What Exactly is Tanking in the NBA? (Explained)

You may have heard the term “tanking” in the NBA.

What exactly does it mean, and why do teams do it?

Tanking is when an NBA team deliberately loses games to increase their chances of getting a high draft pick. The teams that do this believe they don’t have a chance to get to the playoffs.

But there’s more to this than what’s stated. Let’s dive into the controversial world of tanking.

What is Tanking in the NBA?

Tanking is the act of deliberately attempting to lose a substantial number of games during one season to improve the team’s position in the draft.

The NBA Draft system lets teams with the worst performances each season get the early draft picks.

This way, the league would have balance, so the best teams don’t hoard all the best players.

For instance, the worst team this season could get the number one pick in the draft, drastically improving their roster immediately.

The NBA Draft started back in 1947, but teams didn’t start tanking until the 1980s. One of the first ones to tank was the Houston Rockets in 1983-84, where they got the legend Hakeem Olajuwon.

Seeing this success, teams followed suit, and the epidemic continues. Each year, teams at the bottom are looking forward to snatching the top 10 picks in hopes of getting the next “Michael Jordan” or “LeBron James”.

Why Do Teams Tank?

Tanking has been around for many seasons now. But why do teams do it?

There may be several reasons aside from the obvious number one – to get the best draft picks.

1. To get the best pick in the draft

Obviously the number one or the only reason for most teams to tank is to get the best picks in the draft.

That’s because the lowest-performing teams in each season will get the best picks, often the first-round picks of the draft.

So the worst the record of an NBA team is, the better their chance to get a top prospect.

Basically, the NBA teams that didn’t get to the Playoffs will be allowed to get earlier picks.

2. To avoid paying the luxury tax

Another benefit to tanking is that teams could trade away their best and most expensive players.

This allows them to loosen their salary cap, so they won’t have to worry about paying the luxury tax.

This would also allow them to afford higher draft picks and keep them for years.

3. To rebuild

When a team decides to tank, they thoroughly consider rebuilding their roster.

They would then try to tank and get the best draft picks.

And by not exceeding the salary cap, they can rebuild by drafting young players or trading for them.

How to Know if an NBA Team is Tanking?

There’s no obvious way to detect if a team is tanking since they won’t admit it.

But if you’re a true fan, you’ll know the signs that your favorite team is tanking.

The players are doing excessive resting or load management. Of course, there are always exceptions, such as when players are truly injured.

But you’ll start questioning yourself when the best players are always out, and the lineup is messy.

Another warning sign is that a team hordes more draft picks than usual. If they do this, they are probably in a rebuild mode, and they’d want the best young players.

Lastly, you can tell if a team really wants to win or not by the way they play and coach.

Successful NBA Tanking Attempts

Over the years, many teams have thrown their season away in hopes of a better future.

While the majority of them don’t pan out, a handful has become such a success doing so.

Here are the best examples:

1. San Antonio Spurs (1996-96)

While not many would consider the Spurs intentionally losing games that season, it’s too eerie.

Although their starters were legitimately out due to injuries, they were still contenders.

In fact, they went to the Conference Semifinals just the season before and got 59 regular season wins. Then in this season, they only got 20 which is the reason why they got Tim Duncan as the number-one pick.

And we all know that the rest is history, as Tim and the company brought five championships to San Antonio.

2. Houston Rockets (1983-84)

During this season, the Houston Rockets essentially started what’s known now as tanking.

Thanks to their strategy, they got one of the all-time greats in Hakeem Olajuwon. Remember, the Draft Lottery still didn’t exist at the time.

But the season after this, the Lottery was introduced for the first time. It has become part of the NBA Draft to level the playing field.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (2002-03)

Before the season, the Cavs traded away Andre Miller and had a lineup that starred a rookie and a defensive liability.

Of course, at the time, no one knew how LeBron’s career would pan out. But they drafted him at first, and the rest is history.

Although they only got one ring out of him, and it’s from his second stint with the Cavs, it’s still a success.

During the time that LeBron played for the Cavs, they went to nine playoffs appearances, including five NBA Finals.

Rule Changes and Penalties to Discourage Tanking

Since tanking has been an open secret across all NBA teams, the league made some changes.

One of the first notable ones was the introduction of the Draft Lottery. Essentially, the bottom teams that didn’t make the playoffs would participate.

There would then be drawings to determine the first pick, and so on.

Over the years, there would be additions to this rule where the worst team in terms of records would be guaranteed up to the fifth pick.

The NBA’s other attempt to thwart tanking is to fine teams who deliberately rest their healthy players.

This makes sense, as there’s just no reason why a player wouldn’t play, especially is he’s their star.


Tanking is an epidemic that’s haunting the league to this day. But they have been mitigated at least thanks to league changes like the Draft Lottery.

But we can’t blame the teams that do this since the NBA is a business. You would only want your business to succeed, even if it means losing purposefully.

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