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Tanking: It's Only a Technique for the Winners of the Future


A team with a 65-14 record sits their best player for the final three games of the season because of a minor injury. The reaction? "They're just sitting him so they can win down the line."

Yet, when a team with a 14-65 record sits their best player for the same reason, what is the response? "They're tanking! This team is losing games to get a higher draft pick!"

I believe the majority of NBA fans would respond in that fashion considering the reactions to similar situations over the past few years. However, I believe that both of those hypothetical situations warrant the same reaction: "They're sitting the player so they can win down the line."

That's the objective, right? Winning.

With the Boston Celtics trading away Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for future draft picks, you can go ahead and call it the beginnings of a "tanking" season if you want. I look at "tanking" as a specific technique that's used as a small part of something called "rebuilding." Tanking is just a piece of the entire overhaul of a franchise, like trades, signings, releases, or day-to-day decisions by coaches.

It just so happens that the term "tanking" has a negative connotation attached to it that is often associated with losers.

I've read that tanking "ruins the integrity of the game." Really? But shouldn't that apply to each and every other team that rests players, no matter the game, no matter the circumstances?

What difference does it make if a team is winning or losing? There seems to be a biased against losing teams. If a team is a winner, the media and fans allow them get off easily. But if a losing team does the same thing, the backlash is off the charts.

If a losing team deals away their best players at the trade deadline, sits their remaining players that have minor injuries, and goes on a long losing streak, is that tanking? Maybe. But are they wrong to do what they did? Why did they do it?

As Doc Rivers said, "You gotta coach your team to win in the long run and you gotta do whatever you need to do. If that's sitting players, that's sitting players."

Rivers said that in response to the San Antonio Spurs being fined $250,000 for resting four of their top players early last season, but I think the same statement should apply to all other circumstances.

Why shouldn't it? You have to coach your team to win. The long run for one team might be a few weeks or months later; so resting players maximizes your chances of having a healthy roster for the playoffs. On the other hand, the long run for another team might be the following season; so sitting players increases your chances of getting a high draft pick, which makes winning the following year much more likely.

It extends even further than that; if a team trades future draft picks or young players for aging NBA stars, isn't that just the reverse of a team trading away older NBA talent for draft picks and young talent? One team is trying to win right now and another team is trying to win in the near future. No one wants to be a loser; it's all about winning.

The only difference is the timing.

When the Spurs rest Tim Duncan a game here and there or the Miami Heat sit LeBron James for five games during the last month of the season, does anyone really think it's a bad thing for the league? No. All that matters is that those players are healthy and completely energized for each team's run in the playoffs. After all, it's about winning some time down the line.

The 2011-12 Golden State Warriors are the most recent example of a "tanking team." Golden State put themselves in position to win in the future by trading Monta Ellis, shutting down Stephen Curry, and benching David Lee and others toward the end of the season. Should anyone really have cared? No, because it put the team in the best position to win the following season. They ended up drafting an integral role player in Harrison Barnes, a player that helped the team make an exciting playoff run this season.

But at the time, the media was outraged about what the Warriors were doing. Golden State was often accused of ruining the integrity of the game. Seriously? By trying to put their team in position to win later? If they didn't make all those moves, it's likely that the Warriors never would have made the playoffs this past season because they never would have drafted Harrison Barnes. Even this offseason, they wouldn't be in a position to sign an elite player like Dwight Howard.

Does "tanking" always work? No. Neither do all free agent signings, trades, or draft picks. Each team has different circumstances that they must adapt to in order to put themselves in position to win, now or in the future.

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