Best Examples of NBA Tanking in History


Tanking in the NBA is a controversial strategy employed by some franchises with the aim of securing a higher draft pick and, ultimately, building a stronger team. While opinions on this practice may vary, there is no denying that certain teams have successfully turned their fortunes around through strategic NBA Tanking. In this article, we’ll explore some of the best examples of NBA tanking in history, examining how these calculated moves shaped the future of these franchises.

Cleveland Cavaliers 2002-03 – LeBron James

The 2002-03 NBA season witnessed the Cleveland Cavaliers executing a deliberate tanking strategy that paved the way for a transformative moment in the franchise’s history. Starting with a 2-2 record, the Cavaliers plummeted, losing 15 consecutive games and concluding the season with a dismal 17-65 record.

Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, despite earning an All-Star appearance, saw a reduction in playing time as the team strategically favored Chris Mihm. Undrafted guard Milt Palacio, given a significant role during the tanking season, started 46 games – a stark contrast to his career average of 43 starts in eight years.

LeBron James, a highly anticipated prospect, awaited the draft lottery alongside the Denver Nuggets. Cleveland emerged victorious in the lottery, securing their hometown hero. James’ subsequent tenure with the Cavaliers included two MVP titles and, notably, delivered the franchise’s first NBA championship in 2016.

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Houston Rockets 1982-84 – Hakeem Olajuwon

The Houston Rockets, finalists in the 1981 NBA Finals, faced a significant setback in the 1982-83 season, finishing with a dismal 14–68 record. The departure of 1981 MVP Moses Malone to the 76ers in 1982 left the Rockets in a rebuilding phase.

Eyeing Ralph Sampson in the 1983 NBA Draft, the Rockets won a literal coin flip against the Indiana Pacers, securing the chance to draft Sampson. Although Sampson earned four All-Star appearances, the Rockets faced another pivotal coin flip in 1984, resulting in the selection of Hakeem Olajuwon.

Olajuwon, arguably one of the best defenders and centers in NBA history, led the Rockets to championships in 1994 and 1995, solidifying their status as one of the best NBA Tanking success stories.

San Antonio Spurs 1996-97 – Tim Duncan

The 1996-97 NBA season became synonymous with the “Tim Duncan sweepstakes” as the San Antonio Spurs strategically embraced NBA Tanking. Despite boasting a 59-23 record in the previous season, the Spurs finished 1996-97 with an unexpected 20-62 record, the worst defensive performance in the league.

Injuries plagued key players, with All-Star center David Robinson playing only six games due to back and foot injuries. Speculations arose that Robinson’s inactivity was a deliberate move to enhance the team’s chances of drafting Tim Duncan.

Following the season, Duncan awaited the draft lottery, considered the consensus top pick of the 1997 NBA Draft. Despite lower odds, the Spurs secured the top pick, marking the culmination of a successful NBA Tanking effort. Duncan went on to lead the Spurs to five NBA championships, establishing himself as one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history.

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Summing it Up

While NBA Tanking remains a contentious strategy, the success stories of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs demonstrate its potential to reshape a franchise’s destiny. From LeBron James bringing glory to Cleveland to Hakeem Olajuwon’s dominance with the Rockets and Tim Duncan’s dynasty in San Antonio, these examples showcase the long-term benefits that strategic tanking can yield. Whether viewed positively or negatively, the impact of tanking on the NBA cannot be ignored.

In conclusion, the best examples of NBA Tanking in history underscore the delicate balance teams must strike between short-term setbacks and long-term gains. The drafting of generational talents and the subsequent championships achieved by these teams validate, to some extent, the controversial strategy of intentional losing for a brighter future.

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