What happens when the effort to win in the NBA is compromised by the encouragement to lose, and why is it impossible to prevent?
Long before recently retired NBA Commissioner David Stern had to pluck thorns from his side thanks to verbally dissident owners like Mark Cuban and Ted Turner, there was one owner who danced to his own macabre beat and struck the most fear in the heart of Stern. That man was Ted Stepien, who ran the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980’s. His stint was short, but his impact is still felt by historians for all the wrong reasons. Stepien was from Pittsburgh and had made his money working for Nationwide Advertising when he bought into the wine and gold Cavs, a franchise that had already been around for a decade. But it did not take long for Stepien to wear out his welcome with fans and NBA higher-ups alike. He had intended to be competitive at first with the Cavs, but was a terrible evaluator of talent as he signed reserves like Scott Wedman, James Edwards, and Cliff Robinson.
Stepien’s most notoriously foolish strategy was trading away first round draft picks like they were raffle tickets, never minding the thought of throwing away the future to get players that were not even close to that value. As one of his first moves in September of 1980, he traded their 1984 first round pick in a trade for Mike Bratz. That pick wound up becoming Sam Perkins. He did the Dallas Mavericks two more favors when he traded his 1983 and 1986 first rounders there for Richard Washington and Jerome Whitehead. The Mavericks took Derek Harper and Roy Tarpley with those picks, building a playoff-caliber team thanks to Stepien’s foolish transactions. Those moves that cratered their future would not have been as noticeable had it been in exchange for solid teams in the present, but that was simply not the case. With mediocre talents leading the team and a lack of leadership at the top, the Cavaliers lost 54 or more games in each of the three seasons that Stepien had owned the team. During the 1981-82 season alone, Stepien fired three different head coaches and brought in 23 different players as the Cavs unbearably lost 67 games. They were so bad that beloved team announcer Joe Tait was let go by Stepien for being too critical of their awful level of play. They were nicknamed by fans as the “Cleveland Cadavers.”
Attendance in the Coliseum at Richfield for a team that had enjoyed some success under Bill Fitch in the previous regime had dropped so steeply that Stepien nonsensically tried to rename them the Ohio Cavaliers and play games in states outside of Ohio. I cannot blame the fans after being treated to such awful teams to go with their lame polka-style fight song and raunchy dance team called the “Teddy Bears.” In three seasons, the team had lost $15 million. The last straw with NBA brass when it came to Stepien was his threat in 1983 to move the team to Canada and name them the Toronto Towers. Stern, as then-commissioner Larry O’Brien’s top assistant, sprung into action and swayed Stepien into selling the team to local businessmen George and Gordon Gund to keep the team in Cleveland. Under new ownership and new team colors in an effort to rid any memories of the Stepien regime, the league made the unprecedented move of giving two first round picks back to the Cavs. When the NBA created a regulation stating that teams are usually not allowed to trade their first round picks in consecutive years, it was titled the “Stepien Rule.” Stern says to this day that one of his milestones as an NBA executive was chasing Stepien out of the NBA as an example to future owners that merely bumming off of the revenue of the league without giving a competitive or entertaining team back to the fans would be frowned upon. Sadly, when Stepien passed away in 2007 at the age of 82, not too many tears were shed among Cleveland sports fans.
Stepien’s reign of misery as the Cavaliers owner was uniquely awful not only because he did not mind doling out a crappy team year after year while collecting royalties but also sabotaging the team’s future by giving away highly coveted draft picks at the same time. But although Stepien’s mishandlings were more than obvious, his story in Cleveland spoke to a seedy but inevitable truth that lies deep within the confines of the NBA: It is a lot easier to lose in the NBA and feign ignorance than it is to try to maintain a winning model. Certainly, in Stepien’s case, the product on the court was so meticulously bad that it almost seemed as if he carefully thought out how bad he could make the Cavaliers, an architect for atrociousness. It comes down to the simple concept that in order to win in sports, you have to exert an abnormally greater amount of effort. In most cases, the act of losing involves either minimal effort or none at all on the part of the people in charge of assembling the team or the players themselves. But in the case of the NBA or other professional sports, there is a reward that conjoins a team’s lack of ability to compete: The opportunity to obtain a top spot in the forthcoming draft.
