So Does Tanking Work or Not?

While it seems to be increasingly moot for the Raptors, since they insist on shooting themselves by taking their own ping pong balls out of the lottery drum (okay, I don’t know what it’s called), Wages of Wins recently published article stating that tanking does not work. I’ve already talked previously about how I think the Raptors should “tank”, so does that mean I was wrong?

Devin Dignam, in his article, brought up some seemingly overwhelming evidence:

Well, only five players taken [in the top three of the lottery] have won a championship with the team that drafted them: the aforementioned Duncan and Milicic, as well as David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Jason Kidd. It took Robinson eleven years to win with his drafting team, and Elliott was actually traded away and then reacquired before winning his…nine years after being drafted. Jason Kidd was also traded away and then reacquired before winning a title with his drafting team, and that took him 16 years.

Now keep in mind, the lottery began in 1985, so he’s saying that only 3 lottery picks have won a Championship with the team that drafted them since 1985. And one of those lottery picks was benchwarmer. Seems pretty conclusive, doesn’t it?

Well, like all stats, a closer look tells you a lot more.

First of all, 1985 to 1998 is when Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon won their Championships, and none of them were technically lottery picks, since they were all drafted before 1985. And of all those players, only Larry Bird was drafted outside the top 3 and all were drafted by the team they eventually won a Championship with.

So the first post-1985 top 3 pick to win a Championship was David Robinson, and Tim Duncan was actually the best player on the team, by that time. In other words, it’s only since 1999 that you can start counting.

In those 12 years, 6 teams have won Championships. San Antonio, the Lakers, Detroit, Miami, Boston and Dallas.

And it is true that Tim Duncan was the only top 3 pick that lead the team that drafted him to a Championship since 1999.

The only other team whose best player they actually drafted lead them to a Championship were the Miami Heat. They drafted Dwyane Wade 5th, so he doesn’t qualify under Dignam’s criteria.

Neither does Dirk Nowitzki, who was a 9th pick, drafted by Milwaukee, but traded immediately to Dallas.

The Lakers obviously had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant lead them to their Championships. Shaq was a #1 pick, but signed from Orlando as free agent. Kobe was a 13th pick for Charlotte, who immediately traded him to the Lakers.

Detroit had two top 3 picks, but one of them was Darko, who barely played. The other was Chauncey Billups, who Detroit signed as a free agent. Detroit was Billups’ 5th team in 6 seasons, so it’s not as if that much was expected of him.

Ironically, while Boston was the only team to win a Championship without a top 3 pick, they actually drafted their leading scorer, Paul Pierce, although 10th. Kevin Garnett, who was drafted 5th by Minnesota, Boston had to trade for.

So if you’re going to go by the evidence, if you want to win a Championship, the best way seems to be to try and get lucky by finding a franchise player outside of the top 3.

Of course, there’s a problem with that theory, too.

Let’s look at the last two year’s 1st and 2nd All-NBA players:

LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Dwight Howard
Kobe Bryant
Derrick Rose
Dwyane Wade
Pau Gasol
Dirk Nowitzki
Amare Stoudemire
Russell Westbrook
Steve Nash
Carmelo Anthony
Deron Williams

Now of the players under 30, only Amare Stoudemire was drafted outside of the top 3. Let me just reiterate that. Of the 8 All-NBA players under 30, 7 of them were drafted in the top 3.

What does that tell you?

Drafting a franchise player outside of the top 3 is becoming more and more difficult. Whether it’s better scouting or what, but the chance of finding a Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash outside of the top 10 is getting smaller and smaller. And unless you live in Los Angeles, Miami or New York, the chances of signing a franchise player are EXTREMELY slim.

That only leaves trading for one. It’s true that a number of 1st and 2nd All-NBA players have been traded over the last ten years, but if you want to play the stats game, in the last 25 years, only one franchise-level player was traded to a team and lead them to a Championship: Kevin Garnett. And Boston also had Paul Pierce on the team, who lead the team in scoring that season.

Now, tanking certainly isn’t great for fans, and it looks bad for the franchise and is bad for the NBA, but it’s also the best way for most teams to acquire a franchise player. It’s no guarantee, but the teams that have won Championships, did so with a lot of luck.

Had Portland drafted Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie, Chicago wouldn’t have won 6 Championships.

