The Myth of Tanking

In these waning weeks of the NBA regular season, writers and talking heads often focus as much on the league's race to the bottom as the sprint to its top. Tanking, they call it, and every commentator chimes in with his or her foolproof way to fix this nasty plot.

And all of it is lie.

The general tentpoles of the tanking argument say that because the NBA's Draft Lottery is weighted to favor its worst teams, it provides an incentive for those with abandoned playoff aspirations to lose rather than win late in the season. And this part of the theory would be true, but like any half-baked conspiracy, it takes several liberties with logic.

First, consider the players. Of all of the stakeholders in the NBA, nobody has a greater impact on winning and losing than, you know, the actual guys doing the winning and losing. This simple fact is the first major crack in the tanking myth.

To start, any member of a conscious tank-spiracy would be required to believe the payoff of a higher draft pick will help them personally. Call this Corrie's NBA Theorem of Game Theory, just another everyday example of humans acting in their best interest. But losing is actually the less attractive option for nearly every player in the league, even those on cellar-dwelling, tanking-opportune teams.

For a player to actually benefit from tanking, he would have to: (a) be signed beyond the current season, (b) not consider a high lottery pick a threat to his own place in the rotation, and (c) be confident that any tank-taint would not affect his future contract status. How many young players with multi-year deals are there on bad teams where any high lottery pick would not affect their playing time? We've eliminated at least 95% of NBA players, and really, the remaining few individuals don't have much motivation to sabotage their teams.

But to be fair, most of the tanking hype focuses on non-players. Coaches control playing time, so they would be the next most-likely conspirators. And yet, their candidacy suffers from many of the same self-interest flaws as their players.

What is one of the first two stats you see when a coach is fired? His career winning percentage. Unlike players who are mostly evaluated by individual metrics, coaches are literally judged by the numbers tanking would aim to deflate. Could losing be overlooked as simply smart situational management? Perhaps, but it seems far more likely all of a coach's losses will be lumped together as one blemish on his resume in the years after the tank-job. A pro-tanking coach would have to be extremely confident in his job security, and looking at the league's rate of coaching turnover, I don't see many of those types heading toward the lottery.

So eliminating the labor and middle management from the conspiracy leaves only nefarious, smoke-filled-room potential tankists in the front office. This would be the most covert way to implement Operation Tank, but it would also be the riskiest.

A typical front-office move that rouses tanking suspicion typically involves shutting down an injured player. For example, the Cavs have been sitting Kyrie Irving with a shoulder injury and, just Monday, the Warriors announced they will limp through the rest of the season without David Lee limping on groin and leg injuries. But neither of these moves is clear evidence of tanking.

Tanking zealots often overlook two pieces of a bigger picture. First, in order to be a tanking candidate in the first place, teams have to have failed when they were actually trying to win during the first half of the season. Or to be more direct: teams likely to tank don't need a conspiracy to stink at the end of the season; they do it just fine all year.

The second broader reality is that while the best result for a bad team in one season might be to get worse at the end, that might not be the best result for the team across seasons. The reason the NBA Office was scared to death of the Tim Donaghy scandal was the suggestion that the outcome of games was not honestly determined by play itself. If we stop believing the product we are buying is 100% unscripted, the league's credibility is ruined along with the purpose of watching any game. Would you rather watch the WWE to learn its results or talk to one of its writers?

This premise applies to tanking just as much. When a fan buys a ticket or takes the time to watch a game, there is an unspoken contract that the fan will get back a comprehensive attempt to win. Oh, talent may be overmatched and mistakes may be made, but those are the acceptable rolls of the dice inherent to sports. But tanking by holding out players who could play would be like declining to roll the dice at all. So while a team might get away with sitting a star at the end of a lost season on occasion, it risks the confidence of its customers.

And what about those injured key players being held out? If the public doesn't know how injured they are, why not shut them down in pursuit of more ping-pong balls?

Consider a draft lottery where each team has an equal chance of winning (a theory often posed as the tanking antidote). Yes, the incentive to lose is removed. But as soon as the playoffs are impossible or strongly improbable, the season's remaining games still have no payoff. Cleveland and Golden State would still sit Irving and Lee! That lack of team incentive, and not lottery-fueled self-destruction, is the real illness of bad teams.

But that is more of a problem for a coaching staff trying to compete against playoff-bound teams jockeying for seed positioning. For a front office, the longer game of building a fan base and keeping its confidence is much more important.

Everyone likes to believe in conspiracies that suggest there are elements working behind or underneath the systems of rules that constrict us on the surface level. Conspiracies give us an excuse when we fail and make our toughest victories even more gratifying.

But the myth of tanking, like so many conspiracies, latches onto noise in the system instead of real driving forces. Nobody's payoff for tanking is worth its best-case scenario. It's a conspiracy without any serious beneficiaries, and I don't believe it.

Now, as for the Draft Lottery, itself...

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