Drafts in each of the sports leagues have determined the draft order in slightly different ways, but even in the 1960’s, the NBA was willing to tinker with that format. In 1965, instead of the team with the worst record getting the #1 pick in the draft (which is how the NFL Draft operates still to this day), the NBA decided to have the two worst teams in each division or conference contend for the top spot via a coin flip. The most famous example of this instance was in 1969 when two expansion teams, the 16-66 Phoenix Suns and the 27-55 Milwaukee Bucks, were up for the top pick and take a superhuman center out of UCLA in Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Suns had tails, and the coin landed heads, giving the Bucks a Hall of Fame center and an NBA Championship within two years. The lesson from the NBA Draft system was that of more than just welfare to the poor teams. If the top player chosen was a surefire superstar in the making, then being at the bottom of the league in the previous year was the equivalent of Charlie living in dirt before walking to the candy store and winning the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. With that potential reward for being the whipping boy of the NBA standings came with it decades of suspicion, conspiracy theories, and even outright admission to a new word in the pro basketball lexicon: Tanking.
There are different theories for the origin of the actual word “tanking” as a definition for intentionally losing or not putting forth your best effort in a contest. It goes back to the 19th century when American swimming pools were commonly known as “tanks” and to “go into the tank” was another term for “to dive.” That term became a slang associated in the sport of boxing when there were rampant cases of boxers intentionally losing fights after being paid off to do so by mobsters or bookmakers who would bet for the fixed result. Boxers would dive to the canvas intentionally to lose their fights, hence came the popular term “taking a dive.” As controversial as the practice was in boxing matches, professional wrestling matches, and televised quiz show competitions, the accusation of fixing games or taking bribes to influence the result has been around longer than the sports themselves, all the way back to the Olympic Games of ancient history. The most well-known example of this in the baseball realm was the 1919 Black Sox Scandal in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series and were subsequently banned from baseball for life after getting caught. When it comes to basketball, the one most remembered was the 1951 C.C.N.Y. point shaving scandal in which 33 players from a number of New York-based schools along with various others were indicted and punished for taking bribes from members of organized crime to fix games. There have been separate instances over the years in college basketball from the Henry Hill/Boston College connection to an incident at Auburn two years ago.
When it comes to point shaving and taking a dive as most know it, the deliberate attempt to lose have mostly involved players taking part without the knowledge of most teammates, coaches, or administration. The act of point shaving in the NBA has only been explored recently when the Tim Donaghy ref scandal exploded in 2007, but that involved an official influencing the score rather than players or coaches. Fixing games and tanking sometimes share the similarity of manipulating the result through losing, but the act of tanking as we know it in professional sports is much more difficult to detect and decipher. When a team tanks, it is systematic in hushed tones but does not share empirical proof of the dirty deed. There is no man on the grassy knoll or wise guy getting caught red-handed when an NBA team goes “into the tank.” There are no players on the court purposely missing shots or refusing to hustle back while the other team easily glides to victory. The only visible accusation of tanking that can be made for a professional sports team is at the very top with the assembling (or, in some cases, disassembling) of players for a team that is destined to fail due to its preset incapability. If there is light at both ends of a dark tunnel, it seems justified for a losing team that is nowhere near the other side to simply wheel back to the beginning, where the light can shine and the race begins anew.
The coin flip system that the NBA had fostered since 1965 for the draft had seen its fair share of criticisms during its reign, but it was not until the events of the 1983-84 season that it met its flawed end. In the very next season after Ted Stepien had been exiled from NBA ownership in Cleveland, teams had figured out how to use part of Stepien’s dastardly acts in order to rig the system. Stepien burnt the candle at both ends when it came to the team itslef and its future prospects, but teams realized how to sneakily sacrifice one part of that puzzle in order to strengthen the other. Several teams found themselves on the cusp of the 1984 Draft, which was considered the best draft class in NBA history. At the time, you had four big-time prospects eligible to go to the NBA in Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon, North Carolina guard Michael Jordan, Kentucky center Sam Bowie, and Georgetown center Patrick Ewing (Ewing eventually decided to stay in school for his senior year). With that glimmer of hope at the top of the ’84 Draft came with the concerted attempt by general managers to have awful teams that were guaranteed to earn a high draft pick (For more on this season, check out the great “Tip Off” by Filip Bondy for a fun read). Rarely at that time had we seen five teams (Cleveland, Chicago, Indiana, San Diego, and Houston) lose 50 or games in the fashion that they did, especially Bill Fitch’s Houston Rockets.
After finishing 14-68 the previous season to earn the top pick in the 1983 Draft and pick Virginia great Ralph Sampson, the Rockets kept themselves grounded all year once again, playing unprepared rookies like Sampson and Rodney McCray while throwing in washouts like Elvin Hayes and Phil Ford. After going 20-26 at the All Star break with little hope of making the playoffs, Fitch’s team went the other way. The team curiously switched up their lineup on several occasions and went 9-27 for the remainder of the season. They ended the year on a five-game losing streak, including an overtime loss to the Spurs in which the elder Hayes, who had barely played up to that point, inexplicably took 20 shots. With that losing streak, they finished one game worse than Donald Sterling’s San Diego Clippers and earned a coin flip chance against the worst team in the East in the Pacers, who had already traded the pick to Portland. The Rockets had lightning strike again, winning their second coin toss in a row, and won the #1 pick, with which they took a future Hall of Famer in Olajuwon. The Bulls, the second worst team in the East that year and the third overall pick, didn’t do too badly either.
