On “Tanking” – Did the Hornets do it? Did the 76ers prove that teams shouldn’t?

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Published: May 31, 2012

Mason addresses the question of whether or not the 76ers success this season should lead teams to avoid losing games to improve their NBA draft lottery odds, and also questions the notion that the Hornets “didn’t try” as the season wound down. 

The question about the best way to build a poor to mediocre team into a legitimate playoff contender is one that encourages many different opinions. Recently, events have transpired that have fueled one of these opinions regarding the optimal way to make a team relevant again. The Philadelphia 76ers won four of its final five games to sneak into the playoffs as the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, finishing with a record of 35-31. Afterwards, the team went on to beat the top seeded Bulls in the first round and then push the Celtics to a full seven game series before finally falling. They could have merely laid down when they sat at a mere 31-30, but they fought to get into postseason play and certainly made the most of it. The question now being asked by some is whether or not a success story such as this year’s 76ers team supports the claim that NBA teams should never tank in order to improve their NBA draft lottery odds. To answer that question, I say absolutely not.

The main issue with this argument isn’t related to the high degree of luck that this year’s 76ers team experienced by seeing both Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah go down with injuries in the first round series. Instead, the main oversight is exemplified by giving credence to the “more than a few observers who felt the Sixers would be better served by missing the playoffs and getting into the draft lottery.” Sitting at 31-30, the furthest that Philadelphia could have fallen by “tanking” its final five games would have been the 11th worst record, with 12th worst being the most likely outcome. It seems far-fetched to suggest that the 76ers should have tanked their final five games in order to acquire a <1% chance at landing the top pick, which is what either the 11th (.8%) or 12th (0.7%) worst record would become. There very well may be people who believe this, but they clearly don’t understand the concept of risk vs. reward. The same goes for those who were content with the Rockets punting their playoff chances away. If I was a fan of that fringe playoff team, I wouldn’t be rooting for them to “tank” with five games remaining when they were on the playoff bubble. Those teams are hardly a legitimate example of why “tanking” should be viewed as a poor idea. Instead, think about a team like the Wizards; had they won 22 games instead of 20, they would have taken a 11.9% chance at the #1 pick into Wednesday’s lottery instead of the 19.9% chance they possessed instead. That’s a difference of 4% per WIN. The “tanking” strategy becomes a whole lot more intriguing with that kind of difference, does it not?

After all, what better proof of this notion is there than the Hornets’ good fortune in this year’s lottery? After trading Chris Paul, the Hornets could have made the initially proposed deal with the Rockets and Lakers, becoming a team very similar in caliber to ones like the 76ers or the current Rockets squad. The Hornets were roughly 27 times more likely than the Rockets to land the top pick in the NBA draft. Was it a likely outcome? Not by a long shot. Regardless, the Hornets’ ~14% chance to land that top pick instead of a ~.5% chance existed purely because of the team’s decision to accept the trade with the Clippers instead of with the Lakers & Rockets, and that fact simply cannot be ignored.

On a related note, there is another claim that I have heard concerning the Hornets’ effort level as the season came to a close that I felt the need to put to rest. Despite what some of the lottery-focused Hornets fans may have wanted, there is little data to support the notion that the team “didn’t try” or “tanked” in either the last dozen or so games of this season or the entire season in total. It was the opinion of many that, after the Chris Paul trade, the Hornets instantly became the worst team in the Western Conference, even before Eric Gordon’s injury was determined to be one of a long-term nature. Fifty or more losses in an abbreviated 66-game season was not only a possibility, but even expected by some. By comparing those expectations of the team with actual results, the Hornets in effect did the exact opposite of “tanking.” New Orleans posted a record of 8-6 in its final 14 games, finishing with 45 losses and ended up just one win behind Sacramento and two behind Golden State in the Western Conference. I’m not sure how it can realistically be said that the Hornets weren’t trying; the team’s record in April is pretty clear evidence to the contrary, despite those who were hoping for the team to lose.

To sum up my main points – “tanking” isn’t a course of action that teams on the playoff bubble should take as the season winds down to sneak into the lottery; going from a 0% chance of the top pick to a 0.8% chance of earning the top pick at the expense of that team’s fans and lost playoff revenue is clearly not an optimal strategy. Tanking makes far more sense, however, for a bad team that is far out of playoff contention, as that team can increase its lottery odds by a far greater percentage by simply losing one or two more games. As a result, it would have absolutely been defensible for the Hornets to take that approach. However, the team’s winning record over its final 15 games of the season clearly indicates that “tanking” was the last thing on the players and coaches’ minds, and those who believe that they “weren’t trying” should probably do a little bit of research before claiming as much.

16 comments
DTBHornet
DTBHornet

I read this about 60% through then I had a sudden thought, we have Anthony Davis locked up... I promptly lost all interest in any tanking conversations, but thank you for the amazing stories you have been writing for us for the past season!

NOEngineer
NOEngineer

We tanked, but did it in a way that encouraged the players we chose to let play to give their all. We tanked by sitting our best players for 2/3 of the season with dubious injuries and other reasons. I don't have the actual games missed by Okafor, Ariza, Gordon, Ayon, Smith, Kaman, and others, but it was huge. If we weren't tanking, they could have and would have missed half the number of games. I applaud the team for finding a way to tank while still maintaining their effort on the court.

