Tank Rankings: Will your favorite NBA team tank this season?
In the NBA, the race to the bottom of the standings is as hotly contested as the race to the top. Sure, front offices won’t outright admit tanking and self-sabotage (except for you, Sam Hinke) but a seemingly loaded top-end of the 2018 draft class makes tanking that much more enticing.
Teams understandably see the value in securing a high pick in the draft — the 2008 Celtics are the only team in the past 35 seasons to win a championship without a top 3 pick on their roster.
So, which teams are “contending” for the #1 spot in the 2018 Draft Lottery?
NOT IN TANK CONTENTION
There are 16 teams that will either be 1) certain to be contending for a top playoff seed, or 2) going all out for a playoff spot, barring injury: Golden State, Cleveland, Houston, San Antonio, Boston, Washington, Toronto, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Memphis, Miami, Minnesota, Portland, Utah, LA Clippers, and Denver.
WAIT-AND-SEE HOW IT GOES
Some teams have too much talent to outright tank, or are not yet in a position organizationally where a full rebuild is palatable for their fanbase. These teams will be gunning for a playoff spot to start the year, but a catastrophic start or a key injury could shift their direction and launch a rebuild.
We’re all anxious to see how the great Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins experiment works out. Given their subpar supporting cast, my guess is that it won’t go great. They may contend for the 8th seed in the West, but if they struggle out of the gate things could go south quickly. Cousins’ contract expires after this season and New Orleans may be anxious to cash in for future assets in an all-out effort to entice Davis to stick around.
The Pacers seem like a prime tank candidate after trading Paul George, but their roster has some talent. Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo could be fringe all-stars in a weakened East. Thaddeus Young, Lance Stephenson, Darren Collison, and Bojan Bogdanovic round out a top-6 that could make it tough to fully bottom out.
The acquisition of Avery Bradley will bolster the Pistons’ guard rotation. Question marks remain on the rest of their roster. Will Andre Drummond continue to develop? Can Reggie Jackson contribute to winning basketball as a starting point guard? Will Stanley Johnson pan out? On paper they’re an East playoff team, but their situation bears watching — Stan Van Gundy’s job may be more secure if he decides hop behind the wheel of the tank.
What is Charlotte’s direction? As of now, they’re jogging at 7.5mph on the treadmill of mediocrity. Malik Monk was a steal at pick 11, and Kemba Walker was a legit All-Star last season, but what is their ceiling? It remains to be seen if MJ can stomach a rebuild after tasting the playoffs.
The Mavericks have an organizational identity that is undoubtedly anti-tank — Rick Carlisle alone can coach a below average team to .500 record, and Mark Cuban has built a culture that gets the most out of its players. At 39, Dirk Nowitzki is still out here doing Dirk stuff. Dennis Smith Jr. will be a spark. Still, in the loaded Western Conference, a rough start could lead to Cuban pulling the trigger on a full-blown tank job.
The Sixers aren’t tanking! We think. Joel Embiid has playoffs on the mind, and I’m sure Bryan Colangelo and Co. do as well. They may have a shot in the East, but this team is young. If the injury bug bites again, we could see the Sixers “Trust the Process” for one more season in an effort to add yet another blue-chip asset.
WE AREN’T SUPPOSED TO TANK BUT CAN’T HELP IT
The Nets still do not own their first round pick (it now belongs to Cleveland). They had the worst record in the NBA last year, and traded Brook Lopez —their best player last season — for D’Angelo Russell. The outlook is bleak, but there is reason for optimism. Brooklyn went 11-12 with a healthy Jeremy Lin after March 1st, and added Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll in addition to Russell. GM Sean Marks is pulling all the right strings, though Brooklyn will still have to overachieve to avoid the bottom of the standings. Danny Ainge sure hopes they do.
The Lakers’ first round draft choice belongs to Philadelphia (unless it falls 2-5, in which case it belongs to Boston). They won’t be tanking, and they should be improved with the acquisitions of Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the continued development of Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Ivica Zubac, and the potentially transformative properties of rookie point guard Lonzo Ball. Still, it’s unclear whether Luke Walton and the Lakers’ young core can piece together a 35+ win season. Maybe LaVar can speak it into existence.
