NBA practices open next week, and hopes are high in cities all over the league. But I'm not here to talk about hope. This is about reality. This is about maturity. It's about about staring hope in the face, and answering back with pragmatism. It's about burning down the forest so that the heat can release the seedlings of a lush coniferous future. This is about tanking.
Tanking has gotten a bad name over the past few years, and I don't like it. We shouldn't let the past few years of Sixers chaos besmirch a proud lineage of strategic and well-placed sucking throughout NBA history. When deployed judiciously, tanking is great.
It can be liberating for fans, reinvigorating for rosters, and it's generally hilarious in the meantime. It's also a tradition of subterfuge that's unique to the NBA. Baseball has spit balls and pine tar; football has stickum and Bill Belichick; basketball has the occasional wink-and-a-smile approach to team building that spawns three to six months of progressively unwatchable basketball. It's all wonderful.
None of this is a crucial element of what makes the NBA fun, but it's indicative of what makes basketball teams so much fun to think about in the modern era. I could throw out tanking scenarios for hours. So with that in mind, and because next year's draft looks fantastic, this is a look at a handful of teams that should think seriously about going all in on a tank at some point in 2017.
We'll start with some notes on the fringe tank candidates.
Only if things get very ugly: Rockets, Wizards. Both these teams have legitimate reasons to believe that last season was their worst case scenario, and the combination of health, roster tweaks, and a coaching change should put them right back in the middle of the playoff conversation. They also have two GMs—Ernie Grunfeld and Daryl Morey—with far less job security than they had a year ago, so any kind of deliberate sabotage is unlikely. And yet... If things start slow in Houston or D.C., it really wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to sit Wall or Harden with three months of mysterious injuries, sink to the bottom, and try to flip a high lottery pick for another superstar in June.
Should tank, but can't tank: Nets, Kings. The Nets will lose 55 or 60 games regardless, so they'll certainly look the part. The Kings may not be far behind them. Sadly, Sacramento has to swap first round picks with the Sixers (Sam Hinke triumphantly pumps his fist in a Palo Alto Starbucks). Meanwhile, the Nets will be swapping first round picks with the Celtics until the end of time (Danny Ainge whistles innocently because there's nothing to see here).
The tank cautionary tale: Pelicans. Everything was lining up perfectly for Anthony Davis to get the sidekick he deserves, and then... that nightmare year in New Orleans didn't end with even a little bit of luck, and they wound up settling for Buddy Hield. The Pelicans probably aren't capable of losing that many games again—Anthony Davis is healthy now—so instead, they're an important reminder that sometimes the wink-and-a-nod strategic tanking job ends in the most frustrating way possible.
Mile high and not worried: Nuggets. They are likely headed directly to a 10th seed, but that doesn't mean it's time to blow this up. Denver lucked into a top five talent with Nikola Jokic, so they can afford to push forward without worrying too much about hewing to lottery odds. The biggest question mark on their roster is point guard—is Mudiay good enough to build around?—but that's also the deepest position in the 2017 Draft. Even in the late lottery, the Nuggets should have good options.
Mindlessly wandering into traffic: Magic. So Orlando traded for Serge Ibaka, signed Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green, remained intent on keeping Nikola Vucevic forever, successfully clogged the frontcourt rotation for their best prospect (Aaron Gordon), and traded away the perfect defensive partner (Victor Oladipo) to their most intriguing offensive player (Mario Hezonja)... I don't have any idea what the Magic should do. Someone call social services and take this team away from Rob Hennigan.
OK, it's probably time to stop tanking: Lakers, Suns. Man, the home page for the 2017 Suns roster is quite something. Did you know they signed Leandro Barbosa? And Jared Dudley? Half this team would look great if it were 2010, and the other half will look much better in 2020.
As for 2017, the Suns don't need to tank anymore. They have plenty of draft picks and tradeable talent (Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, maybe even Tyson Chander) to stay flexible regardless of their finish. This year's gotta be dedicated to figuring out exactly what they have with Devin Booker, Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss, Dragen Bender, Alex Len, and even Earl Watson. And in that respect, pairing the young guys with capable veterans who can help them compete makes a lot of sense.
The Lakers are a similar story. The L.A. first round pick is again top 3 protected, otherwise it's headed to the Sixers. Maybe they can cheat death once more and push for 65 losses, but at this point, they're better off winning 30 games around D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram and looking to get some momentum going with Luke Walton. Both the Lakers and Suns will finish somewhere in the middle of the lottery, but it would be a bad sign if they're near the top again.
