Welcome to Tankonia, a survey of the NBA’s thrilling race to the bottom. In our first installment, we’ll update you on the past few days in tanking, lay out the remaining schedules, and discuss what each team has at stake for the rest of the season.
For moral/ethical discussions about tanking, please see the rest of the Internet. This is a celebration. Onward!
8. Golden State Warriors: 22 Wins
Personnel “Decisions”: Sat David Lee for the remainder of the season with a “groin pull.” In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Lee said, “It’s unfortunate because I wanted to finish out the season strong. I was willing to go through any means necessary to try and play these last games, but the doctors didn’t leave any gray area for me.”
Translation: “We were surprisingly decent when we ran the entire offense through me. Not sure if you saw, but we almost beat the Lakers two weeks ago. Then, on April 4, I scored 31 in a win on the road against the Timberwolves. With Klay Thompson’s quick development into a reliable perimeter scorer and a mini Dorell Wright revival, we were actually playing competitive basketball. Enough was enough. Larry Riley called me into his office and asked me to sit out the rest of the season. I asked him why. He said, ‘Let’s say you had a “groin pull.”‘ Then he did that wink-wink thing and tapped the side of his nose. Since then, I’ve had vice cops up my ass all day.”
DND’d Richard Jefferson for Saturday and Monday’s games with a “right knee injury.”
DND’d Andris Biedrins on Monday with “picking up girlfriend from airport.”
Recent Games: Lost by eight to the Clippers on Saturday. Much to the chagrin of the Warriors’ front office, the bench played hard and hung around before getting put away in the fourth quarter.
Lost on Monday to the Spurs. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan all played less than 15 minutes. Gary Neal and Boris Diaw’s boobs led the Spurs in minutes. San Antonio still managed to win by 21 on the road.
Remaining Schedule: Never fear, Warriors fans! You play LAL, @DAL, @HOU, @MIN, and NOH before closing out the season at home against the Spurs. Even with Lee, you could win maybe two games during that stretch.
Verdict: I promise this will be my last Warriors-related rant of the season, but what does it say when your franchise’s most dramatic storyline revolves around its ability to out-lose the Kings, Pistons, and Raptors? There’s a way to spin pretty much everything that happens on a basketball team into something resembling reason — especially in this era of the uninformed armchair GM and his circular gospel of efficiency — but it’s embarrassing, both to your fans and your franchise, to tank so hard when all that’s at stake is the seventh pick in a two-player draft.
I have no problem with a team tanking to get a top-three pick. Nor does it bother me when a team tanks with a modicum of decency and respect to competitive basketball. NBA basketball is a long game and sometimes it’s necessary to sacrifice a season for the future. But there’s no way to defend how the Warriors are tanking this year. By sitting Stephen Curry, by trading away Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut, by sitting David Lee, by openly pining for the return of their first-round pick, Golden State set a new standard for no-shame tanking. Again, this might be forgivable if the Warriors were trying to get themselves in position to draft Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but to so openly piss on the standards of competition for the no. 7 pick is inexcusable.
It’s simple risk analysis, right? Running a basketball team isn’t just figuring out which combination of efficiency stats will lead to the best possible Pythagorean win expectation. Sometimes it’s not worth angering a great fan base, even if it makes “basketball sense.” Joe Lacob and his ownership group came into the Bay Area riding a crest of goodwill. At the time, it seemed impossible that anyone could be worse than former owner Chris Cohan. Lacob’s not there yet, but can you think of another NBA owner who completely alienated an entire city in the course of a year?
Here’s a suggestion to Lacob and the Warriors: Stop talking to the media. There’s no need for Larry Riley to go on KNBR to talk about how much he enjoys watching this team compete, how he never wants to see the team lose. There was certainly no reason why Lacob had to talk on Chris Mullin Night. This ill will began when you promised this team would make the playoffs. Every time you’ve addressed the media, it has reflected poorly on your judgment and your sanity. Why not just clam up and approach your job with a shred of humility?
For the rest of the season, I’m rooting for Klay Thompson, Jeremy Tyler, Nate the Great, and Dorell Wright to scrap out tough wins. And I’m rooting for Detroit, New Jersey, and Toronto to keep losing. How great would it be if the Warriors, who are tanking more blatantly and shamelessly than any team in recent memory, still got shut out of a top-seven pick?
