New book, Built to Lose, looks at the NBA’s ‘tanking era’

In his debut book, Jake Fischer examines the NBA’s “tanking era,” looking at several teams as they all race to the bottom

Tanking to secure a higher draft pick is a long if not particularly glorious tradition. Though in the 2010s as teams became more intentional than ever in their team-building strategies, more teams tanked not only at the end of a lost season but over the course of several years. The method itself was not new, but the intensity and brazenness were. It is this unofficial tanking era that Jake Fischer hopes to capture in his debut book, Built to Lose, which looks at a number of tanking teams, and their decision-making processes, as they do everything they can to increase their lottery odds.

Built to Lose is less of a history of the “Tanking Era” than it is a recap of a single year in the league through the lens of a handful of teams jockeying for improved draft position. Throughout the book, particular focus is placed upon the 76ers, Suns, and Magic who had all recently hired new general managers that were intent upon tanking. Though those three teams likely appear more frequently than any others, the book functions as a general survey of the league as a whole. While it aims for comprehensiveness, this too often means that the book lacks a coherent center as it hops around from team to team.

The book’s relative strengths and weaknesses can be seen in its opening section. Built To Lose begins with a recap of the 2013 Draft that takes 44 pages to wrap up. It is (obviously) thorough and contains inside glimpses of John Calipari doing all he can to improve Nerlens Noel’s draft stock and of the Sixers draft room as Sam Hinkie took the reins for his first draft as GM. However, the exhaustiveness of the recounting can sometimes seem like a bit much — at times, it feels more like a log of transactions than a narrative. This section is representative of the book as a whole, making it too often read less like a narrative and more like a very long news report.

Built to Lose captures the multiple failings wrapped up in NBA tanking

One thing that is amusing looking back is how wrong many executives and analysts were regarding the players in the 2014 Draft. Over and over again throughout Built to Lose, this draft class is spoken of rapturously. However, in the seven seasons since, the class has underwhelmed as a whole with several of the can’t miss prospects, well, missing. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Aaron Gordon have been fine, if far from the stars they were expected to be while other lottery picks have struggled to find a foothold in the league. It seems a touch ironic, in light of how eagerly so many teams were angling for a top draft pick that year, that the draft’s best player, reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, was not taken until the second round. What’s that they say about the best-laid plans of mice and basketball executives?

Considering the recent success of several of the teams chronicled here, it would seem that tanking clearly works. However, a closer look reveals a more opaque picture. In the 2013-14 season Fischer covers, the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks were the worst teams in their respective conference. Yet both teams have completely turned around since then; the Bucks just won the championship and the Jazz had the NBA’s best record this season. Milwaukee and Utah were rewarded that summer with the draft’s second and fifth picks, which should have helped play a vital role in their eventual turnaround. However, the players they selected — Jabari Parker and Dante Exum — underachieved and neither has been on the team that originally chose them for years. Of these teams’ four best players, only one (Donovan Mitchell) was a lottery selection. This is not to say that purposefully losing to increase the odds of a top pick never works out well, but that it is rarely a cure-all.

Fischer is a good reporter whose hard work is evident throughout the book. He claims to have interviewed 300 people for this book and it shows. However, these reporting abilities do not come together enough to make Built to Lose more than the sum of its parts. The book fails to follow through in showing just how, in the words of its subtitle, the NBA’s tanking era changed the league forever.

It concludes by talking about the reforms the league undertook which flattened the lottery odds and undercut the potential advantages of being outrageously bad for years on end. These reforms were certainly consequential, and have already made the lottery more unpredictable than ever, but it feels like an anticlimactic end to the story. How has tanking affected team-building strategies today? What lessons were learned from this period? Why did it not work out the way the teams chronicled here expected? Addressing questions like these would have done a lot to help the book’s overall thesis.

Built to Lose should appeal to hardcore NBA fans who will enjoy the minutiae of front office dealings chronicled here more than casual ones unconcerned with the finer points of the salary cap. However, the flip side of that is while this book is sure to hold greater appeal for league diehards, they will already be aware of most of the information contained within. There are certainly a number of new anecdotes and quotes that are interesting, but too few to make it revelatory. With Fischer’s reportorial skills, one should not be surprised to see him write a great and illuminating book about the inner world of the NBA someday. Unfortunately, his debut does not quite reach those heights.

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