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Tanking Ain’t What It Used to Be

Knicks-Suns should be a tank masterpiece, but the NBA’s draft reform, and Phoenix’s own mismanagement, has taken the air out of the Super Bowl for the league’s biggest losers

Zion Williamson, Deandre Ayton, and goats Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I am a tanking zealot. I have been for years. From my vantage, tanking is a necessary good. It is not a flaw in the system to be slowly eradicated; it is an organizing principle born of the NBA’s regulations and the way they interface with the very notion of competition. If competitive balance can’t be established organically—or, if competitive balance is a myth—then why not be creative with its definition? True balance places two opposing forces on the same continuum. If playoff seeding depends on valuing wins, why shouldn’t draft placement depend on valuing losses?

Wednesday’s bout between the New York Knicks and the Phoenix Suns, the two worst teams in the NBA this season and over the past five seasons, ought to be my Super Bowl. The Knicks’ John Jenkins could lob a pass to Luke Kornet that somehow clanks off the top of the backboard and lands on a photographer; the Suns’ De’Anthony Melton could call for a pick-and-roll with Richaun Holmes and botch the choreography so resolutely that they inadvertently reenact 2012’s iconic butt fumble. These are moments I’d typically find poetic, not because of the incompetence on display, but because sometimes that’s what hope looks like. Sometimes you stumble and stumble and stumble and then find your way toward the light.

I still believe all of this. So then why doesn’t Knicks-Suns, the headlining act of Tankapalooza 2019, spark joy? It all comes back to balance. From one perspective, there is more of it than ever: As a result of draft-lottery reform instituted this season, the teams with the three worst records in the league will all have the same odds (14 percent) of landing the no. 1 overall pick. From another, the reform is a pointed attack on (anti)competitive balance: Having the worst record in the league no longer guarantees you a 25 percent chance at the top selection; you are guaranteed only a top-five selection. And yet, there are currently three teams (Knicks, Suns, Cavaliers) with a win percentage lower than last year’s worst team, the 2017-18 Phoenix Suns. They’ve earned their place at the front of the line by playing some of the worst basketball of the past five years. But to what end? Any intrigue this Knicks-Suns matchup could have manufactured is gone, while the odds of either team’s draft slot getting swiped in May by, say, the seventh-worst team in the league (currently the Wizards), have nearly doubled. Tanking’s raison d’être is in shambles.

Half a game separates the Knicks and Suns for the worst record in the league. Under last year’s rules, they’d be fighting for an exclusive 1-in-4 chance at Zion Williamson. Now, with a five-game moat separating them from the fourth-worst team in the league, both teams are secure with their collective 1-in-7 odds, despite operating on different mandates. Knicks coach David Fizdale has made the devil’s bargain, detonating his own self-image by trotting out some of the most ineffective lineups imaginable all for the hope of Zion; the Suns, on the other hand, are riding the high of their first win streak in nearly three months with impressive victories over the Lakers and Bucks, playing with the positive vigor of a self-help enthusiast obsessively trying to improve their karmic standing after four years of abject failure. (Tanking: It’s a rich theological text!)

The light that both teams seek at the end of the tunnel is the same. For a moribund Knicks franchise seemingly on the fast track to contention, the earth-rending gravity of Zion’s taking up residency at Madison Square Garden needs little explanation. But for the Suns, a team in the news for both all the right and wrong reasons, it’s a lot more complicated.

In 1993, the Orlando Magic made history at the NBA draft lottery. After losing a tiebreaker for the East’s eighth seed, Orlando won the first pick for a second consecutive season despite having the worst odds. The Magic had drafted Shaquille O’Neal a year prior; all signs pointed to Orlando establishing a twin towers by selecting Chris Webber, the most can’t-miss prospect of the draft. But then, Hollywood happened, as would be the case for much of Shaq’s career.

