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Does tanking actually work in the modern NBA?

The Jazz have gone head-long into a rebuild. Will it work?

2022 NBA Draft Lottery Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Danny Ainge, Justin Zanik, and the rest of the Utah Jazz front office have determined that it is time to start over. After trading Rudy Gobert for a package including a sizable amount of draft picks, the Jazz seem intentioned to do the same with Donovan Mitchell. They’ll likely follow that path with all of the veteran players they can.

So does this mean that Utah is tanking?

Yes. It probably does. Danny Ainge is intentionally clearing Utah’s roster of talented players that fit a team trying to win now and replacing them with young players and draft picks. Losing many games this season will likely be the targeted outcome, as it would raise the chances of getting a top pick in the upcoming draft. The 2023 NBA Draft is regarded as one of the best in many years, and Utah already has three first-round selections to make in it. They could get even more, depending on future trades.

Let’s be clear. Tanking doesn’t just mean being bad. Teams like the Sacramento Kings have proven that. Teams can get stuck in limbo by making shortcut win-now moves. They become too good to get top picks but too bad to make the playoffs.

A proper tank involves a full-force youth movement. It means pushing development over wins. It means trading veterans for picks and young talent, regardless of how that affects the team’s record.

Hypothetically, tanking is how to restart your roster and build it from the ground up, starting with young high-end talent. The Jazz are planning to build through the draft while maintaining the flexibility to gain talent through trades and free agency. The aim for every team is to obtain true superstar players. For a team in Utah, that type of player is unlikely to come in free agency, and they’re rarely available in trades. The draft is where they can be found for anybody. Utah will hope to find their superstar in the draft and then build a contender from there. Will it work?

Recent examples

To determine how successful tanking is, I found the most recent examples of teams doing what the Jazz are doing. That means teams who were competitive, who traded or lost their stars and veterans, and prioritized draft picks in their trade returns. Many of these teams are still in the process of rebuilding, so the outcome is yet to be determined. Their trajectory, however, can give us an idea of what to expect.

Boston Celtics

2022 NBA Finals - Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The most notable example is the Boston Celtics, which Danny Ainge ran during their rebuild. After winning the 2008 NBA title, the Celtics were on a slow decline. Rather than wait for the inevitable fall from grace, Ainge decided to trade his veteran stars in a 2013 blockbuster that landed Boston four first-round picks. Over the next few years, the Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum. They slowly but surely accumulated more talent and built around that core. While they made missteps along the way, they could stay afloat because of their high-level talent in those drafts. That all culminated in a Finals appearance just a month ago. That team still looks like a legitimate contender without an imminent end in sight.

Memphis Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Two Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

When the “Grit’n’Grind” era of the Memphis Grizzlies was winding down, the Grizzlies put on Marc Gasol and Mike Conley on the trading block. While they only received a couple of first-round picks in the Conley trade and none in the Gasol trade, they also got movable assets and flexibility. They embraced a quick tank, dropped into the lottery, and wound up with the number two overall pick. With that, they selected Ja Morant. Over this time frame, they also drafted Jaren Jackson Jr, Desmond Bane, and other key players. They grew together and organically created a playoff team. Last season, Memphis finished 2nd in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies are still very young and have higher heights they can reach, but it is clear that they’re building in the right direction.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

In 2018, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second time. They went from the NBA finals to a 19-63 record in just one season. They had no choice but to rebuild from the ground up. Being on the bottom meant they got some top picks in the drafts. They selected Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, and others with those picks. They also packaged veteran players to acquire Jarrett Allen, another solid piece for their young core. Now they’re in their upward growth, building towards playoff contention. Mobley looks like a serious centerpiece, while Garland and Allen are arguably all-star caliber players right now. Cleveland is in the middle stages of the rebuild, going from the lottery to the playoffs. This coming season could show us a hint of just how successful the rebuild has been.

New Orleans Pelicans

Dallas Mavericks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans are another team who recently found themselves in the position of a star player demanding a trade. In 2019, New Orleans traded Anthony Davis to the Lakers in exchange for a massive trade package highlighted by Brandon Ingram. Also included in the package were three first-round picks, multiple pick swaps, and other young players. In the following years, New Orleans began to rebuild and struck gold when they won the first overall pick in the lottery. With that pick, they selected Zion Williamson. Although Williamson has had trouble staying healthy, he’s looked like every bit of what was advertised when he plays. Despite his injuries, the Pelicans have grown and developed to the point of making the most recent playoffs. If they continue to grow while getting healthier, they could cause trouble in the West.

Houston Rockets

Atlanta Hawks v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The Houston Rockets were a fixture in the Western Conference playoffs for a long time. At their peak, they won 65 games and were only a couple of missed threes away from the Finals. When their run came to a close, they accepted that reality and traded away their star players for as much young talent and draft capital as possible. They fell to the bottom of the league in regular season records and began picking talent in the lottery. The Rockets have amassed a richness of young players, headlined by Jalen Green and Jabari Smith. Houston is still in the early stages of its rebuild. At this point, they’ve got enough talent to genuinely try to win games, but their youth will likely keep them in the lottery. As Green, Smith, and others grow and improve, this team will climb back into the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder

2022 Las Vegas Summer League- Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the most recent example of a team trading their stars and embracing a tank. In the summer of 2019, Paul George conspired with Kawhi Leonard to join together in Los Angeles. He requested a trade, and the Thunder obliged, under the condition that they got an excellent return for him. In that trade, Oklahoma City received a whole slew of picks, along with the young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Then, they looked to trade Russell Westbrook and the rest of their veterans. After a year of brokering transactions across the league, taking on bad contracts, and then sending them out as better trade chips, the Thunder managed to accrue a historic amount of first-round picks. They did this with so much success that it’s become a joke around the league that the Thunder will be the only team selecting players in the upcoming drafts. As they’ve begun making these picks, they’ve already hit a couple of times. Josh Giddey looks to be a star in the making, and rookie Chet Holmgren is seen as a potential game-changer. All the while, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been improving his game to a near All-Star level. OKC still has a ridiculous number of first-round picks at its disposal and will likely keep rebuilding for a couple of years. They may have a stacked team of young stars when they eventually push for contention.

So, does it work?

The short answer is yes.

If the goal is to re-work a roster in a way that maximizes talent, then yes, tanking works.

Does that mean tanking is a surefire way to build a contender? No, but if you aren’t a team that superstars force their way to, then there is no surefire way to build a contender. Recent examples show that tanking is a viable and advisable strategy for acquiring top-level talent. While some of these teams are already past the rebuilding stage, and some are only beginning it, every one of them has at least one player who already is, or could easily become, a true centerpiece to build around. They also all have at least one other player that can be All-Star level and more assets to continue to improve their rosters. The goal is to find franchise-altering talent. For teams like Utah, the best way to do that is to draft it.

Of course, this strategy relies on teams being able to draft successfully, which is impossible to predict, but the idea is to get as many shots at success as possible. It’s tough to strike gold in only one attempt, but if you mine for it regularly, your chance of finding it increases drastically. The Jazz currently have twelve first-round picks in the subsequent seven drafts, including three next year. That’s a lot of bites at the apple, and they still have a lot of veteran players to trade for more picks.

It takes patience, perseverance, and a little luck, but that’s how things go in the NBA. When a title window closes, this is one way to open it back up. More and more teams are going this route, and it’s hard to argue with the results.