Over the last few weeks, the slow approach of the NBA draft lottery has inspired many a long conversation about the strategy of tanking. Sports writers, fans and possibly even NBA officials have discussed the tactic in opinions ranging from disgust to deference. Yet for as controversial as the subject is, its execution is not black or white. There are good ways to tank, bad ways to tank, even shameful ways to tank. To further the conversation, let's look at how an NBA team can tank properly, and use our Detroit Pistons as an example.
The Goal of Tanking
After the first, second and third worst NBA teams this season, there are five teams within three games of each other. The Cleveland Cavaliers, the Detroit Pistons, the Sacramento Kings, the New Jersey Nets and the Toronto Raptors all share similar records. Throughout the regular season, these teams are likely to trade paint with each other until the playoffs begin.
The difference between the five lottery picks that will go to these teams is a 12% chance at the number one pick or a 2% chance in the worst case. The ultimate goal of tanking properly should not be in hopes of landing a number one pick, however, but to aim for the greatest opportunity at the widest selection in June. The 4th best lottery odds are weighted for a better shot at the 2nd and 3rd pick than the 5th best lottery odds. If losing three games could give Detroit the 4th best shot, but winning three games could earn them the 8th best shot, the difference is significant. Three games won't win Detroit the best shot at Anthony Davis, but it could be the difference of whether Andre Drummond, Jared Sullinger or Thomas Robinson are available or not when the Pistons draft.
The Bad, No-Good, Despicable Ways of Tanking
The draft lottery was designed to prevent the worst methods of tanking, those that few fans would ever want to see from their own team. Think of coaches playing reverse chess, subbing in their worst defenders when the other team has the ball in closing minutes of tight games. Think of players actively taking bad shots or skipping defensive assignments on purpose. Think of whole teams cancelling practice. Think of coaches running bad plays for the wrong players "push the ball up court, look for the extra pass for a spot-up three from Big Ben".
These methods of tanking are a myth. This, the world's best league for this sport is full of competitive players and coaches who wouldn't stand for these kinds of strategies and the media would be just as quick to expose them. When the "pro-tank" community suggests that their team attempt for a better shot in the lottery, this is the furthest thing from what they want.
How to Tank Properly
The proper way to tank is to adjust your most competitive lineup by inserting younger, less experienced players. It might also be the best way for a team-in-transition to develop its younger generation. It's also a way to run early auditions for players the team might want to sign for the following season. The Pistons could effectively be improving their team for next season while increasing their lottery odds at the same time. This isn't losing for the sake of losing, it's about developing young players with a lottery payoff.
Adjusting the Established Lineup:
First, the Pistons should consider which players don't need development for the coming season or are playing through injuries. Both Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon are dealing with nagging injuries (toe and groin, respectively) and they should be given plenty of rest. There's no sense in rushing them back into the rotation until they're fully healed. At 31, Tayshaun Prince does not need a starter's role, usage or burn. Damien Wilkins should be out of the lineup completely. Of the remaining active veterans, I'd be hesitant to reduce Jason Maxiell's role given his need for consistency to be productive (and the value of his soon-to-be expiring contract).
Players to Deactivate: Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, Damien Wilkins
Players to Demote: Tayshaun Prince and possibly Jason Maxiell
Developing the Younger Generation:
So far this season, both Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight have been poorly used as it relates to the roles this franchise has for their future. Both are receiving 32 minutes of play per contest, but neither are being used effectively. For the remaining 17 games of the season, emphasizing Greg Monroe as a primary offensive option should be goal number one. Giving Brandon Knight full control of point duties in the backcourt (which he has shared with Rodney Stuckey) should be a close second. I may not agree that Knight is capable of manning the point, but if that's what the organization wants of him-- it's time to see what he can do, exclusively.
Next, Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye and Vernon Macklin should be emphasized. Jerebko should replace Tayshaun Prince in the starting lineup. If Prince is removed from the rotation entirely, it'd be beneficial to force Austin Daye into a consistent 20 minutes per game behind Jerebko on the wing. Daye can also be used for spot-up minutes at shooting guard and power forward only when the match-ups allow for it. Vernon Macklin's performance in garbage minutes and in the D-League warrant giving him a consistent role for the Pistons, perhaps as the first big man off the bench behind Greg Monroe and whomever Detroit starts at power forward in this experiment.
As I mentioned above, I'd be hesitant to remove Jason Maxiell from the rotation given his need for consistent burn. If Maxiell is rested, I'd like to see a three big rotation which starts Greg Monroe at center, Vernon Macklin at power forward with Charlie Villanueva coming off the bench. When Villanueva comes into the game, Macklin slides to center. This might balance scoring and defense. An alternative would be a four man rotation where Monroe and Maxiell split time with Villanueva and Macklin.
Villanueva is a strange case, since he's a clear amnesty case if he receives no burn this season. If he can be forced into a role for the coming 17 games, the Pistons could decide whether to hold off amnesty for another season. Alternatively, if he plays very well, his price could increase on the amnesty market which would reduce the Pistons' salary hit after they cut him.
Running Early Auditions:
If the Pistons rest Stuckey and Gordon, they'll have three guards on the roster which average 6'1" in height. Aside from Brandon Knight, Walker Russel and Will Bynum have no business playing shooting guard, so the Pistons will need to fill a roster hole accordingly. Filling this role is a healthy exercise, given that the Pistons would love to trade Ben Gordon, and will need to find a shooting guard (or two) to back up Rodney Stuckey in 2012-13.
Two great options here are already off the market. Immediately following the trade deadline, I suggested that the Pistons should have gone after Terrence Williams, who had been cut by the Houston Rockets. The Pistons could have offered a cheap, pro-rated contract for the remaining two months of the season with a team option for next season. Sacramento beat us to it, and Williams has played admirably in his short stint with the Kings. Dallas just signed sharpshooter Kelenna Azubuike to a rest-of-the-season contract with a team option, with the intent on starting him in the D-league while he completes his recovery. This is precisely the kind of thing Detroit should be doing now to start improving early for next season.
Right now, the Pistons should be going after undrafted players, D-Leaguers and recent NBA cuts to fill out their roster for the remainder of the season. The goal should be low-risk, high-reward scenarios, issuing small contracts with team options to players that might otherwise not have a shot at the NBA this season. There are options beyond Williams and Azubuike, and when the D-League season comes to an end in a week-and-a-half, that's a great time to pounce.
Right now, with the playoffs out of the picture, the Pistons should be willing to take risks with their roster. If the team gives Austin Daye a trial by fire and he fails, they only stand to gain in the 2012 NBA Draft Lottery. If the team calls up a D-League shooting guard or takes a shot on a cut free agent, they're in great position to round out next season's roster early by auditioning cheap talent.
The proper way to tank is not to think about it like tanking. It's about taking risks and adjusting the roster while developing young talent. Every young player on this team, from Greg Monroe down to Vernon Macklin, has been under-served this season and they deserve a chance to be highlighted and further developed. There's no losing in this scenario. If the young lineup wins games, the franchise can identify the right changes for the coming off season. If the young lineup loses, they do so while developing. Those losses will only put Detroit in a better position for the NBA Draft Lottery. It's a Win - Win - Win scenario if you ask me.