Shaq, fresh off his dominant Rookie of the Year campaign in 1992-93, had signed on to play a role in Blue Chips, the Nick Nolte vessel directed by William Friedkin. Webber was offered a role in the movie, but declined; his Michigan Wolverines had just lost an emotional national championship game, and Webber was intent on preparing for his NBA voyage. In lieu of Webber, the producers cast a tall, lanky guard out of Memphis. Shaq had no idea who he was, but they kept putting the pair on the same team. “Damn, this actor can make it in the NBA,” Shaq thought. That actor was Penny Hardaway, one of the top prospects in the 1993 draft. By the end of filming, Shaq had grown enamored of Hardaway’s play; when the Magic were set to make their no. 1 overall selection, the big man had given the Orlando front office an ultimatum: “I said, ‘Hey, if you don’t get this guy, my deal is up and I’m going to look to do different things. So help me help you,’” he would later tell GQ. “I knew what Penny could do. They listened to me. It was the right thing to do.” The Magic traded the rights to Webber for Hardaway, who was drafted third by the Golden State Warriors, and three future first-round picks. The great O’Neal-Webber tandem that never was remains one of the great what-ifs in NBA history.

Should fate grant the Suns what it did the Magic more than a quarter-century ago with a second consecutive no. 1 pick, Phoenix would have an opportunity to do what Orlando did not: pair two hyperskilled, hyperathletic phenoms in the frontcourt and see what happens. But, ironically, given how the game has drastically changed in the 26 intervening years, history could very well repeat itself. Should the Deandre Ayton–Zion Williamson pairing find itself star-crossed, it won’t be because of a Hollywood bromance, but the very real issue of modern compatibility.

In ’93, Magic players were salivating at the thought of Shaq on one block and Webber on the other, with three shooters spotting up on the perimeter in a classic inside-outside, double-post look. In 2019, that same scheme would serve as an impediment to all five players on the court; there wouldn’t be enough space for much secondary action off the ball, and, more importantly, it would shrink the floor for any superheroic feats of athleticism from Zion, who really just needs everyone to clear the way for him. Williamson is the biggest anomaly in basketball today, perhaps the best NBA prospect since Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant. It would be tragic if he’s forced into a traditional system when he is in line to be the next torchbearer in what has become a new archetype for the league: the ballhandling point center. That positional trajectory would be impossible next to Ayton’s admittedly impressive David Robinson pastiche. Something would have to give; perhaps if the Suns had drafted Luka Doncic, a de rigueur playmaking power guard who projects as the perfect complement to Zion’s unprecedented skill set, the future wouldn’t be so hard to decipher.

That, of course, is all water under the bridge now. Phoenix can control only what’s ahead. Conventional wisdom would claim that the two big men are so talented that they’d figure it out. Ayton remains the most efficient volume-scoring rookie in history, and his defense over the past two games, conveniently against two of the NBA’s most unguardable players in LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, was a testament to his immense physical gifts waiting to be honed. The potential question of Ayton or Zion isn’t about talent as much as direction. Young stars are more impatient than ever, and appealing to no one in particular could potentially lead to losing out on everyone involved. This is also the Suns we’re talking about, the team that has been in front-office limbo since the first month of the season; the team that, despite having won no more than 24 games since 2014-15, considers draft scouting to be overrated; the team that will have to wear the stench of goat shit on its name for as long as Robert Sarver remains the owner.

They say shit happens when you least expect it, but shit doesn’t happen to stable NBA teams. Shit happens to teams on the verge of calamity. When Gilbert Arenas, at the height of his power, smeared dog excrement between the lining and the insole of then-rookie Andray Blatche’s shoes like liver pâté in retaliation to a rookie prank he claimed to have not committed, it was a sign of the Wizards’ complete lack of managerial oversight—the kind that led to far more serious offenses down the line. Sarver dragging goats into former GM Ryan McDonough’s office, as ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz colorfully reported earlier this week, was the physical manifestation of the front office’s mandate: finding a franchise player who can and will carry the team to its first championship. What those goats left behind was an omen. The Suns will face near-impossible questions in the coming months, whether or not history repeats itself. Good thing there’s only a 14 percent chance of that happening, right?