If David Robinson didn’t miss nearly the entire 96-97 season, San Antonio doesn’t drop from 59 wins to 20 wins and draft Tim Duncan, which lead to them winning 4 titles.

If Shaq decides to stay with Orlando, Los Angeles doesn’t win their three titles in a row.

So yes, tanking doesn’t guarantee anything, but with more chances at the number one spot, and a bit of luck, your team might end up winning this year’s lottery and the chance to draft Anthony Davis, who might just end up being the best big man of his generation.

19 thoughts on “So Does Tanking Work or Not?

    • The Miami Heat drafted Dwyane Wade 5th. Chris Bush was drafted 4th by Toronto.

      I vaguely remember something about that.

      Bosh not Bush, sorry.

      Actually, Chris Bush moved to Miami to be closer to his brother, Jeb.

      Shaq was drafted by Orlando and signed with the Lakers as a free agent.

      I meant he was signed FROM Orlando. Thanks. All fixed.

  1. Yea, the WoW website is comical at best. Those guys do a great job giving us laughs everyday.

    Tanking is obviously a last resort, but it has worked, though you still need to get lucky in the end.

    NBA history has shown that you need a franchise player to win a title, and if you can’t get one via FA or trade, the draft is the only other option.

  2. Shaq was drafted by Orlando and signed with the Lakers as a free agent.

    Fouling Out: Six Personal Thoughts on the Game – Raptors 92, Bobcats 87 ( mentions this:

    “Bonus: How crazy is it that the Raptors are 16 games under .500, and yet they could lose all 12 of their remaining games and still finish with a higher winning percentage than they did last season?!” With 19 wins on the season we are four wins away from not finishing with the worst record in the league. As of April 4, we hold the same record as Sacramento, NJ and Cleveland are a half game behind us, Western Conference-worst New Orleans is 4.5 games behind, and Washington is 7 games behind. Charlotte is a whopping 11 games behind with only 7 wins to Toronto’s 19. Albeit much of this is Dwane Casey’s work alone, but even with him many pundits expected us to win fewer games and challenge Charlotte for the league cellar. Right now its New Orleans and Washington doing that. The only way the Raptors can finish dead last now is if they win three more games at most and Charlotte wins out all their remaining games (or Charlotte loses three at most and Toronto loses all remaing games), plus a minimum of nine and ten game win help from New Orleans and Washington respectively, at least three more wins by Sacramento, and three by New Jersey. I expect Cleveland, Detroit, and Golden State to all finish ahead of the Raptors, New Jersey and Sacramento could go either way. It’s safe to say that Dwane Casey’s effect on Toronto is too much for Charlotte, New Orleans, and Washington to overcome. Even then Charlotte could still miss out on a top three pick and any other teams drafting earlier can screw up their picks.

    Seattle finished 10th last in 1990 and picked second (Gary Payton).

    Orlando finished 2nd last and picked first (Shaquille O’Neal); Minnesota finished last and picked 3rd.

    Orlando finished 11th last the next year and picked first again (Chris Webber); Philadelphia finished 5th last and picked 2nd but wasted it on Shawn Bradley (Anfernee Hardaway was available); None of the three last place teams got bumped out of the top three.

    The Clippers wasted the 1998 first pick on Michael Olowokandi.

    I wonder if Darko Milicic was as good as touted at the time in 2003 and being in Detroit hurt him more than anything.

    Atlanta finished last and picked second, but wasted it on a one-and-done college sixth man (Marvin Williams) when they needed a point guard.

    The last (Memphis), second-last (Boston), and third last place (Milwaukee) teams swapped places with the fourth-last (Atlanta – Al Horford, #3), fifth, last (Seattle – Kevin Durant, #2), and sixth-last (Portland – Greg Oden, #1) place teams in 2007.

    Chicago finished 9th last and picked first (Derrick Rose) while Miami and Minnesota picked Michael Beasley and OJ Mayo second and third respectively ahead of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.

    Sacramento finished last and picked fourth while Memphis finished 6th-last and picked second but wasted their pick on Hasheem Thabeet.

    Washington finished 5th last and Philadelphia finished 6th last but picked first and second respectively. Unlike John Wall however, Evan Turner doesn’t show the same amount of promise; Minnesota lost the worst by finishing last only to pick fourth and get Wesley Johnson.

