The Moral Justification for the Practice of Tanking in the NBA

Article by Phillip Kong, Pomona ‘24


    “Tanking” in the National Basketball Association (NBA) is a highly debated topic. Certain journalists call the practice an “epidemic” while others argue that the growing acceptance of tanking is indicative of fans becoming more invested in their favorite teams.1 2 Tanking is the practice of purposefully losing in the short-term to increase a team’s chances of winning in the long-term. This is achieved by trading away older players for younger prospects and draft picks in future entry drafts. A current example of tanking is the Houston Rockets who traded away former Most Valuable Player James Harden for four first round draft picks, a prospect, and one other relatively young player. Although it is uncommon, some teams have even publicly stated that they are tanking. During the 2017-18 season the owner of the Dallas Mavericks stated that the team was purposely trying to lose games towards the end of the season because they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.3 4 While there has been research analyzing the long-term effectiveness of tanking, it is unclear whether tanking is a morally justifiable practice within the confines of the NBA.5 Using a Kantian framework, this paper finds that tanking is a morally justifiable practice in the NBA because it is an action out of duty that adheres to the a priori principles of the association. A common objection to tanking is that it reduces the enjoyment of the fans of the tanking team because those teams lose the vast majority of their games. However, looking at the practice through a Millsian utilitarian lens shows that this objection does not hold any moral weight.


    Teams “tank” primarily by trading away their older, higher-caliber players in exchange for draft picks in upcoming entry drafts, the main process by which college or international players enter the NBA, and/or young prospects. For example, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded away All-Star player Paul George and received five first-round draft picks as well as 20-year-old prospect Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in return.6 Teams have the unique ability to secure players cheaply for a long period of time through the entry draft. They have the exclusive rights to sign the player they pick to a rookie-scale contract that lasts for up to four years.7 Additionally, even after a first-round drafted player’s rookie-scale contract expires, the original team can match any offer the player receives from other teams and keep the player in a process called “Restricted Free Agency.”8 Another important aspect of tanking is that teams will intentionally field less competitive lineups to lose more games. This is because the worst performers from the previous season receive the best odds of earning higher draft picks.

    The reason teams tank is to achieve success on basketball’s biggest stage, the NBA playoffs. Under normal circumstances, teams play an 82-game regular season and are ranked in their conference (East or West) by their win-loss record. The top-six teams of each conference attain automatic qualification into the playoffs and their seeding is determined by their regular season position. The seventh to tenth place teams compete in a play-in tournament to decide the seventh and eighth seeds.9 Once all eight seeds in both conferences are set, teams play a knockout five-game series in the first round and seven-game series in all subsequent rounds until only one team remains, the NBA champion.

Kantian Justification

    The term “sporting integrity” is typically used when making a normative evaluation of certain actions in sports. That is whether and to what degree the course of action exhibits sporting integrity. For this essay, it is necessary to define sporting integrity with regards to morals. Philosopher Abe Zakhem argues that the most important aspect of sporting integrity is the adherence to the “spirit” or “ethos” of the game.10 Namely, sporting integrity is not simply a matter of coherence, that is, coherence regarding the restraints athletes or teams face when competing.11 Instead, Zakhem argues that sporting integrity is defined by genuinely holding values which embody the “spirit” of the sport and to act in a way that is true to those values. To act “coherently” in sport does not equate to acting with integrity. For instance, even if Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) were not illegal in the Tour de France, hence Lance Armstrong and his team would have acted coherently, the sporting integrity of cycling still would have been compromised as the values associated with cycling would have been violated. Therefore, acting with sporting integrity requires one to act out of genuine respect for the values of the game. Zakhem’s definition of sporting integrity has Kantian implications in that people involved in sport, as moral agents, ought to act out of respect for certain values inherent to the sport that effectively function as moral maxims.

