With the college basketball season now fully underway and a 2014 draft class that has fans, pundits, and general managers salivating as much as they have in a decade, discourse around tanking in the National Basketball Association has reached fever pitch.
Tanking — maligned by anyone who believes sports organizations should always try to put the best team possible on the court as often as possible — may be better described as bottoming out. It amounts to divesting a team of on-court talent in hopes of accumulating losses, which ensure a higher pick in the upcoming draft.
While getting bad and staying bad is hardly a surefire recipe for success (if you listen closely, you can hear fans who still root for the Sacramento Kings weeping), here are five NBA teams that successfully abandoned wins for a temporary boost in their draft stock.
1. 1996-1997 San Antonio Spurs
This one is controversial, as the organization has loudly denied that it tanked for Tim Duncan, and fans are probably irate at seeing the silver and black anywhere near this list. But the Spurs make the cut because tanking can take many forms and is not necessarily something decided upon by a front office at the outset of a new season.
The ’95-’96 San Antonio Spurs won 59 games. At the beginning of the next season, star player David Robinson, aka “The Admiral,” aka the platonic ideal of an athlete, was battling back spasms, a nagging injury picked up in the preseason. Six games into the regular season, Robinson broke his foot in a home game against the Miami Heat. Robinson’s ship officially sank.
Then, Sean Elliot, the Spurs’ forward, who averaged 20 points per game the year before, succumbed to right knee tendonitis and only ended up playing 39 games for the team that season. For a player nicknamed “Ninja,” this disappearing act would prove opportune for San Antonio. Finally, a player with a name like a bad alias — Chuck Person, San Antonio’s other forward — also sat out the entire year with back spasms.
After starting the season 3-15, coach Bob Hill was fired, and general manager Gregg Popovich installed himself as head coach. Pop would lead the Spurs to a final record of 20-62, the only losing season on Popovich’s sterling resume and the first (and last) losing season for San Antonio since ’88-’89. The team’s descent from 59 wins to 20 remains the second largest single-season decline in league history.
It would be foolish to say that the front office could have predicted these injuries going into the season. It would be offensive to say that the injuries to these players were faked, not serious, or possibly exaggerated. It is, however, very possible to posit that the only reason the Spurs encouraged three of their best players to spend the entire season on the sidelines in a sports universe where words like “toughness” and “fortitude” are flung around often as synonyms for “amazing” was because of The Big Fundamental. The Spurs finished with the third worst record in the league.
The Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies finished at the very bottom, with a 14-62 record, but were disqualified from the lottery due to the organization’s status as an expansion team. Second? The Boston Celtics, winning 15 games and finishing with the third overall pick. The Celtics had unabashedly tanked for Tim Duncan, going so far as to hire M.L. Carr to “take one for the team” (his words) and win as few games as possible; the team used its pick to draft future Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, only to trade him after a paltry 51 games because then-coach and GM Rick Pitino was a bad man who did bad things.