In Defense of Tanking

If you’ve had a conversation with me about sports, you know that I am a strong proponent of tanking. I’ll regularly get into screaming matches with people who argue that fans would rather see their teams try to win as much as possible every season rather than doing everything possible to maximize your chances of accruing elite talent.

Tanking arguments, at their core, are arguments about whether it is preferable to attempt to maximize short term results or long term results. When you’re in a situation where there is no superstar or potential superstar talent on your payroll, maximizing the short term runs directly against what should be the ultimate goal, winning championships.

It doesn’t take a Mensa member to tell know that there’s more value in picks early on in the draft than those later on, but Sean Tierney of The Atlantic quantifies this. Below is a graph of estimated pick value in the NHL and NFL.


As you can see, there’s a massive drop off after the first few picks. On top of this, in the NBA, there has never been an NBA Finals without a top five pick on either team. There is real tangible value in picking high up in drafts, and with the declining value of markets in modern sports in free agency, maximizing value in the draft is paramount.

A common argument of tanking detractors is the failure of the Philadelphia 76ers to build a contender in the years since their rebuild has begun. They use the Sixers as an argument for the volatility of tanking, as, admittedly, it isn’t guaranteed to work. However, as a team builder, your job is to create a winning team, and dithering around around .500 for a long time is no way to do that. Memphis Grizzlies fans may act like they would prefer their last decade to a decade with 7 losing seasons and a title or two, but that’s either a falsehood or a delusion.

In sport, the goal is to win titles. And in order to win titles, outside of situations of great luck, either in great talents falling in drafts, or in great talents joining your team in free agency, the prudent move is to maximize long term output by minimizing short term output. As awful as it is to watch, if you’re not tanking, you’re losing.




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