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It’s Time for These NBA Teams to Bottom Out

Tanking is a bitter pill to swallow, but for a few teams unaccustomed to failure, this is the perfect time to take the plunge. Plus: Atlanta’s assimilation to Dwight, Cody Zeller’s screen game, and STAUSKAS!

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

As we go through life, we’re taught about different levels of shame in sports. Being a sore loser is shameful, sure, but being an eager and willing loser is a downright sin. Tanking in the NBA has long been considered one of the most shameful things in all of sports. But sometimes we learn to live with that shame for the greater good. Sam Hinkie was a rebel and a martyr; by taking the concept of tanking to the extreme, he set the foundation for the Sixers, who now have arguably more young talent than any other team in the league. Tanking is the byproduct of an imperfect lottery system, and as long as it’s in place, teams will brave the stink of losing in hopes of striking gold at the end of the season.

This year is a perfect storm for teams thinking about tanking. The NBA’s hierarchy of power is top-heavy, with four or five teams that are in a league of their own. There’s little incentive for bubble teams to push for the playoffs when all that’s waiting is a beatdown from the Warriors, Clippers, Spurs, and Cavaliers. The draft is also top-heavy, with potential stars littered throughout the lottery. This class is loaded with talented lead guards Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr., versatile forwards Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson, and modern-day bigs Harry Giles and Lauri Markkanen. But there isn’t a clearly defined consensus top prospect like Anthony Davis for whom teams will deliberately lose games (though Fultz is making his case).

Having a top pick can allow a team to control the draft (and sometimes the trade market), but no team has gotten a head start in waving the white flag. That’s because there aren’t a lot of really, really bad teams. The Sixers and Suns won’t win many games, but they’re two young teams that are learning how to win. The Mavericks should be better once Dirk Nowitzki is healthy. The Pelicans look rejuvenated by the return of Jrue Holiday. The Nets have no incentive to tank because the Celtics own their pick. The Wizards have about as much chemistry as Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey, but they still have enough talent to win at least 20 games.

The other teams have struggled, but they’re at least competitive. The league’s middle class seems to be a little more crowded than in past seasons. “A team won’t have to tank for 20 wins,” a league executive told me when asked about the tanking climate. “It’s hard to tank a 35-win team down to 20 wins, but this year a team can tank to around 28 wins and still probably end up with a bottom-five record.” The NBA may not have achieved competitive balance, but with the influx of talent even within the league’s lowest tier, the level of nightly competition dictates that any team thinking about tanking won’t have to do it until later in the season. Still, it’s never too early to start for some teams whose hazy futures may depend on having higher lottery odds. Here are a few teams that ought to consider holding their nose and taking the plunge sooner rather than later.

Two New Arrivals to the NBA Tank Division

Having the NBA’s third-worst net rating is new for the Mavericks. They’ve finished with a .500-or-better record for 15 straight seasons, a stretch in which they’ve missed the playoffs and had a negative net rating only once (2012–13). Dallas will try to win games once Dirk Nowitzki returns from his strained right Achilles injury, but it would still make sense for the team to tank. The roster badly needs an infusion of young talent. They have Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews locked up long-term, and a few younger pieces in Justin Anderson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dwight Powell, but that core won’t win them a title or give them a seat at the big kids’ table for top free agents or trade targets. With a top pick, the Mavs would have a shot at either finding their next franchise cornerstone through the draft, or using it as an asset in a blockbuster trade.

It’s not like the Mavericks haven’t thought about tanking before. After Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook went down with injuries to start the 2014 season, Cuban asked, “The question I don’t think anybody has asked is, why don’t they pull a David Robinson and try to get Tim Duncan?” When the Mavericks thought they were signing DeAndre Jordan in 2015, Cuban said they would have tanked had they missed out on him. “We said, ‘OK, this could be our David Robinson year,’” Cuban said, citing how there were few “really, really bad” teams, making it an easier race to the bottom. “We go out and get somebody that we think we can develop as opposed to that impact player. We take our lumps, we have lots of cap room, we do lots of trades to add lots of draft picks because draft picks, because the way the cap is going, are only going to increase in value significantly.”

