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The Myth of the Tanking Spurs

The tanking myth is one we revisit often. The excuses of why tanking is a good strategy fall by the day. And yet, one team and one season remains as the proof in the pudding. The 1996-1997 Spurs tanked to get Tim Duncan, and it worked brilliantly, right? I'm sick of this myth being paraded around, so I'm putting a post I'll forever be able to link to.

A Brief Note on what Tanking is

Now, before I get going, let's talk about what tanking is. The definition I'll be using of tanking is a team intentionally losing to significantly improve their draft choices. I'll stress the two words intentionally and significantly. A bad team that loses is not tanking; they really have no choice. If there's a limited amount of time left in the season and a team loses a few games, they aren't really significantly improving their chances. To tank means to intentionally exert lots of effort to ensure you lose lots of games. Michael Jordan in Charlotte is a perfect example. If you trade away all of the good players on your roster the year before a top draft candidate is available, then yes, you are tanking. And that means when people say that the 76ers "shouldn't" be winning so much a mere three games into the season or that they need to get rid of their good players, then yes that counts as advocating tanking.

The Classic Tale

Let's look into the greatest "tank job" ever: the 1996-1997 Spurs. In 1995-1996 the Spurs were a great team winning 59 games. Then, disaster struck. David Robinson went down with an injury! David Robinson was indeed a major loss, in 1996 he'd been worth 20 wins on his own! But wait, there was a silver lining, the upcoming draft had promising rookie Tim Duncan waiting. He'd been a monster the year before, and he played even better his senior season. If only the Spurs had a shot at him! The solution seemed obvious; leave Robinson out and get a chance at Duncan.

Reality Part 1: Age Took its Toll

The 1997 Spurs were much much worse than the 1996 Spurs. It would be easy to blame this on intent. The Spurs wanted to be bad to get Tim Duncan. Except, that's not quite right. They lost David Robinson, who had been their best player by far. However, equally devastating were the declines in the performances of Avery Johnson and Vinny Del Negro. In 1996 combined they'd been worth about as many wins as the Admiral. In 1997 they were below average players. In 1995-1996 Del Negro and Johnson combined for over 5000 minutes, they saw a drop in minutes the next season, but at a combined 4600+ minutes, it's not like they weren't played. In fact, they were the top two players in minutes on the Spurs. What's more the Spurs kept both players around for a few more years. Their decline is an easy one to explain, it was because of age. Both Negro and Johnson were in their early thirties. This is right around the time players lose a step. These two were no different. Both would play for a few more seasons, and both never played anywhere close to their previous high marks. So, it's not like the Spurs planned for their once dynamic backcourt to just get worse in the hopes of landing Duncan. No, they just got old "at the right time".

Reality Part 2: David suited up!

The real smoking gun to this myth is David Robinson himself. You see, Robinson was injured in the preseason and was out to start the year. The effects were immediate as the Spurs would go off to a 3-15 start. They had the second worst record in the league behind the Vancouver Grizzlies. The Grizzlies were an expansion team and were ineligible from getting the number one pick, meaning the Spurs were leading the race for Duncan! Then on December 10th a miracle happened, David Robinson was able to suit up for a game! In fact David Robinson was able to suit up for six games, in which the Spurs went 3-3, a significant improvement from their 3-15 start. Let's look at these games and why they were important.

  • December 10th at Phoenix. Spurs lose to a Suns team entering the contest 4-14
  • December 12th at the Los Angeles. Spurs lose to the Clippers, who enter with a 7-14 record
  • December 14th vs. the Dallas. Spurs defeat a Mavericks squad that had an 8-12 record
  • December 19th at Houston. Spurs defeat the league best Rockets, who had a 21-3 record.
  • December 21st vs. Phoenix. Spurs defeat the Suns, who had an 8-16 record.
  • December 23rd vs. Miami. Spurs lose to the Heat, who had a 20-6 record

Reality Part 3: The Spurs tanking strategy was bad

Now, there's two major things that should stand out. If the Spurs were trying to lose, they were well on their way. They were second worst in the league. After six games with Robinson, they'd climbed to third worst, a mere one game behind New Jersey. And look at two key things that happened during these six games, the Spurs played to win against terrible teams they were competing against for "worst in the league" (if they were tanking). They also managed to "upset" the Rockets, in what should have been an "easy loss" for a team trying to tank. In the end, those three victories didn't cost the Spurs their spot. The Celtics and Grizzlies proved better tankers at 15 and 14 wins respectively. However, what sense does it make for a team that has already conceded one quarter of the season to insert a superstar for six games and improve the teams record? Some will point out that Robinson broke his foot and that was why he left. That's 100% accurate, but it also disproves the myth. The Spurs (unless they had some insidiuous plan to break the Admiral's foot) did not choose for Robinson to go down. They wanted him to play, even when the season seemed lost. They wanted him to play when doing so meant losing valuable ping pong balls that could have meant their own Tim Duncan. On that note...

