On this date last year, only three NBA teams — the Phoenix Suns, L.A. Lakers, and Brooklyn Nets — had fewer than 23 wins. This season, four teams from each conference have fewer than 23 and a total of six have fewer than 21. Despite commissioner Adam Silver’s efforts to keep games competitive, this remains a historic race to the bottom in the final season before lottery reform takes effect.
Following is our Tank Tracker Update on the teams involved in 2018 tanking bloodbath. Since the All-Star break, these nine teams have combined for a 14-51 record.
New York Knicks, 24-41
The Knicks are 1-10 since losing star Kristaps Porzingis for the season to a torn ACL. Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek drew a firm distinction between tanking and New York’s ongoing evaluation of newly-acquired point guards Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke.
“There’s a difference between tanking and trying to look at the future,” Hornacek told Newsday. “We made a trade to bring these guys in. We want to see if our young guys can have us win games. It’s part of the evaluation process.
“It’s not like we’re putting them out there going, ‘Oh heck, if we put them out there, we’re going to lose games.'”
Chicago Bulls, 22-42
After the Suns sat starting point guard Eric Bledsoe for the last month of 2016-17, the NBA instituted new rules about resting healthy players. After the Bulls announced that veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holliday would sit in favor of younger players, the league contacted the team to invoke those new rules.
ESPN’s Nick Friedell tweeted a statement from Bulls VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson:
Pax (1/2): "After the All-Star Break we had communication with the league office about Robin and Justin's roles — after healthy dialogue the league determined that their situations fall into the 'player rest' policy … "
— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) March 7, 2018
Expect the Bulls to begrudgingly adhere to the letter of the law regarding playing time for their healthy veterans the rest of the way.
Brooklyn Nets, 21-45
We list the Nets here even though they are categorically not tanking since the Cavaliers own their unprotected 2018 first round pick. There’s no question the Nets are as competitive as any team on this list.
However, the league isn’t doing them any favors. According to data compiled by fivethirtyeight.com, the Nets, as of March 2, were victimized by a league-leading 28 incorrect calls per the NBA’s last two minute report. Only four other teams had as many as 20 incorrect calls.
Meanwhile, the Nets played spoiler Thursday with a 125-111 win over the Charlotte Hornets, which now sit 6.5 games out of the eighth playoff seed and have virtually no chance to make the playoffs.
Dallas Mavericks, 20-45
Since the NBA chastised Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to the tune of a $600,000 fine for comments detrimental to the league, the team notched a 118-107 win over the Nuggets Tuesday. That win moved the Mavs into a four-team cluster that shares a 20-45 record.
It’s not a great position to be in because, if a couple of teams with better records move into the top three, the Mavericks could end up picking something like eighth. It’s a deep pool of talent for the upcoming NBA Draft, but it may not be eight deep in players with elite potential.
Sacramento Kings, 20-45
The Kings have won two of the last four, including a 116-111 overtime win over the Nets March 1 and a 102-99 win over the Knicks on Sunday. That’s two close wins over teams on this list that could come back to haunt the Kings when the final draft order is determined.
Atlanta Hawks, 20-45
The Hawks are also 2-2 in the last four games, including a 107-102 win over the playoff-bound Pacers Feb. 28 and a clutch 113-112 victory over the Suns on Sunday. Atlanta’s highest-paid player, Kent Bazemore, sat out the game for rest for the second time in six games. Bazemore hasn’t missed any games due to injury this season and was coming off a career-best 29 points against the Warriors.
Point guard Dennis Schroder was also unavailable in the closing seconds against Phoenix after a hard fall. Nonetheless, second-year forward Taurean Prince nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Hawks to a win and drop Atlanta down into the cluster of teams with 20 wins.
Orlando Magic, 20-45
The Magic have also won two of the last four games, but could have won a third if not for a shot clock malfunction against the Lakers on Wednesday. Bill Oram of the Orange County Register tweeted that the NBA acknowledged the incorrect call in its last two minutes report:
The NBA has determined the Magic should have retained possession following clock malfunction with six-tenths left last night. Instead, a jump ball was ruled and Lakers won 108-107. pic.twitter.com/I1nWQn9ezN
— Bill Oram (@billoram) March 8, 2018
The Magic also played spoilers with a 115-106 overtime win against the Pistons March 2, which will likely contribute to Detroit missing the playoffs. It was a tough way to lose the Lakers game, but Magic fans may view it as a blessing if Orlando ends up with a favorable draft position.
Phoenix Suns, 19-45
While teams like the Hawks, Magic and Kings are still winning games despite the potential consequences, the last two teams on this list are pulling out all the stops in the race to the bottom. The Suns are 3-22 in their last 25 games. Suns owner Robert Sarver acknowledged that the NBA Draft is on his mind in a recent interview with the Arizona Republic.
“We’re going to add another really good young player,” said Sarver. “I think we’re in a position where we can turn the corner, but if we don’t execute properly in terms of free agency and we don’t develop the players and we don’t execute in terms of our draft, then it’s going to be another tough year. So I think it’s a year of opportunity, but a year for us to step up and make some good decisions.”
Memphis Grizzlies, 18-46
It’s hard to hate on the Grizzlies with the horrible injury luck the team has suffered. But as far as positioning for the lottery, Memphis’ league-worst 15-game losing streak should come in handy.
While Silver has tried to reign in the tanking bloodbath, there’s no avoiding the fact that the final weeks of the season will provide more fodder for the tanking debate. There are reasonable arguments that lottery reform will fail to deter tanking in future seasons since more teams will have a shot at a high draft pick and won’t have to drop down as far in the standings to be in contention.
But that debate is for future seasons. For now, Silver will have to grit his teeth and endure what is sure to be one of the ugliest races to the bottom in recent memory.
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