Ten Questions: Let's Talk About Tanking...
- Which NBA teams should tank? Who should they tank for? Who are this season's stealth tankers? We examine the futures of the NBA's cellar dwellers.
Every Friday, two of The Crossover's writers will exchange e-mails and questions about a different NBA topic. Last time, they talked Clippers. This week, Andrew Sharp and Rohan Nadkarni take a look at tanking. Who should tank? What are the risks? Who are the players worth tanking for this year? Let's discuss.
1. Rohan, you are a Miami Heat fan. The Heat are currently 6-11, and Justise Winslow hasn't played in two weeks. Tell me how you feel about the current tankeriffic direction of this season in South Beach. Does it matter that the last time the Heat pulled off a masterful tank job, it ended with the Michael Beasley era? Would you trade Goran Dragic right now?
Rohan: I am a Miami Heat fan, as the good people at Mitchell and Ness can definitely vouch for after Cyber Monday. I’m glad the Heat are tanking. Frankly, they need to. The franchise is in serious need of a rebuild post-Big Three, and they have some young pieces who are intriguing at the least. Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Lottery Pick TBD and Hassan Whiteside are at the very least assets who could be dealt for a star.
The Beasley thing matters in the sense that, you can bet Pat Riley remembers that experience vividly. Is Riles going to want to build around a lottery guy? I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d rather trade the pick come draft day instead of waiting for someone to mature. The lottery is just such a crapshoot. But I’d love to see the Heat with a true young core for practically the first time this millennium.
I don’t want the Heat to trade Goran, and I think some people really fail to take into account how valuable his contract is. What’s the point of bringing back Rudy Gay? What can you do with the Dragic cap space in this crazy market? But I do think trading him for a pick or something that can be packaged as part of a bigger deal in the future would be a smarter move in the long run.
2. Andy, my man, which team do you think needs to think about tanking that currently isn't? Wouldn't the Bucks, Pacers or (gasp!) Blazers look a little better with one more lottery pick?
Sharp: Tanking is one of my favorite NBA topics, and this is a good question, because it allows me to pontificate about tanking in the abstract. My general theory with tanking is that the better your team is, the more valuable tanking becomes. If you've got a superstar already, or even a potential superstar, tanking for one more star is the easiest way to solidify the future. Conversely, among chaotic organizations with a bunch of mismatched pieces, tanking is usually an empty solution. Organizational dysfunction can handicap the development of even the best players, and only the greatest players can transcend everything (even at the top, most draft picks are Andrew Wiggins, not Karl-Anthony Towns). Anyway, it's the teams with a real foundation in place that can make the most of a well-executed tank.
Given those parameters... The Bucks should think about it, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is probably too good to let them lose a meaningful amount of games. The Blazers can't tank with Damian Lillard for the same reasons, and I'll come back to Paul George and the Pacers later on. The Grizzlies would be perfect, though. Conley's hurt, they will have a lot of trouble staying in the playoff hunt. If they could land a top pick, they'd have Conley and Gasol around to ease any 19 year-old superstar's transition. The problem is that they owe their first-round pick to the Nuggets unless it lands in the top five. Tanking would be a pretty serious risk, and it's hard to imagine they go that route unless Gasol gets hurt and forces their hand. And of course there are the obvious candidates who don't really have a choice—the Suns, Kings, Sixers, Mavs. The Pelicans and Wolves may not have a choice as the season unfolds, so they'll be in the mix as well.
The other two teams that should think hard about bottoming out are the Knicks and Wizards, but both will be reluctant for different reasons. For the Wiz, the management in D.C. has pretty dicey job security, so 50-60 losses is probably untenable. In New York, there's an allergy to patient rebuilding that's as endemic to Knicksdom as Frank Isola tweets and truck parties. Still, instead of chasing the eighth seed, give Wall and Beal one more piece up front (via draft or trade), and give Porzingis an elite young point guard to pair with an aging Carmelo for the next five or six years. It would make both teams a lot more interesting.
3. Keeping it in the Sunshine state, I can't decide whether the Magic are a tanking cautionary tale, or the NBA's most convincing case for tanking. They've been bad-but-not-quite-horrible for years now, and no amount of picks in the middle of the lottery has changed that. What do you think their move is now?
