NBA: Championship or bust?

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Tanking, the strategy of simply losing as many games as possible in order to maximize a team’s chances at drafting an effective player, has made its way around the league, reviving teams from their hopeless states. As higher overall picks are more likely to result in a successful player, teams are focused on acquiring as high of a draft pick as possible.

Although not the first team to lose in order to acquire draft assets, no tanking operation has been as notable as the recent Philadelphia 76ers rebuild, nicknamed “The Process” and led by famous basketball mastermind Sam Hinkie.

Hinkie enacted his plan as soon as he was hired, trading away all-star Jrue Holiday and the rest of the starting lineup for additional picks in the 2014 and 2015 NBA drafts. After continuously amassing losing records while stockpiling draft picks and collecting young players with great potential, the Sixers finally pushed Hinkie out, forcing his resignation in 2016.

Yet, it is near impossible to deny that Hinkie’s plan was masterfully executed. The picks he amassed during his tenure included two consecutive third overall picks, immediately followed by two first overalls.

This resulted in a team that is predicted to be one of the best in the league, following a season where it took the eventual champion Toronto Raptors to seven games and lost to a buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer. The same fans that called for Hinkie’s head when the Sixers were at the bottom of the league now laud his foresight and vision.

As a result of this constant pressure from fans to “bring home a ring,” many teams have adopted a “championship or bust” mantra, willing to undergo years of mediocrity if it results in a championship. This was most recently exemplified by last season’s Raptors, who traded away franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for a single year of superstar Kawhi Leonard.

In this quest to raise a championship banner, many teams have adopted a tanking strategy, with varying degrees of success.

Both the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns recently cleaned slate, replacing their entire organizations from the front office to the coaching staff to the players themselves. The Kings traded franchise superstar DeMarcus Cousins and the majority of their roster for a host of players and draft picks in 2017, managing to post their best record since 2006.

The Suns chose to build around 2015 rookie Devin Booker and a motley assortment of talent they picked up along the way, but started the 2019-20 season hot. The Suns won five of their first seven games, including a victory over the previously undefeated 76ers, while posting the league’s third-best net rating in that short span.

The NBA has noticed the effect of tanking on the league and the problems it creates with league revenue and ticketing sales. Although it has attempted to curb the practice of purposely losing games by restructuring the draft, more drastic actions seem to be required to truly rid the league of tanking.

But after seeing how multiple franchises achieved success after tanking, other NBA teams should follow suit and adopt the strategy, at least until changes to the draft are made.

Teams that should plan to tank can be split into two relatively broad categories. The first is short-term tanking, as a result of injuries or other missed time from key players. This is not a new strategy, as the San Antonio Spurs notoriously rested a fully recovered David Robinson ahead of the 1997 draft in which star prospect Tim Duncan was the predicted first overall pick. The Spurs were awarded that first pick and drafted Duncan, the cornerstone to a team that netted five championships.

The Golden State Warriors are a prime example of a franchise that could utilize this strategy. After losing more than half of their 2018-19 roster in the offseason, the Warriors have been plagued with injuries. The entire starting lineup is out, including Stephen Curry (broken hand), Klay Thompson (torn ACL) and Draymond Green (torn finger ligament).

With so many members of the team’s core out, the Warriors’ chances of making the playoffs this season are slim, and they should look at the long-term game. By shutting down Curry and Thompson for the remainder, or at least the majority, of the season, the Warriors ensure that their most important players will be healthy for the 2020-21 season, while setting themselves up for a chance to add more talent through the draft (as Brooklyn gets its first-round pick if it goes outside the top 20).

Another team that should strongly consider tanking this year is the Portland Trail Blazers. After making it to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Trail Blazers suffered two significant injuries: The first to Jusuf Nurkić in last season’s playoffs, and the second to Zach Collins, who may not be back until March.

With both starting bigs out, along with their backups also struggling to stay healthy, Portland would also benefit from taking a year to develop its much-needed wing depth. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily, given the franchise’s draft history), Portland possesses both of its picks, along with Cleveland’s second rounder, setting the stage for a possible flood of new talent.

It is a bit more difficult to decide which franchises should use the second category, or the 76ers’ model. The concept of a basketball “purgatory” has long existed in the NBA and refers to a pattern where a team consistently places between sixth and 12th in the conference standings, unable to make a significant run in the playoffs but not placing low enough to rebuild through the draft.

Some teams, such as the Utah Jazz, escape with a little luck and significant improvement from central players, while other teams, such as the Charlotte Hornets, give up and trade their best players in order to tank.

The latter method is a much more common tactic, as it is less reliant on luck, and teams should still consider it. One such team is the Detroit Pistons, who despite having talent and an established coach, lack the luck that transforms a middling playoff team into a contender.

The Pistons do possess some pieces that other contending teams would love to have, including a resurgent Derrick Rose, the ever-improving Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, the current league leader in rebounds. But Detroit may have to turn to tanking in order to ever make another run at the championship.

All in all, the NBA’s somewhat lax stance on tanking and the success seen thus far by tanking teams should indicate that perhaps even playoff teams should tank if they are unable to contend for the NBA title.

Teddy Park writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].