As the NBA enters the All-Star weekend, many teams face the possibility of not being good enough. Presently constructed, there are maybe four teams that can realistically challenge the reigning champion Golden State Warriors for league supremacy. Because of the competition’s one-sided nature teams ultimately resort to winning the NBA Draft Lottery. Welcome to the 2018 NBA Tankapolooza.
Few words in professional sports bring more divisiveness among fans and players alike such as ‘Tanking’. Tanking is a team losing games on purpose to improve their draft position. The ultimate reward takes the shape of the top pick in the upcoming draft class. While there’s a fringe few that called for the scrapping of the NBA Draft all together, most fans enjoy it and look forward to it. However, the draft and by extension the draft lottery is a reward for a team’s awful play.
Potential contestants in the Tankapalooza
Currently, there are eleven teams with a record of 24 wins and 33 losses or worse. This includes the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, LA Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Brooklyn Nets. Those teams have between 19 and 24 wins. The Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Phoenix Suns are all tied for a league worse 18 wins. With the Lakers and Nets not in possession of their own draft picks, that leaves nine teams in the race to the cellar.
Now in order to rightly speak on tanking, one must break the group up into categories. As ESPN’s Nick Friedell recently said, “There are bad teams. Then there are tanking teams. Lastly, there are teams that are bad at tanking.”
The Bad teams
The Lakers and Nets fall into this category. Due to the fact that both teams are actively rebuilding and without control of their picks, these teams will not actively participate in the tanking marathon.
The Lakers led by its brain trust of President Earvin “Magic” Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka recently made moves to position itself for the upcoming free agency. These moves which in summary acquired experienced players Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye along with a first-round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thomas and Frye are experienced campaigners with recent forays deep in the playoffs. This is especially important as they fill a short-term need for this young squad. Thomas will especially be counted on to contribute manfully in the absence of rookie point guard Lonzo Ball. With absolutely no incentive to tank, the Lakers led by coach Luke Walton expect to play spoiler to teams with playoff ambitions. This as a consequence invariably assists teams with ambitions of having the best chance of winning the draft lottery.
Across the country on the East Coast, the Brooklyn Nets face a similar fate. 2018 is the last year of the ill-fated Billy King deal with the Boston Celtics, so the Nets pick presently rests in the hands of the Cavaliers. Under the direction of GM Sean Marks and Coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets have shown themselves to be quite gritty and frisky at times. Marks is slowly pushing the Nets towards respectability. As an organization, the Nets were without both young talent (or old talent for that matter) or draft picks when Marks first assumed his role. Marks and the Nets steadfastly worked diligently and this season the evidence of progress is undeniable. Unfortunately, the team has been beset with injuries throughout. After losing point guard Jeremy Lin for the season in the first game, the Nets have lost D’Angelo Russell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and now Caris LeVert to injuries.
This has not prevented the Nets from valiantly competing (though ultimately losing) on a nightly basis. Teams with tanking ambitions expect the Nets to assist them in this regard as they (the Nets) have no motivation to lessen their effort level. The problem is, the Nets have the lowest talent ceiling in the NBA. Couple that with injuries, there’s very little possibility of them mounting a consistent threat to win games down the stretch. That said, Atkinson and his players fight to the bitter end and opponents know it and respect them for it.
The Tanking teams
The Kings, Suns, Mavericks, Magic, Bulls, and Hawks fall into this group. These teams have all shown no impetus to legitimately compete all season.
In Sacramento, the Kings organization continue to show what incompetence looks like. After initially signing George Hill because they had money to set on fire, they drafted speedster D’Aaron Fox. This move was actually viewed as intelligent for a franchise who’s been perennial lottery residents while wasting their opportunities. At the trade deadline, the Kings got rid of Hill, Malachi Richardson and Georgios Papagiannis (former recent lottery pick). Instead, they added (an injured veteran) Iman Shumpert, Bruno Caboclo (who?) and Joe Johnson (who they promptly bought out). This is clear and indisputable evidence that the Kings front office (led by Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic) are fully in tank mode. A look at the Kings’ draft lottery pick history is depressing at best. Can they finally get it right and build? Time will tell.
