First, let's discuss what tanking is. Tanking is a deliberate attempt by a front office to have their team perform poorly, in the hopes of getting a higher draft pick, draft compensation, maybe younger players they believe in over the vets that currently help them win. Losing deliberately in the short term in the hopes of winning in the long term.
I'm not using any examples of injuries that resulted in team poor performance, like the year the Spurs got Duncan.
I see the argument of the greatest tank of all time brought up, the current mold of the 76ers, as the example used for why it doesn't work. But there have been so many more tanks that have worked spectacularly. They are more subtle than the 76ers, and often forgotten as a result.
One last thing to remember on the discussion. You know what also doesn't work? Every method of building a championship team EVER! What I mean is this, if you want to cite a traditional rebuild, lucking into a high draft pick, or free agency built team as a method that works, there are dozens of other teams that try that same attempt and fail, every year. Miami building the big three as a positive for free agency building? What about the 8-10 other teams that tried that in that particular offseason and failed miserably? All methods are going to fail many times over, because, well, there is only one champion at the end of every season.
Tank Example 1: 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers
Let's get the easiest out of the way. Lebron was a junior high school superstar already, and Cleveland tanked to get him. What did they do? Oh, just traded their best player the year before and signed a bunch of nobodies to that 2002 team. Andre Miller, Wesley Person, and Lamond Murray were the top 3 VORP leaders of that team in 2001, and all were gone the next year. The tank led to 5 years of great playoff runs in the 2000s, with the king returning for 4 more years of deep playoff runs and a championship in the 2010s.
Tank Example 2: 2012 Golden State Warriors
That's right, the dynasty of the 2010s was a tank effort. Golden State traded their best player at the time, Ellis, for an oft injured center in Bogut. Don't think that was a tank move? The fanbase hated it so much they booed Joe Lacob at a jersey retirement ceremony (oh how times have changed) But that wasn't even the big part of the tank. The Warriors owed their pick to the Jazz if it fell out of the top 7. So hey, lets lose some more games to keep that pick. It worked, and the team drafted Harrison Barnes with that pick, who was an integral part of that 1st championship team. A beautiful tank job, more below:
Yes, it might seem inherently idiotic to trade arguably the team’s best player in Ellis for a defunct star with a history of injuries that will likely not suit up this season. However, keep in mind that the Warriors' first-round pick goes to the Utah Jazz should they finish better than the league’s seven worst teams.
So while the move might hurt the team in the short run, losing now might be the best play for the team’s future.
Tank Example 3: 2006-2007 Boston Celtics
This unique one is an example of tanking, getting bit by the draft lottery, and still coming out ahead, because you tanked. The Celtics no doubt had their eyes on the all time great draft of Oden/Durant, and included late game lineups by Doc to purposefully lose games. I remember him getting into media heated discussions, having to defend his lineups. Despite their best efforts, the Celtics landed 5, out of the sweepstakes. They however, used the pick to get Allen, which was convincing enough for Garnett to come over. No tank, no Allen, no championships that came from those teams.
With Greg Oden and Kevin Durant both viewed as future NBA superstars, the Boston Celtics did all that they could to ensure that they had a shot at one of either Durant or Oden. At 24-58, the Celtics finished with the second-worst record in the franchise’s long and storied history, and they got there with some of the most egregious late-game performances in the league that year. Doc Rivers, then still the coach of the Celtics, used some very odd late-game lineups in games the team was winning.
The most obvious example that the Celtics were heavily invested in tanking was a game against the Charlotte Bobcats late in the season. Despite having been up by 18 points in the third quarter, Rivers benched his best player in Paul Pierce and went with a lineup that featured Allan Ray, Leon Powe, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes and Gerald Green. The Celtics obviously couldn’t close out the game and the Bobcats won.
I think in the case of all three, the front office identified who the core was, and once that core was achieved, they went after winning HARD. When Cleveland found out Lebron was the real thing, it was "win now" pieces the rest of the way. Same with the others.
Anyways, I thought some more intricate tank efforts made for interesting discussion.