If tanking was a surefire recipe for success, the Nets, Kings and Clippers would hold the copyright on the “How to win an NBA Championship” book.
It’s not, and they don’t.
Yet, here we are again late in an NBA season and no fewer than 10 teams are jockeying for the bottom of the NBA standings or, conversely, the top of the NBA Draft.
Do you know how many teams since the lottery was instated in 1985 that have won the NBA Championship with their No. 1 pick of the draft who wasn’t traded (LeBron James) away and reacquired?
That’s right, in three-plus decades, just two No. 1 picks — Tim Duncan (more on this later) and Kyrie Irving (thanks for coming back, LeBron) — have won an NBA title with the team that drafted them before being traded away.
Remember these No. 1 tank targets? Derrick Coleman, Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, Greg Oden and Anthony Bennett.
History has shown that for every LeBron James-type player available at the top of an NBA draft, there are tons more Andrew Boguts.
Which brings us to the Bulls and their attempt to improve their draft standing this season.
For antsy Bulls fans who at every game have to stare up at the six championship banners hanging from the ceiling of the house that Michael Jordan built, it has to be excruciatingly painful to watch the group come up short each night. Pink eye is more enjoyable. The only redeeming aspect of losing is the prize at the end of the Bulls’ draft rainbow. But don’t set your hopes too high on this one prospect. It takes time and a confluence of factors — some might even call it luck.
Even after the 17-win Cavs plucked James out of high school in 2003, it took seasons of 35, 42 and 50 wins — twice — before they finally made the NBA Finals in his fourth season, only to be swept by the Spurs.
Speaking of the Spurs, they are the only team to ever truly “tank” their way to sustained NBA success.
With former No. 1 pick David Robinson leading the way, the Spurs were one of the winningest teams in the 90s, but when the aging Admiral went down with a broken foot in 1996, new coach Greg Popovich decided to give up on the season. The reward: No. 1 pick Tim Duncan, 20 straight seasons of .600-plus winning and four NBA titles. Again, though, the tank never would have happened if not for a freak accident to Robinson.
The Spurs are one of the few teams since the inception of the draft lottery to rise up from a horrible season (20-62) to win an NBA championship.
If you really think tanking works, consider this: Since 1985, NBA teams have finished with 25 or fewer wins 137 times. Of those teams, only the Spurs (1997/1999 title), Heat (2003/2006), Celtics (2007/2008), Cavs (2011/2016) and Warriors (2012/2015) were able to turn it around and win NBA titles within five years.
And, don’t forget, the Celtics’ 2008 championship was more about the trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen than anything draft-related.
So, for those keeping track, tanking has roughly a 4-132-1 record in the NBA.
Still, there is this ill-conceived notion that championships are won in the draft. Yes and no. For good teams, they are.
Just because the Nets, Clippers, 76ers, Kings, (insert bad team) draft high, doesn’t mean they get it right. In fact, they rarely do.
Yet, good organizations such as the Spurs and Warriors always seem to find the Kahwi Leonards and Draymond Greens, no matter where they are selecting.
The Bulls are sitting at 20 wins right now with seven teams behind them. Conventional wisdom says they would be better off not trying to win and moving up to one of the top four picks of the draft, where many think DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Luka Doncic can be difference makers.
But history says, don’t do it.
What would be so wrong with Mohamed Bamba at No. 8?
John Paxson and Gar Forman have done an amazing job of righting a listing ship. The Jimmy Butler trade quickly transformed the Bulls into a team with a solid, young core and gave the fans hope.
Though the Bulls seemed to begin the season in full-out tank mode, they have since been playing hard and shown flashes of greatness under Fred Hoiberg. There seems to be a growing confidence throughout the organization.
Don’t undo all of that just to appease the tank believers.
Leave that for the Nets, Kings, Suns, Grizzlies and all the other teams that never rise above tank mode.
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