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Does tanking in sports work?

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And if it does, what exactly does “work” mean?

Getty Images/Peter Rogers Illustrations

The current paradigm in American sports is tanking: lose as many games as you can in one season, or more, to acquire as much valuable draft capital as possible (and, money). The idea is that you need to have good talent on good contracts, and the younger you are, the more likely you are to be underpaid and under control. The most valuable contract in American sports a few years ago was Russell Wilson’s rookie contract; next year it will most likely be DeShaun Watson’s rookie contract. Cheap labor is king; good, cheap labor is emperor; and money is God. That’s the moment we’re in.

Could owners afford to pay their athletes more? Yeah, of course. But, salary cap limits and luxury taxes and draft pick trade rules all combine to depress professional athletes’ pay, and give owners an excuse (one they created themselves) to ditch expensive, sorry, “expensive,” players, even if they’re good. Just look at the recent Marlins moves: they traded young, good talent for “financial flexibility,” which is front office BS jargon for “we sold some good players for money.” Again, money is God. Of course, the new Marlins could afford to keep Stanton and Ozuna, and also splurged on some free agents. The rise in revenue from fielding a winning team would completely afford (and, then some) the entire team’s payroll, and that’s besides the fact that the owners can afford the salaries ALREADY. NO ONE was forcing them to trade Stanton. But, they’d rather have the money.

That’s okay, it’s a business decision.

It’s not like other MLB teams haven’t done this for years: the Pittsburgh Pirates owners use their team as a piggy bank; the Mets owners literally needed a loan from MLB because of how greedy and foolish they are (they were involved in the Bernie Madoff scandal); Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, routinely curtails his team’s chances of winning because he’s a cheap, vicious bastard; the Oakland A’s are always pleading poverty; and the Rays just traded the face of their franchise to San Francisco, for all intents and purposes because they didn’t want to pay Longoria’s salary (the prospects they got back ain’t worth eff all). The Rays routinely do this, actually, but people don’t seem to care as much because they’re “in a small market.” So, the billionaires can’t spend money on their teams because their teams don’t play in a top 10 market? I hate to say this to you, billionaires, but there are 30 teams and only ten top 10 markets. If you didn’t want to own a baseball team in Oakland, then you shouldn’t have bought the Athletics. Ditto, the Tampa Rays (Tampa Bay is a body of water; the Rays play in the City of Tampa; this is another incredibly stupid thing about the Tampa Bay Rays). Regardless, the owners of professional Florida teams tend to behave just like everyone else who lives in Florida: like cheapass lunatics who people can’t wait to get away from. Don’t believe me? Here are the professional Florida teams:

Outside of the Miami Heat (who are currently .500, of course, hahaha) and the Lightning (they’re in 1st place in the NHL), none of those teams are well run. There isn’t a single person on the planet who thinks that Chris Archer will remain on the Rays long term; the Dolphins are always a complete joke, even when they’re doing well; the Marlins have had four firesales since winning their first World Series and they’re not even 30 years old as a franchise; the Bucs are routinely one of the worst NFL franchises (remember Raheem Morris?); the Magic just suck and always will, but they’ll continue to draft All NBA or Hall of Fame centers and then watch them leave town because no one in their right mind would live in Orlando if they didn’t have to; and, the Jaguars are only good this season because God’s one ironic SOB.

If Florida’s so great, then why do their team names suggest they play on enormous bodies of water instead of the actual cities on actual ground that they actually play in? It’s like calling them the Miami Atlantic Ocean Dolphins. This isn’t just a Florida complaint, plenty of other places do this. Neither of the “New York” NFL teams play in New York; the “San Francisco” 49ers don’t play in San Fran; the “Los Angeles” Angels don’t play in L.A.; the Washington NFL team doesn’t play in D.C.; and the Cleveland Browns don’t play. Like at all. They just pretend to play while their awful, awful, AWFUL owner reaps all the financial rewards of owning a professional team, even when they’re an embarrassment to the league.

The worst part about all this is that the owners never lose. Even the ones who get kicked out, like Donald Sterling and Jerry Richardson, still get paid. “Oh, you’re a racist and have a history of sexual assault? Get the hell out of my office and never come back, but here’s $1.2 billion before you leave.”

