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Tanking: The Game

Can you land a franchise-changing star and keep your job at the same time? Play our game to find out.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

To find out if you can make in the NBA as a general manager, scroll down three paragraphs to play Tanking: The Game.

One of the results of the new CBA will be a chilling of the free-agency market. This is by design. Signed last week, the agreement is a reactionary document, aimed in large part at ensuring that future superstars remain with the teams that drafted them by setting up new designated-player rules allowing teams to offer five-year extensions at up to 35 percent of the cap to players who meet certain conditions. The knock-on effect of this will be: More teams will tank. The acquisition of superstars is the key to winning in the NBA. And there are only three ways for teams to acquire new players: the draft, trades, and free agency. Superstar trades have always been rare events. Now superstar free-agent signings could become rare ones, too.

“Consider Stephen Curry,” self-made cap nerd and blogger Albert Nahmad told me over email. “He’d need to pass on five years, $209 million to take no more than four years, $133 million in free agency [to switch teams]. There’s no way he’s taking a $76M discount.”

In other words: Welcome to the new age of tanking.

Sam Hinkie’s Process, because it required the open-ended endurance of pain, was contingent on resolve. Teams tank because it works; they’ve been doing it for years. The strategy’s obvious utility is baked right into the structure of the draft. The weaker a team performs, the greater that team’s chance of landing a choice spot in the draft. Ergo, losing is incentivized. It does not take a particularly sharp wit to grasp this. As former Clippers owner Donald Sterling said in 1982: ‘’Maybe I have to lose the battle to win the war. I don’t think we’ll have to work that hard to have the worst record in the league.’’ (The NBA fined Sterling $10,000 and kicked the can 30 years down the road.) But the Process was different.

Hinkie’s innovation — and it’s fair to call it that — was shamelessness. Sam hit the ground tanking, and never pretended he was doing anything else. Solid NBA contributors shipped out for future assets; picks flipped into more picks in a process which resembled cellular mitosis; tactical use of nonguaranteed contracts to suppress costs; the implementation of an uptempo style which made losing more likely. Trading Michael Carter-Williams, the former Rookie of the Year, for pieces exemplified the ruthless logic of the Process. MCW clearly didn’t project as a top-tier, franchise-altering star, so Hinkie cut bait with breathtaking swiftness. It was like watching a parent disown a child because the kid got a C on a report card. And it was all because of the draft’s incentive to be bad.

In the B.P. (Before Process) era, teams tanked furtively down the vacant stretch of a lost season, when all eyes were elsewhere — quietly tweaking the rotation, sitting scorers with non-career-threatening injuries that may or may not have been real, and so on. By common agreement, a veneer of plausible deniability was maintained. Which was important, because tanking — i.e., the intentional losing of games — is, as the NBA has always maintained, strictly verboten.

In 2008, Joel Litvin, then the NBA’s president for basketball operations, told The New York Times that: “If we ever found a team was intentionally losing games, we would take the strongest possible action in response.” Litvin then added “However,” and, wow, does this word do a lot of heavy lifting in the rest of the sentence, “a team that decides to change the playing time of its players after being eliminated from playoff contention is a very different story and something that occurs in our league, and others, for reasons that are entirely legitimate.” That’s a rhetorical loophole that you can drive a tank through, as many teams have.

Sometime after 9 p.m. Central Time on April 19, 2006, in overtime of the Timberwolves’ last game of the season, Mark Madsen, the Mad Dog, a veteran high-motor bench energizer and noted barnacle on the hull of a couple of Lakers championships, now playing for Minnesota, took only the 10th 3-pointer of his six-year career. Then he took another. The game staggered into a second overtime tied at 85. In that final and gratuitous five-minute frame, Madsen launched five more long-range expeditions toward the general direction of the rim for a grand total of seven 3-point attempts. He missed them all. Mad Dog attempted 15 field goals that evening, the most he would ever take in a single game. Madsen’s tower of bricks had the desired effect: The Timberwolves lost 102–92, thus solidifying their top-10 spot in the coming NBA draft, allowing them to keep their draft pick, which would have gone to the Clippers if it had fallen outside of that range. The incident raised some howls (Sam Smith wrote that: “The NBA should take a look at this one in the interest of the game’s integrity and paying customers.”) but was mostly met with a bemused indifference. This was the Timberwolves, after all; if anyone needed to tank, it was them. In the B.P. era, Madsen’s seven 3s were a splash of comic color; a fun, ultimately harmless, story.

Just a season later, ahead of the Durant-Oden draft, Boston’s Paul Pierce would miss all of April with a “sore elbow.” The Celtics alt-peaked when they clinched the second-worst record in the league on the strength of a 104–102 loss to the Bucks. C’s forward Ryan Gomes had 13 points through three quarters for the Celtics, but sat the fourth. “I probably [would have played], but since we were in the hunt for a high draft pick, of course things are different,” Gomes said.

Neither of these events precipitated “the strongest possible action” from the league.

After three successfully shitty seasons, the resolve undergirding the Process gave way. Hinkie stepped down as Sixers GM, allegedly at the behest of Adam Silver and a band of hawkish owners. Sam’s belief in his strategy, as his 13-page resignation letter demonstrates, never wavered. And the Philly fans, indoctrinated since birth into the region’s antiestablishment culture, transformed Hinkie-ism into a quasi-religion. Josh Harris and the Sixers ownership group? Perhaps not so much. If there was a moment when the facade cracked, it was probably the selection of Jahlil Okafor with the no. 3 pick in the loaded 2015 draft. Hinkie’s M.O. for acquiring players is consistent. Let’s call it L.A.R.M.S: length, athleticism, rim protection, mobility, spacing. Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, and even predisappointment MCW checked at least four of these boxes. None of these applied to pre-draft Jahlil Okafor. Which is why the suggestion that Hinkie wanted to draft Kristaps Porzingis, but ownership forced his hand to pick Okafor, feels plausible.

Contrasting the response to previous incidents of intentional losing with the fallout from the Process provides us with the rules for tanking. They are as follows:

  1. Tanking is allowed because everyone tanks. But you have to treat it like something shameful. It’s like masturbation: It’s necessary sometimes, just don’t go around telling people that you’re doing it.
  2. Maintain plausible deniability. When Miami Heat capo Pat Riley apologized to the team’s fans for having to “rebuild,” everyone understood what he meant. There’s just no way to prove it.
  3. Two consecutive seasons of flat-out tanking without an obvious return in star-level players is about all a GM can expect before the knives come out. After that, negative press, social media snipers, and disgruntled agents will inevitably take their toll.

So, are you ready to tank?