NBA Teams That Should Already Be Tanking
Unspoken rules prevent us from firmly calling for NBA teams in sticky situations to surrender all hope before the regular season's quarter-pole. But this waiting period, through which we religiously consume daily benefit-of-the-doubt vitamins, is officially over.
Yessirree Bob: The 2017-18 campaign is now old enough to strongly endorse should-be tankers.
Every candidate is different. One team might be crumbling under the weight of injuries. Another may be incurring a reality check after spitting fire out of the gate. Another may have yet to get its reality check but desperately needs one. Some squads just aren't secure enough to prioritize this season over the ones that follow.
Not all of these teams will tank, because it doesn't work like that. The NBA is a business. Mitigating factors like market size, ticket sales, advertising appeal and all that technical stuff get in the way of rational roster-building.
In an ideal world, though, each of these struggling outfits or competitive smokescreens would enter the race for top-five lottery odds, like, yesterday. They're presented in order of how much they need to tank relative to the benefits they'll reap. And please note: Neither the Brooklyn Nets nor Los Angeles Lakers will be making a guest appearance, since they don't own the rights to their own first-round picks.
Default Tankers/Bad Enough to Not Tank
Say hello to this season's 2016-17 Brooklyn Nets.
The Atlanta Hawks are watchable, because they try hard, John Collins is bouncy and Dennis Schroder's stock is on the rise. But they're still bad. And now they're dealing with injuries to every big that matters, including Collins, Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala.
Stir in this weird reluctance to push the ball after rebounds and turnovers, and the Hawks are poised to finish with one of the Eastern Conference's two worst records.
Worst offense in the NBA? Check.
Bottom-three defense? Check.
Just enough defensive scrappiness from Kris Dunn and offensive detonations from Lauri Markkanen to keep things semi-interesting without tacking on wins to the bottom line? Check again.
Zach LaVine's return from an ACL injury should make the Chicago Bulls a touch more competitive, but they needn't fret about tanking. They're already doing it.
Remember when Mike James was going to win multiple MVP awards? Good times.
Aside from finding Alex Len more minutes, green-lighting Josh Jackson for more offensive aggression and trial-by-firing Marquese Chriss' face-up chops, the Phoenix Suns are free to play out the rest of this season where they lie.
Worrywarts all over the globe are finding out they jumped the gun: The Sacramento Kings did not ruin their one-year tanking window—their 2019 first-round pick will head to Boston or Philadelphia—by doling out hefty contracts to George Hill and Zach Randolph. Hell, this team might even be worse than its 6-15 record.
Four of Sacramento's wins have come against playoff hopefuls or flat-out powerhouses: Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers. Talk about anomalies.
Remove garbage time from the equation, and the Kings have the league's worst point differential per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass. Leave the roster alone, and they'll rack up enough losses to secure a top-five pick.
Free to Not Tank...For Now
According to NBA Math's FATS Calculator, the Charlotte Hornets are playing like a 47-win team when their preferred starting five of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Dwight Howard share the floor.
The problem? Injuries and spot absences have limited that group to six appearances. And even when they do play, the Hornets must navigate treacherous bench waters. Their second-stringers own one of the league's three worst point differentials per 100 possessions, and Batum's return has only bolstered the team's overall depth by an iota.
On the bright side: Charlotte's offense has been almost watchable over the past couple of weeks when Walker takes a seat, and the Eastern Conference's middle class hasn't started to pull away. The Hornets will want to explore a miniature teardown if they're not around or above .500 at the trade deadline, in hopes of snagging a top draft pick before Walker's contract year. For now, we've seen enough to know we haven't yet seen enough.
The Miami Heat are closer to earning a full-fledged tanking endorsement than they should be. They are overwhelmingly average, with a sad-sack offense that doesn't get out in transition and struggles to score in the half court.
Tanking their way to draft-pick retention is an enticing proposition when poring over their salary-cap outlook for the next few years. Assuming Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside opt into the last year of their deals (2019-20), the Heat won't have meaningful breathing room until 2020 at the earliest.
But cannonballing into a designed demolition is neither easy nor prudent. Miami isn't flush with desirable trade assets. Team president Pat Riley might need to include sweeteners if shopping Whiteside, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters, which runs counter to The Tanker's Code.
Plus, bottoming out offers no guarantees. The Suns will get the Heat's pick if it falls outside the top seven, and organic tank jobs in Atlanta, Chicago, Sacramento and Phoenix itself make it almost impossible for Miami to eliminate disaster draft-lottery scenarios.
Face it: The Heat are stuck.
In the 10 games since Rudy Gobert went down, the Utah Jazz are 6-4, with a top-three offense and top-five point differential per 100 possessions.
Sure, they're beating up on some crummy defenses. And yes, resurgences from Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio's jumper might not last forever. But injuries are spreading through the Western Conference's middle class like wildfire. How do you tell the one team among them that's equipped to circumvent the temporary absence of its best player to start losing on purpose?
Something will have to go terribly wrong in Gobert's recovery from a bruised right knee just as Utah's healthy leftovers fall into a weeks-long malaise for this group to hit the rock-bottom button.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Net Rating (Rank): -4.9 (26th)
Net Rating Last 10 (Rank): 0.5 (13th)
The Dallas Mavericks look like default tankers at first glance. They have a bottom-three record without suffering from any major absences. Seth Curry (leg), Dorian Finney-Smith (knee) and Nerlens Noel (thumb/unofficial exile) can all be difference-makers, but they're not springboards for a complete turnaround.
Dallas is also playing like a team determined to run a bottom-five offense. Only the Thunder and Houston Rockets use isolation possessions with more frequency, and head coach Rick Carlisle has turned the team over to a rookie point guard slogging through the efficiency dungeons.
Dennis Smith Jr. is burning through more of the Mavericks' sets than anyone while shooting under 40 percent overall and less than 30 percent on threes—good for an effective field-goal percentage that places 123rd out of 126 among qualified players.
Still, the Mavericks are frisky. They've defended at an above-average level over their past 12 games and rattled off some impressive performances. They pummeled both the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards; upset the Thunder; went toe-to-toe with the Celtics into overtime; built a 13-point first-half lead against the San Antonio Spurs; and chopped down the Memphis Grizzlies when they were still good.
Twelve of the Mavericks' games have entered the final five minutes with neither side trailing or leading by more than five points. They're a ghastly 1-11 and getting outscored by a league-worst 43.5 points per 100 possessions in these situations.
Moral of the story: The Mavericks are better than their record implies, and their players have been galvanized by a recent stretch of partial-competence.
"Nobody likes to lose," Smith said following the Nov. 25 victory over the Thunder, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "We've got a team full of winners. Regardless of what our record says, we've got a team full of winners."
About-facing their way into a playoff spot is out of the question. The West is too brutal, even with an injury-bug infestation. The Mavericks are better off guaranteeing themselves a top-five pick by out-tanking two of Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and Sacramento. They won't do that with this current roster.
Giving significant minutes to J.J. Barea, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews is a recipe against losing to the best of their potential. Holding a fire sale is the quickest way to change that. Make Nowitzki and Smith untouchable, and perhaps Finney-Smith, then dangle everyone else in exchange for salary-cap relief and, if they're lucky, mid-end first-round picks and prospects. This way, when summertime rolls around, they'll be armed with more spending power and another cornerstone-level rookie.
4. Orlando Magic
Net Rating: -2.6 (21st)
Net Rating Last 10: -9.9 (28th)
Now that the Orlando Magic's scorching-hot start has been rendered a flash in the pan, they can get back to reality. And the reality is, they aren't doing themselves any favors by tracking toward 33 to 35 wins.
Finishing outside the top five (or seven) of the lottery wouldn't be the biggest deal if they employed a couple of cornerstone prospects. The Sixers' season could take a turn for the ugly, and they'd still be fine because they have Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons—not to mention oodles of cap flexibility. The Magic don't enjoy either of those luxuries.
Aaron Gordon is their top building block, and he only just started his dalliance with stardom. They don't know what they have in Jonathan Isaac. Elfrid Payton is Rajon Rondo 0.5 for one half the year and Jrue Holiday 1.25 for the other half. Nikola Vucevic, at 27, is a smidge too old. Evan Fournier would make for nasty No. 3 on a good team.
Orlando essentially has a collection of odds and ends, without the salary-cap clout to poach a free agent that strings them all together.
Carrying the contract holds for Gordon ($16.5 million) and Payton ($10 million) next July maxes out the Magic's coffers even if they waive Shelvin Mack. The summer of 2019 won't be as tight, but only if they don't shell out a ton of money to retain Gordon and Payton. Keeping Gordon alone could prevent them from chiseling out serious breathing room without trading Fournier or incentivizing the hell out of a Bismack Biyombo dump.
Expediting their cap outlook may prove implausible. No one except Biyombo is immovable, but they need to clear $30 million-plus from the bottom line to conjure more than $20 million in room. This roster doesn't have the heavy-hitting assets to facilitate an epic salary dump.
That leaves an impromptu tank—which, in this case, consists mostly of scouring the league for Fournier and Vucevic trades that don't break the bank upon completion. Payton should be on the table, too. The market won't be stiff for any of them, but the Magic will have options.
Contacting teams that might be interested in Marc Gasol or DeAndre Jordan and selling them on Vucevic is a good place to start. Asking the Cleveland Cavaliers to flip Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and their own first for Fournier would be a worthwhile endeavor—particularly if the Magic can also grab Cedi Osman or Ante Zizic. Eating Dion Waiters (after Dec. 14) could maybe get them Wayne Ellington's expiring deal and Justise Winslow for Fournier and Mario Hezonja.
You get the idea. And the Magic should, too. They aren't bad enough when left alone to tumble down the Eastern Conference standings and walk into top-five lottery odds. They need to give themselves a little push.
3. New York Knicks
Net Rating: -0.2 (18th)
Net Rating Last 10: -0.1 (15th)
Wait, the New York Knicks? The currently-in-playoff-contention Knicks? Seriously?
This endorsement isn't some gigantic troll job. The Knicks have been impressive. They really have. Kristaps Porzingis is a superstar. Tim Hardaway Jr. isn't worth his $71.6 million contract, but he's not on the worst pact in the league. Frank Ntilikina is feisty on defense and should parlay his smooth stroke into a reliable jumper and floater once he transcends his hesitance. Enes Kanter has been good on offense and not terrible on defense. Ditto for Doug McDermott.
Let's not get carried away, though. The Knicks are turning heads, but their feel-good juju is not forever. They've exploited a home-heavy schedule (10-4) while playing like crud on the road (1-6). And they most definitely, without question, beyond a shadow of a doubt won't close this season with the NBA's fourth-best crunch-time net rating.
Ascribing to this idea that the Knicks are postseason-bound doesn't bode well for the big picture. Like, let's say they make the playoffs. What happens then? A first-round exodus? Ending their four-year postseason drought would be cool. Landing a top prospect to partner with Hardaway, Ntilikina and Porzingis is even better, verging on necessary.
The Knicks won't have any cap space this summer if Kanter, Ron Baker and Kyle O'Quinn opt into the final year of their deals. Re-signing McDermott would further knife into their flexibility. Their ledger for 2019 looks a lot cleaner; Baker, Kanter and O'Quinn should be off the books, and Lance Thomas has a $1 million guarantee. But the max extension the Knicks sure as heck better give Porzingis will be kicking in around then.
New York doesn't have a wide-open passageway to max space before 2020 unless it finds a taker for Joakim Noah, which won't happen without attaching sweeteners. And this all assumes the front office doesn't make any expensive acquisitions in the interim.
Ergo, the 2018 draft represents the Knicks' best opportunity at substantively beefing up their nucleus. And with so many teams around them bent on making the playoffs (Charlotte, Miami, Indiana, Washington), they should be sussing out trades for O'Quinn, Thomas and Courtney Lee that don't entail taking back long-term money. If Kanter has played his way into the "Movables" section, then not even he should be off limits.
Perhaps the Knicks dredge up some extra breathing room ahead of this summer with a clearance sale. Maybe they consider accepting an unsavory deal that comes with a mid-to-top-end pick or prospect. Either approach is fine, so long as they work the phones before winding up in 30-win purgatory.
And if, after all this, they're still too good to make the Bulls and Hawks uncomfortable, Porzingis' elbow problems give them just cause to rest him on the other side of the All-Star break.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Net Rating: -2.3 (20th)
Net Rating Last 10: -8.3 (26th)
Should the Grizzlies be tanking? Absolutely. Will they tank? Not if general manager Chris Wallace has any say in the matter.
"We're bringing a number of young guys along, and we think we have two guys that are big-timers and we think are going to be big-timers for years to come," he said, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "So why back off of that?"
Um, maybe because your cap sheet is clogged through 2019-20 without assurances of playoff cameos, let alone title contention?
Firing head coach David Fizdale amid rumors he never made nice with Marc Gasol lends credence to Wallace's stance. The Grizzlies wouldn't be so quick to choose a 32-year-old star player over their head honcho if they had inklings to trade said cornerstone.
Straight-up tanking is also considered taboo for franchises in small markets. Memphis cannot float interest in a riffraff product like Chicago can (and is). The Grizzlies have two stars under lock and key, in Gasol and Mike Conley, through at least 2019-20 (player option for Gasol). Clinging to them when they're still a ways off from their twilights has its competitive and logistical merits.
But the situation is dire enough for the Grizzlies to take a full-tilt nosedive—or at least champion a half-tank. As The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski wrote:
"Conley will still be out another two to three weeks with a sore left heel and Achilles tendon and [Chandler] Parsons is again experiencing issues with a right knee that has been surgically repaired three times. That leaves [J.B.] Bickerstaff to try to pick up the pieces with a short-handed group as a daunting December schedule filled with heavyweights looms."
Initiating a full-bore plunge will sting. Conley and Gasol are the Grizzlies' best assets, and neither is bringing back surefire building blocks. Memphis could gauge Toronto's interest in Gasol and try for a package assembled around OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas if its interested in striking a medium-sized belly flop. Offering Gasol and the injured Brandan Wright to the Bucks for John Henson, D.J. Wilson, Mirza Teletovic and a 2020 first is a sound idea.
Sending Gasol and Tyreke Evans (after Dec. 14) to the Wizards might get the Grizzlies Marcin Gortat, Jason Smith, Tomas Satoransky and the upside-laden Kelly Oubre Jr. (Other negligible salaries could need to exchange hands for roster-count purposes.)
Dealing Conley is more complicated. Including this season, he has four years and $126.1 million left on his contract. Few teams have starting point guard openings and the timeline to pay a 30-something point guard. And good luck making salaries work if they find a suitor. Parsons, for his part, remains immovable.
Standing pat has its advantages. The Grizzlies could make a run if they get healthy before the Clippers, Jazz and Denver Nuggets. But that leaves a lot to chance. And an inevitable first-round exit isn't worth a high draft pick—especially when they owe a first-rounder with flimsy top-eight protection to Boston in 2019.
Fortunately, if the Grizzlies aren't into shopping Gasol and Conley, they have a bold alternative: sell high on Evans, give their two stars post-All-Star respites, tank their way to high-end lottery odds and enter 2018-19 ready to compete again, with a top prospect in their mitts.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Net Rating: -2.6 (22nd)
Net Rating Last 10: -7.6 (25th)
Patrick Beverley is done for the season. Milos Teodosic hasn't played since Oct. 21 while dealing with a plantar fascia injury. Danilo Gallinari has been on the shelf since Nov. 5 with a strained left glute.
DeAndre Jordan is being squeezed by a shortage of quality playmakers and perimeter pests. The number of possessions he finishes as the pick-and-roll diver is down almost 35 percent compared to last year, and opponents are shooting better than 67 percent against him at the rim.
Head coach Doc Rivers is subsisting on heavy amounts of Wesley Johnson. Austin Rivers leads the Los Angeles Clippers in total possession time. Only the Nets are sporting a crummier half-court defense, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Oh yeah: And Blake Griffin will miss up to two months with a sprained left MCL.
Someone must tell the Los Angeles Clippers they have to tear this thing down. Or maybe the front office is already taking the hint.
Multiple teams have contacted the Clippers about Jordan's availability, per the Washington Post's Tim Bontemps. Moving him is the most crucial part of any tank job. He should net a nice young player or two and some cap relief, even with his looming free agency.
Would the Bucks do John Henson, Mirza Teletovic and D.J. Wilson for Jordan and Sam Dekker? Could the Clippers extract a protected 2020 or later first-rounder out of them as well? Might the Toronto Raptors build something around OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas? The Racine Journal Times' Gery Woelfel heard the Minnesota Timberwolves are in the running for Jordan. Can the Clippers convince Tom Thibodeau to fork over Gorgui Dieng and a 2020 first-rounder if they agree to take back Cole Aldrich?
Capitalizing on Lou Williams' contract-year detonation is imperative as well. At 31, with a payday on the horizon, he won't garner the moon, but a contender might flip a pick or prospect. Knowing the Sixers have max cap space on the brain, Los Angeles should see if they'll give up their own first while offloading Jerryd Bayless in exchange for Williams and expiring filler (Brice Johnson?).
Dumping Johnson, Rivers and even Gallinari and Teodosic equates to bonus tanking but isn't totally necessary. Getting rid of Jordan and Williams puts the Clippers in line for a top-five pick and a chance to re-evaluate remaining vets over the summer—at which time a healthy Beverley is probably enough to grease the wheels of such salary dumps anyway.
Who knows, the Clippers might get lucky: Johnson and/or Rivers could opt out, leaving them with a clear(ish) path to cap space as they usher in the all-Blake-everything era.