The NBA’s 2017-18 tank job sweepstakes is on. With the trade deadline having passed and buyout season underway, we have nine teams legitimately in the race for the worst record in the league. One of those teams — the Brooklyn Nets — famously does not control its own 2018 first-round draft pick, which means it has no incentive to lose games. The others all have their picks. As such, the worse they are, the better off they are.
The 2018 NBA Draft is replete with stars. At least one (Luka Doncic) and possibly up to four or five prospects look like franchise cornerstones. That means that failing to win the No. 1 or 2 pick isn’t a death sentence in this draft, but it also means that ensuring you get one of those top four or five picks is imperative. Because lottery reform does not go into effect until next season, you can guarantee a top-five pick only by having one of the league’s worst two records.
As such, there should be plenty of competition for those worst two records.
Here’s our assessment of the nine teams in the mix for that worst record heading into all-star weekend. These teams are all within five games of the worst record currently (18-40, shared by three squads). We’ll move from the best teams in the clique to the absolute worst. In other words, we’ll start with the team we feel has the lowest odds at the worst record and move to the best.
(Note that we didn’t include Charlotte because nothing indicates the Hornets are prepared to get into this race despite being awful close to the Knicks in the standings. We also didn’t include the Lakers for that same reason and the fact that L.A. does not control its own pick. If you want to add them, consider them Nos. 10 and 11 respectively.)
The Bulls are objectively terrible, with the third-worst scoring margin in the NBA. They also traded the player, Nikola Mirotic, who had been their best for much of the first half of the season. These are strong tanking fundamentals.
One problem: Zach LaVine is back from injury, and he’s playing for a contract. While most of these awful teams have at least one good player, the Bulls have one good player in LaVine and a collection of decent role players around him. That’s doom for a tank job.
Chicago has a tendency to win close games, too, which is anathema to finishing with fewer than 25 wins.
8. New York Knicks
The Knicks are careening into the tankapalooza, having lost seven straight to finally fall below .400. Kristaps Porzingis is out for the season, which should help New York be terrible. They’ve had the easiest schedule among the worst teams so far, so they’ll get a benefit there.
The problem is they started off the season too well. As of Feb. 14, they’ve won five more games than the three teams tied for last. That’s a lot of ground to make up in less than a third of the season.
You can’t parachute into a race for the worst record in January and expect to challenge teams who were born to do this, who built their seasons around this. No matter how awful the Knicks look any given night, the gap is too big.
Whether New York can fall below Chicago in the standings is an interesting race to watch if you are a sick individual who enjoys this stuff.
7. Brooklyn Nets
As noted, the Nets have no incentive to be terrible. This is only half the battle: Brooklyn is bad, folks. They have lost six straight and while Spencer Dinwiddie is a joy, this team can’t compete against most decent teams. We don’t expect the Nets to sit their most productive players, though, and that should keep them away from the very worst teams.
Keep in mind, though, that the seventh-worst team in the NBA still has a 15 percent probability of landing a top-three pick. Not all is lost for the Cavaliers if the Nets finish around here.
Who else is waiting for the Grizzlies to find a reason to shut down Marc Gasol? He just turned 33 and he’s clearly the team’s best player (even in a down year). Memphis is plenty bad with him playing normal minutes — the Grizz are winless in February — but there are three teams below them in the West alone, yet within striking distance. Memphis could be really bad if it tried.
Keep an eye on the Memphis injury reports. Gasol just might procure a nagging toe injury or something soon.
The Magic sold low on Elfrid Payton at the deadline and are so dysfunctional on the court (see the end of the Bulls game) that you really do start to believe they could get the worst record. But Orlando’s offense is not atrocious (pretty close to average, actually) and losing Payton might actually help that. Aaron Gordon, when he’s healthy, is playing for a huge contract. Frank Vogel might be coaching for his job, given there’s a new front office in town.
Based on the franchise’s history, the Magic are about due for a No. 1 pick in a year where there’s a legit star waiting. But they could very well win that with the fifth-worst record.
Among these five or six worst teams, truly any of them could go on a 15-loss bender at any moment. Dallas slots in here because it is relatively new to this whole “losing” thing and isn’t accustomed to the emotions of being bad on purpose. There’s a certain unnaturalness to which the Suns and Kings have become more accustomed. It takes time to accept the reality of your demise.
That said, Rick Carlisle is a tactician supreme, and if anyone can draw up a game-losing play on purpose, it’s him. (Has anyone asked Mark Cuban whether the Mavericks will ever tank lately, by the way?)
The Hawks have been the most quietly consistent awful team all season. No illusions here: just always hideous basketball.
There is a small concern they haven’t been totally embarrassing since roughly December, and five of these teams have worse scoring margins. They did beat the Kings by 48 that one time! But wow, what a pleasantly bad squad.
2. Sacramento Kings
For much of the season, the Kings had a net rating below -10, which is historically bad. They have improved that a little since letting the youth loose; getting George Hill gone and freeing De’Aaron Fox and Frank Mason has weirdly improved the odds of the Kings winning random games without actually making them better, if that makes sense. (And if it doesn’t ... welcome to Sacramento Kings basketball!)
No team needs Doncic as much as the Kings. But Sacramento could also reap big rewards from Mo Bamba, DeAndre Ayton, or Marvin Bagley. Big summer ahead for Sacramento.
1. Phoenix Suns
This is the substantively the worst team the NBA has seen since the 10-win 2015-16 76ers. They have four 40-point losses already; one more earns them a new NBA record. Devin Booker is as fun and his all-star campaign was funny (very), but wow, what an awful roster.
Some of that can be chalked up to youth. But this deep into a rebuild and without many developmental results, the hope for tomorrow wears thin. That blueprint has a lot of scribbles at this point.
Substantively, the Suns are the worst team in the NBA and should finish with the worst record. But they are so bad at all things they just might be too bad at losing properly to grab that worst record. It’s incredible that a team this bad is tied in the standings with two other teams (Atlanta and Sacramento) and just a game worse than two more teams. The awfulness is caving in on itself. It’s awfulness all the way down.