It’s hard to remember a time when this many NBA teams were this awful. It’s impossible to remember a time when this many NBA teams were apparently trying to lose.
We currently have eight teams on pace to win fewer than 30 games. That has never happened in an 82-game NBA season. (Eight teams did win below 35.3 percent of their games — the equivalent of 29 wins — in lockout-shortened 2011-12, but that’s an asterisk of a season.) In most regular seasons, four or five teams will lose 53 games or more. Occasionally, the NBA will have six or (rarely) seven teams in that club. The odds are strong that we’ll get eight.
Of those eight awful teams, seven own their first-round draft picks and as such stand to benefit greatly in June when the NBA Draft comes around. The Brooklyn Nets owe their pick to the Cavaliers, and as such have no incentive to be bad. (That hasn’t stopped them. Brooklyn’s lost eight straight.)
The presence of Brooklyn in the bottom of this nasty barrel is a good reminder that being atrocious is not the domain solely of teams intending to be bad. The Nets, having no incentive to lose, had no intention of scraping the depths of the standings this season. But sometimes, the tank comes for you. That applies to the Memphis Grizzlies, as well: injuries, particularly a nasty blow to Mike Conley, cost them a shot at the playoffs. The Dallas Mavericks intended to compete for a playoff bid this season before reality set in. The Orlando Magic, with a new front office and a second-year coach, didn’t really know what it had, which ended up being almost nothing. Sometimes, you don’t try to field an abominable team. You just do.
But for those four teams without a preset intention to lose as many games as possible, there are four who entered training camp with management that knew what the real goal of the season was: get a high 2018 draft pick.
This isn’t to say coaches or players ever signed up for a losing season, or conceded that there was no chance of competing. This isn’t to say that these teams didn’t have other goals too, like developing young players already on the roster and building an identity. The intent to lose enough games to have a chance at Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson, Marvin Bagley, or Michael Porter isn’t exclusive or all-compassing. But it was important.
Few thought the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, or Phoenix Suns would be so much as decent. The brilliant Kevin Pelton had those four teams at the bottom of his preseason projections. More importantly, those teams came in knowing the deal.
Even though Sacramento brought in veterans George Hill and Zach Randolph, no sane person in the organization believed there was any possibility of a playoff chase. With the Kings owing their 2019 pick to Philadelphia and having traded All-NBA force DeMarcus Cousins last season, this was the year to bottom out and pick high. The Bulls traded their solitary star (Jimmy Butler) for a draft pick (Lauri Markkanen) and a dream (injured Zach LaVine) in the summer, betting on the future over the now. The Hawks have watched their stars walk in free agency and need to restock.
The Suns — oh! the Suns — pulled one of the more egregious in-season “youth movements” last season, sitting multiple healthy vets for a huge chunk of the season. That led to Bledsoe (sort of) requesting a trade early this season. Phoenix is amid a long rebuild bearing relatively little fruit to date. The team’s best young player, Devin Booker, was nabbed at the end of the lottery after a year in which the Suns barely missed the playoffs. The payoff on the high lottery picks Phoenix has amassed — Alex Len, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson — remains inconclusive.
So we have eight teams that are simply abysmal. After Sunday’s action, they have lost a collective 44 games straight. Three of them are on losing streaks of at least eight games right now. The eight teams are a combined 12-56 in February. Four of them are awful by some combination of happenstance and failure. Four of them are awful by design. Collectively, seven of them have serious incentive to lean into the disaster and pick up steam heading downhill.
Some of the teams have made explicit this goal. Kings coach Dave Joerger announced a month ago he planned to rest veterans regularly to get young players more time. (Some fans are upset he has not followed through with this plan more aggressively.) Mavericks franchise owner Mark Cuban was fined for talking about how losing just makes sense for Dallas right now. Memphis shut down Conley months into an injury that was only supposed to keep the point guard out weeks. Chicago iced Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday (at least temporarily) to get younger players more time.
What we have here is a mix of situational tanking (what Memphis, Dallas, and Orlando are doing after falling flat on their faces early this season) and institutional tanking (what Sacramento, Phoenix, Atlanta, and Chicago came into the season doing). Add in the perennially leveled Nets and you have a nasty brew of losing.
Some are wondering how we can fix this. But remember that the NBA already believes it has fixed it: lottery reform passed last summer and will go into effect for the 2018-19 season. This is the last season where the worst team in the NBA has 25 percent odds of landing the No. 1 pick and 64 percent odds of landing a top-3 pick.
Will lottery reform actually prevent another season like this? Will the altered odds shift how these teams decide to rebuild, or how these teams react to an unexpectedly bad season?
Well, let’s look at what the lottery odds would look like for these teams right now under the coming reform as opposed to what we have now.
Right now, one-and-half games separate the Suns, who have the league’s worst record by percentage points, from the Grizzlies who have the sixth worst record. If this held, under the lottery system currently in place, Phoenix would have 25 percent odds to win No. 1, 64 percent odds to get a top-3 pick, and its most likely pick would be the No. 4 (36 percent). Memphis, meanwhile, would have a 6 percent chance to win No. 1, 22 percent odds to get a top-3 pick, and its most likely pick would be No. 6 (44 percent).
That’s a huge difference in lottery odds on a razor’s margin in the standings. You can see why these teams would pull out all the stops to lose as much as possible.
Under the reformed system in place next season, the Suns would have 14 percent odds to win No. 1, 40 percent odds to pick in the top 3, and would most likely pick No. 5 (48 percent). The Grizzlies, down with the sixth worst record by a banana slug’s antenna, would have 9 percent odds at win No. 1, 28 percent offs to pick in the top 3, and would most likely pick No. 7 (30 percent).
Clearly, there is much less tactical justification to fight for the very worst record under lottery reform. The gap between the worst record and the sixth- or seventh-worst record in terms of lottery odds just won’t be that big.
But that only solves the situational tanking problem. It could mean fewer veterans resting, fewer late-season buyouts, fewer healthy scratches. It could mean we don’t have eight teams under 30 wins again. But it doesn’t do much to change the calculus on institutional tanking, beyond making it a somewhat bigger risk to pursue. The best way to land stars is still to draft them. Until that changes, there will be teams every year trying their best to do their worst.