Best Examples of NBA Tanking in History: 2023 Edition
This years NBA Draft was the Victor Wembanyama "sweepstakes" and can you believe the Spurs won it!!!!? It's like the Tim Duncan days all over again ..
Well anyway apart from another success for the Spurs lets take a look at 3 other great examples of tanking in NBA history.
If you need a guide to tanking in the NBA you can check out this one. Tanking is effectively when a sports franchise fields a bad team intentionally with the idea that it will lose many games and gain a higher draft pick and select better prospects.
Whether you agree with NBA tanking or not, there's no doubt that some franchises have been able to turn around their entire fortunes by tanking. Let's take a look at the best examples of NBA tanking in history.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers 2002-03 - LeBron James
The Cleveland Cavaliers NBA tanking job in the 2002-03 season ultimately helped them to a first professional sports title in Cleveland for 52 years. The 02-03 Cleveland Cavaliers started off 2-2, but lost 15 straight games and eventually limped to a 17-65 finish.
Cavaliers' center Zydrunas Ilgauskas earned himself an All-Star appearance during the season but it was an obvious case of NBA tanking as Cleveland started to cut into his minutes for Chris Mihm.
Undrafted guard Milt Palacio was also given the most minutes he'd ever been given in his entire career starting in 46 games for the Cavaliers. During the rest of his career he would start in only 43 games in eight years.
4 years ago, LeBron James delivered on his promise to Cleveland and brings the Cavaliers their first championship ever.LeBron in the series: ▫️29.7 PPG ▫️11.3 RPG ▫️8.9 APG ▫️2.6 SPG ▫️2.3 BPG ▫️49.4 FG% ▫️37.1 3P% A performance of a lifetime! 👑 pic.twitter.com/GIvmMTYv28 — Top Ball Coverage (@TopBallCoverage) June 19, 2020
LeBron James was one of the most hotly anticipated first draft picks in NBA history and was awaiting the winner of the draft lottery. Both Denver and Cleveland had a 22.5% chance of earning the first pick as the Nuggets also finished with an identical record to the Cleveland.
It was Cleveland who won the lottery however and they got their hometown hero, LeBron James born and raised just an hour away from Cleveland in Akron. During his first stint in Cleveland, LeBron won two MVP titles.
LeBron would move to the Miami Heat where he won two NBA championships. He returned to the Cavaliers in 2014 and won an NBA championship in 2016.
Cleveland's 2002-03 NBA tanking season and 29-53 record set the platform for his second stint. It's possible LeBron, one of the all time greats may never have arrived in Cleveland if he hadn't been drafted in 2003.
2. Houston Rockets 1982-84 - Hakeem Olajuwon
The Houston Rockets made it to the NBA Finals in 1981 but at the end of the 1982-93 season, the Rockets were contenders for one of the worst teams of all-time with a 14--68 record. Houston was in a rebuilding phase after losing 1981 MVP Moses Malone to the 76ers in 1982. It hurt the Rockets even more knowing that the Sixers went on to win the NBA championship in 1983.
During the rebuilding phase, Houston were eyeing Ralph Sampson in the 1983 NBA Draft, one of the most anticipated draft prospects at the time and considered to be the next Wilt Chamberlain.
In a literal coin flip against the 20-62 Indiana Pacers, the Rockets won and earned the chance to draft Sampson which they did. He went on to earn four All-Star appearances at the Rockets, including in his rookie year, but he wouldn't win an NBA championship with the franchise.
The 1983-84 Rockets improved slightly with Sampson and finished with a 29-53 record. The Pacers finished with an NBA-worst 26-56. In another coin flip to decide the top pick the Rockets won again and had the right to the first pick of the 1984 draft.
Houston selected Hakeem Olajuwon to complete one of the best NBA tanking jobs in history. Both coin flip wins led to the NBA introducing the draft lottery in 1985 — also known as the "Rocket Rule".
Olajuwon would mature into one of the best centers in NBA history, guiding the Rockets to NBA championships in 1994 and 1995, and also winning finals MVP on both occasions.
People don’t realize how unbelievably dominant Hakeem Olajuwon was in his prime (1985-1996). Arguably the best defender and center in NBA History ➖➖➖ 24.5 PPG 12.0 RPG 3.5 BPG 1.9 SPG 51 FG% pic.twitter.com/OuDWgn2CcG— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) March 29, 2019
1. San Antonio Spurs 1996-97 - Tim Duncan
How did the Spurs get Tim Duncan? The 96-97 NBA season was essentially the "Tim Duncan sweepstake" and the San Antonio Spurs showed us how NBA tanking should be done.
The Spurs finished the 1996-97 season with a 20-62 record and had the worst defensive record in the NBA. It was bizarre and completely unexpected at the beginning of the season considering they went 59-23 and 62-20 in the couple of seasons prior.
Spurs' All-Star centre David Robinson was out for most of the season, playing only six games because of back and foot injuries. He did come back in mid-Jan only to sit out the rest of the season, fuelling suggestions that the Spurs made him inactive to have a better shot at drafting Duncan.
Three-point specialist Chuck Person missed the entire season because of a back injury and two-time All-Star Sean Elliott also had an injury impacted season playing only 39 games.
Following the season, Tim Duncan was awaiting the winner of the draft lottery and was considered the consensus top pick, and was one of the best players made available in the NBA draft in a long, long time.
Despite the Vancouver Grizzlies having the highest probability of winning the draft lottery, the Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors were ineligible to pick first as they were both expansion teams.
The Boston Celtics had the highest chance to win the lottery at 36% across two picks but with a 21.6% chance of winning the lottery, it was the Spurs who won and the tank for Duncan, the most successful tank job in NBA history, was complete.
Following Duncan's selection the Spurs had never won an NBA championship at this point in time. Duncan went on to create a dynasty, winning five NBA championships with the Spurs, became one of the best power forwards and best players of all time.
Spurs won 62 games in 1994-95 Spurs won 59 games in 1995-96* David Robinson gets hurt and SAS tank Spurs win 20 games in 1996-97 Spurs win Tim Duncan in 1997 lottery Spurs win 56 games in 1997-98 Spurs win 5 titles and more games over the next 20 years than any other team https://t.co/JT2jJQLFua — Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) October 31, 2019
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