Tanking a season has been frowned upon by the NBA which instituted the NBA Draft Lottery in 1985 to prevent teams from doing so. The lottery was created to give all non-playoff teams a chance for the top pick in the NBA Draft. Despite several changes to the system since then, teams continue to tank games and seasons for the opportunity to move higher up in the draft order.
The NBA cannot deny that tanking has benefited several NBA teams that weren’t contenders previously until they landed a franchise player in the draft. Getting the top pick doesn’t automatically mean that you get a Michael Jordan or a Shaquille O’Neal (many have been busts), but it does increase their chances of landing a similar player.
In fact, as the list below will show you, tanking for two to three years gives teams opportunities to draft more than one franchise player. It’s a formula for success that may not be the most pleasant, but it yields the necessary results.
Here are my top 10 teams that tanked their seasons and found franchise players in the succeeding draft.
10. 2014-2015 NEW YORK KNICKS
Franchise player: Kristaps Porzingis
When it comes to tanking, the 2014-15 New York Knicks knew how to do it better than any of the franchise’s predecessors. This team had the worst season in franchise history with a 17–65 record. It was the first time the Knicks had lost 60 or more games in their storied franchise’s history.
How did they do it? The Knicks traded away two of their better players in Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith in a three-team trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder. In return, they received Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk and a 2019 2nd round draft pick from the Cavs, and Lance Thomas from the Thunder.
On the same day, the Knicks also waived Samuel Dalembert, a center who could have helped them defensively.
It also aided them to tank their season away when Carmelo Anthony went down with an injury and was only able to play in 40 games.
Later that summer, the Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick as the crowd booed the team for choosing an unknown commodity. A young Knicks fan was seen crying during the telecast but he would later cheer Porzingis after the 7-foot-3 power forward from Latvia showed he was the real deal during the season.
Three years later, after trading away Anthony, Porzingis is now the franchise player upon which the rebuilding Knicks are relying on to take them to the Promised Land.
9. 1989-90 NEW JERSEY NETS
Franchise player: Derrick Coleman
Tanking began much earlier than the 2000’s and the 1989-90 New Jersey Nets were one of the first teams to do it since the lottery system was instituted in 1985. They had the fourth pick in the 1988 draft but selected Chris Morris rather than the more polished Mitch Richmond who would go on to win Rookie of the Year.
The Nets started to rebuild once they realized they could go nowhere even with an All-Star player in power forward Buck Williams. In 1989, the Nets shipped Williams off to the Portland Trail Blazers for oft-injured center Sam Bowie and a draft pick.
Without a star player on their roster, New Jersey had the league’s worst record of the season at 17–65. Armed with the first pick of the 1990 draft after they won the lottery, the Nets picked Derrick Coleman of Syracuse.
He would go on to win the 1991 Rookie of the Year Award. From the moment he stepped foot on the basketball court, he would be considered one of the best power forwards in the game along with perennial All-Stars Karl Malone and Charles Barkley.
Later, he paired up with Kenny Anderson, the dazzling rookie from the 1991 draft, to form a lethal combo for the Nets for the next few years.
The rebuilding process, short as it may seem, was a success as the Nets became one of the better teams in the East with Coleman at the forefront.
8. 2013-14 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Franchise player: Joel Embiid
The Philadelphia 76ers have been rebuilding for the longest time. Sixers management asked fans to “Trust the Process” that became the team’s mantra in recent years. It’s the front office’s way of saying “Trust us! We’re losing on purpose so we can get high draft picks!”
During the 2013-14 season, the Sixers stockpiled a number of players on their roster who are no longer in the NBA, or are at the end of the bench of other teams. All the better to lose as many games as possible. Only Michael Carter-Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Evan Turner are still contributing meaningful minutes in the league today.
Philly also traded their top point guard Jrue Holiday and the draft rights to Pierre Jackson for Nerlens Noel in the 2013 draft even though he had a torn ACL and would be sidelined for the 2013-14 season.