    Kant’s moral framework is founded upon three propositions of duty, the concept of acting according to the unconditioned good will.12 The first proposition is that actions are only morally good if they are done for the sake of duty and not because of inclinations such as physical desires.13 The second proposition is that the moral value of an action done from duty lies in its accordance to a maxim, an a priori principle of how one ought to act, and not from the results it attains or seeks to attain.14 For example, a person’s decision not to steal would only have moral worth if they did so because of the maxim that one ought not to steal, not because of the possibility of being arrested. Additionally, Kantian maxims are universal. They are unconditioned and hold true regardless of circumstance. Combining these two propositions, we get the third proposition of duty, that to act according to duty, one must necessarily act out of respect for moral law. 15 Moral law is the “authoritative standard” that is the “source of moral requirements.”16 One can reduce these three propositions into a formula for a maxim, that “I will A in C in order to realize or produce E,” where A is some action, C is some circumstance, and E is some end to be realized by A in C.17 We will use this formula to create a maxim that can evaluate the practice of tanking in the NBA.

    The NBA is an association of individual members, the professional basketball teams that compete in the league, who are governed by rules and regulations created by the league.18 There are two significant moral implications of this structure. First, each team is an autonomous agent capable of operating according to their own volition. This means that each member has the capacity to act rationally. The ability of reason is fundamental to Kant’s ethical framework. If one were not rational, it would be impossible to act according to duty. Second, each team is expected to adhere to the “principles” and “values” that the Association aims to promote. The principles and values of the NBA are found in its mission statement, the most relevant of which to tanking is “compet[ing] with intensity.”19 This principle suggests that it is the duty of the members of the Association to “compete with intensity.” Written in the form of a maxim using the Kantian formula, we have the maxim of competition: “I, as a member of the NBA, will act in such a way as to compete with intensity.” In a Kantian ethical framework, for a member of the Association to act according to duty, one ought to act in reverence of this moral law.

    The practice of tanking is the most effective method for small-market teams to be competitive in the NBA. A team’s market size is determined by many factors, including the value of the broadcasting rights, sponsorship opportunities, ticket and merchandise revenue, tourism, and the local tax rate. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are examples of big NBA markets.20 Big-market teams have an advantage over small-market teams because they are more attractive markets to high-caliber players in free agency. Free agency is a period in the off-season when players whose contracts expired are free to sign with whichever team they want.21 These high-caliber players are necessary to be competitive in the NBA. Almost every single team that wins a playoff round has at least one All-Star player. As a result, small-market teams often have to resort to tanking if they do not foresee being competitive in the immediate future. Acquiring draft picks and young prospects under contract is the most effective method for them to acquire high-caliber players for the long term (see Background). The practice of tanking in the NBA, therefore, is morally good in the Kantian framework because it is a practice by which small-market teams like the San Antonio Spurs act according to the maxim of competition. San Antonio had the 23rd biggest TV market in the NBA when they drafted Tim Duncan first overall in the 1997 Entry Draft, after having the third-worst record in the league the season prior. Tim Duncan became the cornerstone of the franchise and was integral to the Spurs’ first NBA championship in 1999, as well as three more championships between 2003-2007.22 If the Spurs had not received such a high draft pick, it is likely that they would have languished in mediocrity and not been competitive or seriously challenged for a championship in the Aughts.

    The sharp reduction of competitiveness of a tanking team in the short term does not make the practice of tanking a morally reprehensible action in the Kantian framework because the consequences and impacts of an action do not affect its moral value if the action is done out of duty to fulfil a maxim. While most tanking teams would be more competitive without trading away their high-caliber players in return for draft picks and young prospects, they likely would still not be able to reach the level of “competing with intensity” because they would not be able to acquire any of the best players in the league. From 2010-2020, one-hundred teams made the playoffs as a fourth seed or lower. Of those teams, only three made it to the NBA finals and only six made it to the round before that, the conference finals.23 Simply making the playoffs does not qualify a team as being intensely competitive, as they are usually not legitimate challengers for the championship. To be considered truly competitive, a team must be a top three team in their conference. A team maintaining mediocre performance is not fulfilling the maxim of competition any more than a tanking team who does not make the playoffs at all. Moreover, in the Kantian ethical framework, “a good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, […] but only because of its volition.”24 Therefore, the lack of competitiveness of a team while tanking does not detract from the moral value of the practice as the intention of tanking is in accordance with the maxim of competition, namely being able to compete intensely in the future. It follows that it does not matter how long a team tanks, or to what degree of success they achieve. This includes whether a tanking team wins a championship in the future or not, because the moral value of the action is only dependent on its intention’s alignment with the maxim of competition.

