The Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns are going to lose a lot of games this year. All evidence points to both teams tanking; they’ve stripped their rosters of veterans, aimed to acquire as many future draft picks as possible and handed the keys to their organizations to a group of precocious youngsters upon whom they hope to rebuild. Those in charge of the mezzo- and macro-level decisions have their eyes set on the road ahead, navigating their teams like a driver whose vision is focused on traffic a half-dozen vehicles in front of his own. If it results in a fiery collision and smoldering wreckage in the present, so be it. And as a result, the prospects for both teams this season seem pretty dim as they race toward the bottom like James Cameron to the Mariana Trench.
Yet as the great galactic philosopher Han Solo put it best: “Never tell me the odds.” It’s a line of thinking that the Sixers and Suns took to heart in their season openers. Somewhere along the line, the marching orders that would send these teams to the slaughter were lost; tanking seemed to be the furthest thing from the minds of the coaches and players. They executed their brains out and secured wins against the Miami Heat and Portland Trailblazers, respectively. Michael Carter-Williams had one of the most impressive debuts we’ve ever seen from a rookie, and Miles Plumlee looked like a world-beater.
The success for Philadelphia and Phoenix in their season openers casts a glaring spotlight on the dual nature of tanking in the NBA. At its core, a team putting itself into position to be less competitive than they might otherwise be is a top-down enterprise. It’s not the players and coaches who attempt to lose as many games as possible; in fact, it’s their job to do just the opposite. It’s likely counterproductive, and certainly foolish, to ask those who actually take part in the games to do anything less than their best. Those players who do see time for a tanking franchise are often in the middle of an extended audition to be a part of the better times to come, and few coaches are afforded an opportunity to stay on board once things do finally turn around. As Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said before Wednesday night’s game, “I think that’s bad karma, anyway, if you do that.” Trying to lose on purpose is anathema to the hyper-competitive, especially when doing so might very well lead to the very players who would oust those currently on the roster.
Instead, the task of losing a ton of games in order to increase a team’s odds at the first overall pick falls at the feet of the front office. A successful tanking operation begins and ends with management’s ability to build a team that offers coaches little choice but to play young players and cast-offs whose careers have floundered elsewhere. It’s the general manager who stands to gain the most from a successful rebuild; tanking is his goal, not his employees’ — assuming that he has the backing of ownership. The long-term is his purview. It rarely, if ever, concerns the players and coaches responsible for going out and competing on a nightly basis.
The tanking team, then, is one defined by seemingly conflicting goals. Management wants to lose; players want to win. But in the best-case scenario, those aims dovetail and give rise to an entertaining team that’s able to give its opponents a run for their money on a nightly basis. Though they’ll fall short of victory more often than not, progress is still there to be found, measured in the fits and starts of rookies and the unexpected triumph of players who have bounced around the league. It’s P.J. Tucker hoisting corner 3s after an offseason of repetition. It’s Michael Carter-Williams going supernova where many expected a neutron star. On Wednesday night, the Sixers and Suns seemed to go against their unwritten goals. But the truth is that the aims of a tanking franchise are complicated. The strong force of determined will and youthful exuberance pulls one way. Gravity tugs in the other. And in between the violent interaction of tanking physics, a team does what it can to maintain its identity. On most nights, gravity will win. Every once in a while, though, a team like Philadelphia or Phoenix will leap to a higher energy level. Inevitably, they’ll come back down, but when they do, the quantum brilliance of their victories will remain.