The 2020 NBA playoffs have been indicative of the fact that tanking in the regular season is not required to build a good NBA team. In fact, tanking seems to be almost useless, and is certainly no replacement for a well-run organization. This changing trend is a vital transformation for an NBA that has been plagued by the process of losing on purpose for the past decade.
Tanking is no novel concept in the NBA, but it only recently became so transparent. Pioneered by former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie, “The Process” he claimed had to be trusted entailed intentionally putting forth an atrocious basketball team in order to land high draft picks. Eventually, Hinkie and the 76ers believed, these draft picks would result in a championship-caliber team.
Starting in 2013 with the trade of Philadelphia’s lone all-star, point guard Jrue Holiday, The Process was successful in creating a horrible basketball team. In 2016, the 76ers were the third-worst team in NBA history by winning percentage, winning just 10 games, only three more than the Philadelphia Eagles won that same year despite playing 66 fewer games. Hinkie stepped down after the season after being forced out by the league. Tanking became so popular that, in 2017, the NBA had to change the lottery odds to disincentivize it.
The Process allowed Philadelphia to field a roster with four top-five picks in Joel Embiid — who was later nicknamed “The Process” — Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor and Markelle Fultz, as well as several large free-agent signings like Tobias Harris and Al Horford. The roster that Philadelphia fans had suffered for years to witness has been disappointing. Fultz and Okafor are no longer with the team after never living up to their potential, and the team has yet to make it out of the second round of the playoffs. The failure of The Process culminated in the firing of Philadelphia’s coach, Brett Brown, following the team’s first-round sweep in the playoffs and more openness to trading all the players The Process has landed the team.
The majority of the teams that were successful in the playoffs were built without ever fully tanking. The Los Angeles Lakers are a notable exception, as they were one of the league’s worst teams for several years and can attribute their success to the signing of LeBron James. However, waiting for the best player in basketball to come sign with you is not a replicable model.
The highest draft pick on Los Angeles’ finals opponents, the Miami Heat, is rookie phenom Tyler Herro, who was selected 13th overall in 2019 after Miami narrowly missed the playoffs with a roster of rotation players. Miami President Pat Riley put a respectable, if mediocre, team on the floor year after year, constructing a championship-caliber roster not through tanking but through good drafting, free agency decisions and trades.
The other conference finalists, the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, and the 2019 NBA Champion Toronto Raptors were built in a similar manner. Jamal Murray, Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard were all acquired in trades, either directly or by virtue of swapping draft picks. Meanwhile, Denver’s All-NBA caliber center Nikola Jokić was a second-round draft pick.
None of these teams have ever intentionally put a bad product on the floor. They built their teams the right way, without ever sacrificing the pride of their organization. In the past five years, the worst of any of these teams was Denver in 2015, who finished as the seventh-worst team in the NBA. Their 2015 seventh overall draft pick, Emmanuel Mudiay, is no longer with the team.
Tanking is horrible for the NBA and its fans. If tanking were to become a replicable recipe for success, the league would be plagued by teams like Philadelphia, resulting in vast talent disparities and practically unwatchable regular-season games.
The ideal outcome for the NBA’s product would be for Miami to beat Los Angeles in the finals as Los Angeles is led by James and Anthony Davis, two former number-one picks. Neither of these players were drafted by Los Angeles, however, who lucked into them by virtue of its franchise history and location. A Miami championship would be just the sixth time in NBA history that a team without a player making the All-NBA First Team won the championship, while James and Davis each made the All-NBA First Team this past season.
Regardless of the outcome of the finals, it is growing increasingly clear that tanking is not a winning strategy in the NBA. It should come as a surprise to no one when the same poorly run franchises sit near the top of the draft year after year while the organizations that cultivate winning cultures in their locker rooms compete for titles.
Austin Barish is a sophomore in the College. The Armchair Analyst appears online every other week.