Tuesday 17 October 2017 / 11:15 AM

THE DYING ART OF TANKING

Is the ‘lose to win’ mantra dead?

The NBA is a reactionary league.

Comb over the most prevalent trends since the turn of the decade — from the Thibs corner defence to small-ball, pace-and-space, position-less switching and leading into the ‘superteam era’, methods that are proven effective, whether be a playing style or management technique, tend to sweep the league almost instantly.

Often, most of the fads are simply replaced with a new concept that is brought about to kill off the popular trend of the time, a zag-whilst-everyone-else-zigs-type situation. The aforementioned examples literally timeline the rapid development of NBA basketball in recent times. Small-ball was a direct response to the new pick-and-roll coverage, switching was popularised to combat small-ball. Everyone is chasing multiple stars to contend with the other star-studded rosters in the league. You get the drift.

The curious case of tanking immediately captivated and polarised the league, but unlike the league feared, it wasn’t here to stay. Criticism has curtailed the trend significantly: in comparison to three seasons ago, when as much as a third of the league could be considered ‘tanking’ (intentionally losing, with focus on developing young talent, in an attempt to better their draft position) to the upcoming season, where nearly every team is attempting to improve and get better.

Why the change? The flaws in the method have been exposed.

Fans get dispirited. Management gets impatient and players adapt to a losing culture. But it still remains the single best way to acquire a superstar, an essential for contending teams.

Where it failed? It’s proven to be an effective way of collecting talent, but not at building a team. While the end result makes sense, damage can be done on the way there — the collection of bad habits, stunting the growth of players not ready for consistent NBA minutes, and the building of a losing culture.

Success breeds interest, so naturally losing breeds discontent. The Philadelphia 76ers, who the NBA feared would become commonplace, is appearing to be an anomaly, the only team so far to line up the three major factors to pull off the infamous tank:

Committed leader/s

Sam Hinkie, a true visionary who became a martyr for the now infamous ‘process’, was unwavering in his belief, and Sixers ownership were willing to back him and his theories. He still didn’t last to see the results of his work. No other GM, coach or owner has seen out an entire rebuild. Job security is paramount.

Buy-in from an understanding fanbase

The ‘trust the process’ mantra was ingenious in more ways than one. It laid out the concept bare, and lucky enough the transparency resonated. Most fanbases aren’t so forgiving.

Perseverance

Ultimately, this matters more than anything. Losing is really, really easy. Losing perennially can get difficult, fast. Teams have successfully tanked to get a higher draft pick at the end of the season, the Raptors and Warriors being the best examples of this, but to sustain a development period for a season is hard enough – to commit for multiple years is extraordinarily difficult.

One of these three elements usually give way before the journey is complete. Impatience is a killer.

And patience is imperative to success.

San Antonio, forever the NBA’s model franchise, exercised their patience in seeing out the offseason without making the major move most anticipated. The criticism is fair, possessing a top-five player in the midst of their prime in Kawhi Leonard calls for some mild urgency, but as the great Sam Hinkie said best himself, building a champion is often about having the “longest view in the room”. San Antonio have scaled the mountain enough times to know how to get back there, whilst these lowly franchises are still trying to set up base camp.

Make no doubts about it, the current lack of parity in the NBA has as much to do with the differing abilities of front office management as it does with the league’s stars running the show. Golden State built a great team organically, and now reap the benefits of doing so. Of course, free agency is an option, but just as Miami has learnt and Cleveland will soon, that option doesn’t offer anywhere near the same amount of sustainability, and when the same players who joined your team, join another team, you’re left licking the wounds. The Spurs, Warriors and Celtics set themselves up for long-term competitiveness through meticulous drafting and used free agency as a supplementary measure.

Don’t forget, there are sometimes more important elements than winning the title, especially for teams who can’t objectively make a case for doing so in the near future.

And that’s where it’s fair to think maybe Brooklyn and Sacramento, each conference’s best tanking candidate, jumped the gun by prematurely diving into the free agency pool, proof that there has been a changing of the guard.

The Nets were close: for their future, moving Lopez to take a flyer on D’Angelo Russell and absorbing the insane Mozgov contract was a wise move. They then put the car in reverse signing Otto Porter to a max offer, only to have Washington match, helping them dodge that bullet. Instead of standing pat, they jumped back in front of the bullet they dodged last year, trading for Allen Crabbe. Crabbe is a solid to below-average wing, and it’s fair to say he shores up the rotation and makes them in the interim. But, like the Porter move, it’s a low ceiling swing at getting better now — the antithesis of the tank.

The Kings went for character and culture, going after tested veterans in George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph to place alongside a very inexperienced roster. These moves might prop the team up from disaster to regular bad team, the rawness of the surrounding pieces made chasing guys who are clearly past their prime defendable, and almost necessary. But they look set to stand in the way of minutes for the young talent, which will possibly make the team better in the coming year.

Like all the other trends, old replaces the new. It appears that tanking wasn’t here to stay, and has slowly begun to develop into a new method of team-building, one that has adapted to the exposed flaws of bottoming out completely, instead attempting to focus on culture and chemistry in hopes of rising through the ranks organically and then adding talent to an already solid foundation. Which, ironically, is simply a reaction to what has works best for the teams currently contending in the league.

Either way, the art of tanking is dying out, and if that means higher-quality games year-round, thats a win for everyone.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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