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Why tanking is a vital part of the NBA ecosystem

Tanking is a natural process that improves the overall product of the NBA

2022 NBA Summer League - Dallas Mavericks v Utah Jazz Photo by Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images

I grew up in eastern Idaho about an hour away from Yellowstone National Park. A lot of my earliest memories are related to Yellowstone in some way like the Yellowstone fires in 1988 or the constant reminder in school that Yellowstone is a supervolcano and, if it ever erupted, we’d be the next Pompei but with cows and potatoes.

The most interesting of the events I remember was the re-introduction of the wolves in Yellowstone in 1995. At the time, there was a big backlash to the re-introduction among local farmers and ranchers. A vocal minority, the ranchers were convinced that the wolves would leave Yellowstone and prey on their livestock. I’m not sure if outside of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming there was an outcry over the wolves, but it was a big story in that area. Despite the outcry from local ranchers, the wolves were brought back and it was a huge success for the local ecosystem.

I know this is supposed to be about basketball but you’ll see what I’m getting at here in a second.

Before 1995, with the wolves were eradicated from the area around the 1920s. From then on the elk and deer populations grew exponentially and that growth led to consequences for the other animals. An example of the problem with the overpopulation was the harm that came to the different flora in the area. Because of the overpopulation, there wasn’t always enough grazing fields for the elk and they grazed on different plants like the trees and berries. Seeking food, Elk would enter rivers and graze on the grass on the banks leaving water cloudy and breaking down the river banks that would normally provide areas for fish to lay their eggs. With the trees dying from the bark being eaten, Beaver populations shrank. On top of the damage to the rivers from grazing, without the Beaver dams, fish populations struggled even more to lay their eggs. The trickle-down effect of not having the Wolves was huge.

With the Wolves re-introduced, Yellowstone changed in more ways than ever expected. With Wolves feeding on elk, their populations shrank to a normal level and there wasn’t a lack of grazing fields any more. Because of that, the trees grew back that were dying off from feeding elk. With more trees, the Beaver population grew, creating more dams. Those dams helped the fish population grow by providing shelter and places to spawn. With more fish in the river, and more berries available, the bear population grew. Probably the most amazing thing was that with the Beaver dams returning, bends in the river appeared that hadn’t before. The landscape of the park literally changed with the wolves back. All of this because 41 wolves were put back into Yellowstone park.

What does that have to do with basketball?

Well, first off, calm down. Second, the NBA is also a fragile ecosystem and rules and systems in place can trickle down in huge ways. Tanking always comes with a mixed bag of reactions. The mere mention of the word will get certain people to react like you just told a dirty joke they didn’t appreciate, while others agree it’s an integral part of building some NBA teams.

Recently, we saw two scrimmage games including Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson that set the league on fire. Right after, Adam Silver took the time to mention that “teams need to compete very hard next season.”

What’s interesting is he doesn’t mention tanking, and maybe it’s because he understands something that might seem counterintuitive. Tanking is good for the NBA product and here are the reasons why.

It gets the best talent to the best teams

With the Utah Jazz on a downward trend, Danny Ainge did the right thing to blow it up and reset their championship timeline. That it also happens to coincide with a chance at the best prospect we’ve seen since LeBron James, well, we’ll just pretend that’s a coincidence.

Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

There are some Jazz fans who still seem to abhor the idea of losing strategically but most fans have caught on and are now embracing it. Yes, Utah will not win a lot of games for a few years, but it’s a necessary step to get top-tier talent for the future. Regardless of how local fans feel, the ecosystem of the league just got better.

The Jazz trading two all-stars just improved the talent of two mid-tier contenders. The Timberwolves and the Cavaliers were both teams that competed at the play-in level and just leveled up to consistent playoff teams, and they'll be that for years to come. One team getting worse while two teams get better seems like good math to me and improves the overall NBA product. While Utah disappears into anonymity next season, two teams will now get more national TV games, and those games will be better.

Not only will those two teams get better, but young, promising prospects from their teams will get a chance to develop with the Jazz. They’ll have a chance to get better in a way they wouldn’t have before. Both teams improved in that ecosystem, and the fans get a better product.