As for the real tankers... Here's who should burn the forest down.
On the one hand, we've now made fun of the Dwyane Wade/Rajon Rondo/Jimmy Butler nucleus so much that the Bulls are probably underrated. If everyone's healthy, there's enough raw talent to compensate for the baffling fit of all these players. Last year's season went about as terribly as possible, but Nikola Mirotic should bounce back, Robin Lopez will help out, and Taj Gibson is always solid. Meanwhile, Butler is incredible, and Wade's been making critics look stupid for the past decade. This can work better than people think.
On the other hand, it's not really going to work, is it? Even if the Bulls surprise people, they're still a six-ish seed that will make everyone sad. That's why we're here today. This is all about facing facts and taking action.
SET YOURSELVES FREE, CHICAGO.
It's time to lean on an overwhelmed Fred Hoiberg, a petulant Rajon Rondo and a checked-out and/or banged-up Dwyane Wade on the way to 50 losses. Nikola Mirotic is taking eight threes a game this year. Jimmy Butler will strain his hamstring and miss two months. In that scenario, the Bulls land in the middle of the lottery, and then management would have two options:
1. If they get lucky in the lottery and find someone who could turn into a franchise player, they can flip Jimmy Butler for an additional top 10 pick. In that case, they'd start over and build around two star rookies, Nikola Mirotic, Denzel Valentine, and Bobby Portis. Not a bad rebuilding plan!
2. They could also decide to keep Butler, use a high lottery pick to trade for Boogie Cousins, and then build the next five years around Boogie, Mirotic, Butler, and a point guard to be named later.
Neither one of these scenarios is a sure thing, but both are so much more fun than pretending the current roster solves anything. And isn't that the point? Tanking is better than lying to yourself about Rajon Rondo.
This would require heavily sedating Rick Carlise for the year, but I believe in the Mavs medical staff. And having Carlisle in place is actually the best argument for tanking this approach. Tanking makes sense because the rest of the infrastructure in Dallas is so sound. This wouldn't be giving up on what the Mavs have built over the past 15 years; it's an investment in resources for a team that's already smart.
Harrison Barnes at $95 million has been a summerlong punchline, but he's solid enough to succeed as an overpaid role player. Same with Wes Matthews. The coaching is excellent every year, and Carlisle's better than almost anyone at turning spare parts into useful rotation players. They just need to replenish this formula with actual stars at some point, and then it can all get competitive again. What's more, because of the infrastructure and veterans they already have in place, the Mavs are better positioned than 80% of lottery teams to put young stars in a position to succeed.
The counter-argument comes back to Dirk, obviously. How could they do that Dirk? Do you realize the money he's sacrificed? This is his reward for all that loyalty?
It's time for us to stop having those conversations about Dallas. Dirk's making $25 million this year, and he'll likely be taken care of as a Cuban ambassador until the end of time. More importantly, half-assed moves to support his twilight haven't really made a dent in the West. If anything, watching the Mavs sputter to the middle every year has been sadder than watching them restart everything. Dirk would understand the dynamics here. He's an adult. It's about taking care of the franchise.
The bigger problems would be Cuban and Carlisle, both of whom seem incapable of thinking beyond the immediate future. In that case, the immediate future's the best argument: The Warriors own the West right now, and they will for the next two years. There's not even a sliver of hope for all but one or two competitors, and certainly not the Mavs. If I were selling Cuban on tanking, I'd point directly to the hated Rockets flailing around trying to compete with Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Isn't there a smarter way? Cuban may not understand foresight, but he could definitely buy into spite for Daryl Morey.
This is a good time to discuss the 2017 draft and clarify a few things. There's already plenty of hype surrounding this incoming freshman class, and all of it's deserved. College basketball will be twice as fun this year. But looking at this through my draft nerd eyes, it's still too early to say how many franchise-altering players there are in this class. Most of the best prospects are point guards—Markelle Fultz (Washington), Dennis Smith (NC State), Frank Ntilikina (France), De'Aaron Fox (Kentucky), Lonzo Ball (UCLA)—and while great point guards are valuable, they won't immediately carry a team the way, say, Karl Towns might.
Beyond the guards, we also have a rich crop of intriguing wings with mysterious ceilings—Jayson Tatum (Duke), Josh Jackson (Kansas), Jonathan Isaac (Florida State), Miles Bridges (Michigan State), and Terrance Ferguson (Australia). Finally, there are big men like Harry Giles (Duke), Marques Bolden (also Duke), and Jarrett Allen (Texas).
