The All-Star break is almost behind us, which means NBA tanking season is upon us, and there’s reason to believe this — the final season before the league’s draft lottery reform goes into effect — could be the most glorious display of losing we’ve ever seen.
At least eight teams have no incentive to win for the rest of this season and every incentive to improve their lottery odds in a draft projected to go seven or eight deep with potential All-Star talent: the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks.
The Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers are bad, too, but neither team owns its first-round pick this season and therefore has some motivation to remain competitive. The Charlotte Hornets should join that aforementioned group. Whether Michael Jordan would ever allow his team to give up hope on a playoff seed is another matter.
That’s practically one third of the league that could be willingly losing games over the final seven weeks of a season that features hotly contested races for the top two spots and fairly wide-open battles for seeds three through eight in both conferences.
With personal pride and future earning power on the line, it’s hard to imagine players throwing games beyond the natural apathy that seeps in once they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention. The same can’t be said for front offices that recognize a higher draft pick could mean the difference between rebuilding and delaying construction.
These five steps to tanking will ensure your team gets the job done right.
1. Start early.
If you’re going to be bad, be really bad. The earlier you understand there’s no hope, the better, because you can get a jumpstart on the teams that tried to win games for a time.
The Suns and Hawks, who are tied with the league’s worst record at 18-41, seemed to know from the start. Neither killed their salary cap signing players who might help in the short-term. Quite the opposite. Atlanta let Tim Hardaway Jr. walk and dealt Dwight Howard. Phoenix took the extra step of trading its best player weeks into the season.
The Hawks are among four should-be tanking teams that won four of 10 games entering the All-Star break — along with the Magic, Kings and Hornets — but at least Atlanta’s front office constructed a team poorly enough to build in a cushion for such an untimely stretch of OK basketball. Meanwhile, the Suns and Grizzlies are really hitting their stride, each entering the break winless in February. Here are the current tank rankings:
So, what can be done if your team is winning too many games for its own good?
2. Dump anyone who helps win games now and isn’t needed later.
Greg Monroe, Marco Belinelli, Joe Johnson, Brandan Wright and Tony Allen were all waived in recent weeks, and not just as a favor to a handful of veterans who might help a playoff team down the stretch. Because you can’t have them winning games for you.
The Bulls, Kings, Mavericks and Grizzlies traded Nikola Mirotic, George Hill, Devin Harris and James Ennis, respectively, in deals that will benefit them through future draft picks in the long-term while making them worse in the short-term. Two birds, one stone.
In the savviest of moves, the Magic and Knicks respectively traded Elfrid Payton and Willy Hernangomez to the Suns and Hornets, making moves that brought back future assets, weakened their rosters and possibly improved their fellow tanking competitors.
This is why the Grizzlies’ decision to keep Tyreke Evans rather than trade him for the best of many trade offers was mind-boggling. And why it’s somewhat surprising Ersan Ilyasova, Dewayne Dedmon, Robin Lopez and Vince Carter aren’t free agents.
3. Under no circumstances should you win games against fellow tankers.
This schedule should provide a bounty of bad basketball in the next two months:
Feb. 22: New York at Orlando
Feb. 27: Chicago at Charlotte
Feb. 28: Phoenix at Memphis
March 2: Dallas at Chicago
March 3: Memphis at Orlando
March 4: Phoenix at Atlanta, New York at Sacramento
March 7: Memphis at Chicago
March 9: Orlando at Sacramento
March 10: Phoenix at Charlotte, Memphis at Dallas
March 11: Chicago at Atlanta
March 13: Dallas at New York
March 15: Charlotte at Atlanta, Chicago at Memphis
March 17: Charlotte at New York
March 19: Chicago at New York
March 22 Atlanta at Sacramento, Memphis at Charlotte
March 24: Phoenix at Orlando, Charlotte at Dallas
March 26: New York at Charlotte
March 27: Dallas at Sacramento
March 30: Chicago at Orlando
April 1: Orlando at Atlanta
April 3: Charlotte at Chicago, Orlando at New York, Sacramento at Phoenix
April 4: Dallas at Orlando
April 6: Sacramento at Memphis, Charlotte at Orlando
April 10: Phoenix at Dallas
That’s 33 games in 47 days in which both fan bases should be rooting for the opposing team. Sadly, the only one set to be broadcast nationally is the Hawks-Kings meeting on March 22. It’s the Tyler Cavanaugh-JaKarr Sampson matchup you’ve always wanted.
