We’ve reached a new low. A new article by ESPN’s Tim McMahon and Brian Windhorst, about this year’s race to the top of the NBA draft lottery, features many juicy details, but the most damning must be that NBA teams are using analytics in their tanking methods.
“It’ll be like ‘Mission: Impossible’,” one NBA executive said about informing coaches which lineups have been shown by advanced data to be the team’s most inept. “The coaches will get the data on paper that will self-destruct right after they read it.”
If that quote reads like a parody, that’s because it is, somewhat. ESPN’s story mentions that the executive was quoted with their “tongue partially planted in cheek.” But it also isn’t. These teams take this stuff seriously. Too seriously, and on a scale that will prove more damaging to a single season than ever before.
There are currently eight teams slumming at the bottom of the standings with 20 or fewer wins, and they have combined (as of Monday afternoon) to lose 41 consecutive games.
We can expect Brooklyn, losers of eight straight games, to rise slightly out of this murk, because they don’t own their draft pick, so they don’t have any incentive to lose, and because Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson returned Monday night from injuries.
New York will almost certainly take their place. Kristaps Porzingis is out for the season, and they still have valuable veterans (Enes Kanter, Michael Beasley) to replace full-time with young dudes (Troy Williams, Emmanuel Mudiay, Luke Kornet) for “strategic player development.”
There isn’t even a true leader in this shameful clubhouse, because everyone is a leader. As of Monday afternoon, Phoenix is 18-43. Dallas and Atlanta are 18-42. Orlando and Sacramento are 18-41. Memphis is 18-40. Brooklyn is 19-41. Chicago is 20-39. New York is 24-37 and sinking like a rock.
To recap the seventh-worst team is only 1.5 games back of the worst. It’s a cluster at the bottom and these teams are going to pull out all the stops to lose games over the next five weeks.
Let’s recap a few more choice details from that delightful ESPN piece before we start excoriating these teams. Mavs owner Mark Cuban told his vets that “losing is our best option” – imagine Dirk Nowitzki’s face during that meeting. Chicago guard Zach LaVine sat out an extra month, while ready to play, after fully recovering from a torn ACL last season. Fellow Bull Lauri Markkanen was told not to bother traveling to Sacramento after his flight was cancelled, more than 24 hours before tipoff against the Kings.
That makes eight teams (assuming New York has joined the party, losers of nine of their last 10) that are actively making decision with the intent to lose games. That’s 26 percent of the league. If you buy a ticket to watch your home team, which is trying to win for its home fans, there’s roughly a one-in-four chance that the visitors don’t intend to win. (The math isn’t perfect, but stick with me here.)
And neither should they try to win, because the NBA draft lottery incentivizes the opposite. In the NBA, when one star player can change the image of your franchise, you do anything you can get in the top 10 and get that player. Life is a game of chance, and you can’t rig the roll, but you can rig the odds.
Thankfully, tanking will be less incentivized next season, as the draft lottery changes its odds to lower the odds for the No. 1 pick at the bottom, and gently increase them the rest of the way. But the damage has been done, and these tanking franchises are trying their best to suck the competition out of this season.
They’re following in the footsteps of the Philadelphia 76ers, who embarrassed themselves from 2013-16 to the tune of 20 or less wins in three consecutive seasons. The peak, or valley, if you will, was a 10-72 record in 2015-16.
Their efforts paid off, landing them two generational talents. For some reason, fired executive Sam Hinkie receives all the credit for aggressively sucking, as if he was the one who brought Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid onto a court at a young age and handed them a ball. Hinkie lucked into those two, no doubt about it, and Embiid still isn’t a sure thing because of injury concerns.
Philly could easily have been an Orlando, or a Sacramento, wallowing in mediocrity, if even one of those guys didn’t pan out. That’s where Phoenix is headed. Dallas too. Atlanta and Memphis, if they strike out on a can’t-miss guy.
Hopefully the draft lottery changes are noticeably effective, because this stuff has become an epidemic. Over the next five weeks, we will see tanking at its absolute worst, and the NBA will suffer for it. The prospect of a potentially-elite talent (emphasis on the word “potential”) should not be prioritized so highly over the on-cort product.