The Race to Zion: Tanking NBA Teams Best Positioned to Land No. 1 Pick

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2019

The Race to Zion: Tanking NBA Teams Best Positioned to Land No. 1 Pick

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    Zion Williamson is the ultimate prize. 

    Though RJ Barrett, Ja Morant and plenty other top-tier prospects will reward NBA teams for their losing endeavors in 2018-19, the spring-loaded Duke freshman is the obvious crown jewel of the class.

    Averaging 21.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.9 blocks while shooting 66.2 percent from the field and posting the best qualified box plus/minus since 2010-11 (with room to spare), he's one of the best NCAA products in recent memory, promising enough to inspire frenzied tanking from a select few squads. 

    But we're not here to shine yet another spotlight on Williamson so much as highlight the five teams best positioned to earn the top lottery odds in pursuit of his services. And to determine both the outfits comprising the bottom-feeding quintet and the order of these rankings, we're getting objective. 

    Four metrics matter: win percentage, net rating, net rating over the last 10 games and remaining strength of schedule, per Tankathon (harder is better, for our purposes). By summing the z-scores in each of the four categories for all 30 teams in the Association, we can come up with the ultimate tanking hierarchy, ranging from the Milwaukee Bucks (6.694), Toronto Raptors (4.669) and Golden State Warriors (3.166) to our five glaringly negative representatives.

5. Atlanta Hawks: Minus-2.992

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    Current Win Percentage: 0.318 (No. 26)

    Current Net Rating: minus-7.6 (No. 26)

    Net Rating in Last 10 Games: minus-5.0 (No. 23)

    Remaining Schedule Strength: 0.493 (No. 19)

    Even if the Atlanta Hawks shouldn't have much interest in competing for a back-end playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference, they might end up working their way into the fringes of that conversation. This roster has slowly been piecing together lengthier stretches of positive play that offer more hope for a future built around the incumbent core but also lessen the probability of a Zion Williamson pursuit. 

    Over the team's last 10 games, culminating in a Tuesday night explosion against the vaunted defense of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the three-man nucleus comprised of Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter has looked the part of something special: 

    • Young: 17.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.1 blocks while slashing 43.1/40.4/84.1
    • Collins: 19.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.1 blocks while slashing 57.7/50.0/75.7
    • Huerter: 14.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.3 blocks while slashing 42.4/39.7/69.2

    Young has started to minimize his mistakes and exhibit signs of better shot selection. Collins is an athletic marvel who compresses defenses around him and requires constant attention in off-ball scenarios. Huerter is beginning to find his shot and demand surveillance from the opposition at all times. Even without Kent Bazemore (and while Taurean Prince gets healthy/attempts to bounce back toward the level he reached late in 2017-18), that trio alone has allowed Atlanta to remain competitive. 

    To be fair, the Hawks could supercharge their tank by offloading Jeremy Lin, Dewayne Dedmon and Bazemore at the deadline, as the New York Times' Marc Stein reported. But even in that scenario, these youngsters have already inspired enough confidence that Atlanta should be viewed as a distant fifth in the race for a certain Duke phenom. Maybe they'll just get one of the other two lottery-lock Blue Devils instead.

            

    Honorable Mentions: Memphis Grizzlies (minus-1.807), Los Angeles Lakers (minus-1.595), Detroit Pistons (minus-1.542)

4. Phoenix Suns: Minus-4.394

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    Current Win Percentage: 0.244 (No. 27)

    Current Net Rating: minus-8.6 (No. 28)

    Net Rating in Last 10 Games: minus-9.0 (No. 26)

    Remaining Schedule Strength: 0.496 (No. 16)

    Devin Booker alone makes tanking a difficult endeavor for the Phoenix Suns, though losses are always possible while the organization keeps trying to find a franchise point guard and shoehorns raw, inexperienced players or out-of-position contributors in at the 1. 

    The standout shooting guard is in the midst of another sterling season, averaging 24.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.2 blocks while shooting 45.0 percent from the field, 32.0 percent from downtown and 84.3 percent from the stripe—percentages dragged down by the magnitude of his responsibilities for the desert-based organization, as well as its inability to run out compatriots capable of demanding much defensive attention. But injuries have also limited him to just 32 appearances in the team's first 45 games, and the Suns have only mustered a 3-10 record in his absence. 

    With an 11-34 overall mark, Phoenix is on pace to win 20 games during the 2018-19 campaign. However, it's also seen its net rating improve from minus-8.8 to minus-6.6 when Booker is on the floor, and he should only grow more effective as his fourth professional season progresses and allows him to build up more chemistry with his youthful running mates. 

    The Suns are still overmatched most nights. That's inevitable when Richaun Holmes (4.0), Deandre Ayton (1.4) and Booker (0.2) are the only men qualified for the scoring leaderboard and posting positive box plus/minuses for the franchise. The talent deficit is significant, and it's not like this collection of inexperienced youngsters understands how to win games at the sport's highest level. 

    But having an established star matters in this type of downward-spiraling pursuit. 

3. New York Knicks: Minus-4.522

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Current Win Percentage: 0.233 (No. 28)

    Current Net Rating: minus-8.4 (No. 27)

    Net Rating in Last 10 Games: minus-12.0 (No. 28)

    Remaining Schedule Strength: 0.490 (No. 20)

    Even as Kevin Knox continues blossoming into a foundational piece (on offense, at least) for the New York Knicks, this team is struggling to win any games. A minus-8.4 net rating on the season is rancid enough, but that mark has fallen to minus-12.0 during the last 10 outings. Expand the range even further, and the Knicks have still posted a cringe-inducing minus-11.1 net rating while going 3-19 in their last 22 games.  

