Down The Toilet: An update on tanking in the NBA

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BY MICHAEL CAHILL

Let me start by saying that I don’t have a particular fondness for the word “tank.” It connotes deliberately losing games by not putting forth an effort worthy of a professional level of basketball. However, “tanking” is the popular new buzzword for “rebuilding,” so I will humor the times and stick with “tanking” for now.

Tanking is all the rage in today’s NBA. Along with the new era of sabermetrics, the CBA, and NBA front offices becoming all the more shrewd and calculated in their transactions, most GMs have decided that treading water in the middle of the pack (hello, Milwaukee Bucks) is the worst place to be. Teams should either be winning championships or posting records comparable to the horrific 1972-73 76ers (confused yet?) or the recent 2011-12 Bobcats. Gone are the days of spending big in free agency: the new trend is to employ a build-through-the-draft strategy in hopes of becoming a success story like the Spurs or the Thunder. The best way to get a high pick is to lose as many games as possible, so today’s GMs shed current veteran talent with large contracts (trimming the fat) in order to stockpile picks and young, cheap talent.

Some teams’ tanking projects are going according to plan, some have had to ad-lib and adopt tanking plans after a disastrous start, and others who planned on tanking are angry at their relative success. Let’s check up on 8 different teams around the NBA who have all ended up in the midst of the tanking craze, whether they intended to or not.

Staying the Course

Unlike the Raptors and the Suns, these two teams are as bad as they want to be. Getting blown out on a regular basis is fine by them as long as it leads to long-term prosperity.

UTAH JAZZ – After letting Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap leave last year, Dennis Lindsey and the rest of the Jazz organization could be seen leaning out of the windows at EnergySolutions Arena furiously waving any and all white objects they could find (coincidentally, witnesses say that owner Greg Miller was playing the saxophone during the chaos in an attempt to bring some validity to the team’s geographically-inaccurate name). Few teams in the NBA have a less recognizable starting lineup than the Jazz, and things have yet to hit rock bottom. The Jazz currently sit at 13-27 and own the third-worst record in the NBA. Things are looking down from here and Jazz faithful can expect a top 5 draft pick in what is purportedly the best draft class since LeBron and friends took the NBA by storm in 2003 (sorry Darko).

ORLANDO MAGIC – Coming to the realization that Dwight Howard was not going to be in Orlando for the long haul, the Magic hit the reset button and jumped head-first onto the tanking bandwagon. Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, and Victor Oladipo provide a good base to build around, while Aaron Afflalo (and to a lesser extent, Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis) are quality trade chips. Combined with a top 5 pick in the stacked 2014 class, the Orlando Magic could be making their way back to the playoffs sooner than expected. A player like Julius Randle would give the Magic a well rounded lineup that can compete in the weak Eastern conference. This year, the Magic are 10-29 and look to be saving their tricks for the future.

Started from the Top, Now We Here

These four teams came into the season with high expectations, but due to injuries, poor play, or bad management (I’m looking at you, Mr. Dolan), they now find themselves at the bottom of the standings.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS – The Dwight show’s (“show” refers to Howard’s antics and not his on-court performance) departure from Hollywood left the Lakers with only 1 star for the team to ride, and that star (if there was any doubt, I am not referring to Steve Blake) is currently sidelined with an injured knee. This has left the Lakers to ride mid-season free agent signing Kendall Marshall, an aging Pau Gasol and a cast of first-round busts and unwanted veterans to the bottom of the Western Conference. Unlike the teams who are set up to fail in the short-term with the future in mind, the Lakers are screwed both now and for the next few years. They have Kobe Bryant taking up ⅖ of the salary cap for the next two years, and a complete lack of anything resembling future assets other than a few draft picks. I would put the Lakers at number 3 in the league behind the Nets and the Knicks (I can just hear all the Lakers fans cheering that their team is high on a rankings list) for the gloomiest future. The Lakers are only slightly better than the Jazz and the Magic with a record of 14-25. When Nick Young is your best player, that is to be expected.

BROOKLYN NETS – With a billionaire owner, a fresh look, and two All-Stars, the Brooklyn Nets decided to go all-in for a championship. They traded for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to round out a scary starting lineup (at least on paper) of Williams-Johnson-Pierce-Garnett-Lopez. The Nets even managed to field a decent bench featuring Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche, Andrei Kirilenko (I am tempted to believe that Mikhail Prokhorov offered him a stake in an oil company back in Russia in exchange for taking a pay cut here), and Miles Plumlee. And then they went out and signed a first-year head coach in Jason Kidd, whose best coaching tactic is to spill soda on the floor to buy additional time. Absolutely brilliant move to sign a guy with no prior experience to coach a team with a one year championship window. Like the Lakers, the Nets have no future assets to speak of and can expect to toil in mediocrity unless Deron Williams gets a hold on some of Michael Jordan’s Secret Stuff and Billy King learns the meaning of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” At 16-22, the Nets are currently on the fringe of the playoffs in the worst Eastern conference the NBA has seen in years.

