"Tanking" has become a dirty word in the NBA, which is why no team outwardly admits to engaging in the practice. But we all know what's really going on, don't we?
Nearly a third of the league's teams have accepted that they've got absolutely no shot at contention, so each of them will chase as many losses as possible during the 2013-14 season. Technically, the goal for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics and a handful of others is the same: Let the defeats mount and the chances of lottery success with them.
But there's more than one way to subtly mail in a season.
You can give big minutes to the young guys, experiment with quirky lineups, or even play the caution card with key injuries. And if you can pull off more than one of the preceding suggestions simultaneously, congratulations! You've undertaken an advanced tanking effort.
This year, we'll see a fascinating study in calculated losing as teams try to tank in a variety of ways for the loaded 2014 draft class while still keeping devotees interested. To do that, they'll try as hard as possible to provide hope for the future, evidence of a real plan and, most of all, a reason for fans to continue to buy tickets.
All while losing games on purpose, of course.
We'll start out with a doubly ingenious tanking strategy. After all, the best deliberate efforts to lose games are the ones that don't require much tinkering at all.
The Philadelphia 76ers are going to hand the reins of their offense over to rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams. A promising talent with great size, vision and an unselfish nature, MCW simply isn't close to being ready to start in the NBA. Yet he'll log major minutes for what's sure to be one of the league's very worst teams.
A still-too-green prospect thrust into an extremely high-usage situation? Sounds like a great way to lose games to me.
Not only will Philly nosedive in the standings because of MCW (and the rest of its uninspiring roster), it'll also get to play the "cautious return from injury" card with Nerlens Noel. Expect the Sixers to leave Noel encased in full-body bubble wrap until his knee is healthy enough for Derrick Rose to consider playing on it.
All the while, the Sixers will be able to tout the bright future of their young roster, which should keep fans interested throughout the season.
Nicely done, guys. This is shaping up to be an A+ tank job.
The Boston Celtics have the benefit of already announcing to the world that they're starting over.
Some teams have to get through a few weeks in the regular season before it becomes clear that a rebuilding process is underway. But by cutting ties with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers over the summer, it's abundantly obvious that Boston isn't trying to make the playoffs this coming season.
Basically, the C's have prepped their fans to expect some tough times, which will make it much easier to accept a big, stinking pile of losses.
Team president Danny Ainge can talk all he wants about Rajon Rondo returning faster than the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson did from his own ACL injury, but the truth is that the Celtics have no incentive to rush their only star-quality player back into the rotation.
Toss in a rookie coach and it's pretty obvious that Boston fans are primed to accept failure this season. Sometimes, tanking requires some early groundwork. The Celtics did that expertly here.
From the fans' perspective, it almost doesn't matter what the Sacramento Kings do on the court this season. The sheer joy surrounding the team's new ownership (and the fact that the Kings will be staying in Sacramento) created a grace period in which management won't be expected to produce a winning product for at least a year.
With no chance to make the postseason, the Kings' new ownership can basically sit back and watch the current roster fail, all while pretending it needs to see the majestic ineptitude firsthand before making the decision to blow it up.
Really, all Vivek Ranadive and his new regime are doing is letting the Kings drop games in an effort to accelerate the rebuilding process next summer.
As Sacramento slips in the standings, the team will be able to think carefully about whether or not to trade DeMarcus Cousins (it should) and whether or not anyone else on the roster projects as a key player on a winning team (they don't).
All the while, Kings fans will be ecstatic about the first rays of hope in years. Tanking has never been so easy.
The Orlando Magic probably know that Victor Oladipo isn't a point guard. But they have nothing to lose by trotting him out there at the 1 until he "proves" their suspicions correct.
Actually, there's a good chance the Magic will continue to experiment with Oladipo at the point long after he proves he's not cut out to be an offensive facilitator. That's because the whole Oladipo-as-point-guard thing gives Orlando an excuse to lose games while still playing its best young assets.
A capable floor general could do quite a bit with the talent on hand in Orlando. Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless are all exciting players, but with Oladipo making a difficult position change as a rookie, none of them are going to be quite as efficient as they might otherwise be.
No matter what the Magic do this year, the roster won't be ready to win more than 30 games. They might as well let the kids (and Oladipo, in particular) take a few lumps while the fans enjoy a promising group of young players.
Thanks to some rotten luck in the lottery, the Charlotte Bobcats don't have a lot to show for a string of putrid seasons. So instead of banking solely on the draft to help them improve, they finally got proactive in their efforts to change the culture in Charlotte by signing Al Jefferson.
Or so it would seem.
Jefferson is going to get his numbers. He'll post a scoring average right around 20 points and should get his hands on a good number of rebounds. Better still, fans around the league still see him as something close to a "star"—a view many of Jefferson's peers in the league share.
But here's the thing: Horrendous defense and declining efficiency have combined to make Jefferson a generator of empty numbers.
On the surface, it looks like he's getting the job done, but he was barely a break-even player last year on a Jazz team that had much better surrounding pieces than this season's Bobcats.
This seems like a genius move by Charlotte. Jefferson gives the fans something to cheer about, creates the long-term perception that the 'Cats are trying to win, and won't do anything this year to get the team out of the league's basement.
In fact, it's so smart that it must have been an accident. Charlotte never does anything this shrewd on purpose.
The Suns are like the perfect storm of NBA tanking.
They have a new coach in Jeff Hornacek, an exciting new player who might not be ready for a bigger role in Eric Bledsoe, and a key injury in Alex Len they can milk for as long as they like. In a way, they've combined the best tanking strategies of the Celtics, Bobcats and Sixers.
Plus, there's plenty of excitement surrounding young general manager Ryan McDonough. He'll probably get at least a year before fans start to grumble about the roster.
I'm not sure if it's something to be proud of, but the Suns might be approaching their tanking efforts with more thoroughness than any other team.
Hornacek will struggle in his first season at the helm, Bledsoe's warts will be revealed in heavier minutes, and Len won't see the court until he double-pinky-swears that his surgically repaired ankles are entirely healthy.
Best of all, fans in Phoenix are expecting all of this.