Bee dat
Bee dat

exactly. never accepted any players giving less than their all. those players just happened to be named alfarouq, lance, foot, watkins, dyson, etc instead of eric, emeka, kaman, etc.

Jason Calmes
Jason Calmes

We live in a nonlinear world, and this further proves it. Thanks for that, Mason.

504ever
504ever

Agree with the article and want to add two opposing thoughts. First, to me the biggest sacrifice a near playoff team makes by not tanking is the several draft slots that team would have dropped if they tanked. The bigger the drop, the more tempting the tank. In the case of Philly, they probably gave up a drop of 2-3 spots. And picking 11-12 this year might get them the leftovers of the top 10-12 players, as compared with their choice of the next group players who are much more risky. (For example, what if Sullinger falls to 11-12? He could be a steal for the team picking there, and it won't be Philly!) However, a near playoff team benefits by coming together in crucial wins in "crunch time" at the end of the season, if they can achieve that. That by itself could be more valuable than the few slots they lose in the draft if they can keep their nucleus of players together. How will all of this work out for Philly? Ask me in 2-3 years.

Bee dat
Bee dat

that reply was meant to mcnamara. i dont see how philly fans would want that. only regret to them would be missing out on t zeller the perfect center to rebound start break and run the floor with that up n down squad, perfect replacement for hawes

Michael McNamara
Michael McNamara

I don't need 2 or 3 years- they will be somewhere between the Houston Rockets of the past 5 years and the Atlanta Hawks of the last 5 years. If the Bulls were healthy, they beat them in 4 or 5, and it might be the worst thing that happened to Philly long term because now they think they are better than they really are. Teams that think that are more reluctant to make the big move required to put them over the top. Over the next ten years, it will be MUCH better to be a Hornets fan.

504ever
504ever

Bee Dat, From my 1st post above: "How will all of this work out for Philly? Ask me in 2-3 years."

Bee dat
Bee dat

while your last statement is true, being a hornets fan will be better, that doesnt adress the choice that philly made. are you sayin that you would rather watch your team drop out of the playoffs to obtain a pick in the 11-12 range, picks which very commonly dont pan out?!?

504ever
504ever

I said 2-3 years because it might take that long to see how Philly's 2012 1st round pick pans out. I disagree that playing more games and having more practices is ever a bad thing. Those extra two playoff series will only help Philly. I am sure managment knows how lucky they were with Bulls injuries, but they still pushed Boston to Game 7! Overall, Philly showed they belonged in the playoffs and they improved during the playoffs. I am not going to assume Philly managment will make a poor decision, because they misread some part of their team when they beat a depleted Bulls team, and then ignore all the benefits of Philly playing, and playing well, in two playoff series. Never said I wasn't excited about the Hornets or that Philly excited me more. I was just saying that to me the tank situation for a near playoff team is even more complicated than discussed in the article. The Hornets are clearly following the San Antonio and now Oklahoma model of building a franchise. The next 12 months (starting with our #10 pick, the Gordon decision, off season signings, amnesty options, and extending through the 2012-13 trade deadline) are the most important period in Hornets history in a long time. What we do, and don't do, now, will set the foundation of the franchise for years to come. I couldn't be more excited!

Chuck
Chuck

I'm not sure why the Sixers were used as a comparison. How many people (besides Sheridan, apparently) support the notion of tanking yourself OUT of the playoffs?The strategy should be to make the playoffs, then when that is no longer possible, tank, er, develop younger players. If the Sixers tanked themselves out of the playoffs, especially after being really good earlier in the season (I think they were a 3 seed for most of the season), their fans would have rioted. And when Philly fans riot, everyone suffers

Mason Ginsberg
Mason Ginsberg

Well, except for the riot part... only because there aren't enough legitimate 76ers fans to start one. Philly's NBA team is clearly the city's 4th priority behind MLB, NFL, and NHL. There were tickets available on StubHub for under $10 for game 6 of the 76ers/Celtics series. Pathetic.

VeezyV
VeezyV

But the thing he doesn't talk about is how the 76ers got the 2nd overall pick in the draft two years ago. How short sided can one person be. He acts like the 76ers didnt benefit from sucking year after year after year.

Mason Ginsberg
Mason Ginsberg

Agree 110% with every single word of this comment. Well said.

kempleton
kempleton

Those who thought we tanked have no idea what this team went thru all season long. Think about it this way: We won enough games that took us from #2 and put us into #4 slot that won us the lottery. How about that? :) If we really tanked, we would have stayed right behind Bobcats at #2 slot. We beat teams in the playoff race, Utah, Memphis, Houston. Is that the way to tank? Come on. At some point I was scared that we would win too many games and drop out of the top 6 slots but it did not happen. Maybe a coin flip changed the future of our franchise. :) God is great. Our young inexperienced players (Vasquez, Henry, Aminu, Ayon and Smith) had a taste of a winning culture at the end of the season and we hope that they will grow and build on that foundation and our team will be very succesfull! A player from SEC (A.Davis) will go as the #1 pick after 42 years. Guess who went #1 42 years ago? PETE MARAVICH! Wow!

kempleton
kempleton

Correction: An SEC player who won the Naismith award after Pete Maravich did in 1970 will go as #1 in NBA draft.