Why the league should thank the tankers

About 3/4 of the way through this past season, I began to notice something of a trend among tanking teams. Tanking teams had this tendency to bring in young, under the radar players and give them a run with 10 day contracts in a way that middling teams just didn't. Teams in the middle of the pack, like Portland (15 unique players), Dallas (15 unique players) and our very own Suns (15 unique players), just didn't seem interested in making additions to the roster during the season of young, unknown players unless they came in the form of a trade or were a necessity in the face of injury problems (see the Atlanta Hawks). The most competitive teams tended to play with their rosters almost as much as the tanking teams, but the players they brought in tended to be veterans with established records rather than young, unproven players (think the Thunder bringing in Mustafa Shakur and Ryan Gomes).

The 76ers are probably the best example of this. This season, the 76ers gave game time to 23 unique players, at least 9 of whom had seen little to no major playing time in the NBA prior to being called up by the organization (Henry Sims, Dewayne Dedmon, Adonis Thomas, James Nunnally, Darius Johnson-Odom, Casper Ware, Lorenzo Brown, Jarvis Varnado, Brandon Davies).

The Bucks are another great example. The Bucks played 19 unique players - 5 of whom were relative unknowns (Tony Mitchell, Chris Wright, DJ Stephens, Miroslav Raduljica, Nate Wolters).

Boston is the final good example. The Celtics played, again, 19 unique players - 5 of whom were relative unknowns (Vander Blue, Chris Babb, Vitor Faverani, Chris Johnson, Phil Pressey).

Compare this to teams like Miami (minutes to only one relative unknown, Justin Hamilton) or Indiana (no minutes to unknowns unless you count Orlando Johnson, who played 51 games for them last season), and there is something of a trend.

For all of the ugly basketball that we were forced to watch these teams play, they may just have been providing a service to other NBA teams. Just the three teams mentioned provided scouts with real NBA game footage and scouting reports on 19 players who otherwise had never really been challenged by NBA level talent. These players also have high likelihoods of being available free agents, given the rebuilding nature of the teams in question. These scouting reports will be invaluable commodities for more competitive teams (like the Heat) or borderline teams (like our Suns) who might look to improve or retool the bench this offseason. Instead of having to look at college footage, or to determine how D-League production will translate, scouts have a stronger body of evidence (if often sometimes smaller) to help in their evaluations.

I skimmed the data from last season and noticed that the trend is almost non-existent last season - there was little to no difference in the number of unique players given playing time between the worst teams in the league of the middling teams.

It makes you wonder, what changed? Why are tanking teams this season giving opportunities to young, unproven players when they didn't last season? Is it solely tanking? It seems implausible, 'cause these teams were all odds on favorites to lose every game by double digits almost every night. Are they trying to separate the wheat from the chaff more this season than in previous seasons, and if so, why?

It also makes you wonder about whether or not NBA teams are going to make use of the positive externalities of this policy of roster spot rotating among tanking teams? Some of these guys, despite putting up very respectable seasons, are unlikely to be retained by their teams. Chris Wright (18.6 PER) and Miroslav Raduljica (15.3) in Milwaukee, Casper Ware (13.0), Jarvis Varnado (13.4) and Henry Sims (17.4) in Philadelphia, and Alexis Ajinca (14.5) in New Orleans are all players who look worthy of a bench spot, if not better, on an NBA team, but will that translate into them being picked up by other teams?

In a professional environment with an underdeveloped and oft-criticized farm system, the tanking teams this season may just have provided the rest of the league with a large amount of useful data on potential free agents. The only cost was a horrible, terrible basketball experience for fans.

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