Tanking in Sports & Why Teams Continue to Do So

Tanking has always been a controversial practice in sports, and it has become commonplace in many major sports, especially in the NBA. When a team elects to “tank” a season, that team essentially waves a white flag to the ongoing season and trades away its best talent (such as the Lakers shipping Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Lou Williams, to Houston) in order to allow its younger talent to develop with extended playing time or accepts losing games so that the team can receive a high draft pick that it could build around.  Almost no NBA team would admit to intentionally trying to lose games, but the reality of the situation illustrates how common this practice is.

My hometown Lakers seem to currently be tanking their season in order to secure a top three pick in the draft, which would otherwise belong to the Philadelphia 76ers (due to the Dwight Howard trade) should it fall outside of the top three selections.  Thus, the Lakers organization elected to bench former starters Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, who are guaranteed a combined almost $140 million over the course of their contracts.  While the Lakers’ front office explains this move as simply wanting to evaluate younger talent, there is no one working in the organization who would not value the addition of a top three pick to their already exciting young core that is still raw, but bursting with All-Star potential.

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The most blatant example of tanking lies within the Philadelphia 76ers organization, spearheaded by its former GM, Sam Hinkie.  Tasked with attempting to return to the 76ers to playoff contention, Hinkie devised an audacious plan to intentionally become the worst team in the league for two to three years in order to secure the right to select young talent in upcoming drafts. Hinkie believed that this was the right move to be made due to his background in analytics and the fact that all numbers pointed to unsuccessful output from the current players on the roster.  Thus, if they wanted to bring a championship back home to Philadelphia, the best way to do so was to accept short-term failure, and PLENTY of it. Hinkie traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans and complementary players Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner to the Timberwolves and Pacers, respectively, to secure draft choices, thereby beginning the process of tanking in the short-term for long-term success.

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Jrue Holiday (left), Evan Turner (middle), and Thaddeus Young (right) making small-talk in the midst of Sam Hinkie’s Sixers rebuild in 2013.

Executives, players and coaches took notice of what the 76ers were doing around the league and the majority of them were not in favor of purposely losing games, as they believed that it ruined the competitive nature of the NBA.  While I understand that tanking can be considered an attractive avenue for a front office to consider pursuing, I am of the opinion that an organization should always attempt to instill a winning culture.  Organizations should always look to win as many games as possible. If young players are constantly surrounded by losing, along with a line of thinking that it is permissible to lose games, it sets the team up for both short and long-term failure.  There is no point in losing to acquire and develop players through the draft if they do not learn how to play the game the right way and set themselves up for winning.  In addition, free agents tend to stay away from teams that repeatedly tank, as tanking teams always ship out veterans for cap relief and draft assets.  This is not to say that teams can’t elect to rebuild, as even the San Antonio Spurs will have to go through that process at some point, but there is a difference between rebuilding and tanking (to say the least).  Rebuilding teams look to the next season and make roster moves accordingly, but tanking teams are eager to see their teams fail, such as the 76ers, or presently, the Lakers.  Under Hinkie, the organization was sporting a roster that was filled with fringe rotation players and individuals who were most likely meant to be in the D-League or to be playing overseas.  However, with a roster filled with young players like Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, the 76ers are one point guard away from being a contender in the Eastern Conference next season. This success would not have been possible without Hinkie’s “Trust the Process” movement, but this is not to say that tanking is an aspect of sports that I support.

Tanking will likely continue to be a part of sports, despite commissioner Adam Silver’s recent act of speaking out against tanking in the NBA. However,the NBA is not the only professional sports league where it occurs. Tanking in the NFL was exemplified by the “Suck for Luck” movement, where teams were content with losing for the chance to select then Stanford QB Andrew Luck as the face of their franchise. In the 1983 and 1984 NHL seasons, multiple teams were vying to draft Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux. These decisions have constantly been made in sports with the organization’s best interest in mind, but with oversight towards the fact that fans buy tickets to see their teams compete for a win in every game. It will be interesting to see if NBA commissioner Adam Silver, along with executives of other major sports, will look for ways to limit and discourage the act of tanking in the near future.

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Several teams tried tanking their way to the first overall selection of the 1984 NHL draft, when Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux was chosen by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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