The kind of season that Cuban outlined has arrived. Maybe the Mavericks should pull their Dirk Nowitzki and look for their Markelle Fultz. One team front-office executive told me that he thinks Dallas will tank only if it finds out Dirk isn’t effective or healthy enough to play every game. If that happens, there would be “plenty” of interest in center Andrew Bogut. Though Bogut turns 33 this season, he’s still an elite rim protector and rebounder who would boost a team’s playoff chances. If the Mavericks were able to acquire valuable assets for a pending free agent in Bogut, and then hit it big in the draft, they would have a nice blend of talent moving forward.

Pat Riley doesn’t share Cuban’s mentality when it comes to tanking, but the Heat should take a similar approach. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be able to see what it takes,” the legendary coach and executive told Bleacher Report last year, alluding to how multiple stars are needed to win titles. “For me, 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.”

The same team executive told me he doesn’t think tanking is in the DNA of Riley or Erik Spoelstra, but “once the Chris Bosh stuff came out,” he wondered if they would consider it. Assuming Bosh doesn’t suddenly return healthy and happy, the Heat’s core consists only of Justise Winslow, Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Richardson. That’s an uninspiring roster to attract top free agents with and it’s lacking assets to even try trading for an available star. South Beach will always be alluring, but it’s not enough. Riley is 71, has historically looked for big splashes, and so it at least seems plausible he would aim for one this summer, too. The tanking route positions them best for a home run summer, whether that means drafting a top prospect or not. Should Miami land a top pick, it wouldn’t necessarily even have to keep it. With a stacked draft class, the pick would be one of the most valuable available trade assets in the league. If a star becomes available in a trade, Miami could go all-in with its assets, then use cap space in free agency to attempt to lure more impactful players.

Two Teams That Should Tank but Probably Won’t

The Kings have the fifth-worst net rating in the league and have lost eight of their past 11 games; Sacramento’s annual implosion has already started. Kings head coach Dave Joerger said after Friday’s loss to the Clippers that he’s “seen enough” and they’re going to play small. “It gives us more zip, more life, more experience,” he said. This is a long overdue change: Sacramento has a plus-four net rating dating back to last season with DeMarcus Cousins at center in small-ball lineups, per NBA Wowy. Looking at this season alone, that number has skyrocketed to plus-34.6 in a small sample size. If they’re going to play Boogie at power forward, it should be with one of their young centers that has upside, not a low-ceiling retread like Kosta Koufos.

Maybe this lineup alteration will help (they had a controversial victory against the Raptors on Sunday), but the Kings still lack pure talent. If they did happen to make the playoffs, they would only earn the right to get pulverized. It would be another year without a top pick, another wasted year hopelessly floating in the dreaded middle, another missed opportunity at finding a star with a top draft pick, and another year closer to Boogie hitting free agency in 2018. When will the Kings look at themselves in the mirror, see what everyone else sees, and realize they could always trade Boogie and fully commit to a youth movement?

Maybe they’re starting to. Shaquille O’Neal, a Kings minority owner, said on TNT’s Inside the NBA that Cousins is a “hothead” and could be dealt. Sporting News’ Sean Deveney has heard the same. “It is not going to happen unless the Kings cave a little,” a Western Conference general manager told Deveney. Another GM added, “You have one owner in Sacramento who does not want to give him up and you have 29 other owners who don’t want to overpay because they are scared the guy is going to be a headache and is going to hurt the organization.” Shaq’s comments about how Cousins needs to stop “belittling people on the court” and “cussing out teammates in the locker room” fall in line with what I’ve heard from multiple people with knowledge of Boogie’s behind-the-scenes behavior who have described Cousins as “a team killer.” They acknowledge that it’s possible he changes his ways in a winning situation, but there’s a real fear that he doesn’t since little has changed under six different head coaches in seven seasons.

