As a Philadelphia 76ers fan, it has been bittersweet watching my team try to lose. Over the last year, the Sixers have been using a strategy called "tanking." This means that the team is intentionally trying to lose in order to improve their chances at the top pick in the next draft. Professional sports is a business, and as a fan I am okay watching my team tank for a season or two, as long as I know they’ll have a much better team in the future.
But tanking in high school sports? That makes a lot less sense to me.
Two girls’ high school basketball teams recently tried this method. Smyrna High School and Riverdale High School in Rutherford County, Tennessee, intentionally tried to lose their matchup against each other to avoid playing a powerhouse team in the state tournament. The game was a sham. Players missed free throws on purpose and tried to give the other team the ball. Before a player tried to shoot a basket in her own hoop, the refs stopped the game. Each school was fined $1,500 and booted from the state tournament.
This was a good lesson for both teams. Sports in high school should be about learning the game, teamwork, and developing sportsmanship. Playing a top team in high school sports can actually be a good thing. When you play a good team, sometimes you can surprise yourself and learn from them and play better than you ever imagined. And, if you lose, it can help build character. Sometimes you take more away from a game when you lose than when you win. Tanking in a high school game robs players of that experience, and the practice has no place at that level of sports.
Back to the professionals: We have the Big Kahuna of tanking matches when the Sixers take on the Lakers in two games at the end of March. Both teams have among the worst records in the league, and are jockeying for position in the upcoming NBA Draft. Normally these games would just be another set of relatively meaningless matches among bad teams ahead of the NBA playoffs. But the Sixers just acquired the Lakers' top-five protected 2015 first-round draft pick. (They got it in a complicated four-team trade where the Sixers sent 2014 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams to the Bucks). So if the Lakers' pick this year is outside of the top five, the Sixers get that pick. If not, the Sixers have to wait until next year to receive the Lakers top-three protected first-round pick. So now these two games have added importance to both teams.
The Lakers actually benefit by losing as many games as they can for the rest of this year. The worse their record is, the better the chances of keeping their 2015 draft pick. On the flip side, the Sixers want to lose these particular games for two reasons: first, the Sixers benefit when they lose because it helps their own draft positions, and second, Lakers wins would increases the chances that the Sixers get the Los Angeles pick this year.
So we have two games coming up where each team desperately wants to lose to the other. Quite a predicament for the teams (and for the fans) because somebody has to win! The battle of the tankers should be really interesting to watch. I just hope the pro athletes aren’t as obvious about it as the high schoolers were!
Photo: Philadelphia 76ers' fans, wearing paper bags over their heads, watch the final minutes of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Philadelphia. Milwaukee won 97-77. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)