10 Warning Signs Your Favorite NBA Team Is Tanking

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 7, 2013

10 Warning Signs Your Favorite NBA Team Is Tanking

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    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    Tanking does happen in the NBA.

    Teams won't openly admit it, and an inordinate amount of counterarguments will be made against it, but it does happen. 

    Any organization looking to gain that extra edge leading into the draft lottery can be swayed by the not-so-fine art of tanking. The chance at snagging a high selection and landing a franchise-altering star may prove too good to pass up. 

    Front offices will never key the public in on their master plan, but you can still glean insight into their mindset through what they say, do or don't do, and what the roster looks like. And while you must understand these franchises (hopefully) aren't urging players to miss shots or telling them defense is optional, they also won't be broken up if they don't win. 

    For them, losing now is supposed to help them win in the future.

     

If They Say They're Not Tanking

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    Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    Looking at you Danny Ainge.

    "We are not tanking," Ainge previously told the Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. "That's ridiculous. This is the Boston Celtics."

    As much as I appreciate Ainge reminding us that the Boston Celtics are the Boston Celtics, I'm not buying it. If you're being asked about tanking, there's a reason; it's not out of the blue. And if there is a reason, it's usually a good one.

    Fans and pundits don't accuse the Chicago Bulls of tanking because they let Nate Robinson go. The Atlanta Hawks aren't deemed tankers because they didn't re-sign Josh Smith. Not any ol' team is accused of tanking. Only the ones that are, well, tanking.

    Saying you're not tanking doesn't change things either. No NBA general manager in their right mind, or who didn't spend the previous night out with Lady Gaga, will cop to buying losses. Or paying not to win. Whatever you want to call it.

    General managers lie; NBA teams fib. They don't abide by the same sworn testimonies the rest of us do. They say everything but the truth, and nothing but the untrue, so that it helps them tank.

     

    This Year's Exceptions 

    New York Knicks: They lie because James Dolan seems to hate us all and gets his jollies off letting others know he's a different kind of stupid.

Bad Teams Get Worse; Good Teams Emulate Bad Teams

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    When teams trade some of their best players, it can be for any number of reasons.

    The player in question could be demanding a change of scenery, a better player could be a available or your team could just be tired of Brandon Jennings. When franchises deal really good players over the summer in exchange for roster fodder, draft picks and injured prospects, that's when you know their season's over before it started.

    Nerlens Noel won't lead the Philadelphia 76ers toward the playoffs this season, yet Jrue Holiday was shipped out at his expense. Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace aren't future Hall of Famers, but they were good enough to headline a package for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

    It can be even worse when lottery selections are used on high-risk, low-reward prospects. Like when the Phoenix Suns selected Alex Len. Or the Charlotte Bobcats latched onto Cody Zeller.

     

    This Year's Exceptions

    Charlotte Bobcats: Sure, they drafted Zeller, but they also signed Al Jefferson. They're not so much tanking as they are looking to be really bad without any hope at landing the first overall pick.

    Milwaukee Bucks: Signing Zaza Pachulia was a good joke. Until they actually signed him; that wasn't funny.

    Utah Jazz: It's called rebuilding around Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. Purposely trading for Andris Biedrins was just for fun.

     

     

Player Positions Don't Quite Make Sense

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Does your favorite team's lineup not quite make sense? Are there four centers to a starting lineup? No point guards within the same area code? Have they coaxed Chris Dudley out of retirement to play small forward?

    If you answered "yes" to any of the above, or can commiserate with something similar, then your team of choice is tanking (and hating on made free throws).

    Brad Stevens indicating that the Boston Celtics' Jeff Green would play some shooting guard this season is a perfect example. At 6'9'", Green is predominantly used as a small or power forward. Playing him at shooting guard, where he could find himself defending point men against hybrid-guard lineups, doesn't border on absurd; it is absurd.

    This is mostly a problem for teams that don't seem to have a player at every position. Boston lacks a center and the Philadelphia 76ers are without an established floor general. Gaping vacancies "force" teams into fielding players out of position. It's not done just for fun.