Rohan: Orlando made a bit of a panic move trading Victor Oladipo in the off-season, and I was also surprised they kept Elfrid Payton over Dipo. They needed one more year with their young guys together to really figure out what’s going on. We needed way more time with Aaron Gordon at power forward than the Magic’s current situation allows.
I’m not sure what their move is now. Serge Ibaka probably gets a max deal otherwise they traded Dipo for nothing. I think packaging Nikola Vucevic and one or two of their young guys for a psuedo-star could be their best bet at improving. Orlando actually did a decent jobs of collecting tradable players, the Ibaka move just handicaps where they can go from here. But maybe Orlando could become a diet, zero-calorie, disease-inducing, fake-sugar version of the late-aughts Hawks if they bring in the right veteran or two. Frank Vogel is a very good coach, and we need to do a better job of appreciating teams whose ceiling is “perennial playoff participant.”
4. Who is the player in the draft most worth tanking for? Where does Lonzo Ball rank on the all-time basketball name list?
Sharp: So, I put together some Cliffs Notes on this year's best freshmen over here, but let me go a different direction. Because as good as this draft is, I think the most tankworthy player of all is in next year's draft. Michael Porter, Jr. is a 6'10" small forward who has the potential to be just as unfair as all the scariest two-way wings in the NBA. Obviously all of this is wildly premature, but as a franchise player, that type of player is probably a more valuable cornerstone than an incredible guard like Markelle Fultz.
So who should tank for Porter? Here's my five-step dream for Larry Bird and the Pacers:
1. The Pacers finish as the seventh seed this year, and lose in the first round. Everyone is disappointed.
2. With a year left on Paul George's deal, Bird pulls the trigger and trades him for a disgusting amount of first-round picks from the Celtics.
3. In 2017-2018, with multiple rookies and Myles Turner, they lose 60 games, and everyone blames Paul George.
4. In June 2018, they draft Michael Porter Jr. and another star (with 2018 Nets pick) to play with Turner and their 2017 lottery picks.
5. In 2022, Pacers win the title. Indiana secedes from the union and Larry Bird is made King.
I realize this doesn't answer the question, but psychotic hypotheticals like this are why tanking is so much fun to think about. As for next year, it seems like there is more depth than franchise-changing talent. For one thing, including Lonzo Ball—fresh off the TMZ Baron Davis endorsement!—there are at least five potentially elite point guards. But that leads me to the next question:
5. Do you think a superstar point guard is worth tanking for?
Rohan: Look, I’m fine with you taking questions in the direction you choose, but dodging where Ball ranks on the name list was very weak. Lonzo Ball is what every 2K create-a-player name should strive to be. That’s what I expected to see from you. Anyway, I don’t think a superstar point guard is worth tanking for.
The position is just too loaded. Unless this guard’s shooting is superhuman like Steph’s, it’s too hard to win a title with a point guard as your best player. Remember when Derrick Rose won MVP but LeBron shut him down in the fourth quarter of every game in the East Finals? When forwards start locking down guards in playoff series, their values diminish greatly. Is Kyrie a superstar? Perhaps, but remember how bad his teams were pre-LeBron.
There are more ways for players to dominate the game at other positions, and less competition than what you see at point guard night in and night out. Basically, if you aren’t 6’10”, knocking down threes and playing flawless defense, why are you even in the NBA in 2016?
6. How do you feel about the lottery? Would you change the system to the wheel? Or are you cool with how this all currently works?
Sharp: I think the lottery is fantastic. When people were proposing stuff like the wheel, there was this creeping paranoia that Sam Hinkie was going to ruin the NBA by turning half the league into extreme tankers. It never made much sense. First of all, even if you're blowing up several years at a time, a few years of extreme losing is still incredibly risky, and eventually hurts the players you're drafting. Just look at the Sixers and Kings and Magic. Second, the more teams are tanking, the less viable it becomes for any of them. The odds themselves are the best defense against tanking.
Then there's actual lottery night, an insane charade that can reshape the landscape of the ensuing decade. It's all as dumb and addictive as the NBA itself.
Most importantly, I think teams that do tank make the league more interesting and entertaining for everyone. The concern about local fans has always been overblown. Nobody who watches the Sixers only watches the Sixers, you know? Basketball fans are generally fans of the whole league, and if their specific team is strategically awful, they can still enjoy 29 other good teams, while laughing through home games and waiting for lottery night. Meanwhile, the rest of the league can gawk at the tankers and make jokes of their own. Everyone wins. And speaking of the Sixers ...
