There are a lot of things talking heads like to do to, for lack of a better word, "hate" on the NBA. One such thing they do is write about the major problem the league has with "tanking." In it's simplest terms, tanking simply refers to teams giving up on this season. In it's most pejorative terms, it means coaches and/or players intentionally losing games in order to get better position in the draft lottery. Either way, assuming you don't want to take a beating in the arena of public opinion, you don't want to be a team that's "tanking."
Just how taboo is tanking? Bill Simmons, one of the most enthusiastic NBA fans on the planet, once referred to it as one of the league's biggest issues. Hell, he proposed a crazy eight-team pre-playoff tournament that he thinks would get rid of the problem. Players don't want to hear it either. Earlier this week, Philadelphia's Rodney Carney, ironically a player who would benefit from "tanking" in that he'd finally get real playing time, declared that it's "impossible" for players to tank. The message is clear in both cases: if you admit you're "tanking," you're asking for some major backlash.
But here's the problem: what exactly is tanking? Yahoo! Sports' Kelly Dwyer raises a good point: tanking means a lot of things. If a team is out of the playoff race and decides to go to a youth movement, that's tanking, isn't it? If a team decides to clear a big long-term salary off the books to create cap room, that's tanking, isn't it? If a team decides to give an impending young free agent an extended look to give them a better idea about whether they should re-sign him, that's tanking, isn't it? All these are things fans ask their teams to do every year, yet they kind of fall under the definition of tanking.
With all this in mind, I feel like it's a good time to create some levels of tanking. Now is the perfect time, because frankly, a lot of NBA teams are tanking. The ten worst teams in the NBA went a combined 6-33 last week. Many of them have already cut tons of salary and given away playing time to players who wouldn't likely play under normal circumstances. Those who haven't yet soon will. So, in the interest of analyzing "tanking season" right, here are some levels of tanking.
LEVEL 1: Pretending nothing has changed and not changing anything:
This refers to teams that don't clear away long-term salary and keep playing veterans as if they're still in the playoff race. They're so concerned with not creating a "losing mentality" that they fumble away the best chance to develop their players.
(Examples: 2008/09 Washington Wizards, this year's Indiana Pacers).
LEVEL 2: Making trades with the future in mind, whether it's cap space or young talent:
This is pretty self-explanatory. Essentially, it refers to teams that trade their high-priced veterans so their coach has no choice but to play the young guys.
(Examples: Too many to count this year).
LEVEL 3: Randomly putting a guy who you want to evaluate for next year into the rotation:
All teams have that guy who they want to get an idea about whether he belongs in their future plans. This isn't necessarily one of the core young players, but rather, it's a fringe player that may or may not be back with the team next year.
LEVEL 4: Randomly putting a young player or young players in the rotation:
This refers to teams that decide to go to a youth movement and bench their veterans, or at least scale back their playing time. They do this even if their youngster hasn't "earned" any more minutes.
LEVEL 5: Randomly playing a crappy veteran player over your better young player:
Apply this level the next time you see some older player you know stinks taking away the minutes of the younger player that everyone knows is better. I'm guessing you'll see more of this in the future, but you're already seeing a bit of it now.
(Examples: Ryan Hollins taking Kevin Love's minutes in Minnesota, Trenton Hassell playing at all in New Jersey, Quinton Ross playing over Nick Young in Washington, Earl Watson playing over A.J. Price in Indiana)
LEVEL 6: Inventing "injuries" for your best players
Ah yes, the standard "sore knee" excuse. Surprisingly, we haven't seen as much of this yet as I expected, but watch to see how long the Bulls hold out Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah if they fall out of the playoff picture.
(Examples: The Celtics in 2006/07 with Paul Pierce)
LEVEL 7: Actually telling players to intentionally fail
Basically, what Carney was suggesting. This rarely happens, but every so often, it does.
(Examples: Mark Madsen shooting six threes in a season-ending game against the Clippers in 2006, thereby allowing Minnesota to keep its top-10 protected draft pick).
Think of these levels every time you watch the bottom 10 teams in the league. As for the rest? It's shaping up to be a very cool postseason, so enjoy them making that push.
Let's get on with the rankings already.
