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The Suns Are on the Verge of Tanking History

With a loss on Tuesday, Phoenix will enter the pantheon of bottoming-out NBA teams

Devin Booker throwing up his hands Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Congratulations to the Phoenix Suns, ultimate losers of the 2017-18 NBA season but ultimate winners of this year’s heated tanking race. The Suns end their season against Dallas on Tuesday, but by losing 27 of their last 29 games, they’ve already secured the league’s worst record (20-61 entering their last game) and earned 25 percent odds of winning next month’s lottery, plus 64 percent odds of picking in the top three in June’s draft.

This was a historically competitive and crowded battle, in part because the 2018 draft class is so talented, in part because this is the last season before the lottery odds flatten, and in part because no team was so extraordinarily awful from start to finish that it ran away with the top—or bottom, depending on one’s goals—spot. There were no 2011-12 Bobcats in this group of tankers—i.e., a team that was a cut “above” the rest of the league’s losers throughout. There were, however, the Suns, who approached 2011-12 Bobcats levels of putridity in the season’s closing months.

If the Suns lose to Dallas on Tuesday, they will finish with a 5-36 record in the second half of the season, which would tie for the third-worst second-half record for any team that played an 82-game season. (Unless otherwise specified, every comparative statistic in this piece ignores teams in the 1998-99 and 2011-12 lockout seasons.) No team since the 2004-05 Hawks will have suffered such a deleterious last 41 games, and only the 1967-68 San Diego Rockets and 2000-01 Warriors will have finished with worse records (each going 4-37).

It gets even uglier for Phoenix when you look at how far it fell between the first and second halves of the season. Those 2004-05 Hawks were terrible from opening tip through their closing game and finished 13-69; the 2017-18 Suns won 15 games out of their first 41. They weren’t even close to being the worst team in the first half this season, as seven teams had a worse record through 41 games.

But Phoenix engineered a superior tank compared to its competitors—and to almost every similar effort throughout league history. If the Suns lose on Tuesday, they will have won 15 games in the first half and five in the second, meaning their second-half win total will represent just 33.3 percent of their first-half tally. That’s the second-lowest percentage among more than 1,200 different teams that played an 82-game schedule; in other words, the Suns will have experienced the second-biggest second-half drop-off ever. Only the 2000-01 Warriors (30.8 percent) edge them out once again.

Or, put one more way: Before this season, 48 teams had won exactly 15 games in the first half of a season, and those teams then won an average of 17 in the second half. Phoenix, again, will likely win just five.

For the Suns’ purposes, of course, a 20-62 record and top lottery odds is better than a 32-50 record and, say, the ninth overall pick. Now eight years removed from their last playoff appearance, this current Suns roster has only the haziest outline of a core. Devin Booker is a foundational piece who has improved every season of his career. But he needs a worthy running mate, and every other recent lottery pick remains a work in progress.

Those players have exhibited a few more encouraging signs over the Suns’ recent tanking stretch, as Booker’s absence with a hand injury has left Phoenix’s roster devoid of any confident playmaking talent. (Although they did lose their last six games with their star on the court, too, by an average of 18 points; even a scorer like Booker can’t slow down a tank the size of the Suns’.) Marquese Chriss has scored in double-digits in nine of his last 10 games and tallied three of his eight career double-doubles just in the last month. Josh Jackson has boosted his scoring output to 18.7 points per game since the All-Star break, second among rookies in that span, and seen his usage rate jump to Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr.’s range. Dragan Bender is playing more, and even though his shooting numbers are drifting the wrong way, he’s showing increasing glimpses of the kind of multidimensional, floor-warping big he could become at his peak.

In a sense, then, the Suns have reaped the two main benefits of tanking over the past two months: They’ve given their youth more NBA exposure and offered them freer rein, and they’ve still managed to lose nearly every game they’ve played, thus positioning themselves for the best possible chance to acquire another impact player. They’ve driven the tank most aggressively since the All-Star break and have an unfathomable 2-20 record in that span, along with a minus-13.0 net rating. According to the database, which extends back to the 1995-96 season, only five teams—the 2000-01 Warriors (minus-16.2), 2011-12 Bobcats (minus-15.1), 1999-2000 Clippers (minus-14.5), 2005-06 Blazers (minus-14.0), and 1997-98 Nuggets (minus-13.2)—managed a worse post–All-Star break net rating.

Over the whole season, the Suns are about to complete the rare double of finishing 30th in both offensive and defensive rating—a feat matched only by the 2011-12 Bobcats since 1995-96—which, even considering the modest gains made by their rookie-contract players, signals how far they have to go to return to contention. Of course, the easiest way to return to contention is to nab the next Ben Simmons, so the whole disastrous season will have been worth it if they win the lottery and Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton becomes their franchise cornerstone.

But even after successfully executing a historically brazen tanking plan, the Suns can’t depend on that manner of fortunate outcome. They must first survive the lottery, then shrewdly navigate the evaluation process and luck into an actual difference-maker at their spot in the draft. The history isn’t encouraging here. Take these previously mentioned teams: the 2011-12 Bobcats, 2004-05 Hawks, 1967-68 Rockets, 2000-01 Warriors, 1999-2000 Clippers, 2005-06 Blazers, and 1997-98 Nuggets; their lottery picks became, respectively, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Elvin Hayes, Jason Richardson, Darius Miles, Tyrus Thomas, and Raef LaFrentz. Besides Hayes, who went to the Rockets before the lottery existed and muddled tanking teams’ draft hopes, not a single player from that list has made an All-Star team.

So, good luck to the Phoenix Suns, winner of the 2018 tanking war but perhaps—probably—still losers in the long run. Their first step is complete, but there are plenty more still to come.