We’ve now reached the midpoint of the regular season, and we can officially begin to paint a clearer picture into the annual NBA tankathon; the quest of the NBA’s bottom feeders to find their holy grail game changing player. We’ll watch teams “rest” their stars, hold injured players out just a little bit longer than they need to be held out, and see coaches experiment with highly questionable rotations that will most likely include a flurry of 10-day contract players.
Tanking isn’t a new (ahem) process by any means, however, the term became a major part of the NBA lexicon when Sam Hinkie publicly laid out his plan to be as bad as possible for as long as it took to land a game changer. It was a long journey but the Sixers got two game changers and enough assets to flip in a deal for a top 15 player. The process worked and Hinkie will forever be a 76er folk hero.
Even if pro-tankers have been proven right, the tanking era has been tough to stomach for NBA fans. The season is long and fans pay good money to watch their team compete on a nightly basis, I certainly haven’t been very excited to tune into Bulls games; but in an era defined by the rise of analytics, fans have become smart enough to understand that tanking is the best way to build a contender. Fans can always get excited about draft prospects.
In an effort to dissuade teams from pursuing the tank, the NBA decided to change the lottery odds so that it wasn’t rewarding losing on purpose as heavily as years prior. The 2019 season is the first season that these new changes have gone into effect. The worst teams still have the best odds of getting one of the top picks, however, it is a much more gradual decline down to the end of the lottery. As it stands now the lottery reform seems to be working. There are more teams trying to compete for a playoff berth this year than any year in recent memory.
All that said, there are still some really bad teams. Right now we have a clear bottom five all vying for the affection of one Zion Williamson. As it stands today the bottom five teams are the Phoenix Suns, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, and Atlanta Hawks. The group is missing Sacramento and Orlando, but it’s pretty close to what you’d have expected before the season started. Not all of these teams are tanking though. There is a difference between tanking and just not being a good team. The Washington Wizards are a good example. They’re currently the sixth worst team record wise. Vegas set their over/under to 44.5 wins before the season, perfectly mediocre expectations; but between chemistry and injury issues, they’ve just been plain bad. Let’s try to delineate the bottom five teams to see what category they belong in.
The worst of the group has been Cleveland. After losing the second best player ever (again), most people expected the Cavs to be pretty bad. Add in the Kevin Love injury and you have yourself the makings of one of the league’s worst constructed rosters. Love’s return from injury will be the biggest factor in determining whether or not they’ll be driving the tank the second half of the year. Love currently has no timeline to return. At some point it doesn’t make much sense to bring him back when you’re competing for the best draft position possible. If Love doesn’t return, it would mean the Cavs will play out the rest of the year on the backs of their high usage rookie point guard Collin Sexton and a bunch of mediocre role players. Not very inspiring. Luckily any of the top guys entering the draft would fit their bare bone roster. Right now I would put the Cavs in the “really bad” category, but they’re flirting hard with a full blown tank.
There isn’t much doubt about whether Phoenix is tanking or not. When you cut Tyson Chandler (who happened to be a valuable expiring contract) early in the season, trade away your big veteran free agent signing (I like the trade from a rebuilding perspective), and don’t have any semblance of a point guard on your roster; you’re blatantly tanking. With Ayton, Booker, and intriguing role players like Warren and Bridges (sorry Josh Jackson); the Suns feel one piece away. Ja Morant seems like a fun piece to add to that group.
Although I believe that Chicago had intentions of competing going into the season; once injuries hit it was clear that they switched their thinking up real quick and went full tank mode. Since head coach Jim Boylen has taken over they’ve boasted one of the worst offenses of all time. In response to an already bad offense falling off a cliff, they’ve decided to completely remove Parker (a player signed strictly to help the offense) from the rotation.. They recently traded their best 3&D wing in Justin Holiday (good trade), and their bench is filled with Bobby Portis and a bunch of G Leaguers. Shaq Harrison is now getting backup small forward minutes. Michael Jordan is rolling over in his grave watching this garbage team. The Bulls need any one of the Duke kids for this season to pay off. The Bulls are a Lavine or Markkanen injury away from not winning another game this season, and yet somehow they’ll end up picking seventh for the third year in a row.
With Porzingis still rehabbing his torn ACL, the Knicks have been left in a similar situation as the Cavs. It’s been over eleven months since Porzingis suffered the injury and he is nearing the longer part of a return timeline, though there isn’t much precedent for a 7’3” professional athlete suffering the same injury. The Zinger’s next evaluation will be in February, if he is held out for the season after the eval, we can firmly put the Knicks in the tankers category. As of now the roster just isn’t very good. Hardaway made a mini jump, Knox has shown glimpses, Mudiay has had a career resurgence, and who the hell knows what they’re doing with Ntilikina. Watching the young Knicks has been fun and for the first time in a long time, Knicks fans have reason to feel optimistic; but barring a Porzingis return, the Knicks and their bottom feeding defense are going to be doing their best to bring Zion to the Garden.
Atlanta is the one team in the bottom five that is definitely not trying to lose games. They’re still really bad but at least they’re trying to compete. With Young, Huerter, Prince, and Collins forming a solid young core that will get to add two lottery picks next year, there should be a lot of optimism about Atlanta’s rebuilding efforts. Collins has balled out this year and flashed some real future all-star potential. The Hawks have solid vets like Jeremy Lin, Vince Carter, and Kent Bazemore showing the young guys how to be pros. The Hawks have become a legitimately fun league pass team. Real shame they didn’t take Luka. I’m not so sure that a Kevin Porter/Bol Bol combo is going to make up for it.
I don’t know if the new odds system is actually working, the league is just getting too talented for every team to completely suck, or front offices don’t love the depth of this draft, but the 2018-19 season has been pretty good from a competition standpoint. As the year goes on and teams start realizing they’re playoff dreams are nothing more than just dreams; more teams will join the tank race. Teams will get caught up by prospects that ball out in the NCAA tournament, management will want to get better looks at their young talent, and players will get injured. As long as losing results in better draft odds, tanking will never fully go away; but with the new system in place and more opportunity for teams to move up into the top four, we’ll see if teams start trying to look outside the draft in pursuit of completing their rebuilds.