Will Tanking Work For The Portland Trail Blazers? Here’s What History Says

We all hear the term “tanking” in sports. That’s where a team trades away all of their players away for higher draft picks to select the next LeBron James, thus “tanking” their ability to win. Seeing as how the NBA has a Draft Lottery, you’re not guaranteed the first overall pick, as the bottom fifteen teams go into a lottery. The worse the record, the better chance you have at number one. Some fun phrases have come about with tanking teams, such as “Recede for Embiid” or “Fall for Wall,” but being a fan of a tanking team can be exhausting. Betting the house on that number one pick is extremely risky. Does it actually work? Let’s look at the past drafts from 2010 to 2020.

2010 | No. 1 pick — John Wall (Washington Wizards)

Best Result – 49-33 (2016-2017) – 4th in Eastern Conference – Lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Boston Celtics (3-4)

  • Perhaps the height of John Wall’s career was this year. Wall averaged 23ppg and 10.7apg. This team also featured Bradley Beal dropping 23ppg as well. Overall, the team was great on offense, but matched up against the insane year of Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics.

Worst Result – 20-46 (2011-2012) – 14th in Eastern Conference 

  • Losing your coach mid-way through the year usually means the team is struggling which was the case for the Wizards. Flip Saunders started the team off at 2-15, and was sacked for Randy Whitman. Other than Wall, the teams top scorers were Nick Young, Jordan Crawford, and Nenê.  

Did it Work? – No, not at all. Wall would put up great individual seasons, but the front office failed to put a complete team around their first overall pick. They’re now in another rebuild after shipping away John Wall. Bradley Beal is still with the team but is also thought to be on his way out.

2011 | No. 1 pick — Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers)

2013 | No. 1 pick — Anthony Bennett (Cleveland Cavaliers)

2014 | No. 1 pick — Andrew Wiggins (Cleveland Cavaliers)

Best Result – 57-25 (2015-2016) – 1st in the Eastern Conference – Won NBA Finals vs. Golden State (4-3)

  • Possibly the only team that gave Golden State troubles over their dynasty run. LeBron had to average 30ppg/11reb/9ast to win it. Kyrie chipped in with 27ppg as well, while Kevin Love nursed an injury.

Worst Result – 21-45 (2011-2012) – 13th in Eastern Conference

  • The ghost of Antawn Jamison and a 19-year-old Kyrie Irving was the “forces” on this team. They couldn’t score or play defense, which is what led them to their paltry record.

Did It Work – Yes, it did. Kyrie Irving transformed into one of the best point guards of the past 10 years. Once LeBron resigned with the Cavilers in July of 2014, the drafting of Bennett and Wiggins paid off. Dubbed “LeGM” by NBA fans, many felt that LeBron didn’t want to play with the “young kids” The Cavs shipped out Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins to acquire Kevin Love, ultimately propelling them to the NBA championship a year later.

2017 | No. 1 pick — Markelle Fultz (Philadelphia 76ers)

2016 | No. 1 pick — Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)

Best Result – 51-31 (2018-2019) – 3rd in the Eastern Conference – Lost NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. the Toronto Raptors (4-3)

  • Perhaps a cursed run for this Sixers team as Kawhi hit the shot of the 2010’s, falling away at the last second to hit the game-winner. Ben Simmons put together a 17ppg/9rpg/8pg stat line, while also being the team’s best defender. Fultz struggled with his injuries and his mental space, where he was promptly traded in the offseason to the Orlando Magic.

Worst Result – 28-54 (2016-2017) – 14th in Eastern Conference

  • To be fair, Ben Simmons didn’t play this year due to his foot injury. To put some sort of positive spin on this season, Dario Saric and Nik Stauskas only missed three combined games.

Did It Work – No? Strictly based on these number one picks, the tank didn’t work. However, getting Joel Embiid with the third pick in the 2014 draft has given this team some momentum this season. They only won a total of 47 wins in a three-year span from the 2013-2014 season to the 2015-2016 season, which gave them all of these changes at top draft picks. Still, they have yet to make it past the Conference Semifinals.

