When tankers tell the truth

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
2:25
PM ET
Webb By Royce Webb
ESPN.com
Archive
NBA teams have been tanking for decades to improve their draft position (and for other reasons), and NBA insiders have talked about tanking for decades -- in fact, over the years the NBA itself has recognized the potential for tanking and dealt with it in various ways, including altering the draft system multiple times to try to prevent it. Meanwhile, as the discourse about tanking has gone public, there have been thousands of articles written about the problem, including by such writers as Sam Smith and Bill Simmons.

HoopIdea has carried forward this discussion as part of our effort to improve the game. As we said on Day 1 of HoopIdea: Basketball is the best game ever. Now let’s make it better.

To make the game the best it can be, we want to make sure that when fans show up or watch on TV, both teams are always trying to win. And the NBA does, too. As Joel Litvin, the NBA’s president for basketball operations, told Howard Beck of The New York Times in 2008: “If we ever found a team was intentionally losing games, we would take the strongest possible action in response.”

Given that, it’s worth noting that tanking has been confessed to dozens of times off the record and a surprising number of times on the record:

2006-07 Boston Celtics
In 2007, with Greg Oden and Kevin Durant as the big lottery prizes, several teams were openly questioned about apparent tanking, including the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Memphis Grizzlies, the three teams that ended up with the best chance of drafting Oden or Durant.

In one notorious game late in the season, the Celtics, playing at home, led the woeful Bobcats 69-51 late in the third quarter -- and managed to lose the game by eight points, enhancing their draft positioning. Of course, Celtics coach Doc Rivers denied tanking charges. As Steve Bulpett reported in the Boston Herald: “Rivers insisted there was nothing sinister about leaving Paul Pierce (game-high 23 points) on the bench for the fourth quarter and letting the quintet of Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Allan Ray and Leon Powe stay on the parquet as the lead -- still at 10 with nine minutes left in the game -- disappeared.”

In the final week of the season, the Celtics and Bucks, both maneuvering for the best possible draft position, played each other and gave DNPs to high scorers Paul Pierce, Al Jefferson, Wally Szczerbiak, Michael Redd and Mo Williams.

After the game, the Associated Press reported:
Ryan Gomes had 13 through three quarters, but watched from the bench in the fourth as Boston clinched the worst record in the Eastern Conference and second worst in the league.

"I probably (would have played), but since we were in the hunt for a high draft pick, of course things are different," Gomes said. "I understand that. Hopefully things get better. Now that we clinched at least having the second-most balls in the lottery, the last three games we'll see what happens. We'll see if we can go out and finish some games."

2002-03 Cleveland Cavaliers
Did the 2002-03 Cavs tank to get LeBron James?

At the time, many assumed they did. John Lucas, who coached the team from 2001 to 2003, admitted somewhat bitterly that he went along with the apparent conspiracy: "They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team," Lucas told AOL FanHouse in 2010. "You can't fault the Cavaliers for wanting to get LeBron. It was hard to get free agents to come there."

Lucas pointed out that before the 2002-03 season, Cavs management traded their three leading scorers and received almost nothing of value in return. Of course, Gordon Gund, the Cavs’ owner at the time, denied Lucas’ claims that the Cavs were tanking to get LeBron, the local hero.

Ricky Davis was one of the beneficiaries of the Cavs’ questionable moves -- in 2002-03, after several key teammates had been traded away, he led Cleveland by far in minutes, field goal attempts, scoring, assists and steals.

Yet he, too, told AOL Fanhouse that the Cavs were losing on purpose: "It was tough on [Lucas]. They were forcing him to lose and I know it's nothing he wanted to do. It's just the position he was forced in. But it's tough. ... It worked, whatever they did [to get James] so it's hard to knock them. They got what they wanted. But it was hard on Luke."

2005-06 Phoenix Suns
In 2006, the Phoenix Suns gave the Los Angeles Lakers an easy win late in the regular season to try to assure a matchup with the Lakers in the postseason, according to Jack McCallum in “Seven Seconds or Less.” McCallum was a Sports Illustrated writer who spent the 2005-06 season as an unofficial “assistant coach” for the Suns, and he provided this insight on how the coaching staff manipulated the standings:
The Suns believe that the Lakers' transition defense is close to nonexistent and will provide an open highway for the Nash-led fast break, so this was the matchup they wanted. [Suns coach Mike] D'Antoni couldn't precisely orchestrate it -- not in an eighty-two-game season -- but the coach had benched [Steve] Nash and Raja Bell for that late-season game, all but assuring a Laker win that would help them beat out the Sacramento Kings, who were in eighth place.

The Suns' scheme almost backfired, as the Lakers took a 3-1 lead in the series and nearly closed Phoenix out before the Suns famously rallied to take three straight and advance.

2005-06 Minnesota Timberwolves
The most spectacular tank job in recent memory occurred on April 19, 2006, in a Minnesota-Memphis game that is still a common punch line around the league.

