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Oh, the Places You’ll Go to Tank NBA Games

More teams than ever are playing to lose. The results have been … inspiring.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Tanking is a hallucinogen. Former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie confirmed as much in 2016. “Why do we watch basketball games front to back?” Hinkie asked in a Sports Illustrated article published at the start of the 2016-17 season. “Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?” A question like that would not be posed if a mind hadn’t been expanded by some foreign property. In effect, that is what tanking is: a helluva drug.

Tanking—the means of willfully placing a competitor in a situation that increases the chance of losing—is a game within the game that, when a fan base buys in, denatures the fabric of basketball itself. Yes, tanking is symptomatic of much broader issues with the pay and incentive structures that prop up the league up on a shoddy foundation, issues that are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. Tanking, taken at face value, is also extremely groovy.

When a team tanks, results matter in a way they weren’t designed to; things that are supposed to be objective (like a notch in the win column) become subjective. Tanking creates a dimension that the game didn’t necessarily need, but to which some have come to adapt and understand on its terms, like a double-sided grid for Connect 4. If the quest to win a Larry O’Brien Trophy is the NBA’s magnetic north, the race to the bottom of the standings for the best chance at a no. 1 draft selection is its magnetic south.

There is usually a moment of acceptance after the All-Star break that happens to most of the league’s worst teams, when a team agrees to give up the ghost and reincarnate as a hollowed-out version of itself, all for a chance at a franchise-altering selection come June. There are currently eight teams within four games of the worst record in the NBA, an unprecedented amount of competition for pole position in the draft. The journeys that teams take after that realization is my favorite part of any NBA season. But the stakes are different this time around. It’s not just that the 2018 draft class contains several futuristic archetypes who may determine the landscape of the league moving forward, it’s that the league itself has legislatively curtailed the significance of tanking starting next season. This is the final year for the current iteration of lottery odds, which will flatten starting next season to give the three worst teams an equal shot at obtaining the top pick.

As a reminder, here is how the new odds break down starting in the 2018-19 season. The numbers in parentheses denote odds prior to the rule change:

So, yes, from one perspective, teams are quite thirsty for the potentially generational talents of Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton. From another, the historic tanking of 2018 plays out like a memorial. Losing will never mean as much in the future as it will this season. But it’s not time to mourn yet—there is still more than a month of regular-season basketball to be lost. Let’s praise the tank while we still can.

This Season’s Race Is Truly Historic

This celebration would not be complete without a historical dive from The Ringer’s favorite statistician, Zach Kram, who looked all the way back to 1996-97 (when the Spurs and Celtics notably tanked for the services of Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan) to find the most crowded and contentious tanking war of the past two decades.

Spoiler alert: It’s this season’s, and it’s not even close.

The worst and seventh-worst teams are currently separated by only two losses. According to FiveThirtyEight projections, only four wins will separate the 2017-18 team that finishes with the worst record in the NBA and the team that finishes with the seventh-worst record. Since 1996-97, a four-win gap would be smaller than the difference between the worst team and fourth-worst team every season, let alone seventh-worst.

Wins Separating the Worst and Seventh-Worst Teams in the NBA, Since 1997

Year Wins Separating 1 and 7
Year Wins Separating 1 and 7
2018 (projected) 4
2002 9
2013 9
2007 10
1999 11
2008 11
2017 11
1997 12
2004 12
2006 12
2009 12
2003 13
2011 13
2014 13
2015 14
2001 15
2010 15
1998 16
2000 16
2012 16
2005 20
2016 22

Who He Play For?

One of the best things about tanking season is getting acquainted with athletes at the fringes of the NBA universe. Basketball, like all sports, creates limiting factors for its participants by virtue of its rules and parameters. Tanking teams commonly pile on the handicaps by disrupting team chemistry through trading players away or adding players on 10-day contracts fighting for their NBA lives. Here are some names that have been signed over the past two months:

New Platoons in the Tank

Player Team
Player Team
Myke Henry Memphis Grizzlies
Xavier Rathan-Mayes Memphis Grizzlies
Shaquille Harrison Phoenix Suns
Jaylen Morris Atlanta Hawks
Antonius Cleveland Atlanta Hawks
Jarell Eddie Chicago Bulls
Scotty Hopson Dallas Mavericks
Kyle Collinsworth Dallas Mavericks

Here’s something interesting about each of these players!

  • Henry was a part of Team USA’s first FIBA three-on-three World Championship medal (silver) in 2016.
  • Rathan-Mayes is Andrew Wiggins’s best friend, and he scored 30 points in under five minutes one game as a freshman at Florida State.
  • Harrison’s younger brother, Monte, is an outfielder in the Miami Marlins system. Oh, and despite his name, Shaq’s favorite player is Kobe.
  • Morris played ball at Molloy College, a Division II school. D-II players make up less than 1 percent of the league at large, but on the Atlanta Hawks, they make up 12.5 percent of the team’s active roster.
  • Cleveland was Isaiah Thomas’s height as a high school junior, and rocketed up 10 inches over the following two years. He’s 6-foot-6 now.
  • Hopson has scored exactly two points in his NBA career: one with the Cavs in 2013-14, i.e., the year before LeBron returned; another this season with the Mavericks.
  • Eddie is a vegan, does yoga, and seems to be great with kids. Future Silver Lake dad, for sure.
  • Collinsworth’s Twitter handle is @bigrussia5 (he spent two years on a mission in Russia, which doesn’t seem like an adequate amount of time to dub yourself “Big [Country],” but it’s not my life). His tweets make him sound like the team’s nutritional adviser, not a player who just signed a three-year deal. (And yes, I cheated, Collinsworth has been with the team since December, but signed the long-term contract in February. Also, aren’t you glad you know a sliver about his life now?)

