The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 26 games in a row, tying the NBA record.
Their futility has spawned a new debate about “tanking” — the practice of strategically making a team worse in the short term in order to be good in the long term.
Some, like Coach K, have called it unethical.
Others, like the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, have called it ineffective.
Both of these characterizations are wrong, and they’re wrong because they misconstrue what tanking is.
Tanking is not the practice of losing as many games as possible in order to get a franchise saviour in the NBA Draft. Tanking is the practice of rebuilding a roster by fully disassembling it, maximizing cap space, and collecting assets. And yes, sometimes “collecting assets” includes collecting what Houston GM Daryl Morey calls “the number one asset in the NBA” — a top-five pick on a rookie contract.
Losing games is not the goal of tanking.
Losing games is a byproduct of tanking.
In practice, tanking is simply the process of starting from scratch. You exchange veteran players for either young players or draft picks — which makes you immediately awful, but gives you incredible flexibility going forward. Smart, well-run teams that start from scratch will succeed. And poorly-run teams that start from scratch will fail.
The big lie about tanking is that it only works if you get a superstar in the NBA Draft.
The 2012-13 Houston Rockets are a perfect example of how a smart team can get better through a tanking strategy.
In the summer of 2012, Basketball Prospectus picked the Rockets to finish dead last in the Western conference with a 21-61 record — which would have been the third-worst season in franchise history.
That summer the Rockets traded away all the pieces that made them a 34-32 team the year before. That included shipping off six players:
- Traded Chase Budinger to Minnesota for the 18th-overall pick
- Traded Samuel Dalembert and the 14th pick to Milwaukee for the 12th pick and three bench players
- Cut Luis Scola under the amnesty provision
- Let Goran Dragic leave in free agency for nothing
- Let Courtney Lee leave in free agency for nothing
- Traded Kyle Lowry to Toronto for a future 1st-round pick
They replaced those six guys with two young free agent role players — Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, who were signed with “poison pill” contracts — and a bunch of rookies.
Basketball Prospectus wrote a few weeks before the season:
“Losing games might not be such a bad thing if it translates into a lottery pick and another opportunity to add elite talent. While Morey’s strategy is fraught with risk, and might have come too late after three lost seasons, it’s not as if the Rockets broke up a championship contender. The rebuilding process will inevitably be painful, but the hope is on the other side Houston’s ceiling will be much higher than 45 wins.”
The Rockets dismantled a .500 team in order to acquire a collection of draft picks and young assets that, it just so happens, was predicted to finish last in the NBA.
That is textbook tanking.
The Rockets made themselves bad in the short term in order to get good in the long term.
No one remembers it like this, though, because the Rockets team that was supposed to lose 61 games never made it onto the court. Just a few days before the 2012-13 season, Morey turned all those assets he got from destroying his 2011-12 roster into a superstar — James Harden.
Houston traded Kevin Martin, 1st-round pick Jeremy Lamb, Toronto’s 2013 1st-round pick, and two future lottery-protected picks for Harden. They immediately signed him to a maximum long-term deal worth $US80 million over five years.
None of this would have been possible if Morey didn’t tank. They wouldn’t have had Toronto’s 1st-rounder if they hadn’t traded Lowry. They wouldn’t have had the cap room to give Harden a max extension if they had re-signed Dragic and Lee and kept Dalembert and Scola.
It’s didn’t end there.
By completely clearing his books and bracing himself for an awful 2012-13 season in summer of 2012, Morey created so much salary cap room that Houston had enough space to sign Dwight Howard after the 2012-13 season, even after giving Harden a max deal.
Houston is currently 49-22, and a threat to win the West.
Tanking is not losing as many games as possible and praying to draft the next LeBron James.
No NBA team is doing that.
The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t losing games for the sake of losing games. They’re losing games because they aggressively shipped off veterans in exchange for young assets and draft picks before the 2013-14 season. It’s a strategy that gives them cap flexibility, trade value, and countless roster possibilities going forward, but also makes them historically bad right now.
As with the Rockets in that July of 2012 when everyone thought they were going to be awful, losing is the unfortunate byproduct of a completely rational strategy that can work.
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