    If it was, then we'd see more of Chris Kaman at shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. Or Biedrins in the Jazz starting lineup. Or Rajon Rondo playing center.

    Make sure you don't file that last one under sarcasm, because it could happen.

     

    This Year's Exceptions

    Houston Rockets: They may play Dwight Howard at power forward, but I honestly believe they think it can work...even though it can't.

    Sacramento Kings: Their depth chart is a mess, but they seem to think that's a good idea. If John Salmons is inserted into the starting lineup, then we'll talk.

     

Players Pretty Much Say So

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    I appreciate honesty, which is why I appreciate Marcin Gortat.

    “This is a business,” Gortat said, according to AZCentral's Paul Coro. “We all know where I am right now, and we all know what’s going to happen probably. It’s business."

    Gortat seems resigned to spending a season on the trade block. That could be because he's in the last year of his deal or, more likely, because the Suns are trying to make room for someone else, like Gortat himself admits.

    "Now, I've got three young stars coming to the practice to try to beat me up," he said, per USA Today.

    To ensure there's no confusion, I'd like to remind you he's talking about Len, Miles Plumlee and Slava Kravtsov. As young stars. When they aren't.

     

    This Year's Exceptions

    None: If a player implies a team is tanking or talks about fighting marginal prospects for his job, your team is tanking without exception.

Excessive Rest and Relaxation

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    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    To be clear, you won't know if teams are milking player injuries until midway through the season.

    But, for example, if the Boston Celtics delay Rondo's return from an ACL injury until leaves start to grow on trees again, or the Philadelphia 76ers sit Noel until his high top sags to the floor, then each player is either taking medical advice from Derrick Rose or their teams are in no rush to get them back. 

    Why on earth would the Celtics not want their best player back as soon as possible? Why would the Sixers not want to inject some shot-blocking into their lineup? Do you really need me to answer that for you? I didn't think so.

    There's overly cautious and then there's excessive. Should teams start to realize they're falling out of playoff contention early, a key player suffers an injury and they shut them down for much longer than anticipated, they're chasing something other than wins.

    That something's name is probably Andrew Wiggins.

     

    This Year's Exceptions

    Cleveland Cavaliers: Andrew Bynum is really injured. I promise.

    New York Knicks: Amar'e Stoudemire is actually injured. The Knicks probably won't tell you what the injury is, why it happened, whether or not he had surgery or how to spell his last name, but just know that he will be hurt.

Trade Deadline Greasings

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    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

    Overwhelmingly bad deadline deals are the PEDs to tanking in the NBA. 

    Your team might be bad but not bad enough. Or maybe they wound up fighting for that eighth and final playoff spot in their conference, much to the front office's displeasure. 

    At that point, they have two options: 1) They can continue down the winding path of mediocrity or 2) they can unload some of their best players in favor of expiring contracts, draft picks and a truck filled with those hard candies that turn your tongue blue.

    My best guess as to which teams we could see engage in such behavior this year are the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors.

    Rondo is old enough to where Boston can argue he's not its face of the future, while Masai Ujiri is in possession of Rudy Gay, a contractual nightmare for any general manager aware of his shooting percentages.

    I personally like ESPN Grantland's Bill Simmons' idea of a Utah Jazz-Toronto Raptors swap involving Gay. Netting some combination of Biedrins and other fillers would give the Raptors a better chance at landing the Canadian Wiggins.

    This all depends on how keen Toronto is to tanking, of course. Which really depends on how well the other fringe-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference (Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers) play.

     

    This Year's Exceptions

    Milwaukee Bucks: Don't panic, Milwaukee. General manager John Hammond just really likes second-round picks.

    New York Knicks: You might want to panic, New York. Dolan seems to really hate draft picks—and general managers that can't pull a top-10 superstar out of his toupee.

    Portland Trail Blazers: I still think there's a chance they trade LaMarcus Aldridge, but if they do, it's probably against their will and for a king's ransom.

