State of the Association: Part IV
Now that we’ve evaluated the major offseason moves in the NBA, it’s time for the much belated final part to this series.
In our final edition, I will cover the teams that are tanking, the extreme benefit to doing so, and then I'll make predictions for the playoffs in each conference.
Let’s begin with a brief explanation of tanking, the NBA lottery, and how a team tanks. Much of this is covered in an article I wrote in April about why the Houston Rockets had been the worst team in the NBA over a period of 10-15 years.
The NBA Draft Lottery is a system to decide which teams will get the top three picks in each year’s draft. Let’s be clear, the lottery only decides the top three picks.
Each team that finished outside the playoffs is ranked in reverse order of their records. Based on these rankings, each team is given a proportionate amount of ping pong balls to put into a giant bubble. Last year, the Orlando Magic had the worst record in the NBA, at 20-62; this gave them the most ping pong balls in the bubble, which in turn gave them the best chance to be the first team drawn in the lottery at 25%. After that, two more teams are drawn to decide the rest of the top three picks in the draft. From there, the rest of the teams are slotted in reverse order by record.
So it’s possible, although very unlikely, for a team with the ninth-worst record in the league to get the number one pick, as the Bulls did in 2008 to draft Derrick Rose.
One of the best ways to rebuild a bad team in the NBA is to do it through the draft. Each spot lower in the standings a team falls during the regular season means a higher percentage chance for that team to gain a top-three pick in the draft.
Last year, the reward for tanking was low compared to most. Last year, the top draft prospects were Nerlens Noel, Ben Mclemore, and Anthony Bennett. This year, however, the prize is huge.
And it’s not just likely top pick Andrew Wiggins. This draft is a rare combination of talent and depth that many teams would love to use to retool their rosters. Prospects Julius Randal, Jabari Parker, and Marcus Smart will all likely be big-time NBA players. This means that landing in the top three of the draft this year could change everything for a team.
That is why we’ll see a large amount of teams being built to lose. Losing this year means winning in the coming years.
So how exactly does a team tank? Despite the common perception that NBA players don’t care and don’t play defense, the vast majority of players in the league are ultra-competitive, super-athletic men who grew up winning every basketball game they played. A team can’t just convince their players to throw games. The team has to be constructed that way.
So this means the trading of the most talented guys on the team for not much return, other than future salary cap relief. This means holding injured players out longer than usual. This means playing rookies and younger players over veterans. Those three things have more than one benefit, the key of which is all three typically contribute to losing games. However:
- the salary cap relief also helps sign talent later,
- holding an injured player out longer can also fully ensure he is healthy, and
- playing rookies over vets also helps the younger players develop, which additionally allows the coach and management to decide how good a young guy really is.
Many teams throughout the league will be employing all three of these tactics this year. In fact, most of them already have. By my count, the 76ers, the Celtics, the Magic, the Bucks, the Suns, and the Jazz are all almost for-sure tanking. And the Lakers, Kings, and Bobcats should tank, and might once they hit the trade deadline and realize that they won’t be competing for a playoff spot.
However, I’ll only spend my time talking about a few of these teams since, really, there just isn’t much to talk about.
We’ll start with the 76ers, who are going to be atrocious this year. They'll be employing all three of the earlier mentioned tactics. First, they made a draft day trade to send their best player, Jrue Holiday, to the Pelicans. What they got in return in Nerlens Noel was a player who won’t see the court until at least February or March. They're my pick to finish with the league’s worst record this year. The Sixers will also likely be giving rookies Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten plenty of minutes this year to figure out what they have with the young point guards.
Next up are the recent champions Lakers and Celtics, who should by all means be awful this year.
They would never do it, and he probably wouldn’t even agree to it, but the smartest thing the Lakers could do is trade Kobe Bryant for some picks and trade fodder and push for the worst record in the league. However, doing this would also be effectively punching Steve Nash directly in the kidneys for wasting his last couple of years on worse teams than he would have been on with the Suns. Since they won’t trade Kobe, the Lakers should at least try and hold him out for as long as possible and make sure he is completely healthy -- and then some -- before returning.
However, that might be a hard sell to Kobe, who is eyeing the all-time points scored mark set by Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
The Celtics should do the same with Rajon Rondo, although I’ve already seen reports of him looking for an early return.
Even with these two stars returning, both Lakers and Celtics have absolutely no shot of competing for the playoffs, and therefore, would be better off tanking.
So what about the teams actually trying to win this year?
That’s a much more enjoyable story to discuss.
The NBA middle class is a weak one this year, as both conferences are heavy at the top and weak at the bottom.
In the Eastern Conference, the top four of Miami, Chicago, Indiana, and Brooklyn is an extremely competitive bunch. The Eastern Conference playoffs this year are going to be fantastic after the first round. The next four teams qualifying for the playoffs for the East are much harder to discern. New York will likely be the five-seed and Atlanta most likely will be the six. This leaves two spots that I could see going to a number of teams.
Washington, Cleveland, Toronto, and Detroit should all compete for those last two spots, but ultimately, I see Cleveland taking the seven-spot and, surprisingly, Washington sneaking in at the eight-spot. Washington is under the radar and extremely young and talented this year. John Wall still has yet to prove he’s anything other than a track athlete, but the starting five of Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr, Emeka Okafor, and Nenê Hilario is a very good, intriguing one.
Out in the West, I see Oklahoma City taking the top seed, with Golden State, Houston, and the Clippers all filling out the top four in some order. Next, Memphis and San Antonio will finish at five and six, leaving the last couple of spots up for grabs, much like the East.
I expect Portland, Minnesota, Denver, and New Orleans to compete for those last two spots. I have Minnesota at the seven-seed and Portland at the eight.
And with that, let the season begin.