All of these players are exciting draft prospects—Miles Bridges isn't quite as elite, but I need you to watch him dunk on his own mother—it's just important to manage expectations. For now, this class looks great because of it's full of potential All-Stars, not necessarily potential cornerstones. That's not a criticism; it's a reminder of how rare it is to find real franchise stars even in the best drafts.
And the Knicks already did that. Porzingis has everything. He's got the intangibles, he can protect the rim and score from the perimeter, he played his ass off despite being 30 pounds lighter than everyone he faced last year, and he's barely scratching the surface. He's someone to build around for the next decade.
This is why Knicks fans should be rooting for a slow start that turns into a midseason Melo trade and three months of losing. Somehow, this team already nailed the hardest part of tanking. Now they just need more help, and preferably help that's under the age of 30. Even if you're not sure about the superstars in this draft—Giles could be elite if healthy, Fultz looks incredible— there are potential All-Stars dotting the board that would be perfect running mates with Porzingis. So, forget the playoffs. Be smart, Knicks. Derrick Rose is ready to take 25 shots-a-game. Hornacek's defense could give up 110 points-a-night. They're warming the tanks up in Latvia. Let's make this happen.
Dreams aside, the Knicks will probably only land in the lottery by accident. The Mavs will likely be too stubborn to help themselves in any meaningful. The Bulls might be too talented to land near the bottom. But the Heat? Evil genius Pat Riley? Hassan Whiteside after signing for $100 million? Goran Dragic who's been disappointing for almost his entire time in Miami? Chris Bosh who may or may not be cleared to play basketball? Justise Winslow who's a phenomenal prospect but still incredibly raw? FIRE UP THE TAAAAAAAAAAAAANKS.
"For me," Pat Riley once said of rebuilding, "it’s not through the draft, because lottery picks are living a life of misery. That season is miserable. And if you do three or four years in a row to get lottery picks, then I’m in an insane asylum. And the fans will be, too. So who wants to do that?”
He's right about doing this year after year. Definitely. But that's never been the smartest way to tank, and Riley himself embraced all this when he went 15–67 two years after winning a title.
The teams that can benefit most tanking are actually the ones who aren't that far away from competing right now. These are teams that already have a superstar, a healthy culture, and/or a few intriguing young pieces. If teams like that get lucky in the right year, it can put them in an entirely different category. This was the Spurs in 1997; it was the Celtics in 2008; it was the Warriors at the end of the 2012 season; it was the Sonics throughout Kevin Durant's rookie year. It should be the Heat this year.
Hassan Whiteside could be a wonderful building block, but he's a terrible centerpiece. The same is true for an aging Dragic, whose contract suddenly looks reasonable enough to trade him for an extra asset. (Dream with me). Bosh might not play again, and even if he does, there are questions about what he can give them this year and beyond. Meanwhile, beyond this year, the Heat are dealing 2018's first rounder to Phoenix (top 7 protected), and then they owe the Suns an unprotected first rounder in 2021. So... Why not punt this season, use it to develop Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Tyler Johnson, and plan on going nuts next June?
Wade's gone, and the time to reload is next summer. They can either draft a superstar guard they can groom alongside 20 year-old Winslow, or they'll have an asset they can trade for a superstar in his prime to run with 27 year-old Whiteside. If OKC struggles and Russell Westbrook is available in June, it's hard to imagine many places that would make more sense than South Beach. If all that sounds a little crazy, it definitely is. But guess who's not afraid to get crazy
The Hinkie Sixers are the perfect example of what happens when tanking gets taken too far. Sustained, deliberate failure becomes counter-productive over time. By refusing to build a coherent roster year after year, you begin to sabotage the talent you were losing to acquire in the first place. That was the biggest problem with the Hinkie era. Look across the roster, and three years of losing produced exactly one superstar to build around, plus three big men, all with remarkably different red flags.
But forget big men and red flags and focus on the most important part of that sentence: There is a superstar to build around in Ben Simmons. That's all that matters.
Of course, the Sixers should be tanking. They should have two lottery picks in June. It's not time to dwell on mistakes of the past, and it's definitely not time to over-correct those mistakes by gunning for 35 wins with Jerryd Bayless. The Sixers nailed the hard part with Simmons, and now it's time to take one more year at the bottom to get him a supporting cast. You thought The Process was over, but no, the dream's not over until you wake up with Markelle Fultz.