Reality: Part 3

The Spurs had terrible odds at getting Duncan, even after all that "tanking". The Spurs finished behind the Celtics and Grizzlies in losses. The Grizzlies were an expansion team and had agreed to forfeit their eligibility for the first pick. So the Spurs had slightly better odds than a standard third worst NBA team hoping for a pick at 21.6%. In most worlds the Celtics grab Duncan. In a few the Nuggets or Sixers get him. The Spurs got lucky though. And as I've pointed out, they didn't willingly tank.

Conclusion

It's this simple: for most teams, when your star player gets injured and your core players get old, you're out of luck. In the Spurs case, this happened during a year when they had a shot at grabbing Tim Duncan. In that next year, David Robinson came back as good as old, and the rest is history. However, history seems to remember this tale as a brilliant strategy, and not a connection of bad luck that compounded and resulted in a lucky outcome. Luckily, you readers now know the truth, and won't make the same mistake....right?

Just think if North American Sports had a free market like the normal career fields or like the the rest of the world.
Just food for thought: How much would you trade for a 1-in-5 chance at landing Tim Duncan?

Well I would start with Johnson and Del Negro...it doesn't work like that. Those trades would be dependent variables. You do understand that?
You misunderstood. I wasn't asking about what the Spurs should have done, I was asking how much someone would value just that shot, absent the tanking and whatever else.

Given that hitting on that chance gets you one of the best players ever, and missing costs you whatever you traded, how much would you be willing to give up?
I find the whole "tanking" discussion boring, mostly because I think that virtually no teams actually "tank" (using the definition set forth in this post). It is almost an entirely media-driven discussion that has very little to do with how NBA basketball is actually run.

THAT SAID. I like DooDoo_Jump's question. If you knew in 1997 that Tim Duncan would become Tim Duncan, should you tank? I would say... YES! If you could increase your chances of landing Tim Duncan by, say, 20%, why not? How many wins has Timmy produced over the years? An expected value of tanking (20% of Timmy's career production) is HUGE. So, get rid of 30+ year old VDN, Avery Johnson, and Mad Max. The team's leading scorer was 37-year old Dominique. Why would you ever keep him? What's the worst that happens? You don't get Timmy and you have to retool with younger players? So, yes, in the case of the 1997 Spurs, tanking was, in fact, a very good option, and one that they didn't take full advantage of.
BTW - this site used to have WP numbers going back to 2001. What happened to them? I was hoping to get a good read on how many wins Timmy has produced in his career.
If I could trade bad/mediocre players, I would do that but to give up a good player for a lottery ticket is asking too much. So you would trade Robinson, who was aging, for Duncan?
"So you would trade Robinson, who was aging, for Duncan?"
Robinson was first team all-NBA the prior year. The cumulative amount of wins he could be expected to produce for the remainder of his career probably exceeded the expected value of a 20% increase in your chances at Duncan. So, no.
That was an IQ test.
Another thing to remember is wasn't just a 1 in 5 chance of getting Duncan, a guy we know to be a great player with hindsight, it's really a 1 in 5 chance of getting a highly rated rookie, who could end up being a bust.

I can't remember the exact numbers, but isn't it something like a 50%-60% hit rate, even for the best big men at the top of drafts? If that's the case, it's more like a 1 in 10 chance of landing that franchise savior.
Just logged in but Brian beat me to the comment - low odds (1/5) times the incredibly low odds of the number 1 pick turning into what we now know Timmy to be. Not a bet you should ever make.
That's a great point JamaalTinsleytown, even if Duncan wasn't a bust, there's a big range in between that and the player he ended up being. Any time a player you draft ends up being an all time great you got incredibly lucky, by definition - there just aren't that many all time greats.
Al,

It's precisely that media-driven myth that we're bored of and fed up by, and what we're ranting about. Not any actual team practices in this regard.

If ESPN stops blatantly making things up about how the incentives work, I'll shut up on the topic.
If OKC never wins a title, will that be aggregated in the collective consciousness with the Cleveland LeBrons, the Orlando Shaqs and The Minnesota Garnetts as proof that getting a great player isn't enough?