STILL IN THEIR OWN CATEGORY
30. New Jersey Nets: 7-59 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: NetsDaily
Last week: 30.
The Nets can't really tank because they'd have to collapse to lose the number one spot in the lottery, so they're probably going to be in Level 1 the rest of the way. It's the right call too. They're so young that they don't need to go to Level 3 or Level 4, and the only vets they could trot out for level five are Jarvis Hayes, Trenton Hassell and Keyon Dooling.
The end result is that the Nets are playing much better basketball recently. They had a big lead in Dallas, one of the league's hottest teams, before losing, and then made a nice comeback in a losing effort on the road against surging Oklahoma City. They still have to fight off a loser's mentality that's definitely kicked in this year -- you could tell from watching them go up big on Dallas that it was only a matter of time before they blew it -- but they're trying to do that the right way.
Ironically, the one team that's terrible is also the one that doesn't need to tank.
DREGS OF THE LEAGUE
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: 14-53 overall, 0-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus
Last week: 29.
Now here's a team that's clearly tanking. Kevin Love, who doesn't play enough normally, was asked to guard Carmelo Anthony in a loss to Denver, and then sat out with a "sprained foot." Darko Milicic, who was previously taking a lot of Love's minutes, also turned up with a minor injury. Sasha Pavlovic, who wasn't playing at all earlier in the year, is getting minutes again. Ryan Hollins keeps being allowed to start games. Corey Brewer and Jonny Flynn played less than 20 minutes in a loss to Sacramento. On and on it goes.
They're even offering season tickets for next year at half price on their website, in a package that includes all sorts of goodies like an open letter from David Kahn. How could you say no to this face? Seriously, how could you?
28. Golden State Warriors: 18-48 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind
Last week: 28.
I guess it's hard to say a team is tanking when they've been decimated by so many injuries, but seeing Golden State fill their roster out with a bunch of average D-League guys has to indicate some sort of "tanking," no? I'm not even sure what level it falls under. You can't classify how Golden State is tanking. Just like you can't classify their management's incompetency.
27. Washington Wizards: 21-44 overall, 0-5 last week.
SBN Blog: Bullets Forever
Last week: 26.
They're not really tanking, they're just bad, though I guess you could argue they define Level 2 in that they traded all their veterans for cap space. They also are about to complete a ridiculous five-games-in-six-days stretch with a game in Denver tonight. They had to play three straight games because the NBA rescheduled a snowed-out game against Atlanta for last Thursday, even though the Wizards had games on Friday and Saturday. It's not that surprising that they keep losing.
What is surprising is that Shaun Livingston is playing well. It's nice to see him back in the fold after his terrible injury three years ago. Is it safe to say that he's been the only bright spot this season for us Wizards fans?
26. Los Angeles Clippers: 25-43 overall, 0-5 last week.
SBN Blog: Clips Nation.
Last week: 21.
Eight straight losses and counting for the Clippers. The latest came last night against New Orleans, in a game the Clippers had a lead entering the fourth quarter and collapsed. Drew Gooden and Rasual Butler played 40 and 35 minutes, respectively as Kim Hughes only played eight players the whole game. They traded Marcus Camby away to save a buck, and their bloggers are worried they will want to really tank down the stretch. These are all signs that their tanking is just going to get worse.
25. Philadelphia 76ers: 23-44 overall, 0-5 last week.
SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers
Last week: 24.
Philly is a hilarious mess right now. Eddie Jordan's supposedly a goner, in large part because management wants him to play Jodie Meeks and he won't (haha!). Elton Brand, meanwhile, played 22 minutes last night against the Knicks and grabbed fewer rebounds than Jason Kapono. Jrue Holiday, who was in Jordan's doghouse earlier in the year, got 41 minutes against the Knicks, more than everyone except Andre Iguodala. I bring these up not to prove Philly is tanking, but instead to prove that nothing is coherent.
Kind of like this recap on Liberty Ballers. The stream-of-consciousness of the post mirrors the 76ers. As does this tanking poem.
We're moving on down
It's a free fall
We have one of the worst records in basketball
We're moving on down
It's a free fall
For a slightly better chance at John Wall
24. Indiana Pacers: 21-45 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows
Last week: 27.