Things aren’t looking much better in the Valley of the Suns, though. This organization first showed its intentions to throw this season away when they fired coach Earl Watson. Watson was relieved of his duties three games into the regular season. By any metric, this was ridiculous. A once proud franchise which was contending for championships in the 1990s is now relegated to the position of laughing-stock (next to the Kings).
In 2016 the Suns held three first-round picks including two lottery picks. They drafted three bigs, Dragan Bender, Skal Labissiere (who was traded on draft night for another big Marquese Chriss) and the aforementioned Papagiannis. On the face of it, this move reeks of incompetence. However, an even closer view is even worse as the Suns’ team already had centers Alex Len (2013 Lottery pick) and Tyson Chandler (prized free agent). After the Watson firing, guard Eric Bledsoe demanded a trade. Bledsoe was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks for who one asks; You guessed it a center (Greg Monroe) and draft picks. It only makes sense that the Suns are actively seeking the number one overall pick in the 2018 draft because top projected players play the position they covet, Power Forward/Center.
Things in Atlanta appear slightly different though. The Hawks were a team that contended for Eastern Conference supremacy up until recently. They won 60 games in the 2014-15 season. So what happened? As Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, “Starters left for $342 million”. From that roster, point guard Dennis Schroeder along with Kent Bazemore and Mike Muscala remain. The Hawks were a shrewd team that made smart decisions and developed players. Unfortunately, in a salary capped environment, success never lasts.
As a result, the Hawks were victims of an overpriced wage bill and became capped out. This is their first year of bottoming out as they were a playoff team in 2016-17. The Hawks expect to retool themselves through the upcoming draft and free agency and few can doubt them. Last year at pick 19, they selected power forward John Collins. Collins started out slowly but has since improved under the stewardship of Mike Budenholzer and his staff. Enjoy the Hawks in this year’s Tankapolooza because they aren’t guaranteed to be back in a while.
The Dallas Mavericks are a bit odd. Since winning the title in 2011, team owner Mark Cuban has tried unsuccessfully to land the “big” free-agent. Front office staff led by Donn Nelson assiduously endeavored to place serviceable talent next to Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki. Last season, they finally entered the lottery and drafted talented point guard Dennis Smith Jr. On a team that includes cast-offs like Nerlens Noel (former lottery pick), Yogi Ferrell , and Seth Curry, Smith has proven to be a revelation.
Finally in the Summer of 2017, Cuban admitted to tanking. Cuban further told ESPN, “We’re rebuilding. Right? There’s no question about it.” He rationalized this by citing the fact that his team plays in the more difficult Western Conference. This season the Mavericks have embraced the losses as evidenced by them currently tied for the fewest wins with 18 thus far. Recently on Julius “Dr. J” Erving‘s Podcast, Housecall Cuban said, “I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night… I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option.” The Mavericks seek another cornerstone piece to play alongside Smith and help usher Nowitzki out as a winner.
The Chicago Bulls are a special case
Then there is the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are that franchise that’s incompetent at being incompetent. But sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good (or in this case smart). Led by a front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson, this team went from competing for the Eastern Conference title to this. How? First, they fired Tom Thibideau for reasons what appear to be a petty grudge. Then they hired Fred Hoiberg, who was unable to control his own locker-room as the head coach of Iowa State University. Further to that, the front office found it prudent to not only sign troubled guard Rajon Rondo but also Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade. After making the playoffs miraculously, the Bulls traded All-NBA wing Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves now run by Thibideau.
The Bulls received an injured Zach LaVine, former lottery pick Kris Dunn and swapped first round picks which they used to acquire Lauri Markkanen. Lavine recently returned from injury and is showing signs of the athleticism that made him a fan favorite. Dunn is quietly settling into life as a professional after a forgettable year in Minnesota. However, rookie Markkanen shows star-type characteristics and potential. Does this mean that Paxson and Forman have a plan? They definitely say so, but their track record show otherwise. ‘It’s better to be lucky than good’ is a saying the Bulls organization continue to prove. The Bulls are projected to have salary cap space and flexibility despite taking on the Omir Asik contract in the Nicola Mirotic trade. Maybe Forman and Paxson know what they’re doing after all.