Every NBA champion outside SAS since 2000 had at least one top three player that came in a trade or via Free Agency. Shaq (two teams), LeBron, Garnett, The whole Pistons team, Dallas... all those champions had help beyond the draft.

In contrast, the team that drafted the star, from Minnesota to Cleveland and Orlando, the drafting simply wasn't enough.

SAS real achievement wasn't the tanking achievement, it has been maximising the number of titles having lucked into a great like TD, which they couldn't manage to do with The Admiral for the preceding decade.
I love the work you guys do, but I still disagree on this issue.

First off, I think your standard for tanking is not correct.

Tanking means purposely making trades or playing players that do not optimize the team's chances of winning games in the current season in order to improve the team's position in the draft and/or its long term prospects.

That could mean:

1. Trading away a good player on a bad long term contract for a bad player on a short term bad contract to improve long term cap space.

2. Playing inferior young players in an effort to develop them over superior veterans that you know are not part of your long term plans.

3. Trading away decent veteran role players that will be easy to replace for draft picks or younger players.

4. Other

I think the correct standard for whether tanking was smart or not is not whether it leads to a title. It's whether the various moves created greater value for the team in the long term than the alternatives. That gets very tough to measure because it's not always clear what the alternatives were. It depends on the city, cap space, assets you have etc... But typically, if your team is mediocre to bad, you didn't give up any players that would be hard to replace, and you wind up with a better draft pick and/or more experienced young players because of it, it created value.

If I was an owner, the golden rule would be that every move I make must create value.

Developing young players and getting better draft picks creates value. So unless I was a contender, they would always be on the table as an option, even if it meant losing more games in the current year than I could win if I went all out and created no value.
Damn, evolution is so slow.
We keep going back to the same all if this spurs dynasty happens because the spurs hace really good managment.. If TD goes to other team with other culture his career could've been much different
"If I was an owner, the golden rule would be that every move I make must create value. "

Bingo.

LTK, we can argue all day about what tanking means, and frankly, I don't much care. The point is that I want ESPN to shut up about their claims that all the incentives are for losing. That's just bullshit.

There are plenty of incentives to trade present assets for future assets, as Al_S put it so well. Namely, when the value of those future assets is higher.

This does not AT ALL equate to "trying to lose" any more than a company that decides to go into debt in order to build a big warehouse/distribution center/software application/etc is "trying to lose money".

I feel like every time I read an article that says "The Sixers are winning too much", my IQ goes down 7 points.
@lovethoseknicks

I don't think that your definition of tanking much jives with the common usage of the word. If we were just talking about prioritizing future wins over current wins as you are suggesting, then it would just be called "good management" when implemented by teams that can improve their long-term win totals and/or playoff appearances and/or championship chances by doing so. This is something that pretty much all well-run teams end up doing cyclically throughout the history of their franchise, and is almost completely unavoidable in the long run.

But why would we create a derogatory term for such a phenomenon?

Tanking is when a team blows up their current season for an outside shot at the number one pick. It's not a general rational strategy.
Once the Spurs realized that Robinson was lost for the season (and it was front page news at the time, with a diagram explaining the injury) they did embrace the tanking strategy. They turned the team over to an over-the-hill Dominique Wilkins and Vernon Maxwell. This made sense because although both players were disastrously inefficient shooters, they were both streaky and exciting players, so the team was still more or less fun to watch. And every now and then Nique would go for 35 or something and the team might win. After which, they got lucky and obtained one of the absolute greatest players of all time.
We might be seeing a similar parallel with the Chicago Bulls this season. All they need to do now is sign Tracy McGrady (3 years younger than Dominique was on that Spurs team!) and give him 30-minutes/night so they can win 20 games, and they'll be the '97 Spurs.

Rose wasnt playing well at all, but Bulls might be the worst team in the league without him because their replacements don't force other teams to honor his drives, allowing their defenses to constantly collapse on the post.

Of all the teams that have "incentive" to dip back in the lottery one more time, I'd put the Bulls at the top. Being a completely capped out veteran team, their only way to add top-tier talent is via the draft and their exceptions. They potentially have the Bobcats' pick this season (top-10 protected) AND their own (very likely) lottery pick. Getting the #7 and #13 pick in THIS draft could very quickly lead to a dynasty. In terms of college production, last season there were FOUR players at or above 16.0 WS/40. Most seasons, there are between FIVE and NINE. So far this season, there are THIRTY-THREE!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!

This is the best draft pool of college players in NBA history, and it's not close. If you're going to "tank" your team or hoard first-round picks (how bout them Suns!), this is the year to do it.

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