Our team is bad. One of the best drafts in recent memory is right around the corner. The East—while subpar—has enough franchises with a vested interest in winning to make our endgame easier. D-League guys, bad starts, can't lose!
The plan, the timing, it was all too perfect for the few teams that entered the 2013-14 season dead set on a lottery landing.
They knew they could count on their own managerial trickery and general lack of talent.
Indeed, even we in the NBA intelligentsia bought it lock, stock and barrel.
Take, for instance, the Toronto Raptors, whose December trade of the polarizing Rudy Gay had many—including the National Post’s Eric Koreen—convinced that theirs was not a strategy aimed at taking the next step.
So, let’s say it for Ujiri: The Toronto Raptors are tanking. They have no intention of winning this year. If you are a Raptors fan, you might as well start cheering for losses. The Raptors’ draft lottery odds cannot get high enough. Some fans, of course, have been doing this already. As Ujiri prepares to further dismantle his team, though, there is no doubt that he will eventually be doing the same, even if he cannot say it.
What the Raptors and others couldn’t foresee, however, was how badly their rivals—the Chicago Bulls, Brookly Nets and New York Knicks especially—were going to mess everything up.
A Wilted Rose
With Derrick Rose sidelined for the entire 2012-13 season, the Bulls—by sheer dint of will, it seemed—managed to rattle off 45 wins and snag the conference’s No. 5 seed.
After upsetting the Nets in the first round, the Bulls were duly dispatched by the Miami Heat in the semifinals. Still, hope was understandably high: With Rose back in the mix, the Bulls would surely re-chart a course back to contention.
Then, the unthinkable happened: During a November 22 tilt against the Portland Trail Blazers, Rose went down again, tearing the meniscus in his right knee.
Days later, Chicago announced its franchise cornerstone—only weeks removed from a return applauded and lauded the league over—would miss the remainder of the season.
If last year’s Bulls played with the rage of someone cheated out of his birthright, this season’s incarnation has—naturally, understandably—carried about them an air of dejection.
That the 28-24 Bulls have somehow managed to hold fast to the No. 4 seed only goes to show just how putrid their conference competition has been.
To date, the Bulls have lost twice to the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards and once each to the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic—five teams that, entering this season, were seen as the East's top tanking candidates.
Considered in isolation, those losses might seem part and parcel with the daily grind of the NBA, where even the best teams can be caught unprepared and unaware.
But once you take into account the struggles of these next two teams, you start to get a sense of just how quickly a team can go from lottery afterthought to reluctant playoff hopeful.
What does $182 million buy you, Mr. Fabulously Wealthy NBA Owner? A 25-27 record, apparently.
In fact, the biggest debate was over whether Brooklyn or the Indiana Pacers would wind up nabbing the No. 2 seed behind the Miami Heat.
Then the season started. Through their first 19 games, the Nets went 5-14, a stretch that included losses to Cleveland, Orlando, Washington and the Charlotte Bobcats.
Brooklyn has since righted the ship somewhat, holding fast to the No. 6 seed with five games left on their six-game road trip—a stint that includes dates with the Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets.
How serious is owner Mikhail Prokhorov about saving face this season? Serious enough to trade for the Sacramento Kings’ Marcus Thornton, a move that will end up putting the Nets over the $200 million payroll threshold for this season, per ESPN’s Marc Stein.
The way things stand now, Brooklyn will likely make the playoffs. At what cost—both to Prokhorov’s bank account and to his conference’s would-be tankers—remains to be seen.
The Nets have tallied more than their fair share of bad losses. But no team can boast the degree of disparity between expectation and performance more than these next guys.
First, the rap sheet: two losses to the Wizards, Bobcats and Raptors, and one loss each to the Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
And those are just the bad Eastern Conference showings.
Everyone knew the Knicks would take a step back from last year’s 54-win coup. We just didn’t think it would be down an entire flight of stairs.
What makes many of New York's losses so awful—and this can be applied to any good-to-middling team that has suffered the same fate—is how some of their opponents were already well into their, how do we say, “strategic planning programs.”
New York, more than any other Eastern Conference team, has helped turn what was supposed to be a cut-and-dry pecking order of playoff shoo-ins and lottery losers completely on its head.
Still, optimism reins supreme in Gotham, where Metta World Peace, during an interview with ESPN Radio (via Fred Kerber of the New York Post), expressed hope the Knicks would find their way:
'I didn’t picture this. I was very optimistic. A championship level team was on my mind,’ World Peace said Monday on ESPN Radio. ‘I still believe we have championship-level players. ... We are good enough to make the playoffs. I believe the team has what it takes. Sometimes you can start off on the wrong foot but it can end up well, and we still have the capabilities to win a championship. These players are more than capable.’
The Raptors, once believed to be going for one more run at draft-day gold, now hold the No. 3 seed, albeit a full 10 games behind the Heat.
Similarly, the perennially woeful Bobcats have clawed their way into the fray, where they're 2.5 games ahead of Detroit for the eighth and final playoff spot.
With the season fast winding down and the postseason picture coming into sharper focus by the day, the Knicks—and to a lesser extent, the Bulls and Nets—will likely encounter weaker and weaker instantiations of their bottom-dwelling brethren, as “rest” and “shut down” become part of the tanking contingent’s operative ethos.
If the Bobcats drop out, either by choice or circumstance, the door will be open for New York or Detroit to backdoor their way into the playoffs.
If, however, the Knicks fall short and the Wizards, Bobcats and Raptors all hold fast above the fold, it would be the best proof yet for why even the NBA’s best-laid plans can go weirdly, wildly astray.