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Building Successful NBA Teams - Tanking and Smart Management

As if we haven't talked enough about tanking or rebuilding, Marx at Raptors Republic put a list of the NBA teams record since 95-96 the year the Raptors joined the NBA which has some insights.

29. Memphis 547 wins.

28. Clippers 554.

27. Golden State 557.

26. Washington 578.

25. Toronto 581.

24. Brooklyn 627.

23. Minnesota 636.

22. Milwaukee 648.

21. Philadelphia 662.

20. Atlanta 666.

19. Cleveland 679.

18. Sacramento 682.

17. Denver 683.

16. New York 683.

15. Boston 719.

14. New Orleans 730.

13. Chicago 731.

12. Portland 757.

11. Orlando 761.

10. Detroit 774.

9. Houston 781

8. Indiana 782.

7. Oklahoma 791.

6. Phoenix 807.

5. Dallas 826.

4. Miami 826.

3. Utah 850.

2. Lakers 931.

1. San Antonio 967.

The comparison of Raptors to the Grizzlies is interesting as both entered the league in the same year, but remove Carter and how much better has this team performed then Memphis.

What is a successful team?

What is a successful team, one that wins a few seasons (possibly the NBA finals) and then drops out of the playoffs. Or one that consistently is above average team (often qualifies for the playoffs and who contends for the NBA championship).

The top 10 teams on the list (actually bottom as it is presented) are interesting from the perspective of how consistent and a more long term competitive contending team is formed (though perhaps not a championship team). Folks have talked about how successful championship teams like the Spurs, Dallas, Miami, Houston, Lakers and Detroit were built. That is, either through a "tank" (which aside from the Spurs the data does not support) or through spending and big UFA acquisitions or more often then not some mix of drafting, trading and UFA signings. It is interesting to note from the list, that the teams that do tank are not "superior" over the long term (thing Cavaliers with James).

The Bridesmaid's

That said, I will focus on the bridesmaid's teams who don't get much historic attention (because they never won a title). That is, the teams that have performed better then average over a long period are worth noting. And in the top 10, they include a few teams who were NBA finalist but not NBA champions like the Jazz and Pacers and Seattle.

Utah's success was build around Stockton (16th pick) and Malone (13th pick) and after the mid 2000, Boozer (UFA signing drafted in 2nd round) and Williams (trade of three first round picks to draft him 3rd overall). Utah never "tanked" but did need to "rebuild" over this time and their highest #1 draft pick was #3 in 2005 (for Williams) and 2011 (for Kanter) but these draft picks were both obtained through trades.


The Sun's success came with Nash (15th pick) in 2000 but they were the classic treadmill team in the late 90s. They never "tanked" and are currently "rebuilding" and their highest #1 draft pick overall was #5 in 2013 (Alex Lin) who we might argue was a result of tanking last year.

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OKC (Seattle) were built around Payton (2nd overall) and Kemp (17th pick) until the mid 2000. The later Allen (trade, 5th overall) and Lewis (round 2 pick) and now Durant (2nd overall) and Westbrook (4th overall). Their best picks during this time were #2 (Durant) #3 (Harden) and #4 (Westbrook) though Payton was drafted before 1994. This team behavior more closely resembles a traditional tank.


And finally the Pacers were built around the enduring franchise career Reggie Miller (11th pick overall). Their highest picks over this time was 10th overall (Paul George) in 2010.

How Were These Above Average Team's Built?

Again mixed results are shown on how to build long term above average contending teams. Of the four teams, only OKC successfully "tanked" three times to draft elite players. The remaining teams made good use of their mid first draft picks without tanking or successful trades to build a contending (but not champion team). That is, a good indication of smart management. But to be fair we could argue that OKC is an example of "smartly" tanking.

At any rate, the elite talent on these roster's were still often obtained through the draft by these successful contending team but not always with a lotto pick. This can still fit with the tanker's thesis of how a low draft pick maximizes the chance at land elite talent, but shows it a low pick is not necessary. However, these results are more suggestive that good management doesn't tank and finds way to contend nonetheless through trades, UFA signings and drafting smartly. These teams may not successfully win the championship and so few teams do, but they do find ways build a competitive roster more years then not and Detroit would be a better example of a team that won the title and still finds way to contend nonetheless through trades, UFA signings and drafting smartly. Though I'm not sure I would say they have 'great management'. And further, these "better managed" teams appear to be more competitive over the long term compared to “tanking” teams like the Cavaliers. The ideal scenario for the tankers is the OKC roadmap but there seems to be more evidence of long term success by making smart talent decisions and avoiding tanking (Pacers, Suns, Jazz).

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