Column: 'Tanking' is a sports art form, and teams can prove it
You've probably heard of Power Rankings in sports, where teams are ranked on how good they are. This year, CBSSports.com has instituted Power Tankings to rank how well NBA teams are tanking - when owners and general managers of NBA teams that have little expectation of winning intentionally put together a losing team.
Coaches are in on the scam, but hardly ever complain in order to protect their jobs and keep their players motivated. Tanking is one of the worst kept secrets in sports. Of course, the NBA denies tanking exists and the league has taken measures to discourage the practice.
Sports are part entertainment, as ESPN ("Entertainment and Sports Programming Network") reminded us when it was formed more than three decades ago, and part competition. According to Merriam-Webster, examples of entertainment include plays, movies and games. But unlike plays and movies, sport is defined as "a contest or game in which people... compete against each other."
There you have it: While sport is entertainment, it is distinguishable from other forms of entertainment by the element of competition; the contestants try to win. By that definition, professional wrestling isn't a "sport," it's purely entertainment. Matches are rigged. Insiders, and even most fans, know who's going to "win" even before the match begins. Teams in the NBA, on the other hand, are expected to compete to win, not set out to lose. Yet a number of teams do just that. Why? The answer is the reverse order draft. Teams draft players in the reverse order of their previous year's finish. The more you lose, the higher the draft pick; the higher the draft pick, the better the player, at least in theory.
But it's not that simple. The NFL, MLB and the NHL all adhere to the traditional reverse order draft. The NBA has the fewest players per team and the addition of one "superstar" can potentially have the greatest impact on a team's success. In order to discourage tanking, the NBA instituted a lottery system in 1985 which was further refined in 1990 as a weighted lottery system. The worst teams in the league are no longer guaranteed the first draft picks. All 14 teams that didn't make the playoffs the previous year are automatically entered into a lottery to determine draft order. In fact, only the first three picks are actually determined by a lottery, after which the draft order is determined by inverse order of last year's finish.
Although the worst teams from the previous year still have the best chance of winning the lottery, since the weighted average system was first introduced, only three teams with the worst record have actually won the lottery. And even teams that draft first don't always make the right choice. The Portland Trailblazers won the lottery in 2007 and drafted Greg Oden. Due to injuries, Oden played in only 82 games - the equivalent of one season - in five years, averaging 9.4 points per game. The Cleveland Cavaliers tanked the 2002-03 season, won the lottery and drafted local hero LeBron James. Although the Cavaliers won more games than they lost during the next seven seasons, there is still no championship banner flying in Quicken Loans Arena. After the 2009-10 season, LeBron became a free agent and took his talents to South Beach (Miami Heat).
So why tank? It's a mindset that some owners and general managers can't shake. You might call it a triumph of hope over experience. But not everyone is sold on the practice, including Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest NBA player of all time and current owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats have been historically awful during Jordan's tenure as owner, yet he maintains that tanking a season to get a high draft pick isn't the way to strengthen a franchise.
Jordan is right. Tanking is nothing more than stealing money from fans and sponsors. If you don't play to win, you shouldn't be in the game, and that applies to owners and general managers. Fortunately, players aren't in on the charade. The Philadelphia 76ers, unanimously pegged as the worst team in the league in preseason polls and ranked number one on the Power Tankings list, currently sport a 3-0 record.
At least the players have integrity, even if their bosses don't.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.