent.”

He points to Australia, New Zealand and Iceland as examples where sports science is helping smaller populations develop more competitive teams. Conversely, no professional sports team in the United States has a complete sports science program.

Sign the right Veterans

JJ Redick may be the perfect veteran for the Sixers now that they’re a contender: he can put forth starter’s minutes and he’s never missed the playoffs. Yet, he might not have been the right vet for Philly during the dog days of The Process.

“Someone who has the love of the game, has good perspective and who also has a maturity about themselves,” Lesyk says, describing the traits of a great veteran mentor. (Not that Redick hasn’t had the former, but it’s the next part that might have precluded him.)

A player who has come to peace with the fact that they’re in their years of decline. Basketball is a job; They may have begun to cultivate other interests in preparation for their next career and they don’t need to play in the way they once did.

Dec 21, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward Channing Frye (9) look at a digital device during the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

“I saw some big name guys who [became] bench players and in some games they got no time or only played four minutes or five minutes. But they were gracious. Very gracious. They understood,” he says.

Those were the players who voluntarily took it upon themselves to mentor the rookies.

Develop, Don’t Discard

“What’s amazing to me,” says Sullivan, “is that the organizations don’t think of development. They think of it as an attrition model. ‘If I don’t get so-and-so to pan out, I’ve got six other people to take their place.’ If that’s the game you’re gonna play, that’s not how you build a culture.”

Good cultures help buffer a group from the impacts of adverse and unexpected situations like season-ending injuries, trade deadline maneuvers or relentless losing streaks. Rather than increasing stress—by threatening people’s jobs, for example—they support a sense of safety.

Neurobiologically, Sullivan explains, humans are always assessing safety. “We’re biologically driven for survival response. We’re looking for safety all the time. So if you’re constantly putting pressure on [athletes] and saying ‘Well, they’re paid to handle that,’ well, [they can’t handle it] if they don’t know how. And that’s not the ideal way to learn. The research is really, really extensive on this.”

In other words, making players feel they are expendable may not be conducive to development—and therefore not conducive to building a championship team.

Feb 27, 2019; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with guard Dejounte Murray (right) prior to a game against the Detroit Pistons at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As Sullivan puts it, “There is no greater way to crush human potential than to instill fear.”

Lesyk says that rookies are more likely to develop on a winning team, even if it means they have less playing time: “Part of the reason winning teams are winning teams is they usually have good management and a good developmental model. So they’re looking at their young talent, and I think they treasure them, and they probably take better care of them than a losing team.”

Sullivan’s advice to general managers?

“Think about people as assets, and less as commodities that can be replaced. How about as human beings?”

Read Part 1 here…