WE HAVE EXCITING YOUNG TALENT (BUT WE’RE STILL TANKING)!
The Suns haven’t topped 24 wins in either of the past two seasons. They have a blue-chipper in Devin Booker, and a slew of other high-upside young players. Still, Phoenix is several pieces away from becoming a legitimate upstart team. Look for GM Ryan McDonough to package one or more of the team’s few veterans (Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, Brandon Knight, or Eric Bledsoe) with Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss to acquire more future assets and kick start the tank.
Since 2006, the Kings have had zero winning seasons and nine head coaches. Over that span — a grueling eleven season stretch of unrivaled ineptitude — they’ve never picked higher than fourth in the draft (here are the gory details if you care to look). The Kings have enough young talent to want to “play the right way” and “establish a winning culture” but they won’t be better than below-average in the West. They need more young assets to truly accelerate their rebuild, and you’ll likely see them jockeying for lottery position throughout the second half of the season.
Phil Jackson’s unceremonious departure as Knicks’ president came only two months after owner James Dolan picked up the remaining two years and $24 million on his contract. Jackson’s tenure was littered with unforgivable contracts, questionable trades, and odd media spats. His treatment of Carmelo Anthony was a near-unprecedented display of unprofessional behavior by an NBA executive. Kristaps Porzingis, the team’s only bright spot from the Jackson area, could barley escape the Dolan/Jackson vortex. Under new management, the Knicks will likely move on from Carmelo — if not before the season, at the December 15th trade-eligible date — and rebuild around Porzingis. Outside of Porzingis, the team is devoid of any offensive creators (Tim Hardaway Jr.? Frank Ntilikina!?). The Knicks know this (…they do, right?) and should try to secure a top-5 pick to pair with The Unicorn.
The Magic have been in the lottery for five consecutive years (picking in the top-6 for four) yet somehow have no budding all-star talent. Two of those draft choices were flipped for Serge Ibaka, who was traded 8 months later for minimal return. Mario Hezonja has been a bust thus far. Elfrid Payton showed promise in the 2nd half of last season but is overshadowed by the glut of point guards around the league. Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac are intriguing prospects, though it may be tough for them to share the floor with one another. Both are best suited to play with one big and three wings/ball handlers, and I don’t see either being able to effectively play the 5 this season (though Issac may project as a small-5 down the road). The Magic have spent years acquiring draft capital as an Eastern Conference bottom-dweller, yet somehow are more desperate to tank than ever.
It’s hard to believe the Hawks are only two seasons removed from a 60-win season. They turned their Jeff Teague-Kyle Korver-Paul Millsap-Al Horford core into one mid- and one late-first round pick. Rather than pay Millsap or Horford, they paid Kent Bazemore $70 million over four years. Dennis Schröder is their best player, though he isn’t a top-15 point guard in the league. Their young players (Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry, John Collins) won’t be better than role players or low-end starters. They added two young bigs (Miles Plumlee and Dwayne Dedmon) and two capable yet declining guards (Jamal Crawford and Marco Belinelli). The Hawks will be sellers all year long — just about any player on this roster will be available for future assets. The Hawks’ direction is clear, and their fans should anticipate a high pick in next year’s draft.
Bulls fans are, um, unhappy with the direction of their team. The Bulls, like the Hawks, have rapidly fallen from the East’s elite. They traded Jimmy Butler to Minnesota for Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn, and a pick that became Lauri Markannen. Lavine is coming off a torn ACL, and we don’t know if Dunn or Markannen are able to contribute to winning basketball. A Dwyane Wade buyout looms. The rest of the roster is bleak — Paul Zipser and Denzel Valentine are the only wings on the roster, and the Dunn/Jerian Grant/Cameron Payne point guard combo is aggressively bad. It’s unfortunate that a historic franchise like the Bulls, so recently on the cusp of title contention, has been reduced to this. The best Bulls fans can hope for are high draft picks for the foreseeable future.