Here’s a riddle: When is losing the best way to win?
The answer, for a long time, was the NBA Draft, as teams that lost – sometimes purposely – were rewarded with a chance to choose the best players coming into the league.
Built to Lose by Jake Fischer, an “anecdotal history of the NBA’s tanking era,” recounts the era of the late 2010s in which teams engaged in an all-out race to the bottom.
Sam Hinkie became the poster child for tanking, but the Philadelphia 76ers were far from the only culprits. Even such revered organizations such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics partook in the practice of losing games in the present in an effort to win championships in the future. They weren’t as honest about it as Hinkie, but people certainly noticed.
Hinkie’s experience is the through line of the book and Fischer uses his tenure running the Sixers as the guide to the era when tanking was rampant in the NBA. As a Sixers fan, I lived through year after year of mediocrity – the liberty ballers averaged a record of 37 – 45 for the ten years before Hinkie’s hiring – and I was tired of it, so I always trusted Sam Hinkie and his process.
Fischer seems to lean this way as well, writing near the end of the book:
“[Hinkie] never professed a perfect draft record. He openly sought more darts to toss at the board than his opponents, expecting there could be a few misses along the way.”
Overall, Built to Lose sets out to explain how and why the world’s biggest basketball league, despite its best efforts, created an incentivized structure that rewarded teams that lost – and lost year after year.
To that end, Fischer does a good job of explaining the history and machinations of the NBA Draft Lottery and the various changes it has undergone since its inception in 1985. He also puts faces and names to the proceedings, making the transactions and deals more personal by including the anecdotes and recollections of players, coaches, and executives (in the Acknowledgements section, he says he spoke to over 300 people to make this book happen).
However, this is also where the book falls short for me. While there are moments of analysis and even palace intrigue, far too much of the book focuses on game recaps and even play-by-play regurgitation. Rather than paragraphs devoted to what happened at the end of regular season games and what the final score of a meaningless contest in February, I was hoping to get more insight into why tanking became the popular mode of building teams.
What are the statistics surrounding top five draft picks morphing into All-NBA players? How many top three choices took the franchise that drafted them to a championship? How often did the worst team actually get the top choice?
These things are briefly touched upon and mentioned, but are unfortunately pushed to the background in favor of information that can be found anywhere.
While I’d push back on Fischer’s contention that the tanking era is over, I think Built to Lose is a worthwhile subject that deserves a book dedicated to it.
I just wish this one went deeper.
I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.