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In the Tank

Why teams have started torpedoing their seasons to secure top draft picks, and why that is an absolutely terrible strategy.

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Illustration by Oliver Munday  

At what point during the Giants’ season-opening six-game losing streak did you start thinking about 2014? Was it Week Three, when the Carolina Panthers wiped the floor with them 38-0? Maybe the next week, when the Kansas City Chiefs blew them out 31-7? Or how about a week later, when Philadelphia, with someone named Nick Foles at quarterback, came into East Rutherford and embarrassed the Giants? If you somehow weathered all that, four days later, the record fell to 0-6 in Chicago, securing the team’s worst start since 1976, the first year at the old Giants Stadium.

Only one team in NFL history—the 1992 San Diego Chargers—started the season 0-4 and made the playoffs, and no 0-5 team had ever made it, let alone an 0-6 team. So it was inevitable that, at some point, fans would start thinking about 2014. And, in the NFL especially, looking forward to the following season means looking forward to the next draft. This is a league whose fans seem to get more excited about the three-day off-season extravaganza than the Super Bowl. The Giants are not a team stocked with maturing young talent; they haven’t drafted a player with a pick higher than fifteenth since trading for Eli Manning in 2004. So if this year was going to go to hell, maybe it should at least go to hell spectacularly enough to make it worth everyone’s while. Spectacularly enough to get some real talent come May.

This is called “tanking,” and it’s a basic principle of American sports: If your team is not going to win a championship, and your fans are loyal enough that you won’t risk alienating them forever with a losing season or two, it might be better to bottom out completely rather than float around average, mired in mediocrity, since the worse your team’s final record, the higher your pick will be in the next year’s draft.

Tanking is not a new strategy: The very existence of the NBA’s lottery-based ­system—which gives the worst teams only heavily weighted chances of securing top picks—speaks to the league’s desire to prevent teams from sprinting to the bottom. (In European soccer leagues, the bottom finishers are simply demoted to the equivalent of the minors, an even more effective incentive structure.) But in the past few years, tanking has come out of the closet: What used to be the desire of frustrated fans, and the source of rumor and suspicion among fans of their rivals, has become a widespread, public strategy. In Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros have slashed their payroll by nearly $80 million in the last five years, registering the worst record in baseball for three consecutive years and securing the top pick in three consecutive drafts (the third one is this coming June). But the most remarkable tanking is being done in the NBA this year. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers—traditional and divisional rivals of the Knicks and the Nets, and two of the league’s more storied franchises—appear to have chosen to tank this entire season, trading most of their quality players to prepare for what is expected to be one of the best NBA drafts in decades (including, potentially, Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker, and Kentucky’s Julius Randle, all of whom could be seen plying their considerable talents for the country to watch in Chicago last week). Tanking isn’t a humiliating strategy anymore: It’s actually sort of the hip new way of doing business. The G.M.’s of the Astros and the 76ers, Jeff Luhnow and Sam Hinkie, are considered among the smartest, freshest minds in the industry, the new-era Billy Beanes, and they seem to have decided the best way to win is to lose. But is it? Is tanking really something to cheer for? And most important: Does it even work?

The best example of tanking successfully doesn’t actually involve tanking at all. Heading into the 1996–97 season, the San Antonio Spurs were expected to compete for the Western Conference title, the same way they had the previous seven seasons. But All-Star center David Robinson missed the first eighteen games with a back injury, and then, just six games after returning, broke his foot and missed the rest of the year. The Spurs fell apart, finishing 20-62 a year after winning 59 games. But luck smiled on the Spurs. They ended up with the third-worst record in the NBA, but, in the draft lottery, the Ping-Pong balls fell their way; they passed Boston and Vancouver for the first pick and selected Tim Duncan, who became one of the best NBA players of all time and the centerpiece of a Spurs dynasty. That season was their only losing one out of the last 23—a tiny price to pay for four championships.


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