The NBA has come across a number of organizational controversies in and outside of the league. Commissioner Adam Silver has finally come out with a strong warning against teams who are blatantly tanking. In a memo sent out to the teams and reported by Sam Amick, Silver’s comments are the harshest so far on the issue:
“If we ever received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.”
This came after Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban’s comments on the team’s play going into the rest of the season.
“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are. We weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option.’”
Cuban’s comments were so shocking in their outright honesty and were equally shocking coming from an owner who just over sixteen months ago fought for the elimination of the draft altogether.
The issue of tanking has been a mainstay in NBA circles since the inception of the lottery system in 1985. Funny enough, the draft lottery was introduced to help combat tanking in the first place. From 1966 up until the lottery first came to fruition, the first draft pick was determined by a coin flip between the worst teams in each conference. With the rise of analytics within basketball, we’ve certainly come a long way since that day, though at the same time the league is still experiencing the same issues.
Adam Silver and his team are hoping the flattening out of the odds in next year’s draft will help combat the extreme tanking we’re likely to see from teams like the Dallas Mavericks, but again, it could cause even more reason to tank games to gain a greater odds from the bottom three spots.
Here is an ESPN graphic on how NBA Draft lottery odds change in 2019 pic.twitter.com/Jk8X7q0J3Z
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 28, 2017
With that, let’s take a look at teams other than the Mavericks who will be looking to increase their odds for the May 15 draft lottery in Chicago.
7. Chicago Bulls
It seems fitting that the team hosting the draft lottery be a major player in the festivities. Following the All-Star break the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, John Paxson announced that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba would be replacing Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting a lineup, a move surely made looking to increase their draft odds. Paxson can spin it as long-term development but we can all read between the lines; Lopez and Holiday have been serviceable to solid for the team all season, while Felicio and Nwaba are unproven commodities that will no doubt be feasted on by more seasoned, talented starting lineups.
The other night, two of Chicago’s starters, Zach Lavine and Robin Lopez, were strategically rested in a winnable game against the Brooklyn Nets (another doldrum team, but one who doesn’t own the rights to their own draft pick this year). Expect to see plenty of players being rested by the coaching and front office staff to ensure a greater chance come to the lottery in May.
FiveThirtyEight projects the Bulls to finish with a 28-54 end of season record, good for the sixth worst record in the league. The reason why that seems a tad higher than expected is due to the ease of their remaining schedule; they have the seventh easiest schedule for the rest of the season, versing fellow tank contenders the Memphis Grizzlies twice, the Atlanta Hawks (once), the Orlando Magic (once) and the Dallas Mavericks (once). Basketball Reference gives them an 8.4% chance of winning the lottery, a percentage they’ll be hoping to beef up in their remaining 21 games.
6. Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns have a history of tanking in their organisation. Last year they rested Eric Bledsoe for the final 15 games, now the Suns aren’t being as blatant in their tanking tactics this season; some might even say the acquisition of former MAgic point guard, Elfrid Payton, is proof that the team is actually trying to win games. Look a little deeper and you’ll see the real truth. Part of it is that this Phoenix team is just plain bad. They have four 40-point losses already (one more earns them a new NBA record) and with all the young assets on their roster, only one, Devin Booker has legitimate All-Star aspirations, one good player out of 15 generally doesn’t make for a winning basketball team. ClutchPoints reported that the intentions of the front office and team going forward are the opposite to that of what we saw last season, per AZ Central’s Scott Bordow:
Ryan McDonough told me today Suns will not “strategically rest” players as they did last season. Said intentions were clear with a trade for Payton. “If we win a few more games and end up getting slotted lower in the lottery then we’re fine with that.”
Unlike the Bulls, due to the lack of talent and depth on their squad the team doesn’t need to rest players. Out of the following tanking teams they also have one of the trickier schedules going into the rest of the season, Tankathon gives them the sixth toughest schedule for the remainder of their campaign. With that, FiveThirtyEight projects them to have the worst record come the conclusion of the season with a 23-59 record. Basketball Reference gives them the greatest odds of winning this year’s lottery with 20.3%.
Like the Suns, the Kings have been one of the most poorly run franchises of the past half decade. Their drafting and player development has been questionable to say the least, though they’d argue they have two solid starters going forward in Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox. Bogdan Bogdanović has lowkey been their best player and not just because he won the MVP at an exhibition game. His contract (3 year / $27,000,000) is iffy but if he continues his current production he’ll exceed it’s worth and then some.
The toughness of their schedule is around the middle of the pack, which will hurt their chances of landing the best lottery odds and like the Suns they don’t really have many players on their roster they can rest outside of Vince Carter and Zach Randolph. Given that, FiveThirtyEight projects them to have the second worst record (25-57), two wins better than tanking rivals, the Phoenix Suns. Their odds are also slightly worse to win the lottery at 16.9%.