Actually, I can’t decide if I’d rather have that happen or watch the team draft Perry Jones III, only to see him turn into Patrick O’Bryant II.
7. Detroit: 22 Wins
Personnel “Decisions”: DNP-CD’d Jonas Jerebko for Sunday’s game against the Bulls. There was no reason given for the decision.
Recent Games: Took the Bulls to overtime on Sunday night before falling 100-94. Rodney Stuckey scored 32 points in the loss.
Remaining Schedule: CLE, @ATL, MIN, TOR, @IND, PHI
Verdict: The Pistons don’t have much to gain from tanking. They’re not going to be able to significantly boost their chances in the Unibrow Sweepstakes, they don’t have a specific area of need that could be addressed with, say, the no. 4 pick, and they have a young core of players who might benefit from playing competitive basketball. Right now, they’re in the Jared Sullinger–Harrison Barnes–John Henson–Perry Jones range of picks (projections courtesy of DraftExpress.com). Detroit could use pretty much any of those guys to solidify their frontcourt, so there’s no real reason to jockey for as-of-yet undetermined position.
If you’re only in the NBA to make long-term money, find your way to Detroit! No team has been better about rewarding a small sample of decent play with a long-term contract. Rodney Stuckey is signed for $8.5 million per year until the end of the 2013-14 season. Jonas Jerebko will earn $4.5 million per year until 2015, the same year Tayshaun Prince’s annual $6 million-plus contract comes off the books. What’s worse, the team has almost $18 million locked up in Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon for each of the next two seasons, which means Detroit is stuck with this team for the foreseeable future. Greg Monroe is already pretty much everything you want out of a young forward — he plays hard, he cares about his conditioning, he can score, he rebounds well, and he puts in effort on the defensive end. But barring a draft day miracle, it’s tough to see Detroit getting good until the Pistons dig themselves out from underneath the Gordon/Villanueva debacle.
6. New Jersey: 22 Wins
Personnel “Decisions”: Gerald Wallace has not played since an April 8 win against the Cavs. The official reason: strained left hamstring. The unofficial reason? Prior to Wallace’s hamstring problem, the Nets had won two games in a row.
DND’d Deron Williams for Monday’s game against the Heat with “a case of the Mondays.”
Recent Games: Led by 23 points from Gerald Green, the Nets beat the Sixers on Friday night. The Green Mile might not have blown up as big as Linsanity, but his success in the league might be just as improbable. Since March 10, Green has been putting up 15.2 points per game off the bench. He has outplayed every Microwave Man in the league during this stretch AND thrown down three of the best 10 dunks of the season. Three years ago, Gerald Green thought high screen was a bong reference.
On Saturday, the Nets lost to the Celtics, but they had a good contribution from Jordan Williams, who could be developing into a half-decent rotation big.
On Monday, Gerald Green started, Deron Williams sat, and Kris Humphries scored 29 points. The Nets lost to the Heat by three.
Remaining Schedule: MIA, NYK, @MIL, PHI, @TOR
Verdict: More than any other team in the lottery, the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets need Anthony Davis. I don’t think Deron’s staying (although who really knows these things anymore? Certainly not Twitter), so the Nets need at least one marketable star to present to their new fans.
Unfortunately, the Nets have gone 7-6 since March 24. The wins came against the Bobcats, Pacers, Warriors, Kings, Wizards, Cavs, and Sixers, but for a team with every incentive to shelve Deron Williams and tank, the Nets played competitively down the stretch.
I promised not to whinge about tanking, but here goes: Unless you’re getting Anthony Davis, you might as well play with a modicum of competitive spirit. There’s no real difference between, say, the fourth pick and the ninth pick in this year’s draft. Is it really worth throwing away games and pissing off ticket holders to slightly improve your odds of bringing Thomas Robinson to town?