Millsian Objection

    Tanking is often criticized for decreasing the enjoyment that fans can derive from watching their favorite team’s games.25 Naturally, when a team trades away high-caliber players to acquire unproven young players and draft picks, the team loses more games and causes a decrease in the enjoyment of fans. This objection is based on the Millsian framework of utilitarianism, which features three main premises. First, the only desirable ends of actions are pleasure, or the absence of pain.26 For NBA fans, more pleasure is derived from watching their favorite team win and less pleasure is derived from watching their favorite team lose. Over the course of an entire season, fans derive more pleasure overall from a winning record and making the playoffs as opposed to a losing record and missing the playoffs. Second, certain pleasures are greater than others if “of two pleasures, there is one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference.”27 Third, following the previous two premises, moral judgements are made based on rules that promote general utility.28 Thus, if the practice of tanking decreases fans’ utility, the decision to tank by that team would be a morally reprehensible action.

Rejoinder to Millsian Objection

    Generally, tanking’s potential to increase the amount of pleasure fans can derive from watching a competitive team in the future outweighs the marginal loss of pleasure fans experience while a team is tanking. First, the decision to tank is typically made when a team does not foresee being competitive in the near future. This is generally the case when teams have aging players with expiring contracts or are on the fringe of making the playoffs without any developing talent on the roster. Thus, while the team may perform worse by tanking, the chances of them being able to compete for the title does not decrease substantially. In the best-case scenario, if a team who is likely going to be uncompetitive decides not to tank, they can potentially make the playoffs as one of the lower seeds. However, achieving a higher degree of competitiveness through tanking, which enables teams to contend for a championship, creates exponentially more pleasure for fans. There is a higher level of play and significantly greater stakes in playoff games. 29 This means that fans derive substantially more pleasure from each playoff victory than they do from each regular season victory. Furthermore, unlike NFL fans, NBA fans tend to be less attached to a specific team. The brands of individual players like Lebron James are larger than some teams.30 In short, the NBA is a league that is focused on players, not teams. Thus, when a team tanks by trading away their best, and often most popular players, the decrease in pleasure derived by fans is mitigated by the fact that they can still find some sort of pleasure in watching other teams who field high-caliber players. Overall, the potential for tanking to make a team more competitive, and therefore drastically increase the pleasure fans can derive from watching the team, outweighs the marginal decrease in pleasure due to tanking, generating a net increase in utility.

    It is important to note that, under a Millsian ethical framework, the duration and success of a particular tanking campaign does not necessarily affect its moral evaluation. That is, even if the particular circumstances surrounding a team’s decision to tank results in a net decrease in utility for fans, the practice cannot be deemed morally reprehensible. Actions can only be deemed objectively “right” or “wrong” based on the utility it creates, not morally “right” or “wrong.”31 Rather, acting in accordance with the social rules that promote utility is the most important factor in judging the moral value of an action.32 Since we have already established that tanking, as a general practice, aims to increase the overall utility of fans, there exists a social rule that a team ought to tank when it is unlikely that they will be competitive in the foreseeable future.


