NBA Teams That Should Tank 2018-19 Season
Some might say there are 29 teams that ought to be tanking in 2018-19, what with the Golden State Warriors ruining basketball and all.
That's ridiculous, of course. We've gone too far in counseling everyone incapable of reaching the conference finals to tear it down and hope a 19-year-old draftee will set things right. Still, there are a handful of teams for whom tanking is the obvious play.
The lottery odds are changing this year, flattening at the top to discourage purposeful losing, but that's immaterial to this discussion. The principle behind tanking remains logically sound: If you want to snag a franchise player, the best way to do it is still bottoming out and getting the best odds at the No. 1 pick.
The percentages have shifted; the underlying incentives haven't.
These teams are either stuck in the middle with no clear way out or are still so early in the rebuilding process as to need more chances at a cornerstone. In the special case of the New York Knicks, losing on purpose is the play because the franchise's most important player will be sidelined for most of the deliberate losing.
Oh, and though it wasn't planned this way, you're going to notice a glaring commonality among the teams we're encouraging to tank. Every one of them resides in the East.
Good news! The Atlanta Hawks couldn't avoid tanking if they wanted to.
Unless you believe Trae Young is going to skip the growing-pains portion of his development and immediately become an offense unto himself, this rebuilding squad isn't going to score on anyone. Dennis Schroder is gone, and while that clears the way for Young, John Collins, Tyler Dorsey, Taurean Prince, Kevin Huerter, Omari Spellman and whomever else the Hawks want to nurture, the German point guard at least provided a respectable floor for Atlanta's attack.
Now, Jeremy Lin (fresh off a season completely lost to injury), Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon are the veteran stalwarts. None are needle-movers, and all should anticipate being traded at some point.
Again, this is good. The Hawks are engaged in a deliberate, unapologetic reboot. Since general manager Travis Schlenk took over, they've cut ties with character risks, taken on bad money with assets attached and completely abandoned plans to compete.
New head coach Lloyd Pierce is going to learn on the job like so many of the players under his charge.
That's all an explanation of how the Hawks are essentially designed to tank, but we've glossed over why they should: This team still doesn't have a cornerstone—not unless Young or Collins improbably vaults to stardom. For that reason, Atlanta must position itself to add the foundational piece it lacks through the draft.
And even if you're a Young believer, why not do everything possible to find him a stud running mate?
The Hawks' moves under Schlenk suggest they're headed for 60 losses by design.
When the Brooklyn Nets realize they have to send a representative to the NBA's draft lottery in May, will they even remember how?
Brooklyn, now out from under the crippling repercussions of the fateful 2014 trade with Boston that cost it control of four first-round picks, is finally in charge of its draft assets. It has to feel weird, but the Nets can't let that distract from the necessity of maximizing their 2019 first-rounder's value.
GM Sean Marks has been working with one hand tied behind his back, taking on bad money with middling picks attached, dealing for high-upside damaged goods and building a culture that, in theory, will help top-end talent thrive. Now, the Nets just have to get some of that top-end talent—preferably through the draft.
With several rotation-caliber veterans on the roster—Joe Harris, Jared Dudley, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried—plus an intriguing young core led by D'Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen and Spencer Dinwiddie, tanking might not be so easy. But the Nets have to capitalize on this opportunity.
In an ideal world, Brooklyn could flip its vets (Harris excluded) for totally dead money and assets. Failing that, a committed tank job might require straight up benching quality contributors. How Dudley and the rest of the vets handle this dynamic will go a long way toward determining Brooklyn's future.
Still, there aren't many teams set up to write the 2018-19 season off. Without much competition, the Nets should find a way to bottom out and really get this rebuild started.
New York Knicks
There aren't many glass-half-full ways to spin the torn ACL of a franchise pillar, but at least Kristaps Porzingis' injury, suffered this past February, gives the New York Knicks the perfect excuse to punt on the 2018-19 season.
That's not to say they shouldn't set clear goals.
New York must give summer-league standout Kevin Knox as many touches as he can handle. There's a fine line between sending a young talent out onto the floor with just a touch more responsibility than he can handle and setting him up to fail. New York has to push Knox, stretching his capabilities in low-stakes games so it has a better idea of what to do with him when final scores count in 2019-20.
If Knox has star potential, this is the season to find out.
Frank Ntilikina should also get every opportunity to prove he's taken a step forward on offense after locking up opponents on D as a rookie but hitting only 36.4 percent of his shots.