But, let’s look into whether tanking is even actually beneficial. After all, if the owners can justify destroying the team so that they can grab money now and maybe, maybe, be good later, then let’s investigate their strategy for “maybe, maybe” getting better.

We’re going to restrict ourselves to the NBA, since this is (presumably) a fantasy basketball piece, and because the NBA owners and league front office convinced everyone in the public that the only reason to field a good team is if you’re one of the four best teams in the entire league, otherwise you’re “on the treadmill of mediocrity,” or you’re a lottery team. Basically, there’s no point in being the Raptors, so they might as well just sell their players for pennies on the dollar in the vain hope that LeBron James or Kevin Durant will be in the upcoming draft. Hey, why try if the odds are stacked against you, right? Good old fashioned American thinking right there.

Here are the lottery picks from the NBA drafts from 2010 to now. We’ll highlight significant NBA players and where they were drafted. These are the Holy Grails of the NBA: high draft picks, high value assets, we’re all so goddamn high on all these goddamn players it’s hard to think straight! Feast your eyes on the Delicious: rich, smart people making choices that they convinced you were necessary and good.

2010 - The Tiny Gallon Draft

1. Dr. John Wall went #1 overall. Correct.

5. Boogie Cousins went 5th to the Sad Sacs. Philly chose Evan Turner with the 2nd pick, the Nets drafted Derrick Favors with the 3rd, and Minnesota drafted Wesley Johnson with the 4th. They’re all stupid because Boogie is ABSOLUTELY better than those guys.

7. Greg Monroe went 7th to the Pistons. Great pick towards the end of the lottery! Oh wait, Gordon Hayward went NINTH, PAUL. GEORGE. went TENTH, Eric Bledsoe 18th, Avery Bradley 19th, Hassan Whiteside 33rd (to Sacramento, of course, lol), Lance Stephenson went 40th, Tiny Gallon went 47th to Milwaukee (perfect, just perfect, his nickname could’ve been Half Keg), and something incredibly awesome called Magnum Rolle was drafted 51st by OKC.

So, lemme ask you a question: is Paul George better than Greg Monroe? Is he better than Evan Turner? Jesus, is he better than John Wall??? I think a redraft would go PG13, Dr. Wall, Hayward, Boogie, Whiteside. But, y'know, trust NBA “experts”; they know what’s going on.

2011 - The Chukwudiebere Maduabum Draft

1. Kyrie went #1, duh.

3. Enes Kanter went third to Utah. (Did you guys see that Kanter’s home country, Turkey, is about to try him in absentia and sentence him to 4 years in prison? You know what for? Tweeting insults about the Turkish President. If tweeting insults about the President were a crime in America, almost every single person in the United States would be in jail. Unfortunately, President Trump is a big fan of President Recep Erdogan of Turkey. Hopefully, Kanter won’t be forced back to Turkey to stand trial. If you think that’s out of the question, then please read this.)

4. Tristan Thompson went 4th to Cleveland. Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard are in this draft. And, remember, the Cavaliers were given the #1 overall pick because LeBron had left them for the Miami Heat, so they probably shouldn’t have gotten Kyrie, if the NBA weren’t completely corrupt when it comes to the draft order.

5. Toronto drafted Jonas Valanciunas 5th overall.

8. Brandon “The” Knight was drafted 8th by the Pistons to close out the lottery. Moose Monroe in 2010 and The Knight in 2011: great job, ‘Stons! Neither of those players are on Detroit, by the way. And, they traded for the 19th pick in the 2010 draft so that he could be Detroit’s starting 2 guard. Good GM’ing, Detroit. Grandly done.

Kemba Walker went 9th. God. DAMNIT.

Klay Thompson went 11th. Please allow me to help you pick your jaw up off the ground. Hey, did you know that neither Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, NOR Draymond Green were drafted in the top 5? Tanking sure does seem to work so far!

Kawhi went 15th. He’s almost universally acknowledged as the best two-way player in the NBA today. He was drafted by the Pacers but traded to the Spurs. For who? It doesn’t matter, it could’ve been for Jesus Christ Almighty and the Pacers would still look like the dumbest person at the dumdum party.

