The NBA despises the word so much that Commissioner Adam Silver referred to it as the "T-word."
Tanking — the idea that teams lose games on purpose to procure top draft picks — permeated the discussion at the start of 2013-14 season, and with three weeks remaining in the regular season, it remains part of the conversation.
The NBA's stance on the issue is clear. It eschews the word "tanking" and prefers not only a more palatable term but one it believes is more accurate, "rebuilding."
"When you're talking about tanking, you're intimating teams are losing games on purpose, and that just isn't true," Rod Thorn, the NBA's president of basketball operations, told USA TODAY Sports. "Every player, every coach is trying to do everything he can to win as many games as he can and to play as well as he possibly he can, because in both instances, your livelihood depends on how you do.
"We've got some teams every year — and it's been that way forever — who are rebuilding, and that can manifest itself in a bunch of different ways."
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The explanation does not satisfy all critics, who don't like an incentive for losing. But it is the NBA's response. Thorn said the NBA has found no evidence of teams intentionally losing games and has not called a team to ask about strategy.
"The reason anyone goes through a rebuild is that it's a last option, and they look at sorts of ways of improving their team," Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA's vice president of basketball operations, said. "Can they get a free agent? Can they make a good trade? What's available in the draft? They look at all those different things, and they decide the best way to serve their fans. How am I going to get there the fastest possible way?"
The NBA lottery is a weighted system designed to give the worst team the possible chance at the top overall pick but it does not guarantee the worst team the No. 1 pick.
The lottery system was implemented to prevent teams from losing to guarantee the No. 1 pick. The team with the worst record has a better chance of not getting the No. 1 pick than getting it, and just three times since 1990 has the team with worst record received the top pick.
There is also no guarantee that top picks equal a turnaround.
"It's not like an assured thing it's going to work out," VanDeWeghe said. "You draft a great player who maybe you think is going to be great and it doesn't turn out so great. Or maybe the right player you wanted isn't there. Maybe there's not the right free agents to get. Or your young players don't develop quite like you think. In any rebuilding strategy, there are inherent risks."
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The topic is a complicated, multifaceted issue, and the NBA continues to look at ways to improve the draft system. But until that happens, starting fresh, even if it means losing seasons, is a viable option.
There are always winners and losers in the NBA, and there has always been a significant gap between the best and worst teams. The number of losing teams this season is not inordinate compared to other seasons.
This season, nine teams have a winning percentage worse than .400, three under .300 and one under .200. Those numbersare not all that different from 10-2-2 in 2009-10 or 8-6-1 in 2007-08. In 1996-97, leading up to the draft headlined by Tim Duncan, nine teams were under .400, six under .300 and two under .200.
"There's the notion that anytime a team loses a few games or is not having a good year is tanking and really that's absolutely not true," VanDeWeghe said.
Rebuilding is not new, and rebuilding through the draft, free agency and trades (see the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers) remains a strong strategy.
But the parameters of today's collective-bargaining agreement make it more onerous for teams to spend their way out of it. And, as teams often find out, throwing money at a problem is not a long-term solution and sometimes not even a short-term one.
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While no team wants to remain at the bottom for too long, one area of the standings can be even less desirable: the middle of the pack, just inside or outside of the playoffs. The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers lived there for seasons, and improvement was negligible.
It is clear the 76ers, who entered Monday at 15-55 as losers of 24 consecutive games, are rebuilding. They have a new CEO, new general manager, new coach and relatively new owners.
Sixers GM Sam Hinkie traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for rookie Nerlens Noel at the 2013 draft and unloaded guard Evan Turner and center Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline. Danny Granger, whom they acquired from the Indiana Pacers, wasn't going to be a part of Philadelphia's future and was quickly waived.
The Sixers have acquired multiple draft picks — they could have two first-rounders and a flurry of second-rounders in June — and created salary-cap space. The NBA has no qualms with Philadelphia's approach, which includes taking a look at young players who could be part of the future.
"They have a plan," Thorn said. "Their plan is 'We're stuck in the middle here. … We don't want to be stuck here. We want to accumulate all the assets we possibly can.' … They knew they weren't going to be very good but as quickly as they can, they want to get back to the point where they can compete for the big prize."
VanDeWeghe added, "It's certainly not up to us to tell them how to run their business."
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