What’s happening in the Magic Kingdom?
The Magic have a unique situation. They’ve been awful since 2012-13. After firing Coach Stan Van Gundy, this team has been terrible. A lottery team over the years, the Magic seemed to hit on a few occasions. Mario Hezonja, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Domantas Sabonis were all lottery picks by the Magic. Their problem is, they (the Magic) are unable to develop their lottery talent. After trading Oladipo and Sabonis to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Magic have been no better than before. On the flip side, Oladipo and Sabonis, now with the Indiana Pacers, have flourished. Oladipo is an All-Star this season. For better or worse, they continue to persevere with Hezonia and Gordon.
Another interesting case, was that of former Magic point guard Elfrid Payton. In 2014 Payton was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers and traded to the Magic for Dario Saric, 1st, and 2nd round picks. The Magic fell victim to Sam Hinkie as did many other teams. At the recently closed trade deadline, the Magic traded Payton to the Suns for a second-round pick in the upcoming draft. Do that math calculation for a moment. How is that remotely sensible or logical? Simple, the GM that drafted Payton is no longer with the team and his successor was unable to see past Payton’s flaws. So back to the tank they go, hoping to get another shot at that number 1 pick.
In the past, that pick had been good to them. Shaquille O’Neal was a first overall pick by the Magic. So was Dwight Howard. In a draft that’s said to be littered with talented big men, the Magic historically proved a great ability to select Hall of Fame caliber centers.
Then there are the teams that are bad at tanking
The Hornets, Knicks, and Grizzlies operate in a special space. These teams have harbored the same disease; “They are much worse than they believe.” As a result, the moves made and not made by their front offices are head-scratching and comedic at the same time.
Michael Jordan‘s team
The Charlotte Hornets are owned by Michael Jordan. This should drive fear into the hearts of basketball fans. Remember Jordan in his time as general manager of the Washington Wizards drafted Kwame Brown with the first overall pick.
While Jordan may be the greatest to ever play, his front office moves leave lots to be desired. Jordan has a track record of being unable to empower his staff. “I don’t think people have any idea of how involved he is in personnel decisions and the draft,” Head Coach Steve Clifford said in 2014. Charlotte’s lottery record is abysmal. After drafting franchise player Kemba Walker in 2011, the Hornets took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Noah Vonley, Frank Kaminsky and Malik Monk in subsequent lotteries. Monk was drafted last year so he gets a pass. The rest, yuck! In fairness, the Hornets made the playoffs in the 2015-16 season. Not all bad.
This season, the bottom fell out for the Hornets. In addition to being a flawed roster due to salary cap issues, injuries and previous bad drafting, Coach Clifford was sidelined for an extensive period. Now there are murmurs that current GM Rich Cho’s job is in danger. The question is why. Jordan, it appears is trying to be the meddling owner much like Jerry Jones (in the NFL). It hasn’t worked for Jones either. Based simply on the Hornet’s track record since the Jordan era, the Hornets will have yet another questionable pick, thus making them awful at tanking.
The Hornets embodies mediocrity this season. Their 24 wins place them tenth currently in the East. They boast a 16th ranked Offensive Rating and a 13th ranked Defensive Rating. As far as Tankapolooza goes, the Hornets have an outside shot at winning it. Jordan may even entertain ambitions of making the playoffs this season.
There have been better days in the Grindhouse
Memphis is not exactly known for its basketball, but the citizens there came to love and adopt the Grizzlies. In recent seasons, the Grizzlies were an NBA feel-good story. A hardworking team representing a hardworking city. Not always the prettiest basketball to watch, teams knew they were in for a fight when they went to Memphis. The Fed-Ex Forum was renamed “The Grindhouse” by the Memphis faithful. However, while this team fighting for and obtaining respectability on the court, they were betrayed by their front office.
After drafting Mike Conley Jr in 2007, O.J. Mayo and Darrell Arthur, the Grizzlies hold the dubious record of getting rid of former first-round picks after one season. Xavier Henry, Tony Wroten, Greivis Vasquez and Wade Baldwin were all either traded or waived after one season. Further to that the Grizzlies attached future first round picks to players like DeMarre Carroll and Hasheem Thabeet as sweeteners to suitors. As an organization, the Grizzlies showed they were not exactly interested in the draft process or the development of young players. This has come to bite them in the proverbial butt as they now are a team with aging stars (Conley and Marc Gasol) and no backup.