Nikola Vucevic went 16th to Philly, Tobias Harris 19th, Nikola Mirotic 23rd, Reggie Jackson 24th, JIMMY. BUTLER. 30th (!!!!!)(!!!!!!!!!), Chandler Parsons 38th (Can you believe he went to the University of Florida? Me, either!), and E’Lite E’Twaun Moore went 55th.

My man Chukwudiebere went 56th to the Lakers, but he decided to return to his home planet of Kashyyyk.

2012 - Draymond Green, 2nd Round Talent According to NBA Experts

1. The Brow went #1 overall, and totally, absolutely, fersher.

2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went #2.

3. Bradley Beal

4. Waiters Island (to Cleveland, forgot all about that)

6. Dame Lillard went 6th. He went after Kid Christ and Waiters Island. Who’s better, in your humble opinion?

Andre Drummond went 9th (and, hell yes, he’s still on the Pistons), and Austin Haunted Rivers went 10th (lol, jesus). Technically, Harrison Barnes went 7th overall, but get real, who cares. There’s really no one who matters until the 2nd round, when Jae Crowder got drafted at #34 by Cleveland. Guess who was drafted one pick later? Draymond Green. The Cleveland Cavaliers could have Dray right now. Think about that. The difference between two second round picks, between Jae Crowder and Draymond Green, forever altered the landscape and history of the NBA. And, remember, Golden State had already drafted Harrison “Not Even My Parents Care” Barnes with their 1st round pick, so they basically fell ass-backwards into one of the most important defensive players in NBA history. This tanking strategy continues to seem rillyrilly smart!

Also, Khris Middleton went 39th (to Detroit, smh), Will Barton went 40th, and DRAYMOND GREEN WAS, AGAIN, DRAFTED IN THE SECOND ROUND AND WAS LITERALLY AVAILABLE TO EVERYBODY. Man, front offices are just great at scouting, aren’t they? I feel confident that a tanking team will find success if they only trust their scouts. Y’know, based on all this evidence of their skill and acumen.

2013 - The Anthony Bennett Draft

Here is the list of players who were drafted after the Cleveland Cavaliers, owned by the vile Dan Gilbert, chose Anthony Bennett #1 overall (By the by, Mr. Bennett is no longer in the NBA, he plays in the G League somewhere): Victor Oladipo (#2), Otto Porter, Jr. (#3), C.J. McCollum (#10), Steven Adams (#12), GIANNIS. ANTETOKOUNMPO. (#15) (BWAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!), Herr Dennis Schroder (#17), and Rudy Gobert (#27). The Cavs also could’ve had Alex Len, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tony Snell, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Andre Roberson, or Allen Crabbe. Instead, they made perhaps the worst draft pick in the entire history of the sport (unless you think Oden going #1 while Durant went #2 is worse, which, fair enough, DON’T SAY DARKO). I mean, I’m literally saying that the Cavs could have chosen ANYONE ELSE and been better off. Hot take: the Cavs deserve to lose LeBron again.

2014 - The Draft In Which The Knicks Drafted Giannis’s Brother Because Why Not? and Just In Case

The lottery went like this: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, Nik Stauskas (Go Blue). The first four are fine, though you’d take them in a different order now, obviously. Non-lottery guys available were Zach “The Dentist” LaVine at #13, Jusuf Nurkic (#16), Gary Harris (#19), Rodney Hood (#23), Clint Capela (#25), SloMo Kyle Anderson (#30), Professor Spencer Dinwiddie (#38, another Piston who is no longer on the team, great just great), NIKOLA. JOKIC. (#41), and Giannis’s brother Thanasis (#51 by the Knicks, again, just in case). I’d take all of those non-lottery guys over Exum, Smart, Randle and Stauskas. Smart’s fine but he’s a 34% career shooter. Gimme SloMo or the Professor instead of that, please.