NEW YORK KNICKS – Amare Stoudemire is a shell of his former self, and Carmelo Anthony looks like he may skip town like he did to the Nuggets a few years back. Oh yeah, the Knicks also have zero first round picks until 2018 (and they will probably end up trading all of their draft picks up until 2067 for another Andrea Bargnani-like player). The Knicks are in possibly the worst situation in the entire NBA. They got robbed of all their valuable assets (as they usually do in trades) by none other than Masai Ujiri when they traded for Melo back in 2011 and currently look to have Tim Hardaway, Jr. as their feature player a few years from now. Look for James Dolan (a.k.a. the Al Davis of the NBA) to make several more mind-numbing moves in the near future as the Knicks continue to pile cement on top of the hole they dug themselves into after the Melo trade. Things couldn’t be getting much worse at 15-24, except for the fact that they almost definitely will.

CHICAGO BULLS – The Bulls are different from the Nets and Knicks in that they at least have some future assets, especially after their trade with the Cavaliers. The Bulls made a key mid-season signing in D.J. Augustin, and Cartier Martin looks like another quality pickup. Chicago will have to undergo another year without D-Rose (and now Deng), but the future looks bright as long as Rose comes back strong. With a potential range of $10-$12m to spend in the offseason (provided that Carlos Boozer is amnestied), the impending arrival of Euroleague phenom Nikola Mirotic, and 3 potential first round picks (two protected picks from Charlotte and Sacramento and the Bulls’ own pick), the Bulls should be competitive next year. Although GM Gar Forman (who, incidentally, resembles a fish) has dismissed tanking as the Bulls’ strategy (instead terming the process “retooling”), it is clear that the intent is to gain a more favorable position in the upcoming draft. Even with the lack of a great offensive weapon, coach Tom Thibodeau will still manage to squeeze more wins than expected out of this Bulls squad. Look for the Bulls to stay about where they are at their current 18-19 record and finish at or slightly above .500 for the year.(The Milwaukee Bucks are an honorable mention, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to rip the Lakers, Knicks, and Nets all in one section. Besides, the Bucks ceiling was the 8th seed, as usual.)

Damn It, Stop Winning!  

The following teams have tried their best to have the worst record possible, but the wins keep rolling in, much to their dismay.

TORONTO RAPTORS – Masai Ujiri is a con artist. He somehow managed to trade a one-dimensional, oversized shooting guard (who is a streaky shooter at best) to the ever-incompetent Knicks for multiple draft picks and a few other pieces. He then conned the Kings into taking cap-suck Rudy Gay and got financial flexibility in return. Toronto clearly wants to begin a new era (hopefully absent of large dinosaur caricatures), including a rebrand spearheaded by Toronto native Drake and a shift towards a young team built through the draft. Ujiri has created a flexible roster with the potential to grow, and a high draft pick would help their move to the future. However, the only hitch in Ujiri’s master plan is the Raptors annoying knack for winning. If only he could replace Dwayne Casey with Jason Kidd and have a few key players become “ill” for an extended period of time, then maybe the team would have a better position in the Tank-a-Thon of 2014. The Raps currently sit atop of the Atlantic division (nothing to brag about, considering the company) at 19-18 and are the #3 seed in the East, much to their surprise.

PHOENIX SUNS – The Suns were the almost-unanimous consensus at the beginning of the season to be the worst team in the league. Most people thought that the Suns would win the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes at the beginning of the year hands down. This is no longer going to be the case, since the Suns are firmly in the playoff picture at 22-16. Eric Bledsoe has emerged as one of the best up-and-coming point guards in the game, and the Suns have multiple players performing well beyond expectations. Even after trading starting center Marcin Gortat to the Wizards, the Suns are still performing at a relatively high level. The unexpected success this season has caused the Suns to ditch their tanking plan and switch into up-and-coming mode. Instead of selling players, the Suns have recently been on the lookout for an established star (or otherwise solid player) to help raise them to the elite of the Western Conference. The Suns still have plenty of future assets and should be a contender well into the future.

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