File this under "too funny to comment:" Mike Dunleavy missed Sunday's game against the Bucks because he got hit in the eye by an errant shot during warmups. I wonder if A.J. Price did it on purpose so he could finally get some playing time.
23. Detroit Pistons: 23-44 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys.
Last week: 25.
Detroit's clearly a Level 3 team, though that's because of circumstances (Rodney Stuckey's collapse) they couldn't control. Stuckey's absence has been Will Bynum's opportunity, and he took advantage of it with 20 assists against the Wizards on Friday. Yeah, yeah, the 20th assist may have been a bit sketchy, but it's still 20 assists and Randy Wittman needs to lighten up. Randy, he killed your team all day; the least he can do is be allowed to set up a teammate for a meaningless basket to get to 20 assists.
Anyway, if Detroit needs any advice deciding what to do with him (and Joe Dumars probably does after last summer's disaster), here's mine.
Keep him. That's all.
22. Sacramento Kings: 23-44 overall, 1-3 last week
SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty
Last week: 22.
You could argue that Sacramento's been tanking all season with Paul Westphal's screwy player rotations, but it's working better now because the Kings are finishing relatively strongly compared to the other teams in this category. If you watched last night's Kings-Timberwolves game, you saw two teams with somewhat comparable talent, except one had players who tried and one didn't. Management may be looking toward the future with these Kings, but they haven't given up on doing something positive out there. That says a lot.
21. New York Knicks: 24-43 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting
Last week: 23.
Prior to this week, Toney Douglas had played at least 20 minutes seven times this season in 60 games. He's now played at least 20 minutes in each of the last five games, and the Knicks are 3-2. Go figure. The Knicks engage in a blatant Level 4 tank job (though they can't really tank since they lose their pick), and they start winning.
20. Chicago Bulls: 31-34 overall, 0-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Blog A Bull
Last week: 18.
They're still technically in the playoff race, but with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng struggling with injuries, they're essentially not a team anymore. If they do somehow get there, they have a unique opportunity to knock the Raptors out and simultaneously sell Chris Bosh on the idea of coming to Chicago. Think about it: if Bosh's healthy Raptors team can't beat out the banged-up Bulls for the playoffs, why should Bosh go back there?
Bosh would also be able to play with teammates that'll fight officials. How could he pass that up?
19. Toronto Raptors: 32-33, 0-4 last week.
SBN Blog: Raptors HQ
Last week: 14.
Typical Raptors: they play hard in a heartbreaking loss to the Lakers, then lay eggs on the road in losses to Sacramento and Golden State. Then, when they got to Portland, Hedo Turkoglu was mercilessly booed because he spurned the Blazers to sign with the Raptors at the last minute. With the way things are going, it's Raptor fans that should be booing Hedo, not Blazer fans.
And, of course, Chris Bosh is pissed at his team, saying they don't like winning basketball games. This summer, he's presumably going to go to a team that likes winning basketball games, unless he's really just in it for the groupies. Toronto fans, be concerned. Be very concerned.
18. New Orleans Hornets: 33-35 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: At the Hive
Last week: 19.
You have to credit Jeff Bower for keeping this rag-tag bunch in the playoff race, but it appears they're about to run out of steam. Because of that, At the Hive asks whether the Hornets should even let Chris Paul play again this year. There's a pretty legit argument that it serves no purpose for Paul to play, because he could reinjure himself playing pointless games late in the season.
Of course, this would fall under Bill Simmons' version of tanking, so we should all be OUTRAGED if it happens. Nevermind that it makes prudent long-term sense.
17. Memphis Grizzlies: 35-32 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver
Last week: 15.
The statement game of last week was clearly Memphis' epic beatdown of the Celtics in Beantown on Wednesday. It's tempting to continue to spout the "this proves Boston's old" line, but the win was as much about Memphis as the Celtics. Here's a team that's continued to play well enough to be a threat for the playoffs, in a year where everything was supposed to disintegrate into a tank-happy mess. We've waited for all this to fall apart, and it simply hasn't. The Grizzlies have no bench, a terribly disappointing number two draft pick and a bunch of scrap-heap guys like Marcus Williams and Lester Hudson getting minutes, and they're still a winning team.
