Jan 11, 2019
Jan 11, 2019

Are NBA teams rebuilding or tanking? The telltale signs

Are NBA teams rebuilding or tanking? The telltale signs

Is your team really losing or is there a bigger plan taking place behind the curtains? Read on to find out the signs that point towards a tanking team.

This season so far we have seen a few teams make use of their analysis and have committed to rebuilding by taking a year to develop their rosters. But is this just another way of saying that they are “tanking” in order to change things up for years to come? 

What is tanking in the NBA?

First off, a “tank” is the deliberate, concerted effort to complete the season with the least number of wins in order to be able to get the best situation in the upcoming draft of the NBA. Teams that employ this strategy often go to amazing lengths and drastic measures to do so in the process

On the other hand a “rebuild” commonly occurs when a roster has struggled, and has issues when a large group of their players are above a certain age. The management of the franchise focuses more on player development through acquiring younger prospective stars. 

Trading veterans for possible draft rights, cash considerations, and other options are a part of the process. However, in the grand scheme of things, just like “tanking”, losing is a part of the way the strategy pans out.

Either way the critical bit is how sportsman-like you want to be when undertaking either strategy you pick. 

When we look at history, tanking is nothing new. The Houston Rockets only notched 29 wins in the 1984 season and went in high favorites into the 1985 draft lottery, when it was established as a prime way for teams to strengthen their rosters with new talent. 

The end result and a favourable flip of a coin landed Houston their “dream shake” Hakeem Olajuwon. 

Since its inception changes have been adopted to the practice of drafting. While teams have been much more subtle in their tanking we have seen refined methods that have resulted in franchises landing amazing talent. 

  • 2002-03 Cleveland – LeBron James
  • 2005-06 Minnesota – Brandon Roy
  • 2006-07 Boston – Jeff Green

At the cusp of the 2019 NBA draft we are going to see some changes take place. The last three franchises in the league will have equal odds going into the lottery to prevent “over-tanking” as I call it.

While all the above show how effective the strategy has been, “The Process” that Sam Hinkie made infamous at the 76ers GM allowed the franchise to draft Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons and, last season, Markelle Fultz.

Whilst Hinkie stepped down as an executive back in 2016 his legacy allowed for the 76ers to build not just a young core but surround their rising stars with talent that still is emerging.

“Trust the process” became such a phenomenon that it changed how cap salary experts and analysts scout as well as how fans tracked the progress of their favourite team. 

Signs of Tanking

So if we are searching for signs of a team that maybe tanking, what should bettors and fans alike look for? 

1- A drastic change in win percentage around February 

Looking back at last season we saw two teams that shamelessly opted to tank their season: 

2017/18 NBA season win percentage

2017/18 NBA season win percentage


Win percentage up to Jan 31st

Win percentage after Jan 31st

Memphis Grizzlies



Phoenix Suns



The Grizzlies won 32% of their games until Jan. 31, 2018 and the Suns 30.5% of their games. Then the fight to the lowest point really kicked into gear: Memphis ended the year with just three wins after January, but Phoenix outdid them with only three victories. 

Tanking has become such a phenomenon that, it’s actually become a very difficult thing to do. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks or the New York Knicks. On Feb. 1, 2018, the Mavs were in 28th place league-wide. After finishing the season winning only 4 of their final 30 games, they somehow only dropped from 28th to 29th. 

Overall, things worked out for the Mavs as they landed the Euroleague MVP and the top European prospect Luka Doncic after a trade with the Hawks on draft night. 

On the other hand the Knicks, 19th overall, on February 2 won just six games of their last thirty games. This dip only took them to the 22nd place and the term “the knicks can’t even lose right” was dubbed.                                        

2- When marginal errors occur and things seem like stolen away from the team 

In the case of the 76ers, Hinkie was in part lucky since both Okafor as well as Embiid were sidelined by season-ending injuries, and Coach Brown did not have too many alternatives to work with. 

In the case of the 05-06 Timberwolves, the fact that the team did not play (DNP) Garnett combined with Coach Casey activating Madsen instead, who had a very bad shooting streak during their losing run, proved pivotal. 

Finally Doc Rivers and the 06-07 Celtics pulled the plug on Pierce and only got a total of 24 wins while trying to land KD (which eventually did not work).                                                                                                            

The fact of the matter is that in teams who may be tanking, a number of franchise of star players circulate around the inactive roster space, to the point that so-called bench players become their starting lineup. 

3 – Coaching staff being managed extremely poorly by front office 

The so called “lose now” phase a front office would go through depends very much on how a successful coach is treated. For example, the situation Dave Joerger was placed into by the Kings put into a very bad light how the entire DeMarcus Cousins send off and Bagley take in occurred. 

Similarly the Hawks front office supposedly not getting along with Coach Budenholzer while they made a tremendous run for the 14-15 Eastern conference record before being swept by the Cavs in the conf. finals and then, the following season, being swept again (this time in the conf. semi-finals) which led to the eventual removal of the head coach. 

Signs of a team that isn't tanking 

1- Just being really bad (it happens) 

When looking at the grand scheme of things the Nets throughout the 2010s are an example of a franchise that have just been bad rather than making a concerted effort to tank. 

They were 28th during the 15-16 season and pretty much dead last in the 16-17 season. Yet, overall, it didn’t do them any good since they had no draft picks to work with in the first round, having traded them away. 

The beginning of the 2000s, and the management of the franchise messed them up to such an extent that their salary cap space, as well as draft picks, have been  driven to a point where they can’t recover. 

On the other hand, since the switch of management at the Nets, LeVert, Dinwiddie and recent pick Jarrett Allen have been shining examples of how a franchise can recover quickly. 

2- The concept of the development year 

While “this is a development year” is a common refrain after poor performance, it means more than just losing games. If genuine, then it’s the phase of developing players, and winning if at all possible happens rarely. 

It’s different to the notion of attempting to lose without taking into consideration what happens during that process. 

Tweaks in the lineups, rotation of incoming G-League players, or attempting to give experience to players in different roles can all take place. At the same as these tweaks, different game situations and types of opponents are faced night in, night out. 

The motivation of the team is a good indicator of their willingness during such a period. When the entire squad cheers a major play, that is a clear sign that such a team is not willing to tank.

 A serious development team will celebrate any win but will also be way down the line deep into the season, no matter their draft ambitions.

How bad is tanking really? 

Any team that fumbles by midway through the season could potentially blow up their odds of going down the stretch. 

Well, what holds them back? Washington for example are finally moving away from the Beal, Wall duo. Charlotte are considering what to do with Walker, as good as he is. 

The numerous considerations of trades, free agency, and development scenarios as well as internationally-scouted options are all relevant when considering tanking. 

It might seem entertaining to watch an NBA game but it’s hard work to get a win. Night in, night out it takes the entire roster to commit to the tanking option. 

Coming back from -25 points one night and going to over time to win by just a single point, or having to carry a star player that is in a shooting slump, is all a part of the game these days. The faith of the players is tested regularly. 

Now given the change in the draft lottery and how draft picks will be handled, no longer are the days where the worst team will get the best odds to pick the #1 draft pick.

Takeaways from tanking

I don’t necessarily condone tanking, but the bottom line is that it does happen. As an analyst that has worked the ranks, it’s always good to know the mindset of a team you are scouting. 

From a betting point of view it is exceptionally important to be aware of these signs. If you suspect a team may be tankin, check how their over/under fluctuates from game to game and see if an opportunity has appeared.

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