However, the Grizzlies found it prudent to fire coach David Fizdale after just 19 games this season. Fizdale led that rag-tag bunch to the playoffs last season. While the Grizzlies are currently tied for the league-worst 18 wins, there is precious little indication that shows they’ll just tank the rest of the way. After all, the front office refused to trade sought-after player Tyreke Evans during the trade window. The good news in their benefit is, Conley is out for the season with Heel and Achilles issues. Also worth mentioning is the expensive, oft-injured forward Chandler Parsons is said to be near full fitness. Whether they play Parsons or not is the barometer to their efforts in the Tankapolooza.
The Knicks continue to mystify in Manhattan
Then there are the New York Knicks. Where should one begin? The Knicks continue to be the “Gang that can’t shoot straight”. As the season commenced there were talks of the Knicks wanting to develop its young players. They finally got a deal to get rid of Carmelo Anthony, leaving Kristaps Porzingis as the undoubted leader. Phil Jackson and his triangle were gone, not before drafting 19-year-old Frenchman Frank Ntilikina with the 8th pick.
But the Knicks, being the Knicks harbored ambitions of making the playoffs. So instead of focusing on the development of Ntilikina and other young players like Willy Hernangomez, the Knicks played veterans like Kyle O’Quinn, Enes Kanter and Jarrett Jack extensive minutes. This is the Knicks at their absolute best. The Knicks much like their fanbase have always over-estimated their progress and talent level. New York refuses to embrace the concept of a rebuild, because ‘they reload’.
Now that Porzingis is unfortunately done for the season, one expected the Knick would have embraced the Tankapolooza. Not so, instead of trading players like O’Quinn and Courtney Lee, the front office acquired Emmanuel Mudiay for a second-round pick. The Knicks effectively got rid of another asset for a position they’re already youthful in. But the Knicks traded away a player though. They traded Hernangomez to the Hornets for two second-round picks and Johnny O’Bryant.
The ‘Knickery’ as coined by Kevin Arnovitz is in full effect. Not only do the Knicks now have Jack and Mudiay to take away from Ntilikina’s much-needed on-court development time, they called up Trey Burke from the G-League affiliate Westchester Knicks. So the Knicks are one of a very few teams that are presently playing four point guards. Bravo.
What must be noted very clearly is that tanking is not something players or coaches do. It’s not like shaving points or missing jumpers on purpose or gifting the opponent extra possessions. No, tanking is done at the front office level. It’s purposely playing a sub-standard team over an extended period of games. A great example of that is the Philadelphia 76ers under the leadership of GM Sam Hinkie. Hinkie simply refused to acquire top-tier talent for his team while seeking to win the draft lottery. Another illustration example would be a Team President or General Manager mandating a coach to not play or even dress a skilled veteran or in the case of the 2019-17 Phoenix Suns, several veterans for extended periods of time.
Also very important is, the draft lottery will not save a franchise from being poorly managed. Just look at the number of years the Kings, Magic, and Suns have been lottery teams. Compare that to teams like the San Antonio Spurs who were last in the lottery in 1997. The Spurs selected Duncan and the rest is history.
Where does that leave fans?
NBA is the epitome of basketball. The league boasts the finest athletes performing a skill at the highest level. Basketball, when done well, is spectacular to view. That said, tanking is unfortunately viewed as means to an end for many franchises. With this many teams involved, there will many nights of anaesthetic basketball. Fans are expected to pay to watch teams willfully play poorly in hopes of getting a better chance at winning the Tankapolooza.
There is good news, however. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver lobbied for and received much-needed draft lottery reform effective in 2019. While announcing the changes, NBA President, League Operations Byron Spruell said, “NBA Draft Lottery reform is a meaningful step in our continuous effort to enhance the quality of our games. These changes were necessary to improve the competitive incentives for our teams.” But that’s all next year. This season though, the sprint to the bottom is on. Let the race begin.