2012 | No. 1 pick — Anthony Davis (New Orleans Hornets)

2019 | No. 1 pick — Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans)

Best Result – 48-34 (2017-2018) – 6th in the Western Conference – Lost Western Conference Semifinals versus Golden State Warriors (1-4)

  • This was a fun team to watch as the Pelicans traded for Demarcus Cousins halfway through the season. Between Boogie and Anthony Davis, they punished every team on the interior. They also had Jrue Holiday, a certified scorer handling the point guard duties. However, they lacked depth and lost to the eventual NBA Champion Golden State Warriors.

Worst Result – 27-55 (2012-2013) – 14th in the Western Conference

  • The crew of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Greivis Vasquez we the leaders on this team, which wasn’t exactly a winning formula. This was Ant’s first year in the league and he put up a 13ppg/8rpg, but practically doubled his production the next year.

Did It Work – Kinda not? Ant brought Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, and Isaiah Jackson to the team. Ball and Hart were eventually traded away for picks and players that brought CJ McCollum to the team. Brandon Ingram turned into a star, and Zion put together a 27ppg/7rpg season while shooting 61% from the field in 2020-2021. Zion is hurt and has been shut down until next year, but viral videos of him dunking while flexing the floor beneath show that the jury is still out on whether the tank worked.

2015 | No. 1 pick — Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves)

2020 | No. 1 pick — Anthony Edwards (Minnesota Timberwolves)

Best Result – 47-35 (2017-2018)  – Finished 8th in Western Conference –  Lost in Western Conference First Round to the Houston Rockets (1-4)

  • The 2021-2022 season is still going on, which will most likely be their most productive season. For the time being, the 2017-2018 season saw the raw talent of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen being traded for Jimmy Butler. Bringing Butler over immediately boosted this team. They ran into the juggernaut of Chris Paul and James Harden in the First Round.

Worst Result – 19-45 (2019-2020) – Finished 14th in the Western Conference

  • KAT missed a significant amount of time this year. He was at the height of his production, averaging 26ppg/11.7rpg/4.4apg while shooting over 50% from the field and 41% from three.  

Did It Work – It may. KAT is still a top-five center and new draft pick Anthony Edwards is a certified scorer. Adding Patrick Beverly was one of the best moves they made, solidifying the defense that used to be a leaky faucet. Given that they still have both pieces, we can’t conclude if it worked.

2018 | No. 1 pick — Deandre Ayton (Phoenix Suns)

Best Result – 51-21 (2020-2021) – Finished 2nd in the Western Conference – Lost in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks (2-4)

  • Last year’s Suns team was one of the best overall teams to make the Finals in a while. The team was deep with five players scoring more than 10ppg. Unfortunately for them, they matched up against the Greek God Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks and lost in six games.

Worst Result – 19-63 (2018-2019) – Finished 15th in the Western Conference 

  • Ayton’s first year was full of young guys trying to find their way. Including himself, their top five scorers were 25 years old or younger. They struggled on both ends on the court, ranking 28th and 29th on offense and defense respectively.

Did It Work – Almost yes. They’re on another tear this year, now with seven players scoring 10ppg or more. They’ve eclipsed last year’s win amount, sitting at 58-14 at the time of this article. Other than a healthy Golden State Warriors and defending champs Milwaukee Bucks, the Pheonix Suns should see themselves back in the championship this year.

So has it been working? With only one confirmed championship coming at the hands of Cleveland being extremely lucky with three number one picks in four years, I would say not entirely. With exception of the Wizards, all of the other teams have flirted with the championship, making it to the playoffs in their best years. The Pelicans, Timberwolves, and Suns all have promising futures based on Zion, KAT/Anthony Edwards, and Ayton. Cleveland and Philadelphia have lost their number ones but have formed competitive teams. If tanking means drafting the number one pick to win the championship with them, I would say we’re running one for six, or a 16% chance of winning the chip. Does it work? No, it doesn’t.