No team wants to trade a star, but rebuilding is the best course of action if the Kings are able to acquire at least one top draft pick and other young players for Boogie. They could reload through a strong draft and enter the 2017 season with moldable young roster instead of entering the year with Boogie’s looming free agency.

The Bucks weren’t unlike the Kings too long ago, but now they’re one of the rising teams in the NBA because they weren’t too proud to bottom out. Milwaukee struck gold by adding Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in 2013, but couldn’t have solidified its core with Jabari Parker without finishing with the worst record in the NBA in the 2013-14 season. The team has its building blocks, but the Bucks are still one elite player short of becoming an actual contender. Unfortunately, they don’t have the cap space or assets to add one through free agency or the trade market unless they surrendered a core player. Thus, the six-month recovery time on Middleton’s hamstring injury creates a unique opportunity in which Milwaukee could shut him down and tank to obtain mid-to-high lottery odds. This is their last chance to do so, since they won’t be in a position to think about it when Middleton is back next season. “Otherwise they risk what Cleveland went through early in LeBron’s career,” a team executive told me. “LeBron became a star too fast and they never had high enough picks to find other stars to pair with him.”

The Cleveland comparison is an interesting one. Imagine if instead of drafting Luke Jackson 10th in 2004, the Cavaliers ended up with Luol Deng, or even Dwight Howard by virtue of having a higher pick. In an alternative reality, maybe LeBron never leaves Cleveland if the Cavs didn’t contend for the playoffs so quickly. Antetokounmpo isn’t on LeBron’s level at the same age, but Milwaukee arguably has more overall talent than those young Cleveland teams did, and the Bucks could add another potential star on a rookie contract if they finish off this season aiming for 28 wins instead of 35.

Tanking feels dirty. It tastes sour. No one likes to lose. But when a team does it right, it sets itself up for years of sustainable success. For teams on the borderline, there’s no better time than the present to consider it. There should be no shame in going down that path if it’s in the name of winning.

Seven Segments or Less

A quick survey of the trends, tricks, and trivialities that color the NBA.

Evan Turner’s Success in Portland Is Up to Evan Turner

The Blazers are at their best when Evan Turner is off the floor — they outscore opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions — and they’re at their worst when he’s on — they get outscored by 16.7 points per 100 possessions. For four years, $70 million, the Blazers were hoping for a bigger return on investment than Turner’s line of 7.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. “What can you possibly do?” Turner recently said. “We have the best guards in the league, but I mean, what can I possibly do besides be accountable to defense, take care of the ball, rebound, and play the floor? Where I just came from, I had the ball in my hands tons of times to make plays.”

There is no mystery here. Turner needs the ball in his hands to be effective offensively and, despite the contract, he’s not good enough have it more than Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Turner is receiving roughly 12 fewer touches per 100 possessions with the Blazers than he did in his two years with the Celtics, so he’s spending significantly more time off the ball where he’s a complete nonfactor.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has preached patience for good reason: Portland signed Turner to be its Andre Iguodala. Like Iguodala, Turner is a creative playmaker who thrives against mismatches, rebounds at a high level, and defends multiple positions. The difference between the two is Iguodala developed into a solid 3-point shooter who can at least threaten defenses (34.7 percent with Golden State) and Turner hasn’t improved a lick (a career 30.3 percent from 3).

Turner’s effectiveness as a shooter will be the deciding factor between his success or failure with the Blazers. That probably won’t happen anytime soon because shooting improvements come in the offseason, so while there’s absolutely no reason to label his four-year contract a bust, it’s possible Year 1 will continue to fall short of expectations.

Nik Stauskas Is Showing Signs of Life

Sauce Castillo is starting to resemble a real NBA player after two crappy seasons that included the Kings shipping him away just to clear cap space. So far this season Nik Stauskas is looking like the player the Kings thought they drafted, averaging 10.2 points per game with a 45.7 3-point percentage and a 67.6 effective field goal percentage. Usually breakout performers on bad teams take advantage of a high volume of opportunity, but Stauskas receives the fifth-most minutes and is the second to last in usage rate on the team, so he’s playing with a steady dose of shots.