    Cleveland finished 2nd last in 2011 but picked first with the Clippers former first round pick, contrast to Utah who finished 12th last but picked third with New Jersey’s former first rounder. Both of these came from trades that helped LA and NJ earlier but benefitted Cleveland and Utah better in the long run.

    There are plenty more examples, but teams finishing in the bottom three stay in the top three of the draft for the most part. I expect Charlotte to be guaranteed a top-4 pick and the Raptors to finish 4th or 5th last overall. The next question is if the Raptors don’t win the lottery, does Bryan Colangelo get proactive (panic) and trade up, or stay patient and hope that teams drafting earlier miss on their picks?

    • That’s the good thing about the lottery system. There’s still a chance the Raptors can hit the jackpot and get the top pick. Every year I dream of them moving up, but the only time it happens…well, you know. I think the Raptors are due. Especially after dropping two places last year.

      Some interesting facts. Since the inception of the lottery, in ’85, the Clippers have had a first pick once every decade (including this one, considering it was their pick that was drawn first).

      The Nets have had two top picks, picking Derrick Coleman and Kenyon Martin. To make matters worse, they’ve had 16 top 15 picks in that time. Coleman, Martin, Kenny Anderson, Chris Morris, Dennis Hobson, Ed O’Bannon, Eddie Griffin, Kerry Kittles, Tim Thomas, Derrick Favors, Mookie Blaylock, Yinka Dare, Terrence Williams, Pearl Washington, and Antoine Wright. That almost makes the Clippers bad drafting look somewhat decent by comparison.

      I see a future post about this…

  3. ” None of the three last place teams got bumped out of the top three.”

    Correction: Each of the bottom-three teams got bumped out of the top three picking order.

  4. Man – your like a broken record, Tim.

    Please clarify what more the Raptors should do to tank? Stop taking shots? Put Bargnani back at centre?
    And who is to blame that we are not losing enough? Finger has gotta be pointed at Casey, right? Colangelo did his part by giving Barbosa away. Maybe he should of kept Butler?

    Who is to blame that the Bobcats, Wizards, Cavs, Nets and Hornets are all, quite simply, worse than us.

    All you discuss is how the team is failing by not losing enough, and despite Bargnani’s shown improvement, yes, shown improvement, that he is still a huge liability.

    My glass is half full, yours is empty, broken and it sounds like you are about to slit your wrists with the pieces.

    • @Tinman

      I have to say, I don’t really understand why you continue to read my posts, since you seem to disagree so vehemently with my opinion.

      I’m not a glass half full/half empty kind of guy. I’m a realist. I see what I see. And unlike some fans, I’m not happy with mediocrity. There are things I really like about this team and things I don’t. And the things I don’t like I feel I have the right to comment on. If you disagree with me, then I’d like to hear why, exactly. Whether you like it or not, the team needs a franchise player if it wants to contend, and they don’t have one. About the only way for a team to acquire one is to draft one. And the best way to draft one is to get the top pick.

      As for the tanking issue, I’m not suggesting the players or coaches do anything. You’re taking my comments WAAAAAAAYYYYYYY too literally. My point is that the Raptors, as an organization, are doing themselves no favour by winning games, at this point. In fact it hurts them long term.

  5. But you seem to be insinuating blame somewhere that we are not losing enough. I guess that’s my point.
    You didn’t answer any of my questions. What could we of done better to lose. Who’s to blame. Cause as stated above, you seem to be insinuating that the organization has done something wrong by winning more than several other worse off teams.

    And you theory doesn’t add up in present day NBA – since 2002 only one team has won with a top 3 draft pick(Darko don’t count) and that is the Spurs.
    That might well change in the next few years, with Durant, Rose and Lebron but for now your theory is inaccurate.

    • @Tinman

      I don’t know why you think I’m laying blame on anyone in particular. I have a venue from which I am able to vent, and that’s what I did. It was one sentence, for god’s sakes. And unfortunately there’s not much that I think can be done. That’s the most frustrating part.

      And your comment about only one team winning a Championship with a top 3 pick is a bit perplexing. I’m pretty sure I talk about that in my post. In case you missed it, this is what I said:

      Of the 8 All-NBA players under 30, 7 of them were drafted in the top 3.

      What does that tell you?

      Drafting a franchise player outside of the top 3 is becoming more and more difficult. Whether it’s better scouting or what, but the chance of finding a Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash outside of the top 10 is getting smaller and smaller.