2015 - The Unicorn Is a Mythical Beast Who Averages 25 Points, 6 Rebounds, and 2 Blocks

Karl-Anthony Towns went #1 overall and Kristaps Porzingis went 4th. The Unicorn is averaging 25 points on 46% shooting, with 6 boards, 2+ blocks/steals, and 2 threes a game. Big KAT is averaging 20 points on 52% shooting, with 11 boards, and 2+ blocks/steals and 1.5 threes a game. Porzingis takes 19 shots a game, Big KAT 14. You tell me: if Towns played for the Knicks, would the country have crowned him the Unicorn?

The Knicks infamously fell ass-backwards (a running theme of prelude to success) into Porzingis after aggressively trying to trade the pick. Phil deserves credit, I guess, for actually picking Kristaps, but who else was he going to draft? D’Angelo Russell went second overall to the Lakers (that worked out well), and Jahlil Okafor third to the 76ers (ditto). You know who went fifth? Super Mario Hezonja. Who’s that? Oh, he’s this guy that all the NBA nerds were tumescent over, he was drafted by the Magic in 2015 and he’s started 15 games TOTAL since then. Now, he had a good game recently, and so errybuddy’s talking about him again. He played in 65 games last year and averaged 5 points on 35% shooting.

Here’s the rest of the lottery: Willie Caulie-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson (Pistons, man, god damnit). And, then Frank Kaminsky went 9th. And, then Boston, that mighty analytical team of smarties and home of basketball sabremetricians, tried to send 4 draft picks to Miami for the rights to draft Justise Winslow.

And, then:

11. Myles Turner was drafted 11th overall

13. Devin Booker, 13th

15. Kelly Oubre

22. Bobby Portis

27. Larry Nance, Jr.

Outside of Rakeem Christmas at #36 (who should be legally obligated to play on the Christmas Day games, alas, alas) are there really any other dudes from this draft? This one’s pretty top heavy, and it’s hard to find fault with the first four picks (aside from how stupid Philly drafted during Hinkie’s tenure; he acquired assets, but misfired on many of his high-value draft picks) as D’Angelo was ruined by the Lakers’ culture and veteran personnel, and Jahlil was mystifyingly mismanaged for much of his 76ers career. (Get real, who depresses their own players’ values? A child of four knew that Philly was being foolish with Nerlens and Jah.)

But, I do think that we give Phil too much credit for picking Kristaps. While it’s true that they would have preferred NOT to draft him (rather, trade the pick), can you really say it took that much basketball knowledge to say that Porzingis represented the most upside of any of the players still available? No one thought Myles Turner or Devin Booker would turn into (possible) NBA heroes. This was a mediocre draft with some mega-stars in it. Odds are that Big KAT and the Unicorn remain the best players from the 2015 draft, but it didn’t take genius scouts to predict that, anyway. Remember, Giannis had already been drafted. The league was already on the lookout for unicorns. Phil drafted the guy that fit that mold. Can you imagine if he’d been able to trade the pick to Boston, and Kristaps was now on the Celtics? I’m glad that didn’t happen, I already have enough reasons to want to blow my goddamn head off. In fact, many of them are in this here piece, like, oh, I dunno, ALMOST ALL OF THE PISTONS’ PICKS!

Ugh. Anyway, fudge this draft, y’know? I kinda hate it. I wish Rakeem would come home. America needs as much Christmas as it can get.

2016 - The Steph Curry, 2.0 Draft

Now THIS is a draft! Let’s look at the entire lottery:

1. Ben Simmons, the Chosen One, AKA “Jump Shots? Qué Es Esto?”

2. Brandon Ingram, an actual stick figure brought to life. (Did you know that you literally can’t see Ingram from the side? He’s 2-dimensional.)

3. Jaylen Brown (there’s nothing funny about what the Celtics are doing, I HATE THEM SO MUCH! BILL LAIMBEER FOREVER!)

4. Dragan Bender (strike one)

5. Kris Dunn (strike two)

6. Stephen Curry, 2.0 (HOME RUN!!!) (Steph Curry, 2.0’s official name is “Buddy Hield.”)

7. Jamal Murray

8. Marquese Chriss

That’s pretty solid, aside from Dragan Bender and Chriss. However, when one has the chance to draft a person whose name is literally, full-on DRAGAN, then one has to draft the dragan. I’m still waiting for him to dunk on Dr. John Wall and scream Dracarys! Will I be waiting my whole life?

