The NBA is so concerned about tanking, it passed lottery reform – to curb actual tanking or at least the perception of it.
But people in the league keep admitting to tanking.
The latest: Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, who was previously the Warriors’ assistant general manager
In middle of March 2012, Golden State had a better record than two Western Conference teams and every Eastern Conference team outside playoff position. Continuing at that pace would have given the Warriors just a 4% chance of keeping their first-round pick, which was top-seven protected. Far more likely, they would have conveyed the No. 10 pick to the Jazz.
So, Golden State traded its consensus best player, Monta Ellis, for an injured Andrew Bogut, lost 17 of its last 20 games and “fell” to the No. 7 seed in the lottery – nabbing a 75% chance of keeping its pick. The Warriors stayed at No. 7 and drafted Harrison Barnes.
Schlenk, via the CBS Sports Flagrant Two podcast:
We made that deal knowing two things. One, we’d never had a center in Golden State or a rim protector, when I was there anyway. So, with eyes on the future, if we can get him healthy, get him back. We shut Steph down at the time. And we knew that we had to fall into those bottom seven spots to get our pick, and that was really important to us. Tanking? I guess. It was a conscious decision we made to shoot for next year.
I think you have to, as a franchise, do what’s best for the franchise. And sometimes, that means securing your draft pick if you can.
I think the problem with tanking or the perception of tanking is when teams go out there from day and don’t show any intention of winning. We’re not doing that here in Atlanta.
Bogut was central to the Warriors’ defensive resurgence, and they sent Utah the No. 21 pick the next year. Barnes became a key player on Golden State’s 2015 title team, and the franchise’s rise with him and Bogut helped lure Andre Iguodala and eventually Kevin Durant in free agency.
This is the problem with tanking: It works.
It’s not the only way to win, and it doesn’t always work, though I’d argue that many teams that fail while tanking would fail through other methods of team-building because they’re poorly managed. There are also different types of tanking, Golden State’s seen as more permissible.
I define tanking as any decision a team makes that is at least partially driven by a desire to lose more in order to improve draft position.
The Warriors’ trade (and subsequent strategies down the stretch) clearly fit. So does the most-egregious example – the 76ers’ Process. But setting out a season to tank is rare. Doing it multiple years was unprecedented.
Yet, Philadelphia gets so much attention in these tanking discussions. What Golden State did – wasting the final quarter of its season once the first three quarters produced mediocre results – happens far more often. That’s what the league ought to fight against.
One possible solution: Eliminate the ability to protect draft picks within the lottery. That’d remove incentive for teams to nosedive for artificial – and highly important – cutoff points.
But I’m also unconvinced this is a huge problem. As Schlenk said, his Hawks aren’t tanking (not yet, at least). He wants to develop a winning culture. We’ll see whether that strategy is to their benefit, but many general managers take a similar approach. There’s a level of self-policing happening – even by prior tankers.