And the Jazz aren’t finished. During the season other championship contenders will look to make a move to improve their odds and you can bet the Jazz will be one of the teams they’ll call to get better. One of the contenders out there will want someone like Malik Beasley or Jordan Clarkson to improve on one of their positions or fill a hole from injury, it’s only a matter of time. This makes for a better playoff product where the best possible version of each team will be on the floor competing.

Much like the overpopulated elk herds in Yellowstone, tanking makes the herd healthier and helps everyone else in the ecosystem to flourish.

It provides hope and publicity for the bottom of the league

But what about Jazz fans? Doesn’t this just make small market teams a farm system for the more desirable, larger markets?

To some extent maybe, but only when teams are willing to move players and I would argue this is a problem that’s not related to tanking. Yes, Donovan Mitchell wanted out and wanted to go to New York but didn’t Kevin Durant want out of New York for a different situation? The NBA has to figure out a way to fix this issue where players are trying to get out of contracts early, but trying to stop tanking won’t solve that.

What getting rid of tanking will do is remove a lot of hope and publicity to the smaller market teams. Imagine hearing all the rumors for years about Donovan Mitchell to New York and knowing that keeping him was your only option. How awful would that be!?! With the moves this offseason, the Jazz gave their team a chance at a championship because the only way to get that is by having 1-2 MVP/1st-team all-NBA caliber players. Danny Ainge took control of the Jazz’s future and provided Jazz fans with hope again. If they’re successful, the Jazz will have a chance at drafting a player they’d never have a chance of getting otherwise. Remember, every great player they’ve had has been in the draft. Whether it was John Stockton, Karl Malone, Andrei Kirilenko, Deron Williams, Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and then hopefully Victor Wembanyama. The draft is the only way the Jazz get their stars and so the strategy should always be to use the draft to get those players.

If you take that away from the Jazz, you’re telling Jazz fans they should give up ALL hope at a potential title because there’s zero way they’re getting those players in any other way. Sure, the Jazz have made trades for nice complimentary stars like Hornacek and Conley, but those moves were made after the stars were already drafted.

The other element of this is that it provides publicity for these teams that rarely get it. In between Lakers segments, the Jazz were one of the biggest storylines all NBA offseason and it was a lot of fun. No one will ever forget this moment with Brian Windhorst.

Most national media mentions of the Jazz are the same tired storylines you hear all season but this offseason was different. The national media eye of Sauron was locked on Utah and Donovan Mitchell to see what they would do. More podcasts and TV segments on ESPN and other media outlets happened than I’ve ever seen while writing about this team. And even though it was about the end of the latest chapter of Jazz basketball, it was fun. Are we going to take away that from Jazz fans too?

Tanking makes smaller market teams more relevant and makes them an important part of an evolving NBA ecosystem.

The non-game events are just as big as the actual games

This should be pretty obvious but events like the NBA Draft, Lottery Night, Free Agency, and Trade Deadline, are just as interesting to NBA fans as the games, if not more, and it makes sense when you think about it. Sure, there is a group of fans that love the NBA in general and have fun watching whoever is in the playoffs. But my guess is there are more fans that root for one specific team or player and, when they’re not in the playoffs, these other events become much more important. I can’t even imagine how electric lottery night is going to be to see who gets Victor Wembanyama and the NBA needs to lean into it because it’s the championship for teams that are tanking. If anything, tanking can become the NBA’s version of the upside-down in Stranger Things. Why not track the tanking and see who can rise to the top? You can bet that every fan of a lottery team this year will be glued to see who gets Wembanyama rather than watch maybe 6-8 teams that have an actual shot at winning the title.

I don’t know if Adam Silver agrees with this, but he has to see some of these benefits. As long as there’s a draft there will always be some form of tanking, especially in a game and league where winning is so dependent on having 1-2 stars on your team. Flattening the lottery odds has definitely helped, but it’s still there as it should be.

Regardless, all of this stuff is actually fun and should be embraced. Whether your team makes the big trade, signs that big free agent, or wins the lottery, those are all parts of fandom and are part of the NBA ecosystem. Trying to remove that one element can have more negative side effects than the NBA probably realizes.

If anything Adam Silver and the NBA should find ways to give these events even more prominence. Make sure there is time and lead up to the lottery. Have no games for 2-3 days leading up to the lottery so media can run rampant. Make everything an event and give it its proper space and deference.

The NBA is a fragile ecosystem and to harm one of its most important elements would be bad for the league.