When the Chicago Bulls took on the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday, they did so without Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, two guys who have been mainstays in their starting lineup.
No. They weren’t injured. The Bulls simply didn’t play them because Holiday and Lopez help them win basketball games.
Meanwhile, in Sacramento, the Kings allowed 44 points to the Oklahoma City Thunder ... in the first quarter. In Orlando, the Knicks and Magic fought to the end for a loss. And in Dallas, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban happily went on a podcast to admit losing is the best option for his team.
He was fined $600k for that comment.
Welcome to tank-a-palooza, circa 2018, where losing is chic and winning is shunned. At the top of the NBA is a fascinating race, particularly in the Western Conference, where four and a half games separate the third and the 10th spots, and the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are separated by a half game.
But at the bottom of the league, where the dregs reside, the fight to secure the best lottery odds for a top-five pick in the upcoming NBA draft promises to be just as fierce.
As the season heads into the final stages, six teams are tied with 18 wins for the fewest in the league. And they are all trying to one-down each other in their pursuit of losses. Some are playing younger guys who have no idea how to win. Some, like the Kings, are playing guys so old they physically can’t win. And others have thrown transparency to the wind and are actively sitting starters.
The debate has gone back and forth on this for years. Does tanking work? Who was the last NBA champion to take the tank route to the title? An argument can be made that the San Antonio Spurs tanked to get Tim Duncan. They went on to win five championships.
In Golden State, the Warriors were built primarily through the draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the good fortune of LeBron James getting nostalgic and coming home. The Miami Heat were built through free agency. The Los Angeles Lakers traded for Kobe Bryant and plucked Shaquille O’Neal from the Orlando Magic. The Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons never tanked.
So there’s very little proof tanking and actively losing basketball games actually works, although there are exceptions. The Philadelphia 76ers, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are today’s shining example of successfully tanking. They are 31-25 this season and in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference. That hardly calls for a parade down Broad Street. Not yet. And let’s not forget that Philly had to absorb a series of utterly miserable seasons just to get here.
That being said, if there’s a draft worth tanking for, this may be the one. Led by Slovenian Luka Doncic, Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton, Texas’ Mo Bamba, Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., and Duke’s Marvin Bagley, there are no fewer than six players who are projected to be difference makers in the NBA.
But there is so much more to building a franchise than tanking. It takes drafting studs and finding diamonds in the rough. It takes developing players and being smart financially. Of the teams with the seven worst records in the NBA, there is one title, and that’s Dallas in 2011.
Overall, tanking is bad for the league. It always has been and always will be. It will affect the playoff race, as teams battling for the postseason will be facing teams that have no interest in winning another game. And what does it say to people like Lopez and Holiday, players who have played hard for the Bulls this season, that they are healthy scratches? Such moves are the reason Eric Bledsoe got fed up in Phoenix early in the season and publicly asked for a trade.
Lottery reform takes place starting with the 2019 draft and will help a bit, as the team with the worst record will no longer be given 25 percent odds at the top pick.
But it’s not enough. Every team in the lottery should be given the same odds. Make it a true lotto drawing. If a team with the worst record runs the risk of garnering the No. 14 pick, perhaps that team will be more motivated to win basketball games in February and March.
NBA POWER RANKINGS
1. Golden State Warriors (45-14) • Not the same great defense, but they are still heavy title favorites.
2. Houston Rockets (44-13) • The race for the top seed in the Western Conference is officially on.
3. Toronto Raptors (41-16) • The best home team in the NBA.
4. Boston Celtics (40-19) • Have to fix offensive issues before the playoffs.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves (36-25) • Jimmy Butler was a healthy DNP in the All-Star game.
6. San Antonio Spurs (35-24) • Pop says he doubts Leonard will play again this season.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (34-26) • Westbrook hits game-winner against Sacramento.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers (34-23) • They look better, but is the chemistry there?
9. Washington Wizards (34-24) • Big win on the road over Cleveland.
10. Denver Nuggets (32-26) • Paul Millsap should be back soon from injury.
11. Indiana Pacers (33-25) • Oladipo looked bored in the slam dunk contest.
12. Philadelphia 76ers (31-25) • Stole a last second win against Chicago.
13. Milwaukee Bucks (32-25) • Shortage of big men may be their undoing.
14. Los Angeles Clippers (30-27) • Almost rallied from 20 down to beat Golden State.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (32-26) • Will have to survive a difficult schedule down the stretch.
16. Utah Jazz (30-28) • Won’t win every game, but is the 11-game win streak a mirage? Or the real thing?
17. New Orleans Pelicans (31-26) • Stopped their skid with a couple of nice wins before the all-star break.
18. Miami Heat (30-28) • Wade returns home at the trade deadline.
19. Detroit Pistons (28-29) • Have started to level off after hot start with Griffin.
20. Los Angeles Lakers (23-34) • Lonzo Ball is inching closer to a return.
21. Charlotte Hornets (25-33) • One of the easiest schedules down the stretch. Can they take advantage?
22. New York Knicks (24-36) • Started Mudiay at point guard against Orlando, but Trey Burke stole the show
23. Chicago Bulls (20-38) • Sat a healthy Lopez and Holiday against the Sixers.
24. Brooklyn Nets (19-41) • Cleveland hopes they lose every game.
25. Memphis Grizzlies (18-38) • Couldn’t trade Evans, so the two sides will try and make it work.
26. Sacramento Kings (18-40) • Put up a nice fight against OKC before losing.
27. Dallas Mavericks (18-40) • Misconduct allegations against the organization are ugly.
28. Phoenix Suns (18-41) • Booker takes home 3-point contest honors from All-Star Weekend.
29. Orlando Magic (18-40) • Hezonia has proved himself an NBA player and could be an underrated free agent.
30. Atlanta Hawks (18-41) • This barren roster desperately needs a top pick.