    The practice of tanking in the NBA is morally justified according to a Kantian ethical framework because it fulfils the maxim of competition for small-market teams. Moreover, the utilitarian objection that tanking reduces fans’ utility is defeated when looking at the long-term utility consequence of tanking. While each particular instance of tanking is different, the practice generalized as sacrificing a team’s competitiveness in the short-term by acquiring draft capital and young players to become more competitive in the future is a morally justifiable practice. It is expected that each team’s tanking campaign will unfold differently with varying results, but such particularities do not affect the moral value of tanking as a managerial practice.


1.  Tyler Lauletta, “The NBA Is on the Verge of a TANKING Epidemic as Teams Jockey for Position at the Bottom,” February 20, 2018,
2.  Hunter Felt, “The Growing Acceptance of Tanking Is Good for the NBA,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, April 6, 2017),
3.  Adrian Wojnarowski, “With Focus on Developing Young Players, Oklahoma City Thunder Shut down Al Horford for Remainder of Season,” ESPN (ESPN Internet Ventures, March 27, 2021),
4.  Lott, Thomas. “Mavericks Fined $600K for Mark Cuban's Tanking Comments.” Mavs fined $600K for Cuban's comments on tanking. Sporting News, February 21, 2018.
5.  Penrice, Stephen G. “Applying Elementary Probability Theory to the NBA Draft Lottery.” SIAM Review 37, no. 4 (1995): 598–602.
6.  Tim Daniels, “Report: Paul George Traded to Clippers for Danilo Gallinari, 5 1st-Round Picks,” July 6, 2019,
7.  Cody Taylor, “2020-21 NBA Rookie Scale Contract Figures for First-Round Picks,” USA Today (Gannett Satellite Information Network, November 23, 2020),
8.  “Free Agency Explained,” (National Basketball Association, March 16, 2021),
9.  “NBA Announces Structure and Format for 2020-21 Season,” (National Basketball Association, November 18, 2020),
10.  Abe Zakhem and Michael Mascio, “Sporting Integrity, Coherence, and Being True to the Spirit of a Game,” Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 13, no. 2 (2018): pp. 227-236,
11.  Alfred Archer, “On Sporting Integrity,” Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 10, no. 2 (February 2016): pp. 117-131,
12.  Immanuel Kant and Christine M Korsgaard, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 10.
13.  Ibid, 11.
14.  Ibid, 13.
15.  Ibid, 13.
16.  Robert Johnson and Adam Cureton, “Kant's Moral Philosophy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, July 7, 2016),
17.  Ibid.
18.  “National Basketball Association Constitution and By-Laws,” (National Basketball Association, September 2019),
19.  “Our Calling and Values,” NBA Careers (National Basketball Association, February 26, 2019),,key%20elements%20of%20our%20game.
20.  “Major Pro Sports Teams By TV Market Size,” Sports Media Watch (MMXXI Sports Media, January 3, 2021),
21.  Joel Maxcy and Michael Mondello, “The Impact of Free Agency on Competitive Balance in North American Professional Team Sports Leagues,” Journal of Sport Management 20, no. 3 (2006): pp. 345-365,
22.  Benyam Kidane, “#NBATogetherLive: Tim Duncan Named Finals MVP after Leading Spurs Past Knicks for 1999 NBA Championship,” (National Basketball Association, April 8, 2020),
23.  “NBA & ABA Playoffs Series History,” Basketball Reference, accessed April 3, 2021,
24.  Immanuel Kant and Christine M Korsgaard, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 8.
25.  Post Sports Desk, “How Fans Feel about Tanking in Sports,” New York Post (New York Post, February 7, 2019),
26.  John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Duke Classics, 2012), 20.
27.  Ibid, 22.
28.  Ibid, 20.
29.  Ryan O'Hanlon, “What Does ‘Playoff Basketball’ Really Mean?,” The Ringer (The Ringer, April 14, 2017),
30.  John Branch, “Why the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. Are So Far Apart on Social Justice Stances,” The New York Times (The New York Times, June 22, 2018),
31.  John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Duke Classics, 2012), 19.
32.  “John Stuart Mill: Ethics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed April 3, 2021,