The NBA recently messed with the odds in the draft lottery in order to discourage teams from tanking, but the real fruits of that move will be revealed over time, and anyway certain teams—looking at you, Phoenix—need no promise of draft lottery gold in order to just profoundly suck and lose all the time, with absolutely no end in sight. Besides, when being good and competitive is completely out of the question, even with reduced lottery odds tanking can still be the only viable direction.
Last season, which was the final year before the implementation of the new draft lottery structure and also preceded a draft featuring incredibly hyped top-end talent, no team finished with a win percentage lower than .250. The 2016–2017 season, which played out ahead of a draft loaded with hyped guard talent, saw just one team fall below that line. The prior year had two. In the last 20 seasons, stretching back to the 1998–1999 campaign, there have never been more than three sub-.250 teams in one season. This season, the first of the new era of non-tanking, there are four. The Bulls, the Cavaliers, the Knicks, and of course the Suns have all won fewer than a quarter of their games; the Suns and Knicks have each won fewer than a fifth. Those two teams are currently on a combined 26-game losing streak.
Let’s pause a moment to gape in horror at how much of this is organic. Whatever certain addled veterans told themselves in order to get pumped and jacked for this season, the Cavs went directly into the toilet the very moment LeBron James signed with the Lakers. The Knicks opened the season without the services of their one single bona fide NBA starter, who they have since traded for exactly zero bona fide NBA starters. The Bulls traded for their only legitimate starting-caliber player Wednesday evening. The Suns have the extremely legit and not at all hilariously overrated Devin Booker, which makes their season-long failure to win even once every five games a total, total mystery. Those obvious sleeping giants in Phoenix aside, these teams genuinely and truly suck whole steaming truckloads of shit.
But now that the trade deadline is behind us, and the playoff races are pretty well defined, the chance to land the pick that will grant right of first refusal for the services of Zion Williamson will be much more alluring for a whole bunch of teams than whatever incremental developmental improvements can be wrung out of otherwise meaningless regular season games. Under the new lottery system, the three worst teams in the league will share equal 14 percent odds of scoring the top pick; the fourth-worst team will still have a 12.5 percent chance. The top four picks are determined by the lottery, which means the team with the worst record at least has the small advantage of security against dropping any lower than fifth in the draft order. There might be less incentive to tank these days, but if you’re sitting on a .189 win percentage on February 8, what the fuck else are you going to do.
This race will be fun to watch, in its own twisted way. These four teams are so far gone, record-wise, that no dark horse contender has even the remotest chance of joining their ranks. The Bulls—the “best” of the four, record-wise—have a six-game “lead” on the spunky Hawks, and an insurmountable 10-game lead on the late-charging Wizards and Grizzlies. All the drama will be in watching the four bottommost teams achieve truly unprecedented levels of crappiness, like four suicidal penguins racing each other off into the frozen wastes. The Knicks have five games left against their fellow bottom-feeders, and sit in the driver’s seat in the race for the worst record. The Suns, in second place, play four more games among their peers. The Cavaliers, quite possibly the worst defensive team in NBA history and holders of the league’s worst net rating, play four. The Bulls, saddled with a coach with too much to prove and a new small forward with actual experience winning NBA games, play just three.
It’s been a whole month since the Knicks have won a game; it will have been more than a month by the time the Suns next play a team they have any realistic chance of beating. These four teams have a real shot at some historic feats of sustained losing. Tanking isn’t what it used to be, but sucking is just as powerful as ever.