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Intentionally losing games in the NBA

By Scott Tibbs, March 9, 2012

Here is a thought-provoking article about bad NBA teams "tanking" their season to get a more favorable lottery pick. We know NBA teams intentionally lose games at the end of the season, but what should be done about it?

Arguably the best example of "tanking" is the 1996-1997 San Antonio Spurs. A look at their record over several seasons is striking. Over the previous seven 82 game seasons, San Antonio won 56, 55, 47, 49, 55, 62 and 59 games - a combined winning percentage of 66.7%. Then, suddenly, they won only 20 of 82 games in 1996-1997, snagged the #1 draft pick in the lottery and drafted Tim Duncan.

In fairness to the Spurs, some of that was out of their control. The team was hit hard by injuries: David Robinson played only 6 games, while Sean Elliott (an All-Star the previous season who averaged 20 points per game) only played in 39 games. But a reasonable case can be made that San Antonio could have done better and intentionally did not.

If San Antonio did intentionally tank the 1996-1997 season, look what it got them - a Hall of Fame player, 15 consecutive seasons as a championship contender, and 4 world championships, including 3 in 5 years. The Spurs have won at least 50 games for 13 consecutive 82 game seasons, and won 37 of 50 in the 1999 season that was shortened by a lockout. There is little argument that losing 62 of 82 games paid off.

It is bad for the NBA for teams to intentionally mail it in at the end of the season. It deprives fans of competitive games and damages the integrity of the league. It is simply unsportsmanlike to intentionally make a bad season worse and put forth a poor effort. It mocks the game and makes fans cynical. But what can be done about it? Zach Lowe reports on an interesting, if imperfect, proposal in his blog post.

Addressing this problem is complex and there are several factors to consider. Adam Gold's solution can be mixed with other options. For example, the NBA could discourage tanking by reducing the odds of winning the lottery for teams that have a lower winning percentage after being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. But for the good of the game and for the reputation of the league, this problem needs to be addressed.