At one point, the Sixers tied the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA record for most consecutive losses with 26 straight. As a result, they ended the season with a 19-63 record, the second-worst in the league.
But the payoff for the losses was huge.
In the 2014 draft, picking third behind the Cavs and the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers landed 7-foot big man Joel Embiid. Despite missing much of his first two years due to injuries, Embiid has shown that he is a franchise player. The fans think so, too, as Embiid was selected as a starter in his first All-Star Game this year.
Embiid now embodies the team’s mantra with his self-proclaimed nickname, “The Process.”
7. 2015-16 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Franchise player: Ben Simmons
Because Embiid missed plenty of playing time the past two years, the 2015-16 Sixers lost most of their games, giving them the chance to select high in the upcoming drafts. Even so, despite the “Trust the Process” campaign, the team sucked worse than it ever had. Philly nearly tied the worst record in NBA history (9-73) which the franchise also recorded during the 1972-73 season. These Sixers won just one more game than that team as they went 10-72 for the year.
But good things come to those who wait, and the Sixers waited longer than most for the chance to put together a competitive team.
The top pick in the 2016 draft was none other than Ben Simmons, a 6-foot-10 player who was compared to LeBron James because of his versatility to play point guard, drive like a small forward, and rebound like a power forward. Because of how bad they were a season ago, the Sixers had the best chance to win the lottery which they did.
One month later, the Sixers drafted Simmons, giving the team another franchise player to build their team around. Now Philly has a young, coveted one-two punch in Simmons and Embiid who are looking to bring the franchise closer to championship contention in the years ahead.
6. 2006-07 SEATTLE SUPERSONICS
Franchise player: Kevin Durant
Despite the presence of the high-scoring duo of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, the 2006-07 Seattle Supersonics were able to tank their season because both missed significant time due to injuries.
Rumor had it that the owners had to keep the attendance low so they could easily move the team to Oklahoma City. To do that, they wanted to stockpile draft picks rather than players who could contribute to the team’s success.
Finishing the season at 31-51, the Sonics missed the playoffs and had the chance to pick second in the 2007 draft. That was the year when the Portland Trail Blazers picked Greg Oden first, and the Sonics were “left with” Kevin Durant.
A line up with Allen, Lewis, and a young Durant would be a lethal combination of players, right? Sorry, but the Sonics weren’t done tanking just yet.
See next team.
5. 2007-08 SEATTLE SUPERSONICS
Franchise player: Russell Westbrook
The 2007-08 Sonics didn’t resemble the 2006-07 version because before they picked Durant in the 2007 Draft, a trade was announced. They sent Allen and the 35th pick of the draft (Glen “Big Baby” Davis) to the Boston Celtics for the fifth pick, which became Jeff Green, together with Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak.
The Sonics knew that they couldn’t tank the season enough yet so by July, the team traded away their second-best player, Lewis, to the Orlando Magic in exchange for a draft pick and a trade exception.
This practically assured that the Sonics would fare poorly enough that they would lose more games and get a high draft pick once again.
True to form, their 20-62 record assured them that they would be dead last in the tough Western Conference.
But the lottery netted them the fourth pick of the draft as the Sonics selected Russell Westbrook with the pick to form their Dynamic Duo. The team also left for Oklahoma in the summer and were now known as the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In two years of tanking, the Sonics got two franchise players with Durant and Westbrook. Not bad, right?
Durant and Westbrook took the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012, bowing out to the eventual champion Miami Heat.
4. 1982-83 HOUSTON ROCKETS
Franchise player: Ralph Sampson
There are bad teams and there are terrible ones. The 1982-83 Rockets are with the latter. This team had a 14-68 record, one of the worst all time despite playing in the NBA Finals in 1981.
The Rockets traded away franchise center Moses Malone after the Sixers signed him as a restricted free agent. In exchange was Caldwell Jones and a first round pick in the 1983 draft.
The front office decided to hedge their bets on the future with 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson as the big prize in the upcoming draft. Sampson was a three-time College Player of the Year and a center, too, someone who could fill-in the shoes of Malone.