The Measure of an Analyst

As obvious as it sounds, team announcers take the job to talk about basketball. But what happens when the basketball is bad? What happens when that bad lasts for an entire season? What happens when the stench of losing is inescapable, and there is no minor lesson to be taught? It’s the litmus test I have for all NBA broadcasts: What do you do when you metaphorically don’t know what to do with your hands? Sixers play-by-play announcer Marc Zumoff is my favorite in the league, and he largely won me over with his performance during the darkest days in Sixers history. More often than not, he hit the perfect blend of patience, annoyance, optimism, and humor.

But like an episode of Saturday Night Live, it can be a great relief to see your spirit guides crack. In a recent Bulls broadcast for a Tankathon-sanctioned bout against the Mavericks, Stacey King talked about the prospects of his broadcast partner, Neil Funke, teaching at a hot yoga studio; Funke fired back: Joke’s on Stacey, because he already hosts a spin class.

One of my favorite irrelevant segments in recent weeks was Dominique Wilkins on the Hawks broadcast, doing his best David Attenborough impression, taking full advantage of the NBA’s slo-mo technology to analyze Elfrid Payton’s hair. LOOK AT HOW HIGH HIS FRONT FLAP RISES!

Other teams don’t take losing quite as well. The Memphis Grizzlies, for at least another month, have the third-longest streak of postseason appearances in the NBA. It’s jarring to see the team, in an instant, become one of the absolute worst. During an embarrassingly close game between the Grizzlies and Spurs (which says a lot about the dismal state of both teams), Pete Pranica could barely keep his disgust with the team in check:

“It is as simple as this,” he said. “A team that has been tested by fire against a team that is trying to find its way with young players and a point guard right now who just signed a 10-day [contract] earlier today and another point guard who’s an undrafted rookie.”

Immediately after Pranica so succinctly expressed the state of the Grizzlies, rookie Dillon Brooks threw an errant inbounds pass from the sideline, which was stolen by Danny Green.

Cristiano Felicio, Human Tank

Felicio—every bit of the 6-foot-9, 280 pounds he’s listed at—seems to have been built in the mold of Cleatus, the dancing animated robot on Fox’s NFL Sunday broadcasts. He sets bone-breaking screens seemingly by accident. He has a soft touch on his midrange jumper, which might be his best weapon on offense. And with all due respect to Emmanuel Mudiay, who is killing the Knicks, Felicio is, by the numbers, the most valuable tanker in the league this season. Gaze upon his work:

The Felicio Effect

Player/Team Minutes Net Rating
Player/Team Minutes Net Rating
Chicago Bulls (Full Season) 3,059 -6.9
Felicio OFF Court 2,518 -3.2
Felicio ON Court 541 -24.8
Felicio STARTER (Five Games) 123 -38.7

Felicio was given a four-year, $32 million contract last summer (yes, he got $8 million a year after the NBA’s Pyrite Rush of 2016), and I was a fan of the gamble at the time; he is a unique physical specimen, and I am fascinated by his play. But then he spent much of the first half playing exclusively in garbage time.

The second-half Bulls are trying to figure out what they have in Felicio, which is a strange thing to say about someone you just threw a lot of money at (and also transparent code for tanking). But if it culminates in drafting Jaren Jackson Jr., I’d say it’s worth it.

The First Rule of Tank Club

Part of the head coach’s job is to keep up appearances, so Felicio was relegated back to the bench after his five-game trial run and Bobby Portis was promoted. But the damage had been done: Not only did the Bulls finish 1-4 in those games, but they were subsequently issued a warning by the league for resting healthy players (Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday) during that stretch. Tanking, despite its name, is a game of finesse. Proceed too heavy-handedly and there will be (arbitrary) repercussions. Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for essentially saying tanking is our only hope. As is unfortunately often the case for billion-dollar enterprises, actions are rarely as important as optics.

The Nets’ Nightmare Continues

I’ve been an on-again, off-again Nets pain correspondent for three years now, and I’m running out of ways to describe their unique brand of self-inflicted existentialism. Brooklyn has controlled its own first-round pick only once since 2010 and is perilously close to giving up a top-five pick in a top-heavy draft because of a bad decision made five years ago. The Nets are currently projected to finish with one of the five worst records in the NBA despite having been detached from the league’s incentive structure for effectively half a decade. They are a bad team that has no reason to lose, and their only reason to win is to make sure the Cavaliers, who own their first-rounder, have as little chance as possible of landing their fourth no. 1 overall pick in the past eight years. Free will is still a year away.

An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of the Memphis Grizzlies’ streak of postseason appearances. They have the third-longest such streak, not the second-longest.