Although it is debatable what the intentions for all of those teams were as they lost game after game in 1984, it was easy to read between the lines that the Rockets had tanked two regular seasons in a row to create their new twin towers duo of Sampson and Olajuwon (and went to the NBA Finals two years later by doing so). It was then that newly hired commissioner David Stern realized that NBA teams had gathered a well-guarded and easily excusable strategy for tanking seasons in order to guarantee one of the top two draft picks. His counter attack to avert the 1984 fiasco was to conduct a Draft Lottery in which each team that did not make the playoffs would be represented by a single envelope and placed in a raffle that looked like something you would see at the county fair. The televised lottery merely raised the eyebrows of conspiracy theorists everywhere when the large market New York Knicks, who had lost star player Bernard King to injury and dropped their last 12 games of the regular season, won the top pick in Patrick Ewing. The event caused so much controversy that Stern and company decided to conduct the actual lottery behind closed doors involving a more tamper-proof scenario.
But if the ultimate goal for Stern’s Draft Lottery concept was to discourage organized tanking in the NBA, alas it was done in vain. The closer a future star out of college like David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James or Anthony Davis was on the horizon, the more likely you were to see losing teams bottom out in the months of February, March, and April. The key to tanking is that not every technique is the same even though the endgame is, and they usually occur on a managerial level. Some teams like the Philadelphia 76ers this season give up by putting most of their best players on the trading block and moving them in hopes of accumulating draft picks for the future while piling up the L’s. Some teams like the Bulls in 2008 or the Spurs in 1997 start the season out with playoff potential but struggle due to injuries or other circumstances which lead to an inordinate amount of losses for a usually consistent franchise. The 20-62 Spurs and 15-67 Celtics were two of the three worst teams record-wise in the NBA in the 1996-97 season as Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan was on his way to the league. A decade after winning David Robinson in 1987, the Spurs beat the Celtics out for Duncan and newly hired head coach Rick Pitino was crushed. That was actually the first of two infamous occasions in which the Celtics played the odds in the Draft Lottery anticipating the #1 overall pick and failed. The second time was in 2006-07 when they had the second worst record in the NBA and tanked late in the season in hopes of getting either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. They wound up with the fifth pick, pitting their odyssey of awfulness all season somewhat meaningless.
The most egregious forms of tanking, to me, are the ones that provide little to no hope to the fans from the very beginning by purposely assembling an inferior group of players before training camp even starts. The best example of this came on opposite ends of the country during the 2002-03 season when the Cleveland Cavs and Denver Nuggets had the ultimate staring content in futility in hopes of picking LeBron James in the top spot (Seriously, look at the rosters for both of these teams. Ugh). The Cavs won the lottery, and their hometown King James, while the Nuggets took Carmelo Anthony with the third pick. As Cleveland and Denver floated upwards to the top of the standings thanks to their two stars, the encouragement to sink further into the NBA rabbit hole with the potential of finding a savior in the draft seemed to be stronger than ever despite the odds not being in their favor. Then there are the franchises that don’t necessarily tank so much as they just cannot do anything right. That ribbon used to be handed out on a yearly basis to Donald Sterling and Elgin Baylor when they were both running the Los Angeles Clippers, but Sterling has stumbled upon some good fortune with the team in recent seasons. The next torch-bearer in that regard would happen to be the greatest player of all-time in Michael Jordan, whose history as an owner with the Charlotte Bobcats has been riddled with bad decisions and unwatchable basketball. It is hard to tell if the 7-59 Bobcats purposely tanked the 2012 lockout-shortened season in order to get Kentucky big man Anthony Davis or if Jordan simply doesn’t know how to run a team (The Bobcats lost the lottery to the New Orleans Hornets anyway).
That is the reason why the long history of tanking for teams in the basement of the league’s win-loss column may never meet its demise despite rekindled hopes by basketball think tanks to force it. The NBA season as a whole is like an hour-glass: For every slate of elite teams and middling teams there are bound to be a handful of awful ones. Not often do you see a season in which the four worst teams in the NBA have 30 or more wins while the top teams win 60 or more. There is a delicate balance for every season and with the grace of being a championship contender come the forgettable pitfalls of being a basement dweller. This dynamic was no more evident than during the 1997-98 season when four teams won 60 games or more (along with six 50+-win teams) and a record six teams with 60 losses or more. The worst team in that pack was the 11-71 Denver Nuggets, but it never felt to me like that team or the Toronto Raptors (16-66) or L.A. Clippers (17-65) were in tank mode so much as they simply were not very well put-together. One major reason for this was not due to a superstar in college that year but because of the two-team expansion in Canada leading to a saturation of depth across the board among team rosters, turning usually bad teams into horrible teams. It would be unjust to point the finger at those terrible teams for not trying hard enough when the truth is that their hopes were never dashed because they were never there in the first place. You really think all of those teams were losing countless NBA games to get Michael Olowokandi?!
