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The Value of Things: Tanking (Part One)

Does tanking actually work?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” — Mark Twain

Carefully studying the past seems tedious. We can simply ask a question and answer it simply because we know the answer. Sometimes we think we know and we just don’t know. I’m ashamed to say this happens to me all the time. We make assumptions about things and people without really thinking about it. We make these assumptions because we have been conditioned to do so and it benefits us most of the time.

In the last edition of the value of things we talked about whether to trade Brandin Cooks and/or Laremy Tunsil. Dealing Cooks has been a hot topic recently, The idea would be to get a second round pick back and give the team more fuel for the rebuild. Houston has eleven picks now in the draft later on this month. What could they do with twelve? If they had six picks before the end of day two would that be enough to jumpstart the next great Texans team?

You don’t have to be a negative Nancy to see that the playoffs are not in the cards this year. The ultimate question is whether there is any value in losing. Can you build a winner out of the ashes of a franchise. We will split the research into two parts. First, we will take a look at the other two major sports and significant examples of austerity/tanking.

Does tanking work in other sports?

Unfortunately, we have a bit of a bias here locally. The Houston Astros were a product of tanking. They’ve been to the World Series three times in the past five seasons. They’ve been to the ALCS five years in a row. They were one of the few teams in history to win 100 or more games in three consecutive seasons. Yes, other franchises have had runs with more success. In the modern game, it is difficult to imagine any team having more success than they have had.

2010-2014 = 308-502 (.380)

2015-2019 = 481-329 (.594)

Historically, it would be wrong to assume that the Astros turn around is normal. However, they have been cited as a shining example for other teams. It could be argued that the Baltimore Orioles are currently in the midst of a tear down and rebuild. After all, their management team used to be in Houston. Of course, without a careful look at all of the factors we would make a mistake of assuming how they were successful.

The Chicago Cubs had a similar rise at the exact same time. They were 346-464 (.427) in the same years that the Astros were bad. They weren’t quite as successful, but they did win a World Series in 2016 and had a 471-339 (.581) mark over those five seasons following. The Astros drafted Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, and Lance McCullers. They also drafted Brady Aiken and Mark Appel. The Cubs drafted Kris Bryant. They also had more than their fair share of misses as well.

The NBA probably sees more tanking than any other sport. Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings, and Golden State Warriors seemingly went decades without winning. The Warriors from 2008 through 2013 saw their record wane to 161-233 (.409). After that 2012-2013 season they went a collective 316-94 (.771) in the next five seasons. That included three championships and probably should have been all five.

The Philadelphia 76ers were so transparent that they called their tanking “a process.” Trust the process they always said. They were 109-301 from 2012 to 2017. They have been 247-144 since. This has involved a lot of lottery picks and like those other organizations, some of them worked and some didn’t. They parlayed Ben Simmons into James Harden. Obviously, this post season hasn’t played out yet.

Obviously, you can’t suck and automatically get better. The Houston Rockets are currently trying their hand at it. They are in year two of what likely will be a three or four year period of austerity. Yet, if they land one or two more stars in the next couple of drafts you could imagine them doing the same thing as the 76ers.

The difference of course is the NBA has a draft lottery, and the MLB didn’t, but are implementing it next season. The lottery randomizes who can get the first three picks of the NBA draft for the teams who don’t make the playoffs. Losing games only goes so far in the NBA.

Tanking can work in the NBA and MLB, but it takes expert management. It’s a combination of using your draft capital effectively and using the financial savings from not paying star players effectively. Some people would naturally assume that you could do the same in the NFL.

Does tanking work in the NFL?

First, we need to define our terms. Long term tanking is more rare in the NFL than in the NBA and MLB. Teams may be bad for a season or two, but normally they bounce back fairly quickly. The Texans will have a third consecutive season with ten or more losses in 2022. If that should happen it will be the first time in franchise history. As much as we might bag on the Texans, they haven’t had the kind of prolonged misery as those teams highlighted above.

Detroit Lions

2001-2005= 21-59

2006-2010= 18-62

2011-2015= 39-41

2016-2020= 26-53-2

The Lions have gone through two or three five year droughts. They lost ten or more games five consecutive seasons on three different occasions this century. They were mediocre during the other five seasons. They got Matthew Stafford, Barry Sanders, and Calvin Johnson. They might be three of the most talented players at their position ever and it still didn’t matter.

Cleveland Browns

2008-2012= 23-57

2013-2017= 15-65

2018-2021= 32-32

Obviously, this is the second consecutive team to be worse in their second five years than they were during their first. The Browns took austerity to its logical breaking point. They even took on (Name Redacted) just so they could get an additional second round pick. All of that saving and all of that draft capital led to one playoff appearance in the last five years.

Jacksonville Jaguars

2011-2015= 19-61

2016-2020= 25-55

The Jaguars did go to one AFC Championship. Otherwise, they haven’t done anything. Truth be told, we could add last season since they are the first team in recent memory to have back to back number one overall picks. Suffice it to say, the theory of tanking didn’t work for them either.

Final Analysis and the Texans

We could look at similar five year stretches for other teams and we’d get similar results. The results were somewhere between terrible and average. No NFL team saw their fortunes rebound after a five season term in NFL hell. Some teams have come back from one or two down years, but that shirks the definition of long-term tanking.

The whys and what fors in these situations are always the most important thing. There are three possibilities as to why teams fail to take advantage of the opportunities of tanking. The first is that there really aren’t as many opportunities. Teams cannot slash payrolls to the bone like they can in other sports. Furthermore, the hard cap makes it impossible to compound savings into anything meaningful in terms of player expenditures. Plus, there are other rules involved. We will explore that in a subsequent post.

The second is that even with increased draft capital, there really is no guarantee that the additional capital will lead to anything. The Texans have three additional first rounders in addition to additional midround selections. They will likely be right back in the top five next season. All of that guarantees nothing. So, one of the questions is whether there is a science to drafting or if it is merely blind luck. We will look at that too.

Finally, we have the cultural considerations. Winning becomes a habit. Losing becomes a habit. Teams that get used to losing continue to lose. While that certainly appears true based on the evidence above, we have to be careful of the post hoc ad hoc fallacy. The fact that B occurs after A does not mean that A caused B. I know most of us hate the word culture around here. I get it. My impetus to avoid it is not based on the fact that it has become a four letter word. My impetus to avoid it is that I can’t measure it. I can measure drafts, free agent signings, on the field performance, and basic coaching competence. I can’t measure attitudes. So, we will continue to focus on what we can measure.