By the time the NBA’s All-Star break usually rolls around, the standings are more or less set. It’s typically obvious which four or so teams will be contending for a championship, and it’s also apparent who will be spending the rest of the year in the toilet, tanking for superior lottery odds and draft positioning. As a Kings fan, the lottery is my NBA Finals, and I can usually tell where my team will pick by Valentine’s Day. However, this year’s a bit different.
While fans know to expect another Warriors championship, the opposite end of the standings is a big mess. There are plenty of very bad teams, but unlike in years past, almost no separation between them. The Kings are in current possession of the NBA’s worst winning percentage (.309), though five teams have more losses than Sacramento, and there’s almost no difference between the records of the league’s seven worst teams. Look at this shit!
A few caveats: The Nets don’t control their pick, so they’re not actively tanking though they are still very bad. The Bulls are slightly better than the gang of seven thanks largely to Nikola Mirotic, but now that he’s in New Orleans, you can expect them to truly head south. The Knicks will also probably start tanking soon thanks to Kristaps Porzingis’s injury. Because the Hornets did not trade Kemba Walker, and because the bottom of the standings is so clogged, they don’t seem like a candidate to tank even though they’re only a game better than the Knicks.
We’ve almost never seen this close of a race to the bottom this late in the season. For example: If the Kings beat the Mavericks tonight, they’d swap positions in the overall standings, a change which would have huge lottery implications if the season ended tomorrow. The gulf between the sort of player you can expect to pick with the first overall pick and the seventh is significant, and with margins this tight and the top of the draft so loaded, these nine teams will almost certainly pull out every possible stop to ensure that they don’t find themselves on the wrong end of this shuffle. When a single win could bump you back three spots in the draft and cost you a shot at Luka Dončić, why wouldn’t you do everything you can to make sure that doesn’t happen?
The race to finish last will be especially competitive this year because the forthcoming draft lottery is the last one under the current odds system, which guarantees the worst team a 25 percent chance at the top pick and no worse than the fourth pick. Next year, the worst three teams will each have a 14 percent chance of winning the lottery, and the very worst team could end up picking fifth. Teams will still be incentivized to tank, they’ll just get less for it.
There is a meaningful difference between just sort of being bad and actively tanking, which will likely start in earnest very soon. Players on the court will still usually try to win every night, because they are competitive professionals, actively losing breeds bad habits for young players, and next year’s draft position is primarily a higher order concern for management. However, teams will soon begin to shuffle the deck to keep their best players off the floor or, say, make their oldest player fire away from deep all game long. It’s actually started, as the Kings are already sitting a few veterans, the Bulls traded their most productive player, the Hawks cut Marco Belinelli loose after they couldn’t find a trade partner for him, the Grizzlies have effectively shelved Mike Conley for the season, and the Suns are letting Devin Booker take it very easy.
Assuming a good-faith effort to lose to the other 21 teams in the NBA, games played between the nine tanking teams this season will likely play the largest part in deciding the draft order, though, inevitably, some team will go on a winning streak because tanking is still a chaotic venture. Here is the number of games each team has left against fellow bottom feeders:
- Kings: Eight
- Suns: Five
- Hawks: Four
- Mavericks: Eight
- Magic: Nine
- Grizzlies: Seven
- Nets: Seven
- Bulls: Nine
- Knicks: Five
Going by margin of victory and the differential between offensive rating and defensive rating, the Suns and Kings look like the favorites to walk away with the rights to 25 percent of the lottery’s ping pong balls, and the Suns’ harder schedule probably gives them an edge. However, this thrilling race will go on for two months, so we’ll probably get to see some truly, spectacularly bad basketball as everyone vies to lose more efficiently.