The team had players who were past their prime with Jones, Calvin Murphy, and Elvin Hayes, a couple of young players, and others who were just there to fill out the roster.
After winning just 14 games, the Rockets were in play for the top pick and they won the coin toss for the rights to draft Sampson which they did.
Three years later, Sampson would team-up with Akeem Olajuwon (more on him later) to lead the team to the 1986 NBA Finals where they would lose to the Boston Celtics 4-2 for the NBA championship.
3. 1983-84 HOUSTON ROCKETS
Franchise player: Akeem Olajuwon
Back in the 1983-84 season, the NBA didn’t have a lottery system. The two worst teams in the league simply flipped a coin to determine who would have the right to the first pick of the draft. That coin toss changed the Western Conference with a legend.
The ‘83-‘84 Rockets already had a franchise player with Sampson, the first pick of the draft in 1983. But the Houston Rockets would do the unthinkable…tank their season so they could nab the first or second-best player in the 1984 draft, too. Can you imagine getting two number one picks two years in a row? The Rockets did, and it led to a horrendous 9-27 finish despite the presence of Sampson, the 1983-84 Rookie of the Year awardee.
If they had the first pick, the easy choice was to pick Akeem (later changed to Hakeem) Olajuwon. If they had the second pick, they could select either Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, or Charles Barkley. There was no way they could lose in this draft.
The tanking worked wonders as the Rockets won the coin toss and had the right to select Olajuwon, which they did.
The very next year, to prevent this blatant form of tanking from happening again, the NBA instituted the draft lottery system.
As for Olajuwon, he would lead the team to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995.
2. 2002-03 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Franchise player: LeBron James
The Cleveland Cavaliers were terrible during the 2002-03 season but it was for a good cause. The team wanted to draft the most publicized high school player in NBA history, and one who was native to the state of Ohio, none other than LeBron James.
There was very little to cheer about for the Cleveland team that was obviously tanking to get the chance to draft James. He was the most coveted prize since Tim Duncan went to the San Antonio Spurs in 1997. And even if the Cavs missed out on the first pick, the team had the chance to pick from Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and an unknown rookie who had the potential to be a franchise player in Darko Milicic. Of course, we know now that Milicic was a bust, but still, there was little chance that the Cavs would have taken Milicic no matter how intriguing a prospect he was.
The Cavs put together a roster that didn’t resemble a winning team and trading away its best player from the previous year, Andre Miller (16.5 points, league-leading 10.5 assists per game), ensured that. In exchange was a player with an injury history but had lots of potential in Darius Miles.
They gave more playing time to players such as Smush Parker and Jumaine Jones, both of whom were no longer with the team the following year. One of their leading scorers, small forward Lamond Murray, lost much of his minutes to Miles. Wesley Person, one of the core Cavs members, was also traded away for Matt Barnes who was a rookie back then.
Cleveland was tied with the Denver Nuggets for the worst record in the NBA at 17-65. That was enough of a chance for them as they won against all odds and had the first pick in the 2003 draft. They selected James, the player that they had been targeting all along.
After a brief time with the Miami Heat, the King returned to his court in Cleveland and delivered the franchise’s first ever NBA championship in 2016.
1. 1996-97 SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Franchise player: Tim Duncan
The most successful tank job in NBA history must be the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs. This team, despite its claims that they didn’t tank the season, did so even if it wasn’t intentional.
The Spurs’ franchise center David Robinson had been injured, causing him to miss all but six games of the 1996-97 season.
To top it off, the team also lost one of their best players in Sean Elliot who suffered a right knee tendonitis, playing in only 39 games for the season. And then Chuck Person, a gifted scorer for the team also had to be put on ice with back spasms.
The Spurs would finish the year with a 20-62 record, a far cry from their 59-23 record the previous season.
All the losing paid off for them as the Spurs won the lottery to pick first in the 1997 NBA Draft that would net them one of the finest franchise players in league history—Tim Duncan.
He would lead the team to five NBA championships in 19 years.