The sports-rational answer is yes — NBA teams can only signficantly improve when they pick up a great player. But I’m not convinced that (a) tanking for the no. 1 pick really improves your odds of landing the best player in the draft, or (b) even if your team improves, the fortunes of your franchise will follow suit. For every Oklahoma City, there’s an Atlanta — a perennially decent team with exciting players that nobody really gives a shit about. If you’re willing to tank a quarter of the regular season because you think your front office can replicate Oklahoma City’s magic, let me remind you of the following facts:
A. Nobody really understands the NBA draft. The idea that a GM could reliably say, “I know exactly how the difference between the no. 4 and no. 6 picks will play out” is absolutely ludicrous.
B. If the Sonics had the first pick in the 2007 draft, they would have taken Greg Oden (another can’t-miss prospect, by the way) over Kevin Durant. If they had the second pick in the 2008 draft, they would have taken Michael Beasley over Russell Westbrook. Yes, the Thunder put themselves in position to draft those players by having truly bad regular seasons, but they still managed to trot Durant out there for every game down the stretch. And while we can all appreciate Sam Presti’s skill and patience in running a team, I don’t think the success of the Thunder means that every team should conclude that tanking is the only way to build a contender.
C. Durant is a once-in-a-generation talent. Most years, when you have the no. 2 and the no. 4 pick, you end up with Marvin Williams and Shaun Livingston.
D. Lastly, it’s frigging basketball. It’s supposed to be entertainment. Let’s stop talking about the construction of sports teams like we’re building an army to go invade China, or that tanking is a necessary sacrifice along the lines of what Jesus gave up for our sins. Nobody knows if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is going to be Marvin Williams of if he’s going to be a super version of Luol Deng. Why defile the competitive nature of the sport for such uncertainty? And if you want to talk straight business, maybe it’s worth wondering if your jaded fan base will even care if your team goes from 18 to 38 wins. Atlanta certainly doesn’t give a shit what the Hawks are doing. And Warriors fans are still showing up to Oracle.
5. Toronto: 22 Wins
Personnel “Decisions”: Last week, the Raptors announced that Andrea Bargnani had strained his left calf and would miss the remainder of the season. On Saturday, they announced that Jose Calderon would miss Sunday’s game against Atlanta with a lacerated right eyebrow.
Recent Games: On Friday, the Raptors beat the Celtics in Toronto. Someone named Ben Uzoh played 32 minutes. On Sunday, the Raptors blew out the Hawks. Alan Anderson, who apparently played for Michigan State as recently as 2004, started his seventh game of the season. The Raptors had cleared a path to tank past Cleveland, but those two wins and a season finale against the Nets could bump them all the way down to the no. 8 slot.
On Monday, the Raptors lost to the Hawks by 22. Calderon, Linas Kleiza, and Jamaal Magloire all picked up DNP-CDs.
Remaining Schedule: @MIA, @DET, @MIL, NJN
Verdict: The Raptors have a ton of cap space for next season and will be adding Euro sensation Jonas Valanciunas. Bargnani and Calderon are quality NBA players. Amir Johnson could become a serviceable rotation guy. DeMar DeRozan seems to be teetering on the edge of the useless netherworld of Jordan Crawford, but still has the potential to become a high-energy Microwave Man. The problem is that none of the players projected to go between the no. 5 pick and the no. 9 pick makes much sense for the Raptors. Gun to head, I’d say they should be the team that takes the Bradley Beal gamble, but that’s mostly because I don’t believe in Jared Sullinger or Perry Jones.
4. Cleveland: 20 Wins
Personnel “Decisions”: Recalled Luke Harangody from the D-League. Rested Antawn Jamison for Saturday night’s game against the Wizards.
Weekend Games: Despite trotting out a starting lineup of Alonzo Gee, Luke Harangody, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Parker, and Donald Sloan, the Cavaliers managed to beat the Wizards 98-89, improving their record to 20-38. Harangody responded to being called up from the Canton Charge by putting up 16 and 10. After the game, he was promptly sent back to Canton.
Remaining Schedule: @DET, PHI, NYK, @SAS, @MEM, WAS, @CHI
Verdict: Of all the teams in the tanking sweepstakes, the Cavs have the brightest long-term outlook. Kyrie Irving has already established himself as one of the 25 best players in the league. He was so good, in fact, that it almost doesn’t matter that Antawn Jamison ended up being this team’s second leading scorer or that Cleveland really doesn’t seem to have any way to replace his scoring next year. What they will have is a lot of cap space to overpay someone like Nic Batum or Chris Kaman.