More Draft Picks Than Active Players

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Once you lose count of how many draft picks your favorite team has accumulated over the next five years, it's time to admit they're probably in tank mode or pretty close to it. And you probably live in Boston.

    Draft picks aren't normally valuable to playoff hopefuls the same way they are to rebuilding ones. Not unless a winning aggregate is expunging a horrible contract from their track record.

     

    This Year's Exceptions

    Denver Nuggets: They have a lot of draft picks headed their way in the coming years, and after firing George Karl and losing Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer, it's easy to get the wrong idea. But they've done business with the Knicks in the past, so that explains it.

    Houston Rockets: They're just really good at stockpiling draft picks and turning them into bearded All-Stars.

    Milwaukee Bucks: They probably should tank. On second thought, screw it, Hammond should see how many second rounders Ersan Ilyasova is worth.

    Orlando Magic: They're not tanking. I actually like what they're building in Disney World. I'll like it even better when they can classify Victor Oladipo as someone other than a "guard" or "that guy who will hold the ball from time to time."

    Utah Jazz: Utah is the Mendoza Line of tank jobs. Sometimes I think they'll be so bad on purpose. Other times I'm sold on them believing in their frontcourt. They'll likely continue to toe the tanking line unless they deal Favors or Kanter.

If Winning Isn't Important

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    Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

    Rebuilding factions aren't going to win; it's just a fact. But that doesn't mean general managers must beg us to understand it doesn't matter.

    Take the Phoenix Sunss first-year general manager Ryan McDonough. He's already setting the bar pretty low for this year's version of the team. 

    “We can’t try to rush the process or let our record kind of blur the lines about what we’re trying to do," he explained, per AZCentral's Coro. "We’ve just got to keep getting better, keep pushing, keep developing our players and find guys who are keepers for the next great Suns team.”

    Suns fans can point to the Eric Bledsoe trade and say Phoenix isn't tanking. I'll totally listen. After statements like these, the Luis Scola trade and the possibility of Gortat not starting, however, I'm not going to agree.

     

    This Year's (Possible) Exceptions

    Boston Celtics: If Ainge ever comes right out and says Boston is tanking, expect Beantown to pull the trigger on a deal for LeBron James the next day.

They Undervalue Draft Prospects

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    I wonder if it's lonely on Ainge's island of make believe.

    Speaking with Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen, Ainge indicated it wasn't worth it for his Boston Celtics to tank this season because there are no franchise-changing stars in the upcoming draft.

    "If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out there to change your franchise forever, or Tim Duncan was going to change your franchise for 15 years? That might be a different story," Ainge explained. "I don't see that player out there."

    Perhaps if Ainge put on some glasses, he would see that everyone, plus Metta World Peace's pet rhino, is sold on Mr. Wiggins as the second coming of LeBron. Even if he's not, teams will be pouncing at the opportunity to draft him solely because he's being compared to LeBron.

    There's also the rest of the draft class. In what is clearly the deepest crop of talent since 2003, I'd hazard the top five or seven picks would have all gone first overall this past summer.

    Ainge has to know this. That, or he's suffering from a Fab Melo hangover.

     

    This Year's Exceptions

    None: Any general manager, owner or team representative that downplays this year's draft class is trying to convince others not to tank, most likely because they're tanking themselves or, less likely, they're fans of horrible basketball.

If You're the Philadelphia 76ers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    No real explanation is needed for this one.

    The Sixers are one of the worst teams I've seen in awhile. Not even a healthy flattop could help lead this team north of 20 wins. And that's by design.

     

    This Year's Exceptions

    Everyone But the Sixers: You can tell me I'm wrong about any number of teams. Doesn't matter if it's the Celtics, Suns or Brooklyn Nets (kidding)—I'll drink it all in. I'll even consider changing my mind.

    Try convincing me otherwise of the Sixers and I'll politely decline. I'll also inquire as to whether your parents own an NFL team and have always taken a rather careless approach to injuries sustained from the neck up.