A fun thing to track, this time of year, is NBA games that produce outcomes that, purely from a standings perspective, are catastrophic for both teams. This season offers plenty of potential on this front: 18 of the NBA’s 30 teams are firmly in the playoff picture; all but the top two of each conference are engaged in desperate battles for higher seeds and/or breathing room; a full eight of the remaining 12 teams are engaged in just as intense a battle for draft lottery positioning; there are just four teams left for whom a particular win or loss isn’t especially a big deal one way or another.
Double-tank games have their own kind of delightful comedy, where two teams that must lose face off in a game in which one or the other, in fact, must win. But I submit that the double-disaster game is even more terribly funny and wonderful: there’s nothing quite like watching both organizations sink into grey-faced misery over a result neither one remotely wants. In a season that is quickly losing its luster to injuries and an especially shameless race to the bottom, these grim pleasures can at least dot our misery, like bright pickle chunks in Aunt Louise’s lousy, overcooked potato salad.
So while Memphis’s astonishing 61-point loss to the irrelevant-but-proud Charlotte Hornets Friday night was surely embarrassing as hell, it produced a result both franchises had reason to celebrate: the Grizzlies are as poor in young talent as any team in the NBA, and so their path to a relevant future requires some kind of draft lottery gold. The losses that really make your eyes sparkle with ghoulish delight are like, say, when the Milwaukee Bucks gave up 126 points and lost to the utterly pointless Orlando Magic last Wednesday. The Bucks are in no danger of dropping out of the playoff picture, but as testament to the importance of playoff seeding, they played Giannis 41 minutes that night. It was not enough to prevent Jonathon Simmons and [gulp] D.J. Augustin from combining for 67 points in a win the Magic would almost certainly prefer to hand back. The Bucks are stuck in the East’s 8th seed; the Magic are 2.5 games better than the league-worst Suns, stuck in that pack of teams chasing lottery gold. So while Augustin and Simmons surely enjoyed their brief brush with success, the result was very seriously unwelcome, for both organizations.
Last Saturday the Nuggets dropped an absolutely crushing loss to the Grizzlies, in Memphis, in what I then imagined had to be the worst loss of the season. The Nuggets are hanging onto the bottom of the West playoff picture by a thread; the Grizzlies were riding an astounding 19-game losing streak, and won despite a hilariously bad 13-of-45 shooting performance from the combination of Marc Gasol, Tyreke Evans, and JaMychal Green. Yes, the Nuggets were (and are) without Gary Harris, but they’d also recently been fortified by the return of Paul Millsap. They turned the ball over just seven times in the game; Memphis’s most-used lineup featured the Jarell Martin-JaMychal Green-Marc Gasol abomination; in all, the Grizzlies played Martin and Green together alongside a center for more than 20 minutes of action. The Nuggets will look back at this loss with bitter disappointment if (when) they miss the playoffs; the Grizzlies will be there to give their misery some company, when lottery odds grant the marginally worse Suns the best chance at the top pick in the upcoming draft.
The Jazz lost on Tuesday, at home, to the Atlanta Hawks, in a game in which Dennis Schröder scored 41 points. Losses taken by teams in the West pack are for sure worse, by virtue of the steeper potential consequences in a race that extends to the conference’s 10th seed. The loss ended a Jazz nine-game winning streak, and snapped a Hawks six-game losing streak, and sent the Jazz, who’d climbed as high as the West’s 4th seed, tumbling towards the bottom of the playoff pack. Utah had the halftime lead and led by four points entering the fourth quarter, before Schröder exploded for 17 points in the final frame to bring the Hawks back for a result that registers as a bitter disappointment for both organizations. The Hawks are now two games behind the Suns in the race for the worst record in the NBA. They might have one single future building block under contract, and are in any ranking of the NBA’s least relevant franchises—that they turned a sure loss, on the road, into a win registers as a crushingly unfortunate development.
Saturday’s slate of games offers none of these potential thrills: every game features either two tanking teams or two solid teams. Sunday gives us the sagging Wizards hosting the bombing Knicks. Monday has the hobbled Timberwolves hosting the cascading Grizzlies. The Wolves turn around and host the awful Hawks on Wednesday. The Suns, losers of 10 straight and legitimate challengers to the mantle of True Tank Lords, have two games left against vulnerable Western Conference playoff teams; the Grizzlies have seven; the Hawks play six games against teams struggling for playoff positions; the Mavericks can fuck shit up for themselves and four different playoff teams before their season mercifully ends.
Whole seasons—whole organizational directions, whole visions for the future!—can be sent spiraling to hell this time of year; it’s rare and special and blessed to have so many games where both teams can experience the torment at the same time. Let’s enjoy it while we can.