We’re still two months away from the tip-off of the 2018-19 NBA season — as Wednesday’s limited schedule release painfully reminds us — but we have enough sense of teams’ goals to make a pretty bold statement. That is that only one out of the 30 teams in the league — the Atlanta Hawks — will be going into the regular season intending to lose as many games as possible.
This is what we call institutional tanking, or a preset, preseason notion that contending for a playoff spot is out of the question and a high draft pick (along with fuzzier accomplishments like developing young talent) is the goal. Only the Hawks meet that criteria going into 2018-19. Every other team is set on trying to compete, or doesn’t have the rights to their own 2019 first-round pick, making losing on purpose a foolish aim.
Last year, we determined there were four institutional tankers: the Hawks (who finished 24-58 and earned the No. 3 pick), the Chicago Bulls (27-55, No. 7 pick), the Sacramento Kings (27-55, No. 2 pick), and the Phoenix Suns (league-worst 21-61, No. 1 pick). None of those teams intended to actually win games at the start of the season, even if the Kings did sign a couple of veterans heading into that campaign. (More on the Kings soon.) The Bulls had traded Jimmy Butler for a rookie and an injured Zach LaVine. The Hawks had come as close to clearing the decks as possible. The Suns were worse than anticipated early in the season, and stayed bad.
Of course, the 2017-18 season was the golden age of NBA tanking, as these four teams were eventually joined by four more teams trying to lose as much as possible and a ninth team that had no reason to lose but no way of preventing it. These (excluding the Brooklyn Nets, that team without a reason to lose) were the situational tankers, franchises smacked upside the head by reality and delayed onset pragmatism.
The Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Orlando Magic, and New York Knicks didn’t begin the season anticipating chasing lottery balls. Injuries destroyed Memphis’ playoff hopes early on, and by December the Grizzlies were tanking. The Mavericks’ brain trust didn’t have the team they thought they did, and they switched plans by winter solstice. The Magic are an eternal mystery: with a new front office, the season’s goal was always in flux, and Orlando did little to resist fate. The Knicks came to the party late, diving into the lottery chase only after Kristaps Porzingis was lost for the season.
The Nets, as mentioned, didn’t have the rights to their own first-round pick, and so really weren’t tanking. They were just really bad. It happens.
So a year ago we started out with four intentional tankers and added four more. For 2018-19, we’re starting with one. How many will we add?
That’s the big question, the unknowable mystery at this point.
The Kings are flat-out going to be atrocious, barring some miracle skill growth from the young players on the roster. But Sacramento owes its pick to the Celtics (unless it’s No. 1 overall) or the Sixers (if it’s No. 1 overall), so there’s no reason to lose.
Does that make the Kings’ decision to add veterans before the 2017-18 season — when Sacramento had its pick and a bad, young roster — all the more confusing? Yes! Does it make the Kings’ almost total absence from the first two weeks of 2018 free agency all the more confusing? Yes! Really, the Kings are going to be as bad as any tanking team. But they aren’t tanking. They are just wholly mismanaged.
There are some obvious candidates for situational tankdom.
The Knicks could be in the mix. Porzingis tore his ACL in February, so he may end up missing a couple months to start the season. Last season, the Knicks were decent with Porzingis and atrocious without him. So this could definitely be a situation in which New York falls so far behind early on that there´s no point in doing anything but tanking. (The fact that the Knicks have cap space in an intriguing 2019 free agency market is a complicating factor. You want to at least try hard, a la the 2017-18 Lakers, to take advantage. But sometimes you don´t have a choice.)
The Suns intend to win games, as evidenced by their decision to sign Trevor Ariza to a weird 1-year deal. But Phoenix was so bad last season that Ariza, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and development from the team’s youth might be not be enough to drag the Suns from the dregs. If it becomes clear Phoenix has a shot at another top pick, perhaps the better players start resting in the late winter.
The Mavericks could still be bad, though adding DeAndre Jordan and Luka Doncic — plus Dallas’ general philosophical opposition to losing repeatedly — should at least make the team respectable.
We still have no idea what to make of the Magic. Does anyone?
The Bulls kept LaVine, added Jabari Parker, and drafted perhaps one of the most NBA-ready rookies in Wendell Carter. They should be better. (And Chicago was already among the best tanking teams last season.)
The Nets could be overmatched ... and actually have their own pick in the 2019 draft! So they are an option, albeit an unlikely one. Brooklyn is sick of losing.
The Grizzlies added more pieces and will have Mike Conley back from injury. They intend to make another playoff run. We’ll see.
The Clippers and Cavaliers could have bottomed out, but both look like they will compete. For L.A., that means likely finishing in 12th place or so in a treacherous Western Conference. For Cleveland, it probably means a playoff bid in a shallow East.
There are options, and there will be more tankers than just the Hawks. But it’s notable that in the year that the NBA is shifting lottery odds only one team is entering the season with the intent to lose. That’s not necessarily proof that lottery reform is having an impact. It is interesting, though.
In the meantime, the Hawks will get a nice head start in the race for the bottom. They didn’t need it last season. Get ready for some awful Hawks basketball, everyone.