Tanking Troubles


On the morning of Wednesday, May 15th, the world awoke to find social media platforms flooded with angry complaints from New York Knicks fans. The Knicks were fresh off of a 17-65 season, sporting the worst record in the entire NBA. This gave them one of the best odds to win the number one overall pick, and the opportunity to select Duke freshman phenom Zion Williamson. However, in typical Knicks fashion, things went awry on the night of the draft lottery. The Knicks pick wound up falling to third overall, and their future plans for the franchise were severely compromised.

The Knicks have been “tanking” for the better part of the last five years. By purposely losing games, they received high draft selections and played it off as “rebuilding” and “player development.” The idea of tanking was first conceived by former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie when he was hired in 2013. Throughout his tenure, he took action to trade away star players for draft picks and purposely lose as many games as possible. These efforts were in hopes that the team could gain the highest odds to obtain the number one overall pick, a 25% chance at the time. Hinkie called this five-year plan “The Process.” His plan looked extremely successful during his first few years as GM, drafting Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who were hailed as a top prospects at the time. The era of tanking had begun, and front offices around the league were noticing the fruits of Hinkie’s labor. Hinkie gained a reputation as a basketball savant for executing this tactic, despite the fact that his Sixers would finish with losing records season after season. Sixers fans were told to “trust the process” and embrace the rough seasons by looking ahead to their bright future.Tanking was now an art, and teams were willing to sacrifices multiple seasons for chances to draft top prospects. While many regarded the draft as an exciting opportunity to add young talent to rosters, tanking had reshaped the draft’s image into a monumental event that teams planned months in advance for.

With all this being said, it wasn’t long before the NBA realized the damage that tanking was causing to the league’s image. Fans of low-win teams were openly celebrating losing streaks, healthy stars were being sat out, and player’s competitive drives were being suppressed. After a close look at this issue, the root of the problem c o u l d be traced back to the draft lottery, and it was clear that the system needed reform. New lottery rules were implemented in 2016, where the team with the worst record would still have the best odds to get the first pick, but their chances dropped by 11%. Despite this drastic change, teams continued the strategy of tanking. Even after the firing of Hinkie earlier that season, tanking was still a commonly used tactic amongst numerous NBA teams looking to revitalize their team’s successes. Additionally, millions of fans of struggling teams still believed in “the process” of tanking. Just days before the 2019 NBA season, surprising new draft lottery rules and odds were enforced. Now, the teams with the worst three records in the league would all have an equal 14% chance to secure the first pick. NBA commissioner Adam Silver conceded that “there was a perception [amongst] many [teams] that the best path to rebuilding was to race to the bottom.” Silver expanded upon the issue, stating that he had his doubts regarding the tactic, and how it was not “the optimal strategy to create a great team.” This was a shock to fans throughout the association, as this year’s lottery had much more at stake than usual. With top talent Zion Williamson being head and shoulders above every other player in the draft class, he was an alluring cause for teams to chase losses.

The results of the 2019 lottery were a testament to the drastic reforms made to the lottery, with its results shocking the entire NBA world. Despite having just a 6% chance to win the lottery, The New Orleans Pelicans won the first pick of the draft in dramatic fashion. Understanding the advantageous position the acquisition of the number one overall pick put them in, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry was recorded running ecstatically around the draft room upon hearing the news. Another team to leapfrog the draft order was the Memphis Grizzlies, who won the second pick despite having just a 6% chance to crack the top three. With this jump, the Grizzlies had the opportunity to draft Murray State’s electrifying point guard Ja Morant and revitalize their franchise. Finishing his college season with a 24.5 PPG and 10.0 assists, the Murray State star would undoubtedly be a valuable figure to have on their roster. On the other hand, the Knicks’ chances to draft a top tier prospect fell through and derailed their ambitious plans for the off-season. With the cap space to sign two max salary free agents, the Knicks hoped to bolster their roster by adding a top prospect or use the top pick as a valuable trade asset. However, this opportunity for the Knicks fell through and they were left shorthanded headed into their off-season plans.

The changes implemented in the new draft lottery process have certainly yielded the results that Adam Silver intended. Tanking has now become an unreliable option for rebuilding teams and is off the table for most franchises. It is simply too precarious to throw away an entire season to simply have a 14% chance at the top draft pick. Teams of the lower echelon, like the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Phoenix Suns, will now need to find new means of reconstructing their rosters. Through this year’s draft lottery results, it is clear that tanking has devolved from a strategic blueprint for success to an inefficient and uncertain pathway, as the era of tanking officially concludes.

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