The Psychology of Tanking, Part 1: Can Winners Survive That Much Losing?

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran March 5, 2019, but is so awesome we wanted to give more people a chance to read it.

It’s a simple equation: tanking = top draft pick = NBA championship. The math satisfies the sensibilities of franchise owners, fans and Spike Lee alike…

But what about the players? How much losing can an athlete take?

Can the experience of tanking turn winners into losers? This is a question rebuilding teams should be asking, because if that No. 1 draft pick turns out to be a bust, or that All-Star max-deal free agent under-performs, it might be the team’s fault, not the player’s.

As Dr. John Sullivan—a sports scientist and clinical sports psychologist who’s worked for the New England Patriots, English Premier League and elite military—puts it: “A bad system will break a good person or good talent every time.”


During this Golden Age of Tanking, NBA teams have scrabbled around the bottom floor of league rankings, fighting each other for the worst record, gutting their rosters of talent, buying out big contracts, losing 60 games a year or more.

All to get their hands on the new menu item: a top draft pick they can build a team around. The new face of the franchise.

Yet, only eight of the 12 top-three picks drafted between 2013 and 2017 still play for the teams they joined as rookies (66%). Only 22 of the 40 top-10 picks do (55%). (Those numbers do not include draft night or preseason trades.)

In most cases, the teams that did the most losing to obtain those players are still losing.

The Los Angeles Lakers dumped 2015 No. 1 pick D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets, let 2014 No. 7 Julius Randle go to the New Orleans Pelicans and signed Lebron James. While Russell is now a 23-year-old All-Star leading the Nets into the playoffs, the Lakers are 30-32 and Lebron might miss the playoffs for the first time in his career.

On Draft Night 2017, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded three of their lottery selections—Zach Lavine (2014, No. 13), Kris Dunn (2016, No. 5) and Lauri Markkanen (2017, No. 7)—to the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler. They’ve since traded away Butler too, fired trade architect Tom Thibodeau and are futilely slapping at the outside of the playoff picture with just one 50-win season to show for it.

Jun 27, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls players from left Lauri Markkanen , Kris Dunn, and Zach LaVine pose for photos after a press conference at Advocate Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis (2015, No. 4) and have thrown 2017 selection Frank Ntilikina into a battle for his job by signing a pile of other point guards (including two recent top-10 draft picks who were dropped by their teams: Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets) and Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas Mavericks).

The Knicks—who’ve barely had a whiff of the playoffs this millenium—have the league’s second-worst record. The development of their young talent, like rookie Mitchell Robinson gives some indication that new management might have some promise, but it’s too early to tell if they’ll throw it all away (again).

The Sacramento Kings, on the other hand, might be on to something, turning their top 10 picks into a genuine team. De’Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield (a top-10 New Orleans Pelicans cast-off) are rocking a .500 record that is very promising. (Sacramento hot-potatoed its own busted draft picks incessantly during previous years, however.)

The Phoenix Suns continue to be dreadful, but hopeful fans might have reason to believe they’re on a similar path as the Kings’, just a year or two behind. Then again, their owner is Robert Sarver who doesn’t seem to understand goats from G.O.A.T.

Of course, there are those Philadelphia 76ers. The Process, long and arduous though it was, has put the Sixers fourth in the East with at least a bettor’s shot at a title. Two of their top selections—Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons—are the stars of this legendary squad.

Yet, The Process was bloody. Embiid and Simmons spent their first seasons out with injuries. They essentially were able to coast through, feet up, while other players kept slowly, painfully grinding along. The Sixers’ success is built in part upon the discarded careers of Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and all the others left by the side of the road.

Oct 30, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel (left) and center Jahlil Okafor (right) watch from the bench during the final minutes of a game against the Utah Jazz at Wells Fargo Center. The Utah Jazz won 99-71. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If tanking does indeed work, it may not be an efficient way to achieve franchise greatness. And it might be the worst way to get the best out of the talent.

Does tanking set rookies up for failure?

“In a heartbeat, I think it would be easier [for a rookie] to go to a winning team,” says Dr. Jack J. Lesyk, director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology. Lesyk was clinical sports psychologist for the Cleveland Cavaliers for several years—including their championship season—and worked most closely with the Cavs’ rookies.

Lesyk describes the standard transition of any rookie (not just the famous ones) from college to the pros: A college team provides stability and community. Players enjoy not just individual success but team success, sometimes for several years, along with recognition and respect on campus. They regularly head to dinner with teammates after practice.

Then they go to the NBA.

They’re in a city, thousands of miles away, and by themselves. Their teammates are not peers, but men five or 10 years older. After practice, everyone goes home in different directions, some heading to dinner with wives and children.

“In the meantime, you’ve become suddenly rich, and although we may desire that, it’s very stressful to manage that very well. Plus, now the other thing is the game itself. You’re playing against veterans who are better, stronger, smarter than you are,” says Lesyk. “From every aspect, the stresses have just increased tremendously.”

Jun 21, 2018; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Deandre Ayton (Arizona) greets NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number one overall pick to the Phoenix Suns first round of the 2018 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Sullivan says these stressors are critical factors for teams to manage: “Their life affects their sport and their sport affects their life. If you [the team management] do not have the resources for both of those points of development and have resources that can assess or intervene … you’re failing in the protection of talent and the development of talent.”

Now tack on the added pressures of being a No. 1 draft pick heading to a tanking team.

