When is it smart to lose in pro sports?

The phenomena of 'tanking,' or deliberately losing, can become a strategy for a professional sports team when all hope is lost. Is there a science to the art of the tank? 

John E. Sokolowski/FILE/USA Today
FILE PHOTO- 2013 Hockey Hall of Fame inductees Scott Niedermayer (left) and Brendan Shanahan (center) and Chris Chelios (right) prior to the start of the game between the New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs. Shanahan is now president of the Maple Leafs and is looking to rebuild the team through the NHL draft.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the National Hockey League's oldest and most recognized franchises.

Unfortunately, the team has not hoisted a Stanley Cup since the the Johnson Administration. This season, the Maple Leafs sit in second-to-last place in the NHL's Atlantic Division, 15 points above the league's cellar-dweller, the Buffalo Sabres.

The good news for Toronto fans is that help may be on the way. After the 2012-2013 NHL lockout, the league changed the rules and gave every team who missed out on the playoffs a chance to "win" a weighted lottery for the first overall draft pick. 

 The NHL Draft is full of talented prospects, most notably Connor McDavid of the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters, considered by some to be a a “generational talent.” 

For a marquee team like the Maple Leafs, even the chance to draft a player like McDavid would be a dream come true for fans. However, there are four teams in between Toronto and the bottom of the NHL standings. So, if the Leafs are going to put themselves in the best possible position to grab McDavid they need to get bad. Really bad – and quickly.  

Now the Maple Leafs’ brass faces a difficult choice: should they pursue the tank job?. Before the league’s March 2 trade deadline, the team may try to cast off as many high-priced parts as possible in an effort to shed salary cap space and accumulate draft picks, according to the Globe and Mail.

Tanking is nothing new in sports like hockey, basketball, or football; one franchise-player can make all the difference to a team. But the temptation to get ahold of tomorrow's best players can often times get in the way: For every Kobe Bryant there are dozens of Adam Morrison's.

The NFL does not have a draft lottery; that league's draft order is simply the reverse standings from the previous season. But a bad season could serve an NFL team in the future. The Indianapolis Colts had won ten or more games for nine straight seasons with Peyton Manning at quarterback, but when Manning was forced to miss all of the 2011 season to recover from a medical procedure, the Colts floundered and only won two games.

Having secured the worst record in the league, Colts snapped up the best quarterback prospect of the year in Stanford's Andrew Luck. In the three years with Luck as a starter, the Colts have won 11 games each season. The risk of tanking for an impact player like a quarterback is that the team could end up with a Jamarcus Russell or a Ryan Leaf who both washed out of the league after being drafted with top picks (Leaf went second overall to Manning in 1998).

In NBA teams' front offices, it is considered league “purgatory” to be good enough to qualify for a playoff spot but not among the three or four teams that has a legitimate shot at winning it all, according to 2on4 sports. Of course if a team makes the playoffs then they are ineligible for the draft lottery. According to 2on4 sports, most NBA general managers would rather take the shot at a high draft pick over just squeaking into the playoffs.

Tanking is no sure bet, however – a successful tank is the exception rather than the rule.

“Tanking, as a way to get good, is not tried and true,” Henry Abbott wrote for ESPN. “It is tried and tried and tried and tried and once-in-a-long-while kind of true.”

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