NBA Tanking: What’s the solution?

The term ‘tanking’ has become common lexicon in the vocabulary of the NBA but is the term having a negative impact on today’s game?

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Last week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to all 30 teams informing them not to tank. The letter, which was sent after Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban publicly admitted to tanking, stated that tanking has no place the game of basketball and will be met with the most serious of consequences were teams to be found out to be openly or purposefully losing in a bid to sure up prized draft positioning.

Regardless of whether Silver should or should not have sent the message, he and others can see the issues and consequences tanking has on the NBA.

With the regular season winding down for many teams, seven teams in the league have 20 wins or less. Orlando, Atlanta and Brooklyn from the Eastern Conference each have 20 wins at the time of writing. Four teams from the Western Conference – Sacramento (20 wins), Dallas (19 wins), Phoenix (19 wins) and Memphis (18 wins) – are in a similar boat.

The players may go out every night and play their hardest, but for these teams' front offices, another goal and motivation drives them: the NBA draft.

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What is tanking?

Tanking is associated with teams purposefully losing by not playing hard enough, throwing games or faking injuries to star players. Some cellar dwellers have excuses. The Memphis Grizzlies, for example, have had no luck with injuries this year with three starters being out for weeks and some for months. Yet, it is not just their injuries that contribute to their tanking label, rather it is the persistence of putting young and inexperienced players to play in their place and not looking to maximise spending on talent to achieve the best record possible.

Teams would prefer not to sign former Memphis Grizzlies player and free agent Tony Allen, for example, to increase their win column by adding a top perimeter defender to ensure they maximise their chances of a top three or top five pick in the draft. A case in point is the Dallas Mavericks and the Brooklyn Nets, who have fielded 21 and 22 players respectively in an attempt to inadvertently lose games and crawl up the lottery.

The challenge

One of the biggest challenges with tanking is that it works. Not in every case, but the teams that have tanked successfully have clearly been successful to a point where other teams want to follow suit. 

The most obvious example of this is the Philadelphia 76ers, who even coined their tanking 'the Process'. For three years running, the 76ers have had a top three draft pick, picking Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz in that time. 

Embiid and Simmons both had injuries that reportedly kept them out of action for longer than was necessary. Too speculative to assume this was Process-related? Simmons and Embiid in particular seems to have come into their own this year as the 76ers are pushing for a top four playoff seed.

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The solution

I imagine Silver and his team have discussed potential solutions to resolve tanking, but what the practical steps are to avoid the usage of the term are still up for debate.

One solution may look like  further changes to the draft lotter. Changes have already implemented for this year's draft, with the top three teams having a 25%, 19.9% and 15.6% chance, respectively, of landing the number one pick. These percentages were decreased under the changes. 

If the league was to further decrease the chance of the top-ranked teams in the draft and spread the chances out between more teams, would that also decrease the desire to tank? What is true, is that the aforementioned changes to the draft lottery haven't worked – tanking has been rampant this season.

Alternatively, if the 'one and done' rule of players having to spend at least one year in college to be eligible for the draft was removed, would teams see the draft as more of a way to gain prospects long term rather than a short-term solution?

Another solution may be financial incentives related to positions in the standings. Similar to the English Premier League, if teams were to have a financial incentive to finish as high up the standings as possible, by either allowing a team to have a higher salary cap or a flat sum decided by the league, would teams tank less?

Whatever the solution, the issue of tanking does not seem to be going away anytime soon. It'll be interesting to see how successful teams that tank are to determine whether drastic action needs to take place. If the Philadelphia example is anything to go by, drastic action will indeed be needed.

How would you resolve the issue of tanking? Comment below!

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