Other notables are Thon Maker (#10 overall to the Bucks; Maker is NBA nerds’ boyfriend right now, like a foreign exchange student who’s shy and sensitive and won’t cheat on you because, duh, he leaves in 3 months and who needs the headache), Taurean Prince (#12), Caris LeVert, I guess (#20, Go Blue), Dejounte Murray (#29, to the Spurs, OF COURSE), Malcolm Brogdon (#36), and, Zhou Qi (#43, also, you’re not even sure this is a real guy, but HE IS, and NO, he’s not notable). This was a pure lottery draft. I think Prince and Brogdon would get chosen over Bender and Chriss, but, Sweet Mother Mary and Oy Vey 4ever: I think I’d keep Buddy Hield as a lottery pick. Stop throwing things at me, I’m sorry!

Regardless, two of the lottery picks are already playing for their second teams, which proves that at least two different teams liked each player enough to acquire them.

2017 - The Process Results In Another Injured Player

Does anyone think that Markelle Fultz is going to be a better basketball player than Jayson Tatum is right now? If you do, can you tell me why the 76ers need a point guard when they already have Ben Simmons? Listen, Fultz might end up being a really good player, but if Philly had drafted Taytum, their lineup right now would be Simmons, Old Man JJ Redick, Jayson Tatum, Bob Covington, and Joel Embiid. That’s game changing. That’s New NBA. That’s effing terrifying. I’m glad that didn’t happen.

In any case, Taytum would clearly go number 1 in the draft now, but 3 is fine. Lonzo going 2nd overall is fine, too, because no matter how bad he looks right now, it’s mainly because of people’s outsized expectations of him. Lonzo is playing better than most rookies. His shot sucks right now, true, but cmon, we’re not even halfway through the season. Was he supposed to be Ray Allen from the get go? And, for God’s sake, at least Lonzo’s shot isn’t Markelle Fultz’s shot! It’s...a little bit weird that such high prospects can’t shoot, especially since Ben Simmons, The Chosen One and the #1 pick in 2016, also cannot shoot the basketball through the hoop…

Two of the top 3 are just fine as picks, and there’s no reason that a healthy Markelle Fultz can’t excel. Just because he was drafted by the wrong team doesn’t mean that Fultz will have a bad career. And, it could still work out in Philly, even though you’ll probably hinder Simmons’s development as a ball handler if you force him to defer to Fultz so that he can develop as a ball handler.

4. Josh Jackson goes 4th overall to Phoenix.

5. De’Aaron Fox goes 5th overall to the Sad Sacs. The Kings immediately acquire a jillion old point guards so that Fox’s career will stall and everyone will look stupid. The Sacramento Way! And, remember, Steph Curry 2.0 is on this team.

6. Jonathan Isaac, 6th overall, to the Magic. Do you know who Jonathan Isaac is? That’s weird, because NO ONE ELSE IN THE WORLD DOES! Great pick, Orlando. You know why? Because:

7. Lauri Markkanen. 7th overall. Baron Markkanen is clearly better than the three players in front of him, and he might end up being better than ALL of the players in front of him. If he turns into baby Dirk and the Bulls get another generational player FOR NO GOOD REASON WHATSOEVER, then I’ma be pissed. All I’m saying is, I will be mega pissed. He looks great. God damn it.

8. Frank Ntilikina, the French Resistance, to the Knicks at 8. I love Frank Ntili and feel free to read previous columns to see why, but TL;DR, he’s got a ridiculous wingspan, he’s a tough SOB, his defense is FOR REAL, and he’s already improving his offense. Dude’s gonna be good. Thank God, Sacramento didn’t draft him.

So, the lottery has at least 5 good players, maybe more if the stink of Phoenix, Sacramento, and Orlando doesn’t just outright destroy their rookies.

But, Dennis Smith (#9 overall), Donovan Mitchell (#13), OG Anunoby (#23), and Kyle Kuzma (#27) are probably also better than the 4-6 picks. Granted, it’s very early, and some players take longer than others to develop. And, hell’s bells, it’s not even half a season played. But, Smith, Mitchell, Anunoby, and Kuzma are legit good. History tells us that they’re likely to be better than several of the lottery picks.