Earlier that month, Chicago Tribune NBA writer Sam Smith had called out the Timberwolves and the league:
The NBA should take a look at this one in the interest of the game's integrity and paying customers. Minnesota needs to have one of the top 10 poorest records to keep its draft pick. Otherwise, it goes to the Clippers from the Sam Cassell-Marko Jaric deal.

In a 103-95 loss to the Jazz at home on Friday, [Kevin] Garnett sat out the fourth quarter after making all of his third-quarter shots. Garnett had 13 rebounds through three quarters, and Minnesota was outrebounded 18-6 in the fourth.

It's reminiscent of the game-throwing days before the draft lottery was started.

In the final game of the season, the Wolves sat Garnett and Ricky Davis, and then turned the game against Memphis into a joke by inserting Mark Madsen and letting him fire away. In six seasons, Madsen had made only one 3-pointer in nine attempts. But in that game he tossed up seven 3-pointers and missed them all -- they were his only 3-point attempts of the season. The Wolves lost the game in double overtime (Madsen started the second overtime with three 3-point bricks in less than a minute) and secured the draft pick.

After the game, Wolves coach Dwane Casey didn’t deny that the team was less than serious about winning the game: "The guys were having fun with it. For what we've been through this season, I thought the guys deserved it. I hope what we did didn't make a mockery of the game."

Was it a victimless crime? By securing a top-10 draft position, the Timberwolves prevented the Clippers from receiving the draft pick that became 2007 Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy (a future three-time All-Star whom the Wolves traded to Portland on draft night). And the Memphis win put the unfortunate Grizzlies (who also might have been motivated to lose the game) into a more difficult playoff bracket -- the Grizzlies started the postseason on the road and were swept by Dallas in the first round rather than having home-court advantage over a struggling Denver Nuggets team (which lost its first-round series to the Clippers).

On the flip side, the draft pick that did not go to the Clippers in 2006 eventually became the pick that allowed L.A. to acquire Chris Paul from New Orleans in 2011 -- and the Timberwolves will not get to use their own lottery pick this season, in part because of that infamous night in 2006.

1996-97 Boston Celtics
One of the most notorious years for tanking was 1997. It’s widely believed that the San Antonio Spurs tanked the season by holding out David Robinson longer than necessary to secure a higher draft pick, which became the most coveted player available, Tim Duncan. In fact, to many, this is one of the most incredibly successful tank jobs in NBA history, in part because the Spurs were already a very good team, and they have won four titles and counting with Duncan leading the way. But to our knowledge, no one involved has admitted that the Spurs were tanking.

The same year, though, the Boston Celtics did indeed tank, according to longtime Celtic M.L. Carr, who coached the team from 1995 to 1997. In 1996-97, the Celtics fell from 33 wins the previous season to 15 wins.

According to Mark Cofman of the Boston Herald, in 2001:
Carr suggested his last season as Celtics coach in 1996-97, during which the team suffered through a franchise-worst 15-67 record, was a tank job designed to deliver the incoming coach (Rick Pitino) with strong draft position. "That was part of the orchestration," said Carr, an obvious indictment of the entire organization and its part in encouraging a losing season in an attempt to get the first overall pick (Tim Duncan). As it turned out, the Celtics lost out on Duncan and settled for the third and sixth overall picks.

Pitino’s tenure as Boston coach would be a great disappointment, and he often lamented that he had taken the job with the expectation that the Celtics would get Duncan.

1983-84 Houston Rockets
Why do we have a draft lottery? Because of what happened in 1984.

In his book “Tip-Off,” a thorough account of the pivotal 1984 NBA draft, Filip Bondy dedicates a chapter to tanking entitled “Embracing Defeat.”

The ’84 draft included Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Charles Barkley. Bondy recounts some of the odd behavior of the Houston Rockets, who appeared to be maneuvering for the right to draft Olajuwon, a star at the University of Houston, with Jordan as a nice Plan B. (The right to make the first choice in the draft was decided by coin flip.)

As the Rockets nosedived, everyone noticed.

"Weird things were happening. A lot of funny stuff going on, leaving a dark mark on the integrity of the game," said Pat Williams, then the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

According to Dr. Jack Ramsay, then coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, "There was a lot of reason for concern, for suspicion."

As reported by Bondy, it was Frank Layden, the former Utah Jazz coach, who spilled the beans on the Rocket science: "They were losing on purpose. That was told to me by one of their executives, that it was a business decision. And that’s why we went to the lottery system. It’s still going on a little bit today, anyway."

Bondy writes: "The NBA’s image suffered a severe blow that spring from all the suspicious losing. … The league was so concerned about the perceived chicanery that its board of governors instituted a lottery system weeks after the 1984 draft to assure such nonsense would never happen again."

Then again: As we’ve seen above, the lottery does not assure that tanking ended in 1984. Not even close.

Furthermore, these are hardly the only cases in recent NBA history, and HoopIdea will continue to bring tanking to light.
Royce Webb is an NBA editor at ESPN.com.

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