To Tank or Not to Tank
Tanking in professional sports has become all the rage as teams consistently seem to be fighting for draft position and acquiring draft picks rather than a championship.
Teams are now looking for creative ways to seek top draft picks and to find diamonds in the rough through undrafted free agents to build their franchise rather than signing top talent to big money deals or trading for skilled veterans, All-Star talent. A wide variety of teams across all major sports have executed tanking strategies. But, has it really ever paid off? And if so, where does tanking start and end?
I am going to provide two of the best examples of how tanking can go wrong and go right by using the Philadelphia 76ers and the Houston Astros.
Let’s start off with the 76ers. The Philadelphia 76ers has been bad, and not just bad, but REALLY BAD for the last five NBA seasons. Former General Manager Sam Hinkie began using the slogan “trust the process” when he took over in the 2013 NBA offseason and began trading away his top talent to invest in younger, cheaper players that the team could build around going into the future and have contract control over.
They traded away All-Star guard Jrue Holiday to acquire former Kentucky Wildcat big man Nerlens Noel. They would go on to also trade quality veterans Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young for multiple first and second round picks.
The stock piling of draft picks would become Hinkie’s forte.
Season by season, Hinkie placed aged veterans with younger, unproven talent with the intention of losing games in order to get a top pick in the NBA draft. Now, the players weren’t throwing games on purpose. But, by implementing talent that would struggle to make other NBA rosters, you are going to lose games, like a lot of games. So here we are in 2017. Here is a list of players that Hinkie’s draft picks have brought the 76ers in the last several years:
- Nerlens Noel (Not on current roster)
- Michael Carter-Williams (Not on current roster)
- Joel Embiid
- Dario Saric
- K.J. McDaniels (Not on current roster)
- Jerami Grant (Not on current roster)
- Jahlil Okafor (About to be traded)
- Richaun Holmes
- J.P. Tokoto (Not on current roster)
- Ben Simmons
- Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
- Markelle Fultz
In addition, the 76ers have more future draft picks because of Hinkie’s wheeling and dealing. The 76ers future is still a big mystery, even after drafting in the top five so many times.
Noel and Carter-Williams are not even on the current roster anymore. Embiid is a liability due to the amount of injuries he already has had. Okafor is looking to get traded as the team has too many centers and power forwards for him to get playing time over. Simmons suffered a season ending injury before the NBA season even began last year. Fultz is currently hurt and there is no time table for his return.
The 76ers have not been to the playoffs in years and the tanking has not seemed to pan out. Now, Embiid and Simmons on court production so far has been solid. They are two building blocks you can start a foundation of a team with (as long as they remain healthy). But, here are some players that they could have drafted, but inevitably missed out on:
- SF/PF Giannis Antetokounmpo
- C Rudy Gobert
- SG Tim Hardaway Jr.
- C Steven Adams
- SG Zach LaVine
- PG Jordan Clarkson
- C Nikola Jokic
- PF/C Kristaps Porzingis
- SG Devin Booker
Antetokounmpo, Porzingis, Jokic, Booker, and Gobert are all going to be All-Star players. Currently, Porzingis and Antetokounmpo are in the running for the 2017-18 MVP award. So, does tanking even help if you aren’t even selecting top players?
On the other hand, tanking turned out to be a blessing for the Houston Astros.
In 2009, the Astros began their rebuild. By 2010, they traded away long time fan favorites starting pitcher Roy Oswalt and outfielder Lance Berkman. In 2011, they traded outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne; and just like that, the tank was on.
In baseball, it is a little more difficult to tank because you cannot trade talents to acquire draft picks. However, you can get rid of your top players and lose for a few seasons to secure top draft picks and trade for other prospects from other organizations. You could also avoid signing type A and type B free agents to lose your draft pick as a part of MLB’s compensation rules. Since 2009, here are the most notable draft picks and signings the Astros made:
- SP Dallas Keuchel
- SP Lance McCullers
- 2B Jose Altuve
- SS Carlos Correa
- OF George Springer
- 3B Alex Bregman
That is an impressive list of players who have ultimately led the Astros to winning the 2017 World Series. Each of these players put up big time numbers in 2017. The best part of it all? Not one of these players is making north of $10 million per year. They are all under team control for multiple more seasons and they have a legitimate chance of winning a few more World Series titles in the future.
According to Spotrac, The Astros in 2017 ranked 15th in payroll, showing that not necessarily buying top talent helps you win. As a matter of fact, out of the top 10 highest payrolls in baseball, only five of those teams made the playoffs. Teams are finding ways to win and contend for the playoffs by developing home grown talent that they sign and draft.
So, is tanking the best way to rebuild your franchise to winning ways?
In my opinion, only the Astros have been successful. Teams that use money ball tactics and lose now to win later strategies ultimately don’t develop into a top team that consistently wins and wins championships.
The Indianapolis Colts “sucked for Luck”, the Oakland Athletics trade away anyone that is in a contract year and the Cleveland Browns…. Let’s not talk about the Browns.
Teams look to tank for franchise players that fail at becoming that. Even at that, the Astros traded for former MVP starting pitcher Justin Verlander to get them over the hump. It could have very well been the New York Yankees going to the World Series had it not been for Verlander, who beat the Yankees twice.
I think you need a balance of drafting well and signing the two-three big names that solidifies your chances of winning (San Antonio Spurs, New England Patriots, Golden State Warriors, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are all examples of that). These are the teams that are strong for decades because they draft true top talent in all rounds of their respective drafts, and go get the big name player that adds a punch and solidifies the team.
The New York Mets almost did it in 2015 when they traded for Yoenis Cespedes. The Boston Celtics did it in the past by trading at the draft for guard Rajon Rondo and drafting franchise forward Paul Pierce, while adding former MVP center Kevin Garnett and the second greatest shooter of all time in guard Ray Allen. The Miami Heat drafted one of the greatest shooting guards ever in Dwayne Wade, but also signed one of arguably the greatest players of all time in LeBron James and multiple times All-Star Chris Bosh.
Tanking may never get you anywhere if you continue to draft poorly and not try to get better now. Draft well, trade well, sign well and you just may be celebrating when the season is over.