Tanking is bad for the NBA.
I don’t think anyone would argue against that statement. Nor should they.
No one wants to watch their team lose over and over and over again. Losing on purpose does not conform with the goals and norms we as a society have proscribed for our athletes and franchises. We want to win, and if we can’t win ourselves, then we want to win vicariously through someone or something else.
You and I both would rather watch Marc Gasol, Tyreke Evans, and Chandler Parsons be about .500—perhaps a bit better—on a nightly basis because you and I want to be gratified immediately as often as possible. We desire vindication from the time, effort, and money we’ve spent on this team, and the easiest way to see that validation is through wins.
However, you and I both also know that short term gratification may enhance long term suffering and vice versa, which is why we ought to tolerate the current losing streak and general abysmal play the Memphis Grizzlies have shown. We understand that there is a greater goal (the best odds of the number one pick in the draft are awarded to the worst team in the league) that could come from the team’s current struggles; we therefore cast our hopes into the future where the unknown, we hope for better or worse, will improve upon the present.
All of that waxing poetic about tanking in professional American basketball can be summed up thusly: although tanking for the league is bad, tanking for the Grizzlies is good.
In fact, tanking for any organization clearly not in contention for the playoffs is good for those franchises. As a result, this year there are more teams amidst the lowest of the low than we have seen possibly in the history of sport. The field has widened somewhat, but there are still nine teams within six games of the worst record (which the Grizzlies currently own) and seven teams within three games. It is an epidemic of tanking the likes of which we have never seen.
The idea, then, would follow that if the league is experiencing a historic spat of tanking and if tanking is bad for the NBA, then that rash of calculated losing must be very bad for The Association.
However, I argue that the parity within this year’s race to the bottom is actually good for the league.
Before explaining why this year’s tankathon actually assists the NBA as opposed to ruining it, I’d like to clarify a few things:
- I’m not arguing that tanking is fun. It most certainly is not.
- I’m not arguing that tanking itself is good for the league. It dilutes the talent level (a.k.a. star power) of too many teams and manufactures a product on the court that is borderline unacceptably below average. Those things are bad, and I am not praising them.
That having been said, competition of any kind benefits the NBA, and this is the most wildly competitive race for the best lottery odds in basketball history. It is not the type of competition the NBA wants, but it is nonetheless a positive for the league.
For example, as a Grizzlies fan, you would otherwise have no incentive to watch the team if you knew they were going to get a top two or three pick. If the outcome of the season is relatively certain, and if that outcome is markedly not positive, then there’s no reason for you to indulge yourself in bad basketball unless you’re a masochist or a zealot (or both). I call this the “Reverse Golden State theory.”
Before this season and throughout the 2016-17 campaign, fans harped about the inevitability of the Warriors winning the Finals, complaining that their dominance took the fun out of the season since it was relatively obvious that Golden State would be the champion. But now that Houston, Boston, and Toronto have emerged alongside Cleveland as genuine threats for the 2017-18 title, the interest level for both the regular season and playoffs has increased.
That theorem works in reverse as well. When the Philadelphia 76ers were in the deepest depths of Hinkie-ism, there was absolutely no one who could touch their tanking brilliance. And, at best, it was ludicrously boring; at worst, it manifested itself as hopelessness stemming from self inflicted flagellation. It was easy to pose Philly as a pariah because it was the only franchise daring enough to be that desperately bad.
The Sixers paved the way for six or seven different teams to attempt that feat this year. As there’s not one team to single out as the leader of the pack, it’s harder to affix blame for the epidemic. But because there are a host of organizations that are still in the thick of things at the bottom, because the outcome of the draft order is far from decided, and because there’s a possibility for so much variation in that draft order, dedicated intrigue remains.
Part of that intrigue, as a Grizzlies fan, should be knowing your enemy, which is the second main reason why parity in tanking benefits the NBA.
If you care about the Grizzlies tank job this year, then you probably check the standings on Tankathon.com every now and then to see who’s competing with the Grizz for the worst record. As a result, you may actually be more inclined to watch a game between Orlando and Atlanta or between Phoenix and Chicago because the result of those games have more impact on your team than, say, a matchup between Utah and Philadelphia (two teams competing for the playoffs).
Take that interest and multiply it by seven to nine teams and suddenly you have a decent viewing audience for the league’s worst teams. This is at a time when normally everyone has cast the bottom feeders aside for more interesting playoffs races. That’s not to say that the general NBA fan cares about the tankers of the league, but fanbases in Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, and New York—five of the biggest markets in America—in addition to Orlando and Memphis (I exclude Brooklyn because they aren’t actively trying to tank), and you ought to have a hefty population of NBA fans at the very least interested in the league’s other worst teams.
When Memphis plays one of the other tanking teams, there is much more on the line than if they play someone like Milwaukee (which they did last night). Losing against Phoenix means much more than losing (or winning) against Washington. Additionally, if you have NBA League Pass and notice that one of the bottom nine teams is competing against a team they really should not be, as a Grizzlies fan you may be more likely to stop and watch that game than a matchup of two better teams.
Tanking is not good for the NBA. It promotes the opposite values for which the league aspires. However, competition of any kind assists The Association, and as this year’s tank race is arguably the most competitive in sports history, it follows that this year’s fight for the best lottery odds indeed should paradoxically benefit the NBA.