Seven drafts, and a lot of good players. And, a helluva lot of them were drafted outside the lottery. And, some of the top draft picks didn’t pan out, at all. Anthony Bennett is up there with Darko Milicic for poor draft decisions, but then again, Michael Jordan wasn’t drafted #1 overall, nor was Kevin Durant, nor was Steph Curry 1.0, nor was Giannis, nor Porzingis, nor was Kawhi. Good players are available in every draft.

What tanking comes down to is hoping that your front office knows what to do with their assets. It has much less to do with the actual players you get. Good players can be stifled by their teams (just look at Boogie Cousins), and unheralded players can blossom on the right teams (Giannis). A player’s career isn’t just dependant on their talent and innate skill, it also depends upon their coaches and their trainers and the other players on the team. Remember when Marc Gasol was fat and considered a throwaway in the Lakers-Memphis trade for his big brother, Pau? Remember when Carmelo was considered the savior of the Knicks? Remember when Golden State almost traded Klay Thompson for Kevin Love?

Having good assets doesn’t necessarily mean you know what to do with them. Tanking as a strategy seems like it makes sense because you acquire more valuable draft capital and salary cap space. But, it’s all thunder and fury, signifying nothing, if you don’t get the right guys. We should, perhaps, pay more attention to a team’s player development history when considering our draft boards, in real life and in fantasy. Which teams tend to draft well? Which teams tend to find value outside of the lottery? Which teams tend to increase the value of their players the longer they’re with a team? San Antonio is the gold standard, and Boston and Golden State are now right behind them. The Bulls always seem to find talent (Jimmy Butler 30th is absolutely awesome), and the reviled GarPax Chicago front office may have something with their super tall team of Portis, Mirotic, Markkanen, Dunn and the Dentist. The Pacers could have had Paul George AND Kawhi, had they not traded the latter to the Spurs.

Meanwhile, poorly run teams acquire assets and create logjams for themselves, which stifles the players they do have. Sacramento should not have ZBo and George Hill on their team. It’s almost malpractice, except it’s tough to blame a team for wanting to win, especially after being bad for so long. If the Kings can trade those two and get more assets, than we’ll have to consider whether the cost of those assets was worth the cost of not giving more minutes to the young guys they already have. It’s similar to Philly: they kept getting young players. The Process worked, insofar as they now have Simmons and Embiid, but they also completely whiffed on drafts and basically surrendered Nerlens Noel and Jah Okafor for nada. And, honestly, sometimes bad teams are “tanking” because it’s just easier and it still makes them money. They use tanking as a trick to make their fans believe that success is just down the road, we just have to lose for a little while more, but then, you’ll see! We’ll start winning! Looking at you, Oakland A’s.

By the way, George Hill just airballed a wide open three that would have put the Kings ahead 104-99 over the Nets with less than 20 seconds to go. Great pick up, Sad Sacs.

To bring this back around to fantasy basketball: I have the French Resistance, OG Anunoby, and Malik Monk on my fantasy team. I have every confidence that Ntilikina and Anunoby will be good players, maybe even All Stars. Monk, on the other hand, doesn’t get a chance to play because he’s on Charlotte and there are about a bazillion guards in front of him on the depth chart. Maybe Monk’s good, but we won’t know until he’s in a position to actually show us. And, I drafted him before acquiring the other two rooks. So, this excellent GMing extends to your friendly neighborhood fantasy basketball writer, too. Luckily for yours truly, I also get to partake of the hundreds of millions of dollars that every single professional sports owner receives every single year. By the way, can you give me hundreds of millions of dollars so that I can build my very own cool building for “your,” heh heh!, sports team? It’s not a loan, and you won’t get any money from the profit. I just want to use your money, instead of mine. Oh, I also reserve the right to gut “your” team of “your” players, and to relocate “your” team to another city, if I feel like it, or if they offer me enough money.

Next season when you’re preparing for your rookie draft, do yourself a favor and look at each team’s draft history and player development history. It might just help you draft a (secret) lottery player. After all, if history tells us anything, it’s that the talent is everywhere: you don’t necessarily need to play the lottery to win the prize.