“They were losing on purpose. It was a business decision” Frank Layden, the former Utah coach, reporting what an anonymous Houston Rockets’ executive told him first hand. And why wouldn’t they, well besides integrity and respect for the game, when at worst they would get Jordan or Olajuwon. In those days the two teams with the worst record would literally flip a coin to decide the 1 & 2 draft positions. With that system, tanking games was an effective and almost guaranteed option to land a franchise-changing player in the draft.
That business decision was carried out to perfection for the Rockets. They dropped 14 of their last 17 games, 9 of their last 10, and their final 5.
One of the more suspicious actions was Coach Bill Fitch somewhat resurrecting 38-year old Elvin Hayes’ career for one last season – for no real reason. Hayes played all 53 minutes in Houston’s 81st game of the season and the first 35 minutes in the last game, ending his career with exactly 50,000 minutes-played, the first player to do so. This insignificant milestone was the reason Fitch claimed he played Hayes all those minutes. Besides the fact this record meant nothing, the goodwill towards Hayes made less sense considering Fitch didn’t like him much. Evidence of that is best described by this advice to his rookie center Ralph Sampson, “You stay away from that no-good, fucking prick,” Fitch said at the beginning of training camp in 1983.
The rest is pretty much history. That history would not have been if the Rockets played to their potential in the beginning of the ’83-’84 season. They had a group of talented young players led by Rookie of the Year Ralph Sampson’s 21ppg, 11rpg and 2.4bpg. Management’s decision to go after Olajuwon or Jordan came only after they started 18-26 and getting man-handled by the Lakers to the tune of a 29-point blowout going into the All-Star break. After that embarrassing game the top brass concluded it wasn’t working that season and made a conscious decision to play for the draft. Houston positioned itself back in the coin flip for the 2nd year in a row. They selected The Dream and went on to win back-to-back championship after reuniting Olajuwon with Phi Slama Jama running mate Clyde Drexler.
From Coin Flip to Draft Lottery
This betrayal in morality may not be the first instance of tanking games, but it was without a doubt the most visible. With the potential for greatness in the ’84 draft class and obvious losing tactics employed by the Rockets, new Commissioner David Stern had to take action. The NBA had taken a hit after the ’83 season in the media and by the fans. Immediately following the 1984 NBA draft Stern did away with the prehistoric coin flip for his draft lottery system starting in 1985. At the time each of the 7 non-playoff teams would get an even chance for the #1 pick. This made sense because now, no matter how many games a team dumped, they would have no advantage in the draft. That resulted in Patrick Ewing to the Knicks in the famed “frozen-envelope” scandal in which the NBA allegedly rigged the lottery to send Patrick Ewing to a big market team the New York Knicks. After much controversy over the new system (among the bad teams really) that teams with the worst records weren’t landing the top picks therefore being stuck in mediocrity, the lottery system was changed three more times before we got to the current version.
- 1987 – Only the first 3 picks were decided by the lottery the rest would be decided by record.
- 1990 – The worst team would receive the best chance to get the #1 pick by getting 11 chances in the lottery (11 non-playoff teams). 2nd worst team 10 chances and so on.
- 1994 – The teams would be weighted based on record with the worst record getting a 25% chance at the number 1 pick and decreased down the line to a 0.5% chance for the best non-playoff team.
This weighting system essentially revived the tanking strategy as now there was some incentive to dump games again. Basically if at best a team would be the 28th seed why not try for 30 and get a higher percentage chance at the top pick? Tanking games is unquestionably unethical and a disgrace to the game, but it did pay off for Houston. By winning back-to-back championships in ’94 & ’95 when MJ decided to give the league a break for two seasons, the Rockets essentially paved the “tanking” way for the other teams as well.
The Most Recent Example of Dumping Games
In 1996, seven teams were vying for the #1 pick in the upcoming draft. The prize: Tim Duncan, a franchise-changing big man with a boring, yet undeniably effective game. By losing excessively down the stretch those 7 teams went a combined 13-57 in the last ten games of the season. The Spurs conveniently lost their last 6 (the only team to do so) and secured the 3rd worst record in the league at 20-62 or more accurately stated: 3rd best in the Tim Duncan sweepstakes. The record itself may not be enough to assume tanking but consider the following:
- Questions were raised about whether David Robinson’s foot fracture had healed to the point where he could and should be playing.
- Similar to the Houston debacle this team was suspiciously led by another well-past-his-prime superstar in Dominique Wilkins (age 37). At the same time other healthy, younger players were being sidelined and rested for no apparent reason. Here’s Barkley’s first hand account after a game vs. the Spurs in 1997:
That was significant in that the Nuggets, Sixers and Mavericks finished just 1, 2 & 4 games better than the Spurs, so winning even one of those last 6 games could have been the difference between getting #2 pick Keith Van Horn rather than Duncan. That was one of the biggest turnarounds considering the Spurs were 59-23 the previous season.
Two years later (a much faster turnaround than Houston) had San Antonio winning the 1st of 4 championships in 9 years – led by Duncan. With this much success from allegedly losing games on purpose, can we really believe it won’t happen again in the near future?
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Inspiration, quotes, excerpts & main source: Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy