NBA Teams That Should Tank the Rest of the Season
There's at least one person in the NBA who sees a future full of tanking: Mark Cuban. In the mind of the boisterous Dallas Mavericks owner, the new collective bargaining agreement—which bolsters a team's ability to retain its own stars—will cause teams to dive headfirst into the lottery to find franchise cornerstones if they don't already have them.
“I’d say if I had to guess, there will be a lot more teams that tank in order to get to a tanking point,” Cuban told the Star-Telegram's Dwain Price. “I think the downside is because free agency is going to be a lot harder to be transformational in terms of team guys moving, [teams] will be a lot more dependent on the draft.
“And there’s only a few ways to get a good draft pick, and so those teams that makes [sic] the determination to tank, we’ll see what they have.”
That shift could start as soon as this season, assuming some teams fall down the standings before the Feb. 23 trade deadline. As of Sunday night, all but three franchises were within five games of a playoff spot. Such widespread hope could stall some squads that would otherwise be sellers on the market.
A lot can change in a few weeks, though. Should these 11 clubs—four (dis)honorable mentions followed by seven either in need or in the midst of a rebuild—come to grips with reality by the All-Star break, they'll be prime candidates to embrace the tank.
It's all gone to heck in a handbasket for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade went rogue, Rajon Rondo is playing the part of martyr, too many of Chicago's youngsters seem to have stalled out and Fred Hoiberg—good guy though he may be—hasn't had the chops to handle all the chaos.
So maybe it's time for the front office pair of Gar Forman and John Paxson to pull the plug on this group. Or for team owner Jerry Reinsdorf to show them the door.
Except, for all their struggles, the Bulls might still be good enough to crack the East's top eight. That could be enough to keep this tire fire rolling through the finish line.
The Pacers are in the postseason picture, too—almost comfortably so—despite Monta Ellis playing the worst basketball of his pro career.
How bad has he been? Allow ESPN.com's Zach Lowe to explain: "Have you noticed Ellis doesn't, like, do anything for the Pacers? He's taking only 9.3 shots per 36 minutes; he has never averaged below 12.9 attempts per 36 minutes in any other season. His free throws and assists are down, and if Ellis doesn't have the ball, he is useless."
Trouble is, Indiana can't shake things up too much, lest it gives Paul George any more reason to let his eyes wander. And moving Ellis at this point might be darn near Herculean as he's owed $11.2 million next year and has a player option for $11.7 million in 2018-19. Yikes.
The Pelicans are on pace to waste yet another spectacular season from Anthony Davis. That is, unless the front office can find a way to further retool its roster around the Brow on the fly.
New Orleans, though, lacks the assets to make that happen midseason. Their best non-Davis players (i.e., Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Terrence Jones) are all on expiring contracts, so the Pelicans aren't likely to get much in return for them as rentals. And Holiday looks like the type of player they'd want to retain around Davis.
At this point, New Orleans might not need to make any moves to sink toward the bottom or swim its way into the playoff race.
The Knicks appear eager to join the tanking party. Phil Jackson has shopped Carmelo Anthony seemingly everywhere other than eBay, though the no-trade clause he put in the contract his superstar (signed during the summer of 2014) has hamstrung those efforts.
Unloading Anthony would move New York one step closer to handing over the franchise's reins to Kristaps Porzingis. But is the 21-year-old sophomore ready to soak up the brightest lights the Big Apple has to offer?
The Knicks could take the next half season to find out. If it works, hope will spring eternal (again) at Madison Square Garden. If not, they'll likely wind up with a prime pick in a 2017 draft loaded with blue-chip talent to install around their lanky Latvian.
The Dallas Mavericks don't have to try hard to tank. Their first-half struggles have all but doomed them to a bottom-four finish out West without any meaningful reshuffling.
The team's cupboard is fairly barren as-is, at least as far as movable veterans are concerned: Dirk Nowitzki isn't going anywhere. Deron Williams can't seem to stay healthy (per usual) and can veto any trade if he so chooses.
Unless the Mavs are looking to unload Wesley Matthews—assuming they could find any takers for a 30-year-old guard shooting under 40 percent from the field who's owed $36.5 million over the next two seasons—that leaves Andrew Bogut as the best bet to get the boot.
That is, if he can ever stay on the floor. As far as he knows, Bogut isn't outbound from the metroplex just yet.
"My agent said it's probably not going to happen, but I'm not the right guy to ask," he told the Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko. "The only thing I can tell you is I'm not banging on [Mark] Cuban's door or Donnie's [Nelson] door asking for a trade, contrary to what was [written] last month."