If they were in the East, they'd be a dangerous out for one of the top four seeds. Unfortunately, they're in the West, so they're probably going to be heading back to the lottery. Still, this has been a mighty impressive season for these guys. Let's appreciate, not hate.
16. Miami Heat: 35-32 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier
Last week: 14.
Dwyane Wade is a brilliant, brilliant basketball player. Need more evidence? As the Heat continue to crumble around him, with Rafer Alston's suspension, Dorrell Wright's DUI and Daequan Cook and Mario Chalmers' crappiness, Wade is pushing them to victory, with a bit of an assist from Jermaine O'Neal. Earlier in the year, Wade was being a bit sloppy. Now? He's back to being his brilliant self.
15. Houston Rockets: 34-31 overall, 3-0 last week
SBN Blog: The Dream Shake
Last week: 20.
We're finally starting to see the plucky overachievers again! Last night's Rockets-Nuggets game was a classic, with the Rockets (whose best offensive player is Kevin Martin, mind you) dropping 125 points on the Nuggets and winning on an Aaron Brooks jumper. Luis Scola is ballin' (44 points against the Nets!?), Martin is fitting in, and Jordan Hill's showing why they won't miss Carl Landry as much as expected. It's a perfect time to cue up this buzzer beater.
They're back to being fun again. Now, if they could just make a push and knock out the Spurs from the playoff picture ...
14. Charlotte Bobcats: 34-31 overall, 4-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire
Last week: 16.
The Bobcats are playing great, having beaten the Magic as one of their four wins this week. Tyrus Thomas has been a revelation and the rest of the club is getting back to playing the kind of stifling defense they can play.
GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT
13. San Antonio Spurs: 39-25 overall, 3-0 last week
SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock.
Last week: 13.
They got three wins this week, but they were against three bad teams, so I'm not impressed. If I'm any of the top teams, I still want to play these guys in the playoffs, even with all their supposed "championship experience." Moving on...
12. Phoenix Suns: 41-26 overall, 1-1 last week
SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun.
Last week: 8.
This might be a harsh drop, but blame the teams ahead of them for playing really, really well this week. A home loss to the Lakers isn't the end of the world, because that game got really chippy and it could have gone either way. When the normally chill Alvin Gentry gets this upset, it's probably for a good reason.
11. Portland Trail Blazers: 41-28 overall, 4-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Blazers Edge
Last week: 12.
Whaddaya know, the Blazers finally get some semblance of continuity (i.e. no injuries), and they start to play really well. Their offense just ripped apart the Raptors on Sunday, scoring 109 points in just 80 possessions. I know Toronto stinks defensively, but that's insane.
Since March 1, the Blazers are 6-1. Brandon Roy is slowly getting healthier, and he's learning to play well alongside Andre Miller. Throw in Marcus Camby's return to health, LaMarcus Aldridge's newfound toughness and Nicolas Batum's emergence, and you have an outstanding starting five, with youngsters Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, Martell Webster and Dante Cunningham in reserve. Imagine if they had their full complement of players all season. Don't you think they'd have approached the Lakers' record? Hell, the Lakers are probably scared to play these guys in the playoffs as is.
10. Boston Celtics: 42-24 overall, 2-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Celtics Blog.
Last week: 7.
Forget the record for a second. Just think about the way the Celtics played against Memphis and Cleveland. They were totally blown out. Frankly, they didn't belong on the same court with either of those teams. And before you come back at me with the whole "they only lost by 11 on the road to Cleveland" defense, consider that Cleveland missed 17 free throws. If they hit most of those, the margin becomes a whole lot worse.
We keep talking about how it's only a matter of time until a corner gets turned. Well, here we are in March, with one month left until the playoffs, and I don't see that corner in sight. Keep holding out hope, Celtics fans, but it's not coming.
9. Milwaukee Bucks: 36-29 overall, 3-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Brew Hoop
Last week: 11.