The history of tanking is not only long, as mentioned before, but it is also continuous. Bill Simmons hit the nail on the head back in 2012 when he skewered the Golden State Warriors for making curious trades that helped the future but pained their present team. That was because the Warriors realized that in order to keep their spot in the lottery, their pick had to go either 7th or higher. From March 14th to the end of the season, the Warriors only won 5 games and wound up with the sixth overall pick in the lottery, keeping their pick and selecting Harrison Barnes with it. One year later, they were in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Just this past week at the annual M.I.T. Sloan Conference in Boston, it came as no surprise to many when former Raptors G.M. Bryan Colangelo confessed that he attempted to tank during the 2012 season in order to ensure a top pick (The Raptors that year wound up taking Terrence Ross). The act itself was not as shocking as it was the self-conscious admission that a team’s top executive put a team together with the mindset of losing games. This comes after ESPN The Magazine anonymously quoted a current NBA G.M. as saying that his team is trying to tank this season (Rumors abound that the anonymous source was John Hennigan for the Orlando Magic or Ryan McDonough of the Phoenix Suns). We have already read clever punch lines like “Riggin’ for Wiggins” or “Mishandle for Randle” or “Sorry for Jabari” in preparation for those three at the top of the rookie pool.
This topic caught fire once more this past month thanks to a team that seemed destined to fail in the beginning and surprised everyone with a strong start. Heading into this season, the Philadelphia 76ers had hired a new coach in Brett Brown along with writing a rain check on their top draft choice with the injured Nerlens Noel, who is unlikely to play for the rest of the year. After trading Jrue Holiday along with the Andrew Bynum disaster, the Sixers had the makings of an epic rebuild with a handful of returning starters and a rookie point guard in Michael Carter Williams. To the shock of many, Carter Williams caught fire as a Rookie of the Year contender as the Sixers got out to a 5-4 start. But as more losses compiled with less wins, including a seven-game losing streak in December, the writing was on the wall that the Sixers would miss the playoffs in a conference even as lackluster as the East has been this season. It was in late February that general manager Sam Hinkie, who had openly admitted that this was a rebuilding year before the season began, tore an already middling team into oblivion. On February 20, the Sixers made four trades and had traded two of their five leading scorers (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes) in exchange for bread crumbs. It seemed impossible to surpass the god awful nature that has been the Milwaukee Bucks this season at 47 losses and counting, but the Sixers are coming up the rear in that regard thanks to an active 15-game losing streak. Following along is John Hennigan’s awful Magic team, who just bought out the contract of one of their best big men in Glen “Big Baby” Davis. It seems like a race among those three teams to ensure a top spot in what is perceived to be a loaded draft class, but how good could these teams had possibly been as they were constituted anyway?
It is not accurate to see that it is all reward and no downside when a team really hits hard times as the long and arduous regular season mercifully ends for those teams that simply don’t have the horses to make it. That is why the recently leaked wheel system proposal for the NBA Draft, which would permanently slot teams into numerical slots on a sequence that would span 30 years, feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Sure, Adam Silver in his fresh seat as newly appointed commissioner of the NBA would invite a fresh start in certain instances, and the proposed “Wheel of Destiny” might be a rough outline of something that Silver will propose to owners in the future in hopes of eventually eliminating the draft lottery. But no matter what fixture is put into place for future drafts, teams will continue to rely heavily on the quality of hope as a tool to keep bringing the fans back to their arenas whether it is their 60th remarkable win or their 60th miserable loss. For every dynasty that has graced the top of the NBA echelon, there came with it lean years in which teams stood by the door waiting and hoping for the arrival of The One, that player that could raise the team from the bowery of their seemingly endless struggles. Some teams wait just one lucky year for that man like the Spurs did on two occasions or the storied Lakers and Celtics may be in the midst of doing this year, while some teams like the Bobcats and Bucks wind up waiting for another 10 years. Whatever avenue these teams take in an attempt to find enlightenment in the future, teams like the Sixers and Magic, and so many before them, still have something to strive for. The system by which the NBA rewards bad teams may be flawed in its essence and strangely encourage losing, but it speaks to a vital and undying message, that it is always darkest before the dawn.