It's Harder to Properly Tank in the NBA Than to Compete

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIDecember 10, 2013

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Prior to the 2013-14 NBA season, numerous teams—like the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns—traded talented starters in an apparent attempt to improve their draft status in 2014. As we’ve seen through the first 30-plus days of the regular season, however, there’s more to tanking than meets the eye.

These three teams provide an example that great coaching, team chemistry and motivated young players can all derail the idea of losing games for future gain.

The Celtics, Sixers and Suns are not going to compete for a championship in 2014, but don’t tell their players that. These guys are all playing with a great deal of pride and have no intention of losing.

Their talent level on paper hinted that competing would be a challenge. However, these teams are not only competing—they’re also winning games.

Tanking in the NBA is an inexact science, and these teams are proving why.

Boston Celtics

Although the Celtics traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets last summer and are still waiting for All-Star point Rajon Rondo to get healthy following an ACL tear he suffered in January, the C’s have a 10-12 record. Credit first-year head coach Brad Stevens.

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 23:  Head Coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics talks with the team before the game against the Brooklyn Nets on October 23, 2013 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
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In a recent column, Grantland’s Bill Simmons praised Stevens' "extraordinary" coaching ability, adding, "Anyone who can turn Jordan Crawford into a competent point guard has to be a Coach of the Year candidate."

I agree on both counts.

Did you know that as of Dec. 9, the Celtics rank fifth in the league by allowing just 95.8 points per game? They also force opponents to shoot an ugly 33.1 percent from three-point range, which ranks them second.

Crawford has been a revelation running the offense, Jeff Green has been great, Avery Bradley is knocking down his shots and Brandon Bass is playing arguably the best basketball of his career.

No Rondo, Pierce or KG? No problem for the Celts so far. Stevens has everyone on the roster playing well.

I can’t imagine a scenario right now in which the Celts don’t make the postseason; so much for tanking in Beantown.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers finished the 2012-13 season with the league’s worst offense, scoring just 93.2 points per game. During the 2013 offseason, they traded their best player—All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday—for a defensive-minded rookie big man recovering from a torn ACL (Nerlens Noel).

My question is, how on earth does Philly have an offense ranked in the top 10? The Sixers struggled to score points with Holiday, and now they’re scoring well over 100 (102.9) points per game without him.

As it turns out, that’s what drafting Michael Carter-Williams will do for your basketball team.

Dec 3, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Michael Carter-Williams (1) celebrates making a basket during the third quarter against the Orlando Magic at the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers defeated the Magic 126-125 in double overtime. Man
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In 15 games played, MCW is averaging 17.7 points, 7.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game. On top of that, he’s swiping a league-leading 3.1 steals per game, which leads to easy transition opportunities for the offense.

Evan Turner is finally breaking out (20.5 points per game), Thaddeus Young is playing great (draining a career-high 37.8 percent of his threes) and Spencer Hawes ranked sixth on a list of the league’s best “pure shooters” put together by Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal.

As you can see, the concept of tanking is a fickle beast.

Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns finished dead last in the Western Conference last season with a 25-57 record. Michael Beasley finished the season with a mind-boggling negative-2.5 figure in offensive win shares, and interim head coach Lindsey Hunter led the squad to a paltry 12-29 record.

This exchange between the two was the comedic highlight of the Suns’ season:

What a difference a year makes.

Ryan McDonough replaced Lance Blanks—one of the league’s most inept general managers—and former Suns player Jeff Hornacek replaced Hunter. Both moves are paying huge dividends.

Jun 28, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby , first round draft choice Archie Goodwin , general manager Ryan McDonough , and head coach Jeff Hornacek pose for a photo at a press conference at US Airways Center
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

So far, McDonough has traded Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards for Emeka Okafor’s expiring contract and dealt Luis Scola to the Indiana Pacers for Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a first-round pick.

The Scola deal is quickly becoming one of the best trades in the history of the Suns franchise.

Green is averaging a career-high 13.4 points while shooting 36.4 percent from downtown. Plumlee has come out of nowhere, averaging 9.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game in the early going.

The Suns are 11-9 after their first 20 games and currently hold the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Here’s what Suns forward P.J. Tucker had to say about the concept of tanking earlier this season, per Greg Esposito of

It is kind of funny. I think it is more comical than anything. I’ve been fans of different teams growing up and as an adult and I’ve never rooted against a team I like. I don’t think there is a draft pick or anything in the world that could ever make me root against my team to make them better. I think it’s insane.

You have to love his attitude.

Unintentional Tankers

On the other end of the spectrum, the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks have been absolutely dreadful.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 20: Head Coach Jason Kidd of the Brooklyn Nets during an Open Practice at the Barclays Center on October 20, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
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The Knicks have two players on the roster in 2013-14 making top-five NBA money (Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire), but they're 5-14 and recently lost to the Celtics by 41 points.

The Nets traded for Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry, but injuries and Bizarro Brad Stevens—first-year head coach Jason Kidd—have doomed them to the Eastern Conference cellar.

The Bucks, meanwhile, have been a complete enigma. During the offseason, they signed O.J. Mayo (three years, $24 million), Zaza Pachulia (three years, $15.6 million), Carlos Delfino (two years, $6.5 million) and Gary Neal (two years, $6.5 million), among others.

Those moves suggest that Milwaukee’s front office wanted to keep this team competitive, considering it shelled out so much money, but the Bucks have really struggled.

NBA teams from all over the spectrum are showing that tanking intentionally is harder than it seems. Too many factors have to go right (or perhaps wrong) in order to make losing consistently a reality.

Team's need bad coaching—like Tyrone Corbin with the Utah Jazz. They also need nagging injuries to occur—like what has plagued the Nets throughout the year.

As it turns out, stockpiling young players and draft picks no longer ensures a last-place finish. When those youngsters play with pride and buy in to what coaches are trying to teach them (something ornery veterans may scoff at), everything starts to go right.

So while teams like the Celtics, Sixers and Suns may miss out on Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker in 2014, at least they'll have their dignity.


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