    Gross.

    Yes, that's an arbitrary cutoff that intentionally falls just shy of a Nov. 25 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. But do you really want to cite a close win nearly two months ago against another lottery outfit as a reason to have some semblance of optimism about the Madison Square Garden residents?

    Normally, these numbers would be enough to make New York the clear-cut favorite for the top draft odds. But not in 2018-19, when the marks still pale in comparison to the utter putridity of the two squads topping the Knicks in these rankings. Plus, two other factors should make you feel even better about the third-place finish. 

    First, the youngsters really are starting to develop into quality assets. Knox is the obvious headliner, but Luke Kornet, Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson have all shown some flashes of production in 2018-19. And that's saying nothing of Mitchell Robinson, who should soon return from a groin injury to continue racking up fouls and thriving in short-minute stints. 

    Second, we still can't rule out the possibility of Kristaps Porzingis making his way back from an ACL tear, especially after Marc Berman of the New York Post provided a nice dose of optimism. If the Latvian 7-footer plays, everything changes for the better in the Big Apple. 

2. Chicago Bulls: Minus-4.835

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Current Win Percentage: 0.227 (No. 29)

    Current Net Rating: minus-10.1 (No. 29)

    Net Rating in Last 10 Gamesminus-13.2 (No. 29)

    Remaining Schedule Strength: 0.486 (No. 25)

    Not to pin too much of the blame on any one player, particularly a 21-year-old sophomore who's been forced to fight through injuries just to make it back on the floor, but Lauri Markkanen's stagnation has crippled the Chicago Bulls' offensive performance. So too has Jabari Parker's utter failure to justify the $20 million average annual salary he was handed this past offseason, and the all-around inability to find a secondary scorer capable of complementing a do-everything version of Zach LaVine. 

    But let's focus first on the Finnish forward. 

    During the 2017-18 campaign, Markkanen opened eyes by averaging 18.4 points and 1.4 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 43.4 percent from the field, 36.2 percent from downtown and 84.3 percent from the stripe. This year, his slash line has stood steady at 43.0/36.9/83.0 while he posts 19.1 points and 1.2 assists per 36 minutes. Diving even deeper, though, his shot distribution has actually moved his true shooting percentage down from 55.2 to 53.8, which sits well below the league-average mark of 55.8 percent

    In his defense, this isn't exactly an aberration on the Windy City roster. 

    Ryan Arcidiacono (6.4 points per game on 60.2 true shooting percentage), Cristiano Felicio (3.0 on 59.8 in just 28 appearances), Wayne Selden (4.6 on 56.6 in just five appearances) and LaVine (23.2 on 56.4) are the only four players posting above-average efficiency numbers. And that, in a nutshell, is why Chicago's 101.8 offensive rating could be a historic mark for all the wrong reasons, with few indications it'll get much better despite facing a fairly easy remaining schedule. 

    Not only does that settle 3.2 points per 100 possessions behind the No. 29 Phoenix Suns, allowing for a gap larger than the one between Phoenix and the No. 21 Miami Heat, but it's even worse when compared to the league average (110.1). The era-adjusted offensive rating of 92.5 would be one of the dozen worst marks in league history, per NBA Math.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Minus-6.175

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    Current Win Percentage: 0.205 (No. 30)

    Current Net Rating: minus-11.0 (No. 30)

    Net Rating in Last 10 Games: minus-17.1 (No. 30)

    Remaining Schedule Strength: 0.495 (No. 17)

    As bad as the Chicago Bulls are on offense, the Cleveland Cavaliers are even worse on the defensive end. They can't stop a nosebleed when handed a new box of tissues, and that's not likely to change as the team offloads key pieces (Cleveland has taken calls about Tristan Thompson, per Amico Hoops' Sam Amico) and faces a tougher remaining schedule while posting league-worst numbers in all three relevant performance categories. 

    Thus far, the Cavs have hemorrhaged 118.1 points per 100 possessions, which leaves them well behind the No. 29 New York Knicks (114.9). And again, that allows for a yawning chasm between them and everyone else, this time large enough to span the gap between the Knicks and the No. 22 Chicago Bulls. 

    According to NBA Math's era-adjusted numbers, they'd be one of the five worst defensive outfits in league history: 

    1. 1998-99 Denver Nuggets: 92.57
    2. 2005-06 Seattle SuperSonics: 92.83
    3. 1998-99 Los Angeles Clippers: 93.16
    4. 2003-04 Orlando Magic: 93.21
    5. 2018-19 Chicago Bulls: 93.23

    That's less than ideal, especially for a team that's also posting the Association's No. 23 offensive rating. 

    We won't sugarcoat this one. The Cavaliers are easily the most futile team in the league right now, and they've been playing even worse basketball as the season progresses. They have the lowest win percentage, the No. 30 net rating and a score that's trended in the wrong direction during recent weeks. They also have the second-toughest schedule of our five leading Zion Williamson suitors.

    At least there's a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel that can jump out of the gym...unless the ping-pong balls bounce the wrong way. 

        

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into games Jan. 16 and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.