      In other words, your chances of drafting a franchise player outside of the top 3 is A LOT lower than it used to be. There are not nearly as many Kobes, Nashes, Dirks or Garnetts, anymore.

      And I’m pretty sure my writings are still insightful, it’s just you don’t agree with them. And the fact is that there really hasn’t been all that much to write about this year with the Raptors. And THE most important thing this year is that they got a top pick in order to prevent the team from jumping back onto the mediocrity treadmill where they have spent most of their existence. Personally, I’m getting a little frustrated with it. I don’t enjoy watching a team built to compete, but not contend. To me, there will be little more depressing than watching a Bargnani-led team basically replacing a Chris Bosh-led team perennially fight for a 6-8 seed in the playoffs. And I’m very afraid that’s what we’ll end up seeing.

      If the Raptors don’t get a top pick, my entire Raptor fandom pretty much rides on Valanciunas becoming an All NBA player.

  6. and I read your writings because you used to be insightfull – this season has given us a few positives- all while maintaining a lottery pick position and an intriguing prospect overseas.
    Shit – what were you expecting this season? Broken record, you have become.

  7. As said previously, i’m also on the fence on Bargnani’s ”improvement”

    If you take away his games right after the injury, he’s been shooting 50%. Which is insane for a guy who shoots 3’s.

    • @FBP

      Bargnani’s doing what he’s always done. Tease you. That’s why he’s got fans who continually defend him. He’s a very good offensive player that you can’t always depend on and who will defend inconsistently and not rebound consistently. And this whole notion that it took him an entire month to get back in shape after his injury is nonsense. If it took him an entire month to get back in shape, then there’s something wrong with him. He’s so high maintenance that he simply can’t be counted on. I’ve never encountered a player who has been catered to so much for 6 years who wasn’t an elite player. If he isn’t taking 15+ shots a game and getting the ball every time up the court, then he stops playing hard, but he’s not a good enough player to be the focal point on a contender.

  8. I don’t think wages of wins proved tanking doesn’t work. Rather they proved that good teams should try to stay good and bad teams should try to become good (because its easier to stay good when you are already good). But thats obvious. What it doesn’t say is how did good teams become good and how do bad teams become good.

    It seems like they used a very broad definition of tanking (‘a bad team’), yet used a very narrow criteria to prove their hypothesis (short time period, drafted player having to stay with their team, pick has to be top 3 etc.)

    yet if you start to expand that criteria bit by bit, you find that the draft becomes an integral starting point of the majority of good teams.

    Lets look at the ‘contenders’ this year alone:

    Chicago – Rose #1
    Miami – Dwade #5
    OKC – Durant #2
    SA – Dunacn #1
    Orlando – Dwight #1
    Clippers – Griffin #1
    Dallas – Dirk #9
    Boston – Pierce #9

    Lakers – perhaps an exception with Kobe at #13 and was obtained through a trade.. but Bynum was still at #10

    Thats not even getting into players who were drafted high and traded for ‘good’ players.

    What I can take from their analysis is that already good teams shouldn’t tank and that tanking isn’t guaranteed. Perhaps one could add that just drafting high isn’t enough.

    But again that should be obvious.

  9. Obviously tanking is a last resort for the most part, but it’s the only option for some teams to ever get a great player. The raptors got their #1 pick in a weak draft year. While bargnani is a quality big and a very good offensive center, he could only be a #2/#3 guy on a title team. However, there’s only a possibility of 5-6 guys in the nba that actually could be the #1 guy on a title team. It’s just the nature of basketball.

    The raptors should’ve traded bosh when they had the chance, then they could’ve gotten something back in return. The lakers probably would’ve gladly traded bynum for him 2 years ago.

    I think you’re greatly overrating Nash. There’s no way in hell a team with nash as the best player could ever win a title. While he’s become a very good player, he’s played with multiple AS for most of his career and has never even made one finals appearance. And the mavs have gotten better after he left dallas, and by basically just replacing him with Terry. And he’s the worst defensive player in nba history. He shouldn’t be coupled together with KG, Kobe, and Dirk.

  10. Actually James Johnson for Chris Bosh doesn’t sound as bad as it did six months ago. And cap flexibility.
    Still not great, but not as bad as it used to be

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