If you watched Stauskas as a freshman at Michigan (or even just looked at him) you would think he could maybe have a pro basketball career in Europe. But then as a sophomore, he burst out of the gates playing like a lottery pick. The Kings fell in love, took him with the eighth pick in 2014, and thus far he’s struggled. Maybe his recent play is just a hot streak; and, sure, he’s still not a plus defender, but there’s a chance he just needed time to adjust to the NBA like he did in college. Maybe it’s actually all starting to click, so let’s give it a chance.

ATO of the Week: The Love Lob to LeBron

This game-sealing lob from Kevin Love to LeBron James is gorgeous, with James and Kyrie Irving perfectly timing their action and Love throwing a catchable ball for James.

What’s so impressive is the amount of installed secondary options within the play. If the Raptors double LeBron, Irving is open for 3. If LeBron can’t lay the ball up, Channing Frye is open for a 3. Oh, of course if Love can’t even try the lob, there’s always resetting the offense and letting Irving or James go to work. The Cavs have options for days; yeesh, they’re looking better than ever.

The boys at FastModel Sports said this action is called “Iverson,” named after a play call run by Larry Brown’s Sixers for Allen Iverson. Maybe something good actually came out of Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals.

The Hawks Are Successfully Adapting to Howard

Atlanta’s signing of Dwight Howard was met with skepticism due to his unorthodox fit in a system that emphasizes ball movement, switching on defense, and getting back in transition over crashing the offensive boards. But the Hawks have tweaked their style to highlight Howard’s strengths, at least when he’s on the floor. Atlanta ranked last in offensive rebounding rate over the past two seasons; this year the Hawks are ninth, but that doesn’t paint a full picture. When Howard is off the floor, their rate (19.4 percent) is about what it was last year (19.1); it’s only when Howard is playing that they actually attack the glass with a 30.1 offensive rebounding percentage, which would rank second in the NBA. The Hawks are playing two contrasting styles depending on the lineup on the floor, which gives them more diversity and unpredictability than they’ve had in recent years. They have run into a wall in the postseason in recent years, and now they’re at least trying something new to break through.

So far it’s worked. The Hawks have been dominant with Howard on the floor, and as a team they rank first in defensive rating. As a byproduct of crashing the offensive boards, they’re allowing more transition scoring chances than they have in past seasons, but it hasn’t mattered. As Howard develops pick-and-roll scoring with Dennis Schröder, the Hawks may become an even more potent team.

Greg Oden Is a Tragedy, Not a Bust

You can understand why Greg Oden feels like he’ll “be remembered as the biggest bust in NBA history.” After drawing comparisons to Bill Russell, he went on to play only 114 pro games. He fell short of expectations, but Oden is being unfair to himself. He never had the chance to show what he could become because of multiple serious knee and leg injuries, and countless setbacks during his rehabs.

Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, and Andrea Bargnani are true no. 1 pick busts — they received countless chances and failed over and over again. When Oden was healthy, there were glimpses he was a force protecting the rim and rolling down the lane with his huge 7-foot frame. The Russell comparisons really weren’t that hyperbolic. His legs let him down. The league is experiencing a big-man boom and it’s a shame Oden isn’t part of it.

Welcome to the (Zeller Screening) Machine

Kemba Walker wouldn’t be where he is today without Cody Zeller. The Hornets center is a brick wall, creating an astounding 4.7 screen assists per game, which come when an offensive player sets a screen for a teammate that leads directly to a made field goal.

Here, Zeller gives Walker ample space to either shoot over the top or zip his way to the rim. I asked three scouts if they would call that a legal screen. One said yes, one said no, and the other said, “I wish I could tell you what a legal screen even is.” Zeller might bend the rules with his screening, but he does it so precisely, so cleanly, and so quickly, that it’s hard for referees to blow the whistle when he seals off defenders.