The Great Tank-Off: Who Will Win the NBA's Race to the Bottom?

This year's stretch run will likely feature the most blatant tank jobs we've ever seen. Which NBA teams are best positioned to hit rock bottom?
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The first rule of tanking is, apparently, that you don’t talk about tanking. Last week, Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 by the league for commenting publicly on tanking in a podcast appearance with Julius Erving (you can’t make that up). In it, he admitted to telling players that losing was what the Mavericks needed for the long run. It’s the truth, but it’s not a convenient one, or one that assists competitive balance.

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren't competing for the playoffs. I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option.’ Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them,” Cuban said. (He probably wasn’t supposed to say it, and Silver hated hearing it.)

“And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we're not going to tank again,” he continued. “This was, like, a year-and-a-half of tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that's the key to being kind of a players’ owner and having stability.”

Tanking is a popular topic, and this is a nice bit of proof that while players are never trying to lose, there are occasionally forces out of their control, such as owners with ideas. Fining Cuban was probably the right move from the league. His philosophy is still sensible given the NBA’s climate. The lottery odds will smooth out next year, adding to the randomness and flattening out the pie to de-incentivize all-out losing. And with a nice group of talented prospects expected to line the top of the lottery, it’s a good year to own a high selection.

As has been the case for much of this season, there are eight franchises still tightly packed at the bottom of the table. About a quarter of the season remains, and there are a billion ways this could turn. Nobody has separated from the pack when it comes to losing. It could come down to tiebreakers and the final days of the season to sort it out—and then, of course, there’s a lottery.

Let’s meet the (non) contenders:


Work to do: Knicks (24–37), Lakers (25–34), Hornets (27–33)

The Knicks are an impressively awful 1–9 in February and have lost Kristaps Porzingis, making them an intriguing dark horse to lose their way into the top of the lottery, but there’s a lot that has to break their way in order to make up ground. That said, they’re in full experimentation mode with Emmanuel Mudiay starting at the point, and haven’t beaten a single plus-.500 opponent since December.

As for the Lakers, they don’t really count anyway because their pick is spoken for. If you’re an average fan, you’d probably prefer that it doesn’t convey to the Celtics, which will happen if the pick slots 2–5. It goes to the Sixers otherwise. And the Hornets are a tricky case: a prolonged hot streak could sneak them close to eight-seed territory and an especially soft March schedule is on tap. But with the state of the front office in flux, it’s hard to know what their immediate priorities are.

Let’s do the rest of these alphabetically by team nickname:

Chicago Bulls (20–39)

Games remaining: 23 | Home/Road: 11/12 | Back-to-backs: 4

The Bulls’ long-term outlook has certainly improved this season, with Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn establishing themselves as pieces and Zach LaVine successfully returning from his knee injury. That doesn’t mean they can’t get greedy. John Paxson said recently the Bulls will start evaluating their players and rotating in other guys, which is easy code for “we know we don’t need to win games right now.” A 2–11 mark since Jan. 22 has helped erase Chicago’s absurdly hot December. The Bulls have one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules. In lottery-relevant action, they have to face the Hawks, Mavericks, Magic, Grizzlies twice and Nets three more times. If it breaks correctly, finding a talented center to pair with Markkanen up front for the foreseeable future could be well worth it.

Memphis Grizzlies (18–40)

Games remaining: 24 | Home/Road: 10/14 | Back-to-backs: 4

It’s been a lost year for Memphis, who are on a nine-game losing streak and have looked downright awful lately. That said, they’re starting Andrew Harrison, Dillon Brooks, Jarell Martin, JaMychal Green and Deyonta Davis right now — props for experimentation. They are careening hard toward elite lottery odds. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley will be back next season, and there’s potential for a rebound if they can find an impactful player in the lottery. To some extent, you respect the Grizz for not blowing everything up, but they’re also going to keep floating in the middle barring a massive stroke of fortune. The draft is full of bigs, and they already have Gasol—at least for now.

Atlanta Hawks (18–42)

Games remaining: 22 | Home/Road: 11/11 | Back-to-backs: 2

You could argue that no team needs the No. 1 pick as badly as the Hawks, who only have John Collins to their name when it comes to truly desirable long-term parts. They’ve snuck out wins here and there over the last few weeks, but actually have a tough final leg of the season that gives them a definite boost in the odds race. They’ll get the Warriors (twice), Rockets, Raptors, Thunder and Celtics, and have just a handful of games remaining against current non-playoff teams. Atlanta also has a six-game road trip left in mid-March that starts in Milwaukee, includes Sacramento and Golden State back to back, and reverses course through Houston and Minnesota. If there were a betting favorite …

Sacramento Kings (18–41)

Games remaining: 23 | Home/Road: 14/9 | Back-to-backs: 5

It’s not actually clear if the Kings have been trying to tank, but they’re bad enough that it’s moot. As De’Aaron Fox gets his NBA education, Sacramento has kept pace at the bottom of the standings, and hitting on another young talent in this draft is pretty pivotal to accelerate their turnaround. Sacramento has a home-heavy schedule to finish the season, including cushy five and six-game stands. It’s possible they’re not quite inept enough to come in last. The Kings also have a four-game road swing at the end of the season that includes the Suns and Grizzlies, which could well end up swinging odds for everyone.

Orlando Magic (18–41)

Games remaining: 23 | Home/Road: 13/10 | Back-to-backs: 5

The terrible travel gods are working in the Magic’s favor right now, for what it’s worth. Orlando followed up a random three-game win streak with five straight losses, and have a difficult stretch coming up, with six games in nine days as they head out west for the final time. They also play five times in seven days in April. While there’s a definite hole at point guard after moving Elfrid Payton it should be a best-available situation wherever they end up drafting. 

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Dallas Mavericks (18–42)

Games remaining: 22 | Home/Road: 11/11 | Back-to-backs: 4

Fines aside, Mark Cuban directly addressing the matter of the tank makes Dallas a little more interesting to monitor. They have games remaining against every basement-dweller save for Atlanta, and are basically in a place where they can throw Dennis Smith out there, pay homage to Dirk and pack it in. So, more or less, the Mavs have some added control over their fate. Any of the big men at the top of this draft could fit in nicely.

Brooklyn Nets (19–41)

Games remaining: 22 | Home/Road: 9/13 | Back-to-backs: 3

This really sucks for the Nets, who will convey yet another first-round pick in the extended fallout of Danny Ainge’s great heist. Just in case you were hiding out somewhere with no access to information during the trade deadline, this one will go to the Cavs. It’s a bit of an ace up Cleveland’s sleeve, as they can keep the pick to rebuild if LeBron leaves or move it for help should he re-commit to the team. Brooklyn’s schedule skews road-heavy and includes three pivotal dates with Chicago (and two against Cleveland).

Phoenix Suns (18–43)

Games remaining: 21 | Home/Road: 9/12 | Back-to-backs: 1

The Suns own the league’s worst defense, have a massive need at center, lead the league in losses by a hair and are hurtling toward a top pick at a convenient time. They could end up with three first-round selections inside the Top 20 depending on where the Heat finish and if the Bucks’ pick conveys (Phoenix gets it between 11 and 16). They get Memphis, Atlanta, Orlando, Sacramento and Dallas (in the last game of the season) as bottom-feeder opponents. This is lining up nicely.