The Knicks should jettison Courtney Lee, who has two years and $25 million left on his current deal. Lance Thomas is only due $7.1 million this season, and just $1 million of his 2019-20 salary is guaranteed. Both could help a contender, and both could help the Knicks...which is exactly why they've got to go.
Racking up losses in search of prime lottery position can wear on young players, but the beauty of tanking this season is that Porzingis won't have to be a part of it. Ideally, New York will keep him on the sidelines for as much of 2018-19 as possible—perhaps writing off the campaign entirely. That way, KP gets to rehab without incurring the day-to-day pain of losing while the rest of the Knicks try to establish themselves as worthwhile sidekicks.
If all goes well, Porzingis will have another high-lottery running mate when he returns (perhaps on a below-market extension) next year.
This is an opportunity most teams with a developing star don't get. The Knicks may not be thrilled about what lies ahead in 2018-19, but they'd be foolish not to capitalize.
And now we hit the painful ones.
The Charlotte Hornets are in a different position than the previous three clubs. For these guys, tanking will require active moves—benching, trades and using the stretch provision—to initiate the necessary do-over. The Hornets should start by shopping Kemba Walker in earnest so they don't lose him for nothing in 2019 free agency—or worse, sign him to a max deal that'll extend into Walker's 30s.
The All-Star guard has professed loyalty to the team, telling Michael Scotto of The Athletic: "I'm not planning to leave, no. It's not up to me right now." But Walker is Charlotte's only high-value asset—easily its most tradable rotation player and definitely the only one likely to return a first-round pick.
The reboot has to begin with him. From there, the Hornets, who already dumped Dwight Howard, should turn their attention to Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo and Marvin Williams. If it requires attaching picks to move those deals, the calculus changes a bit. But Charlotte should be aggressive in clearing its books and setting itself up to lose in the short term.
New GM Mitch Kupchak and new head coach James Borrego are in tough spots; nobody wants to sign onto a new gig and start losing on purpose immediately. But they (and the entire organization) have to be realistic. The Hornets aren't nearly good enough to compete for a top-four spot in the East—even with LeBron James' departure from the conference opening up the competitive landscape. At the same time, the current roster is too experienced to fall all the way to the bottom of the standings.
The choices, then, are simple: Stick to the plan of overpaying vets and winning somewhere between 35 and 45 games, or start over and try to build something better than the below-average roster that has spun its wheels for three straight years.
This is a band-aid situation. The Hornets have been on a slow peel for too long. It's time to rip it off.
Just three Detroit Pistons are slated to make more than $10 million this season: Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson.
The Pistons should try to get rid of all of them.
No one on our list has a more difficult way forward than Detroit, which is saddled with four more years and $141.7 million in obligations to Griffin. Drummond is due $81.3 million over the next three seasons, while Jackson, owning the least onerous deal of the three, will collect $35.1 million over the final two years of his agreement.
Griffin is 29, has at least one surgery every year, has missed 107 games over the past four seasons and is in obvious athletic decline. Drummond is a dinosaur at center, and Jackson is a mid-tier starter who has missed 70 games in his three full seasons with the team.
That's not a core. That's a disaster—particularly at such high prices.
Like the Hornets, who enter their first season with a new coach and front office (though the Pistons still don't have a GM installed), Detroit faces pressure to stay relevant. A new $863 million arena was, on average, just 82.9 percent full in its first full season, a figure that ranked 29th in the NBA. How empty will the joint be if the Pistons tank?
Still, the Griffin deal is a crippler. It's the kind of contract that can, if allowed to linger, ruin a franchise for a half-decade. Moving it may be impossible, but the Pistons have to try. Maybe Stan Van Gundy will land somewhere that grants him personnel power like the Pistons did (fat chance), and he'll deal for Griffin again. Otherwise, Detroit will have to get creative if it wants to move such an overwhelmingly crummy deal.
The Pistons have to know they're not going to compete with the East's upper crust. The Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers are primed to contend for a long time. The Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards are better than Detroit now and have brighter futures.
If the Pistons begin this rebuild now by initiating the demolition phase, maybe they'll be ready to ascend as the East's top tier weakens in few seasons.
That's a bleak outlook, and even if Detroit embraces it, moving on from its bad deals may be impossible.
In franchise-building and in life, the right decision is almost always the hard one. Detroit must accept the rough times ahead.