Most of the teams on this list have at least one player with All-Star capabilities, it’s hard to see one on Sacramento’s roster. They’d crave a top-three pick like a DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic to boost the talent on their roster. For this team tanking isn’t just the best option, it’s the only option.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies are not a very good team this season. The playoff success of the Grit ‘N Grind era is long gone yet two cornerstones of that success still remain, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. With Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, this team was a bonafide playoff contender. To start the season with both players healthy, the Grizzlies went 5-2 before going completely off the rails and losing their franchise point guard after only 12 games played.
What remains questionable though is the moves the front office failed to make going into the trade deadline. Tyreke Evans is still with the team despite offers from a plethora of playoff contending teams, and to a lesser extent Gasol wasn’t moved either. The failure to trade Evans made no sense, he’s a good player having the best season of his career and his value is never going to be higher. Gasol on the other hand is a fading star, the value they were likely to get in return likely paled in comparison to the decision to actually keep him. However, if the front office was really looking to blow it up and gain the best lottery odds possible they definitely should’ve moved one if not all three of Evans, Gasol and Conley.
Memphis has the sixth easiest schedule for the rest of the season, which is projected to give them the exact same record (25-57) as their division counterparts, the Sacramento Kings. They’re also given the fifth best chance (8.9%) at winning the lottery come May 15 in Chicago.
3. Atlanta Hawks
The hiring of new general manager, Travis Schlenk going into the 2017-18 season was a signal of things to come for the Hawks’ franchise. Schlenk got rid of two of the team’s three best (and priciest) players in Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap. Add into that the decision to not extend shooting guard, Tim Hardaway Jr’s contract, it was clear Schlenk was looking to rebuild this team with youth and draft picks, ie, tanking. Evidenced further by his comments from NBA.com:
“We want to develop the young players we have and we’ll potentially have five first-round picks in the next few years of the draft,” Schlenk said. “You really want to have three ways to get talent in this league: draft, trades and free agents. We’re going to use all three but it’s certainly easiest to get star players through the draft.
Schlenk and his team also recently bought out two of their more capable veterans in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova to not only help create cap space but further the team’s tanking agenda.
One of the things that may prevent Schlenk from achieving his goals is the fact they have the third easiest schedule for the remainder of the season. They come up against the Suns (once), Kings (once), Magic (once) and Bulls (once), but other than that their next toughest opponent comes in the Charlotte Hornets. Nevertheless, they’re still projected to have one of the worst regular season records (24-58) and the third highest lottery odds (15.1%).
2. Orlando Magic
The Magic front office is probably wanting for coach Frank Vogel and his squad to tank going into their final 22 games but there are some things going against them in that regard. One, Vogel is likely coaching for his life with a new front office unlikely to remain patient and may seek to overhaul the coaching staff going forward. And two, Aaron Gordon is really good and playing his butt off for a hefty payday; whether he receives it from his current team remains to be seen. The former number four pick has elevated his game to a level where he’s on the fringes of the Most Improved Player conversation. There are questions about the teams tanking chances, but the team is also mediocre at best.
- New York Knicks
The Knicks have the equal worst record in the Eastern Conference in their past ten games (1-9). The loss of budding superstar, Kristaps Porzingis certainly doesn’t help their winning chances but it did help their lottery chances. It also makes sense going forward that the team looks to lose as many games as possible to surround Porzingis with as much elite talent as possible. Rookie point guard, Frank Ntilikina is solid but doesn’t necessarily have star potential on the offensive end, Tim Hardaway Jr. has gone good but streaky, and Michael Beasley has been, well, Michael Beasley.
Haven’t seen a lot of headbands used to store a mouth guard but that’s why Michael Beasley was a No. 2 overall pick. pic.twitter.com/4Q5qRyUttr
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) February 27, 2018
‘The writing is on the wall with coach Jeff Hornacek adjusting his rotations to focus on his youngsters, leaving seasoned players like Courtney Lee and Jarret Jack pondering their immediate future.
While New York may not have the best player of all the teams on this list, they may have the best collective talent which will hinder their chances in terms of their lottery odds. In fact, they’re projected to win over 30 games (32-50) and are given a less than one in fifty chance of winning the lottery.
Here’s a representation of all the teams’ lottery odds, records and strength of schedule mentioned in the article, with the Dallas Mavericks included as well:
|Team||Lottery Odds||Strength of Schedule||Projected Record|
|New York Knicks||1.9%||13th||32-50|
May the best tanker lose.