Why do teams tank?

Graphic by Carleen Loney/ @shloneys

Tanking is helpful… until it’s not

Tanking happens when a team is losing games on purpose, or has a losing record in a season, in order to get higher draft picks in the following draft. This is generally done by a general manager and not the players or coaches.

While the NFL’s draft order is based solely on the previous season’s rankings — meaning the lowest-ranked team gets to draft first — the NBA, NHL, and very recently, the MLB, have a lottery that decides the order between certain ranks and their corresponding picks. But the lower a team finishes in the standings, the greater the chances are to pick higher in the following draft.

Some draft years are stronger than others, with projected top picks that are almost certain to become superstars. An example of this is the 2023 NHL draft, which is a particularly strong year with Connor Bedard as the projected first-overall pick, who will most likely be a generational player.

While tanking used to be frowned upon, it seems to have generally become more and more accepted.

But there are different levels to it.

Teams can tank simply by keeping a mid coach and play with half their roster sidelined due to injury. An example of this is last season’s Montreal Canadiens. Although they changed coaches before the end of the season, the culmination of all listed above resulted in the Canadiens finishing the season last in the standings.

Or, if a team really wants to take it to another level, a possibility is selling every player who’s decent enough to get acquired by another team, and get worse players in return to make sure they really tank and finish last in the league. But with a lottery, things don’t always go well.

The best-case scenario? That team gets the first overall pick and makes it work eventually.

But the worst-case scenario? The team doesn’t get that pick and gets a good player, but not nearly as good as they’d hoped.

An example of this is the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres. They got rid of any good player who helped them win games in order to improve their lottery odds to draft Connor McDavid. However, they ended up getting the second pick, which they used to select Jack Eichel. The Sabres still aren’t nearly as competitive as they would’ve been had they drafted McDavid.

Tanking doesn’t always work, and taking it to the extreme can do more harm than good for a team in the long run as it makes rebuilding a longer and more difficult process.

But sometimes it works. An example of a successful tank is the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, who traded good players away and ended up drafting Joel Embiid third overall in the 2014 draft. Since then, they have made the playoffs five times, and the conference semifinals four times.

At the end of the day, just like everything else in sports, tanking either ends in a W or an L.

Anything done the extreme way is very tricky. So low-risk high-reward should be the way to go when it comes to tanking. You can lose to increase your chances, but don’t trade away everyone so you don’t have to rebuild for too long.

But we can agree to disagree.

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