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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?