If you aren’t familiar with the term, the graceful tank, first coined by Chris Herrington of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, is being defined as a tanking season without the organization intentionally choosing to or being aware of the tank. The Memphis Grizzlies are the epitome of this definition and it is growing increasingly clear as the season progresses.
But tanking is not the worst thing that can happen. (Remaining in the NBA’s abyss of average almost certainly is.) Tanking has become the popular theory that sucking at all things basketball will reward you with a high draft pick in the upcoming draft, and hopefully landing an era-creating talent.
The phenomenon of the tank is a relatively new one. If nothing else, the widespread awareness and acceptance of the tank is definitely new. Teams are ironically proud of tanking efforts, often making it obvious of the strategy well in advance of the draft.
The problem is: the tanking strategy is largely unproven. In theory, it sounds legitimate; the NBA has created a system that inadvertently encourages tanking. But we haven’t seen too many real life examples of this working. I’ll give you two that are worth taking a look at, but there is something that I want to make sure that Grizz Nation understands.
A full-fledged rebuild, via the tank, is a very long process. Like years. Multiple years.
Example A: Houston Astros
I know, I know, this is not the NBA we are talking about here. But the Stros mastered the tank, and were royally rewarded this past year with an World Series Championship. In recent memory, this is the most successful use of the tank and rebuild. Do not be fooled, though- this process started in 2011, and six years later they are reaping the benefits.
To give numbers in support, from Neil Paines’ FiveThirtyEight article on the Astros meteoric rise (pun intended), Houston lost at least 106 games each season from 2011-2013. Then the tide turned. The farm system (minor leagues) of the Astros organization was highly regarded as the best in the business, developing talent that played a significant role in bringing home their first World Series.
The point is, a systematic rebuild was put in place, it was made obvious to everyone involved, and it still took six years to accomplish.
(Also look at the Chicago Cubs, winners of the 2016 World Series who took a similar route.)
Example B: Philadelphia 76ers
Now we are talking NBA. We are familiar with the #TrustTheProcess mantra that this team lives by. They basically made tanking cool, sort of. The process is still ongoing and won’t be complete for at least another two years.
Looking back at the recent history of this franchise is just downright sad, props to any Philly fan that has been able to suffer through it. The 76ers have had four straight top three picks in the draft; all four were on the team at the same time for the first part of this year. And I understand that injuries have played a HUGE role in the slow progress of this team, more so than maybe any team in professional sports. But even with three of the last four top picks healthy to start this season (Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons), this team isn’t that good.
The last time the 76ers had a 29+ win season was in 2012-13 and they missed the playoffs that year. They have had an astonishing 24 total draft picks since that season (10 were used in trades), compared to Memphis with only seven (two used in trades) in the same time frame.
Philly has a chance to make the playoffs this year (currently the 7th seed, 1.5 games from dropping out), but they don’t have a chance to compete for a championship. So we are four years, 24 picks, and numerous trades into this process, and the playoffs are just now on the horizon.
Case in point: rebuilding takes a really long time. Like years. Multiple years.
There are other examples in the NBA right now: the Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings. All these teams have nice young prospects that have been gathered through the draft. Aside from the Lakers who have a chance at landing one, maybe two, top free agents this summer, these bottom feeding, young teams have a long way to go.
I’m all for the tank. I think it’s the best hope we have as an organization. But developing through the draft is a grueling, tough task, especially for a team like Memphis. There aren’t any free agents clawing to land here, and this year the front office has proven itself to be unpredictable (that’s the nicest word I could come up with).
If this season continues as it is now, there are likely to be a few more seasons similar to this one. Consider what the team is built on right now: two 30+ year-old fringe All-Stars with a history of injuries and a shell of Chandler Parsons. The rest of the roster is young guys that are trying their best to stay out of the G-League. Tyreke Evans is (should be) on his way out, and good for him, but there is nothing else to show that the immediate future is promising. The young prospects are at least two years away from being legitimate (and consistent) NBA contributors.
TANK ME HOME, GRIZZLY ROADS, TO THE PICK, I BELONG! MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES, LOSING ALL THE GAMES, TANK ME HOME, GRIZZLY ROADS https://t.co/3QfipUHI47— Joe Mullinax (@JoeMullinax) January 6, 2018
To be prepared for an all-out rebuild, expect losses, a lot of them. Actually, hope for them, pray for more losses. And when this team looks out of sync, on both ends of the floor, celebrate. Its frustrating to watch, but the misery is necessary for the theoretical light at the end of the tunnel. The best part of the season will be draft night with the hope of better things to come.
If we are planning to embrace the tank, we also must embrace the rebuild, and continue to embrace it as long as it lasts. Gracefully.
All draft information provided by basketball-reference.com and basketball.realgm.com/nba/.