Despite all their issues, the Mavericks might yet sneak their way into the race for the West's eighth seed. Between Rick Carlisle's MacGyver-like knack for fashioning a functional team out of spare parts and Harrison Barnes' breakout as a reliable 20-point scorer, Dallas could have just enough to sneak in with an uptick in health among the rest of their core.
But how much good would a first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors do the Mavericks in any time frame? They need to find their next star to carry the team's torch when Nowitzki hangs up his Birkenstocks for good. Climbing up the standings will only make it harder for Dallas to do so in this year's loaded draft.
Los Angeles Lakers
There's more at stake for the Los Angeles Lakers in this year's draft lottery than just their 2017 first-round pick. As Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus detailed, that selection could be the domino that sends off a chain reaction felt in La La Land for years to come:
Additionally, L.A. owes the Orlando Magic a 2019 first-round pick for Dwight Howard, but that selection is tied to the Lakers' obligation to the Sixers (i.e., if the Lakers land a top-three selection in 2017, they'll also keep their 2019 first-rounder, owing instead a pair of second-rounders to the Magic).
The results of the 2017 draft lottery will determine if L.A. loses not one but two of its next three first-round picks. If the Lakers pick in the top three in the lottery, they will send their 2018 first-rounder to Philadelphia, unprotected.
Losing two first-rounders wouldn't be the end of the world for L.A. The front office has already planned as if those picks will convey and likely doesn't feel the need to add more youth to its baby-faced core.
But the Lakers' war chest would be significantly richer with a prime pick in a loaded 2017 class and another during 2019 as opposed to the alternative discussed above. Perhaps L.A. could find a trading partner willing to part ways with a disgruntled star for the opportunity to add a blue-chip prospect such as Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum, among others.
Fortunately for the Lakers, their current club is obliging, gladly or otherwise. Once a potential playoff threat at 10-10, the Purple and Gold now rest in the basement of the Western Conference, with D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle both battling setbacks at the moment.
The Lakers don't need to trade what movable veterans they have (i.e., Nick Young, Lou Williams, Jose Calderon) to stay in last place. But shopping the ones in their rotation could bolster their stockpile of chips even further while opening up more playing time for those youngsters who could be key to their future.
A seven-game winning streak has muddled an already murky picture for the Miami Heat. They're one of the worst teams in the East, though they're now "threatening" to climb over the Orlando Magic and have already passed the Philadelphia 76ers in the standings.
The Heat have their own pick in 2017 but are already out 2018's top-seven protected choice and an unprotected one in 2021 (from the trade that brought them Goran Dragic during 2015).
As it happens, dealing Dragic might be Miami's best option for undoing the damage incurred upon his arrival. The slippery Slovenian is playing some of the best ball of his career, averaging 19.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 47.0 percent from the field (40.9 percent from three).
At 30, Dragic's value might never be higher. And though his cost to a team's cap sheet will be steep—$17 million next season, $18.1 million during 2018-19, $19.2 million if he picks up his player option for 2019-20—it could look like a bargain next to some of the seismic salaries starting point guards will be signing this summer.
As The Vertical's Chris Mannix reported in December, Dragic and the Heat are both open to parting ways. If Miami can recoup some assets for him, the team could strengthen its hand for a rebuild while weakening the current roster just enough to ensure this year's pick doesn't disappear.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are already on their way to a 13th straight spring without playoff basketball, which would mark the second-longest postseason drought in NBA history. And yet, the futility outside of the West's top seven has left Minnesota within a stone's throw of snapping that streak—and might've ended Zach LaVine's pursuit of a third straight Slam Dunk title as well.
Between LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minneapolis is home to one of the league's most intriguing young nuclei, with Kris Dunn, the No. 5 pick in 2016, likely to ascend soon as well. There's no great clamor, then, for the Wolves to add to the mix yet another highly touted kid who will need time to find himself in the NBA.
But there is some opportunity here for the T'Wolves to trim their roster in an effort to at once add assets, improve the value of their 2017 pick toward whichever ends they choose and get a better sense of what else is needed to complete their latest rebuild.
However strong or slim the team's postseason prospects are, Tom Thibodeau's top long-term concern must be to compile the right roster around the core he has. Gorgui Dieng looks like a good fit up front, and Nemanja Bjelica could be a nice role player off the pine. The rest, though, could just as soon go.
That includes Ricky Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad, among others. According to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, the Wolves have been gauging interest in Rubio around the league, with the Detroit Pistons among those hearing from general manager Scott Layden.