Individual high-performance is expected, despite the fact that said rookie lacks the support of a high-performing team—or even the support of a team that wants to be high-performing.

Because the roster has been gutted in order to get him, the rookie may play 25 or 30 minutes a game, in a much more rigorous season with more traveling against harder opponents. There will be more public scrutiny, more pressure and fewer experienced players around to help him shoulder it.

And then there’s the losing.


Apr 7, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell (1) knocks away a pass from Sacramento Kings forward Anthony Tolliver (43) in the second half of the game at Staples Center. Lakers won 98-94. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Top rookies usually come from the best basketball schools: They’re used to full stands of supportive fans, nigh-undefeated records, March Madness and NCAA Championship net-cutting.

Suddenly they’re in a sparsely filled arena, being booed for shooting slumps, slouching off to the locker room after losing 60 games when they’re only even used to playing 30.

Experienced players are somewhat immune to the crises of confidence that this prolonged losing can cause, says Lesyk, but early-career players are more vulnerable: “Confidence can be shattered by just one or two bad games because they don’t have the reserves to go to, the history to say ‘I’ve been through this before. I know I’m gonna come back.'”

One way Lesyk helps players sustain that confidence during times of adversity is to set small incremental goals that would be defined as a success: “So winning the game is not the only indicator of progress.”

Clearly, some young players can survive intact and recover from bouts of losing and low performance, though not necessarily soon enough to suit their teams, who give up on them too soon.

D’Angelo Russell is the gold standard here, having All-Star success with the Nets after the Lakers tossed him. Noel and Okafor are not at his caliber, but they are enjoying better careers with their new teams than they were in Philadelphia.

Conversely, losing might also become a habit.

Lebron James certainly hinted this might be the case.

Mar 2, 2019; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In comments to the media after the Lakers’ loss to the Pelicans Feb. 23, James said, “The last few years, everyone’s so accustomed to the losses that I’m just not accustomed to. I’m not accustomed to it, I would never get comfortable with losing. … sometimes I feel like we’re afraid to get uncomfortable, get out of our comfort zone, have that sense of urgency from the jump and not be afraid to actually go out and fail to succeed.”

The situation may be different on a winning team.

“The older players are happy and they’re kind of willing to mentor the younger players,” says Lesyk. “When you’re a losing team, the whole morale is not so good. When you’re feeling crappy about yourself on a losing team, you’re less likely to reach out to the rookies and be helpful and cultivate them. [As a rookie], you’re not going to get as much playing time, but you’re going to be groomed.”

(Indeed, though there may be some strife on the Boston Celtics these days, the individual performances of their top-10 selections Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart have been undeniably positive, as the team has continued to win.)

What About the Veterans?

Of course, the tanking doesn’t just affect young players.

Where are the wily veterans who will set the example? Who will teach, inspire, support and help instill a culture of professionalism and winning without getting downtrodden themselves?

A vet might be at the end of his career, frustrated to know he won’t have a last shot at winning it all. Or he might be at the peak of his career, having signed his contract before the franchise decided to tank. Now he’s being asked to sit, watching the team lose when he knows he could help them win.

He may be in a contract year or near one, and are stuck, with minutes diminished, stats slashed, fading out of memory right when trying to make a case for his last meaningful NBA contract. This is not an uncommon case, and certainly one Enes Kanter found himself in on the New York Knicks.

Jan 30, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks center Enes Kanter (00) kisses the floor as he enters the game against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

“That would be a very, very bad situation to be in,” says Lesyk (interviewed before the trade deadline). “I’m sure he’s demoralized. And I think it’s contagious.

“If I were working with such a player one-on-one. I would try very very hard to keep their morale up and I would have conversations with them about reality. And, reality is looking very clearly and honestly at things you cannot control, accepting that and refocusing on what you can control.

“And in his situation, it might not be a heck of a lot.”

Sullivan adds that in situations like these, a team must be even clearer and more honest with its players: “Sometimes there’s marketing that has to happen outside of an organization,  but internally, there needs to be many more discussions and conversations. True conversations about the process of player development as a part of building a long-term high-performance


Some (not all) Knicks observers and fans have pinned their hopes on the idea that marquee free agents like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or Kemba Walker will sign in New York this offseason. However, a team still salty with the stench of bottom-dwelling might not be the most desirable destination for stars at their peak.

Feb 16, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Team Lebron forward Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warrior (35) handles the ball against Team Lebron guard Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics (11) during NBA All-Star Game practice at the Bojangles Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Retired All-Stars Paul Pierce and Tracey McGrady discussed this with Rachel Nichols on The Jump last week.

“These guys [the L.A. Clippers] don’t have tanking in their blood,” said McGrady. “I appreciate what they’re doing. Yeah, you’ll get a first-round pick, but it’s not like you’re gonna get a guy who’s gonna change your franchise right away. You’re gonna have to wait on a young guy a couple years.”

She asked whether a team like the hardscrabble, starless L.A. Clippers—who are likely to make the playoffs—would be more desirable than a team that had just tanked to grab a top draft pick.

“I’m more excited about the team that made the playoffs,” said Pierce. (“Without the superstar,” interjected McGrady.) “You’ve got to feel like you can be that piece to help them get over the top,” said Pierce. “Like a 7 seed to a 2, 3 maybe 1 seed, or even a championship.”

Read Part 2 here…