- In the final stretch of the season, the NBA is set to face a tanking campaign the likes of which the league has never seen before.
- With nine teams tightly bound at the bottom of the league, a single win could drastically sway a team’s odds in the NBA Draft Lottery.
- Mavericks owner Mark Cuban even went as far as to openly admit that tanking was the best course of action for his team on a recent podcast appearance.
With the All-Star Game in the rearview mirror, the NBA is set to begin the final push of the regular season.
Each team has about 25 games remaining, and at the top of each conference, these games will decide crucial battles for playoff seeding and homecourt advantage through the postseason. But perhaps the more important battle will take place at the bottom of the standings, as teams jockey for position in an attempt to win lottery balls.
This year, more than any year before, the NBA is set for a truly disastrous tanking season, as teams fight for the right to a 25% chance at the top pick in the draft.
Unlike previous seasons where one team – the Philadelphia 76ers mid-“Process,” for instance – stood out from the pack as the biggest loser, the congestion amongst the worst teams in the league this season is almost hard to believe.
Coming out of the All-Star break, six teams are tied with a league-worst 18 wins. Two more teams are stuck at 19 and 20 wins, respectively, and the 23-win New York Knicks are just ahead of that poor mark, and are now preparing to finish the season without star big man Kristaps Porzingis. While the Brooklyn Nets don’t own their own pick this year, that’s still eight teams likely prepared to attempt an all-out tank during the homestretch of the NBA season. This year more than ever, their campaigns are well-founded.
In years past, there might be a handful of teams fighting for last in the NBA and the 25% shot at the first overall draft pick (and assurance that you’d fall no lower than fourth) that comes with it. It made sense then, but even for the team that finished with the third-worst record at the end of the year, there was still a 15% chance they’d land in the top spot, and they could fall no further than sixth.
With the bottom nine teams so tightly packed, the consequences of every win are exponentially worse.
The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks are currently tied at the bottom of the standings. Should the Suns win their next two games, their shot at the top pick would immediately drop from 25% (or 20% if they finished the season still tied at the bottom), to just 4.3%, with an 83% chance of ending up in the 7th or 8th slot. Conversely, if the Hawks dropping their next two games, they’d hang tight to the bottom spot in the NBA, and with it a guarantee that they’d receive a top-four pick if they can finish the season there.
While tanking has been a not-so-secret aspect of late-season game-planning for the worst teams in the league for some time, this year’s tank looks to be the most blatant in NBA history. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been especially clear with the team’s intention to tank, openly acknowledging that it’s what’s best for the franchise on the “House Call with Dr. J” podcast. Per ESPN:
“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option.’
“Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again. This was, like, a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that’s the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability.”
Such openness with regard to tanking is far from the norm when it comes to team ownership and management.
Tanking is obviously an inexact science, and has much more to do with lineup construction and the allocation of playing time than anything else – players are professional athletes, and convincing them to lose on purpose to bring younger, cheaper new talent to their franchise isn’t exactly a great sell.
As Deadspin notes, these teams have a striking amount of games left to play against each other, which could become the most consequential of the season. A few wins between now and mid-April could be the difference between a drafting a future star with the No. 1 pick – or getting a mid- to late lottery pick.
In the final stretch of the season, there’s no doubt that for some teams the biggest wins left on their schedule will actually be losses, and vice versa.
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