Rubio will have to depart if Dunn is going to get his shot to start regularly at the point. Muhammad's case may be a bit trickier: At 24, he fits as a shooter (43.7 percent from three) and low-post scorer that could be valuable off the bench going forward.
But as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe noted, Muhammad's reluctance to pass could have a deleterious effect on his teammates: "Muhammad is not efficient enough on that stuff to hog the ball. It's demoralizing to play with a guy like that. It saps the energy of his teammates. Try sharing the ball!"
Rubio and Muhammad are both young and talented enough to have value across the Association—perhaps enough to bring back more experienced players who fit better next to the Wolves' future All-Stars.
The Orlando Magic came into the 2016-17 campaign with a logjam up front.
Then the additions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo to a rotation that already featured Nikola Vucevic at center pushed Aaron Gordon to small forward, though they at least gave head coach Frank Vogel all the raw materials needed to fashion an elite defense.
So far, that blueprint has borne a bottom-10 unit instead, plus a bottom-two offense (per NBA.com) and a half season of stunted growth for Gordon, who's as close to a potential franchise player as the Magic have found since dealing Dwight Howard four-and-a-half years ago.
According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, Orlando is already angling to unclog its crowded interior and balance out its roster ahead of the trade deadline:
Orlando, according to league sources, remains focused on acquiring a proven scorer on the wing before the Feb. 23 trade deadline if the ever-elusive right deal presents itself. The corresponding expectation in league circles is that the Magic will try to move a big man to make that happen, with Nikola Vucevic continuing to rank as the most likely of Orlando's bigs to depart because Serge Ibaka is headed for free agency in July (which complicates trading him) and with Bismack Biyombo only in the first year of a four-year, $68 million deal bound to put some teams off.
Per Stein, the Boston Celtics are among those who have sniffed around Vucevic. The 26-year-old has been a double-double machine for the last five seasons in Orlando, though never on a team that even approached a winning record.
Wherever Vucevic goes—assuming he moves at all—the Magic must be sure to beef up their perimeter play in return, if only to stop parading Gordon around as a wing. Unloading Vooch for picks and developing players might hurt Orlando just enough to put them in position to snag one of the blue-chip guard and wing prospects atop this year's draft board.
So if the Suns are going to be lottery-bound for a seventh straight season, why not seek out landing spots for their more seasoned constituents? Surely, there are contenders out there that could use a tough, multi-positional defender like P.J. Tucker or a young scoring point guard like Brandon Knight.
Perhaps Phoenix would even be inclined to find Tyson Chandler a new home, too.
Those three could bring back enough of a haul to bolster an already promising rebuild. Without them, rising youngsters Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis would have even more room to spread their wings.
And who knows? If Eric Bledsoe can stay healthy and keep playing borderline All-Star ball like he has this season, those kids could comprise a talented supporting cast for years to come.
To that end, the Suns will be operating from a position of strength at the deadline. They don't have to make a move but should have more than a few doting teams to drive up the bidding between them.
It's easy to understand why the Sacramento Kings want to make the playoffs. As ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz explained, there's more at stake than just a potential four-game sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, with DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green racking up technical fouls like there's no tomorrow:
And if the Kings can make the playoffs -- they are just outside the playoff picture today -- they'd generate some national TV exposure for their stunning, light-filled arena and a nice chunk of additional revenue for a few home dates, a windfall one NBA business source pegged at upward of $4 million. Cousins hasn't yet tasted the postseason and after watching him prosper from afar with Team USA, Kings officials believe that a playoff berth could further his development.
The Kings are still within striking distance of their first postseason appearance in a decade, though their prospects are slimming by the day. Rudy Gay is done for the year after tearing his left Achilles, and according to Playoff Status, Sacramento has the league's fifth-toughest schedule from here on out.
With the organization's reputation in the toilet and Cousins' headaches known to all, the Kings would be hard-pressed to attract top free agents to California's capital. That approach will only be tougher to pull off under a new collective bargaining agreement that tilts the tables in favor of incumbent clubs keeping their own guys.
Sacto's best bet for building around Boogie may be biting the bullet en route to the lottery once again. If the Kings land outside the top 10, their first-round pick will convey to the Bulls. Otherwise, they'll either keep the slot or have to swap with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Either way, the Kings won't find a star-caliber sidekick for Cousins by treading water in the middle of the conference. Assuming he signs an extension worth in excess of $200 million, Sacramento would be wise to find an honest-to-goodness second option by grooming one or flipping a juicy pick for someone ready to contribute right away.