12-1 and counting since the John Salmons trade, with wins over Utah, Boston, Cleveland, Charlotte and at Miami. The win over the Jazz is the most impressive, because it came with both teams at full strength. Utah's been arguably the hottest team in the league since Janaury, and the Bucks completely controlled the game against them. You can't attribute it to a lack of rest, because neither team played the night before. You can't fully attribute it to injuries, since both teams came in fully healthy (though Andrei Kirilenko got hurt during the game). The Bucks just were the better team. Sure, they were at home, but Milwaukee isn't exactly an imposing place to play, Andrew Bogut's Section 6 aside. The Bucks were just better that night. That's a crazy thought, but it's true: the Bucks are really good and whoever gets the fourth seed in the East (cough Boston cough) is in trouble.
And since I have nothing else to add, here's Brandon Jennings' recent Under Armour spot (via Ball Don't Lie). Pretty cool if you ask me.
9. Atlanta Hawks: 42-23 overall, 2-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops.
Last week: 10.
They take care of the bad teams and struggle against the good teams. This is nothing new. Moving on...
7. Oklahoma City Thunder: 41-24 overall, 3-0 last week
SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City
Last week: 9.
Right now, the Jazz and Thunder are the fourth and fifth seeds in the Western Conference. Based on the way the Thunder have played the Jazz this year (three wins, including last Sunday's), you'd have to consider the Thunder the favorites, right? Forget playoff experience; the Jazz just can't beat them. Which means ... the Thunder and the Lakers could play in the second round of the playoffs.
Whoa. I hope that blows your mind as much as it blows mine.
6. Utah Jazz: 43-24 overall, 3-2 last week.
SBN Blog: SLC Dunk
Last week: 6.
Yeah, yeah, I know, Friday's and Sunday's losses to Milwaukee and Oklahoma City constitute Utah's first two-game losing streak since the first two games of the new year. Still, Utah's got to get lucky and avoid the Thunder in the playoffs. They've killed San Antonio, Portland and Phoenix this year, but they've struggled against Denver and OKC. It's tough for me to take a team so matchup-dependent seriously as a title contender, even if they have no business being as good as they are with their injuries and their lack of depth.
A lot of that success is due to Deron Williams, so let's give him the credit he deserves.
5. Dallas Mavericks: 45-22 overall, 1-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball.
Last week: 2.
Their long winning streak finally ended, which isn't the end of the world because every team has to lose sometime. What is troubling is that the loss was at home to the Knicks by 34 points. Considering the Mavericks also had several near-misses in their winning streak, it's worth wondering whether we're starting to overrate them.
4. Denver Nuggets: 45-22 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs.
Last week: 5.
Watch this dunk by J.R. Smith. Seriously, just watch it.
Are you kidding me? Denver Stiffs asks if it's the best in-game dunk in Nuggets history, but let me go a step further. Is that the best in-game dunk in NBA history? Pardon me if I'm upsetting the basketball gods, but Smith just pulled off a 360 alleyoop. There's no way there's a dunk out there that tops that. Sorry, Dr. J and Michael.
3. Orlando Magic: 47-21 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Last week: 3.
They finally lost a game, falling at home to Charlotte in their third game in four nights on Sunday, but they're still 11-3 since the all-star break, including wins over Cleveland and the Lakers. They're beginning to separate themselves from Dallas and Denver in the championship picture, and I think it's safe to say they have as much a shot as anyone right now. That may change if Rashard Lewis continues to play like Brian Cook, but he'll pick it up.
Just think: for all their problems, they could be better than last year.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-18 overall, 3-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Last week: 4.
They're still squeaking by on the strength of Kobe Bryant, having beaten the Raptors by just two and the Warriors by just three. At this point, they're probably not going to change. But instead of complaining about this team, I'm just going to appreciate another Kobe buzzer beater.
Kobe now has won six games with buzzer beaters by himself. The Nets as a team have won seven games. Advantage, Kobe.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: 52-15 overall, 2-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Fear the Sword
Last week: 1.
Maybe Andrew Sharp was right. Maybe the Cavs are better off without Shaq, because it's forced Mike Brown to open up the offense a little. I'm sure the Cavs want Shaq back in the playoffs, but they're succeeding without him.
Of course, it helps to be as loaded as the Cavs are in the frontcourt, with Shaq, Antawn Jamison (also injured), Anderson Varejao, J.J. Hickson and now Leon Powe. I'm guessing they could survive an injury to anyone but LeBron.