Charlotte may have eight fewer losses than Phoenix and Atlanta, but the Hornets are also tied with the Magic for the most games remaining against fellow tankers (9), so there are ample opportunities to scrape the bottom of the standings and lift the dregs.
The Magic face an incredible tanking opportunity with four straight games against their eight competitors to start April. Can Orlando pull off a winless four games in six nights stretch against Atlanta, New York, Dallas and Charlotte from April 1-6? Set your DVR!
There’s also a reasonable chance that the season finale between the Mavericks and Suns in Dallas on April 10 could have serious implications on lottery standings, which could result in a dance of dual-tanking as beautifully choreographed as Virtue and Moir.
4. “Rest” your “ailing” stars.
Unfortunately, the Knicks don’t have to find an excuse to sit Kristaps Porzingis for the remainder of the season because a torn left ACL did the work for them. That was the bummer that left them with no reason to chase the possibility of playoff experience.
Other teams, however, will have to find creative ways to bench their impact players down the stretch in order to avoid fines from the league office for resting healthy guys.
Given Marc Gasol’s age and history of foot problems, the Grizzlies have a built-in excuse. Aaron Gordon might as well take as long as he needs to heal the strained left hip flexor that’s kept him from the Magic’s last nine games. Don’t be surprised if Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder and Mavs forward Harrison Barnes miss games with impossible-to-diagnose ailments. The Bulls and Kings have the good fortune of having no stars to speak of, so youth and inexperience will do the tanking work for them.
It’s trickier for Charlotte and Phoenix. The Hornets made no secret of shopping Kemba Walker, so they can’t further alienate their All-Star point guard. He might call them on their shenanigans if they can’t convince him to buy in to a tank. Same goes for the Suns, who “rested” Eric Bledsoe for last season’s final month, only to have him tweet his displeasure and force a trade. They can’t run the risk of Devin Booker doing the same.
5. Tell your fans to get excited about the youth movement.
You’ll really know your favorite team is waving the white flag when that underperforming draft pick you’ve been clamoring to see starts getting more burn than a useful veteran.
Former lottery picks Dragan Bender and Mario Hezonja are already getting crunch-time minutes for the Suns and Magic, respectively. Phoenix has paired seldom-used 2017 second-round picks Alec Peters and Davon Reed on the court together, with some Josh Gray — recently signed from the G League — sprinkled in with them. Expert tanking.
There’s a benefit to the youth movement beyond losing games, too. Guys like Bender and Hezonja need work. They lack experience, most likely because their coaches were trying to keep their jobs and those guys weren’t helping the cause. But at some point teams need to find out what they’re working with, and fans want to see them play, too.
Plus, the NBA can’t say Chandler Parsons must play over Ivan Rabb. It’s a win-win-win.
All of which makes the Knicks’ decision to start Jarrett Jack, sign Trey Burke and trade for Emmanuel Mudiay, rather than giving the keys to Frank Ntilikina, so strange. Earlier this season, when they were chasing the playoffs with a healthy Porzingis, it made some sense to lean on Jack and Ramon Sessions. Now? Are they worried Ntilikina might actually help them win games? That’s the only thing that would encourage me if I was a New York fan. Otherwise, the Knicks don’t even know how to tank properly.
Good luck to the rest of you whose teams may be tanking, and that’s a lot of you. May you get the lottery pick you seek. We’ll see you on the other side, after the Suns and Mavericks duke it out in the season finale with Danuel House and Jalen Jones deciding the outcome. The NBA. It’s FANtastic!
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