7. I've been pretty skeptical of The Process in the past, and still feel like there hasn't been enough thoughtful criticism of how the whole thing was actually executed. It should probably be illegal to debate the Sixers on the internet at this point, but it'd be blasphemous to have an entire conversation about tanking without bringing up the Gods of this life. What do you think of what happened in Philly, and what may happen going forward?
Rohan: Okay, so here’s my Philly take. Tanking in a vacuum makes sense. It’s what I do every year in 2K. I love simulating through seasons with pitiful rosters until my team is absolutely stacked with young talent through the draft. The problem is, real life is not a vacuum, and there are so many other factors that seriously need to be considered.
The NBA is so largely relationship driven. (See: LeBron and Durant free agency decisions.) How well did Sam Hinkie build relationships with agents? Players? That stuff just matters. The optics of Philly rolling out a team so blatantly designed to lose had to turn off a bunch of players around the league. It’s not a video game. I refuse to believe management wanting you to lose night in-night out doesn’t have some kind of residual effect on the team. There was also an element of, how long will Hinkie do this? When would the losing have stopped? What if he used “The Process” to cover up his picks not panning out?
Having said all of this, Hinkie really has a chance to be validated. Joel Embiid looks great, and even if he’s the only Hinkie pick who turns into a superstar, you can argue he will have been worth all the tanking. Honestly, I’m not sold on Ben Simmons or any of the 76ers other pieces. So it may all come down to Embiid, but if he’s legit, this team is far less depressing than they’ve been for years.
8. Which team do you see as the most shameless tanker through the second half of the year?
Sharp: Dallas! The Mavs don't have a choice, really, so who can say whether this qualifies as tanking in the classic sense. But yeah, we are not far off from the Mavs giving Rick Carlisle a powerful six month sedative and letting Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry put up 30 shots a night. Trade Andrew Bogut, sit Dirk Nowitzki, and do this right. Then Dirk can come back healthy for one more year and pass the torch to the future of the franchise.
9. What's your favorite tanking legend passed down through the years? The Celtics in 2007, missing on KD, then turning the 5th pick into Ray Allen and paving the way for a title and this SportsCenter Commercial? The Spurs sitting David Robinson to land Tim Duncan? The Thunder? The Wolves? Byron Scott as Captain Accountability, unwittingly leading a wildly successful two-year tanking effort in LA?
Rohan: I mean, doesn’t the best tanking legend have to be the Cavaliers, who tanked their way ass-backwards into Kyrie, Tristan and LeBron? (Not to mention turning Dion Waiters into J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.) Cleveland tanked and ended up having two young stars to complement the best player on the planet. The Spurs and Duncan is great, if only because it was fairly obvious, and impossible to imagine Popovich doing something like that today.
I do love the Thunder as a tanking legend, because they are HUGE beneficiaries of draft rankings. The Thunder got Durant after Greg Oden, and selected Russell Westbrook after Beasley and O.J. Mayo. If the Thunder had higher picks in those drafts, then Oklahoma City has probably never seen a playoff series. That’s wild!
Also, the best draft story of all time is the Grizzlies losing out on picking No. 2 in the 2003 draft because of a Lorenzen Wright trade. Memphis traded a pick that was only No. 1 protected. That had to be the most tense lottery moment ever. The Grizzlies were either getting LeBron James or nothing. Instead of adding D-Wade, Memphis added Troy Bell. The Wizards got a steal in Jarvis Hayes, though.
10. What do you imagine will be more valuable next summer—an actual player from the 2017 draft or using a lottery pick as trade bait?
Sharp: Great question. Follow-up questions: Is there any chance Russ is available after an OKC flameout? Paul George? DeMarcus Cousins? Just how good does Markelle Fultz look once he starts playing in the Pac-12? Will we have a better idea of whether Josh Jackson can shoot? Is Harry Giles healthy? And what team are we talking about for this question—the Heat, the Sixers, the Grizz?
There are too many variables for any team to have a real answer here. But that's why tanking is such an indispensable part of the NBA experience. When nothing is certain—Jarvis Hayes, Troy Bell, LeBron James—anything is possible.