If Cleveland somehow found themselves with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a core of MKG, Kyrie, and $21 million in cap space could actually turn into a decent basketball team. Last year, the Cavs found themselves with the fourth pick in what seemed like a three-player draft. They picked Tristan Thompson, who already looks like a smaller, more limited version of J.J. Hickson. Had they picked Klay Thompson (11th pick) or Kawhi Leonard (15th), they’d already be halfway to the 2013 playoffs.
3. New Orleans: 19 Wins
Personnel “Decisions”: DNP-CD’d Trevor Ariza for Friday night’s game against the Jazz, NWT-CD’d Trevor Ariza for Monday’s game against the Bobcats, DND’d Eric Gordon on Monday. The reason? “Rest.” NWT’d Chris Kaman on Monday as well. The reason? “Jumbaco.”
Recent Games: The Hornets actually had a slim chance at catching the Wizards for the no. 2 spot in the lottery, but Eric Gordon single-handedly beat the Jazz in the fourth quarter on Friday night, bumping the Hornets’ win total to 17 games.
On Monday, New Orleans flew to Charlotte but forgot to bring Kaman and Ariza. Gordon traveled with the team, but took the night off. In a basketball game that I hope nobody actually had to watch, the Hornets beat the Bobcats 75-67.
Remaining Schedule: @MEM, HOU, @LAC, @GSW, @HOU
Five of six on the road will probably ensure that the Hornets finish in the no. 3 spot. On April 24 — the Super Bowl of tanking — the Hornets will travel to Oakland to take on the Warriors, who hopefully will still have work left to do to lose their way into keeping their pick in this year’s draft.
Verdict: New Orleans would have to win two games down the stretch and Sacramento would have to lose out for the Hornets to fall from the no. 3 ranking.
To secure Eric Gordon for the next four or five years, the Hornets will have to use a lot of the cap space freed up by the departures of Chris Kaman and Carl Landry. The hope, I suppose, is that some combination of Andre Drummond/Unibrow/MKG and Gordon would be able to lead New Orleans’s surprisingly decent cast of role players. The problem, of course, is that Eric Gordon can’t stay healthy and that whatever cap flexibility you’d expect out of a talent-strapped team like New Orleans has been swallowed up by Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor.
2. Washington: 15 Wins
Personnel “Decisions”: Plantar fasciitis has sidelined Nene since March 30. Trevor Booker has also been out since late March.
Recent Games: Lost by 38 to the Knicks on Friday. Then lost by nine to a depleted Cavs roster on Saturday. On Monday night, the Wizards beat the Bulls, who were playing without Luol Deng or Derrick Rose.
Remaining Schedule: MIL, @MIA, CHA, @CLE, MIA
Verdict: The Wizards are locked into the no. 2 position. They are also locked into a future with their 2012 pick, John Wall, Nene, and whatever they can get out of Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, and Jan Vesely. That’s actually not all that terrible. They can’t do much on the free agent market until Rashard Lewis comes off the books at the end of the 2013 season, but if they can land the Unibrow, the Wizards should have the talent to become a weird, disjointed, and combustible version of the Spurs. Of course, that requires a great coach and a team that commits itself to the defensive end of the court, but if someone could get all of Washington’s talented, erratic parts all pointed in one direction, wouldn’t they automatically be one of the scariest teams in the Eastern Conference?
1. Charlotte: 7 Wins
Personnel “Decisions”: Called up former Harlem Globetrotter Jamario Moon from the D-League’s Los Angeles D-Fenders. When you put Jamario Moon into YouTube’s search bar, the first auto-complete is “Jamario Moon Inhuman Rebound.” How could we not show this to you?
Recent Games: Perhaps feeling some pressure from the Wizards’ embarrassing loss to the Knicks, the Bobcats lost by 23 to the Heat — although I suppose the flip side to this is that losing by 23 on the road might be a moral victory for the Bobcats.
Amusing stats: Bismack Biyombo, one of the rawest prospects to come out of the draft in years, has started in 33 games for the Bobcats. He would not be playing more than five minutes a game for any other team in the league. The Bobcats would beat Kentucky, but I don’t think Biyombo would play minutes for the Wildcats.
Remaining Schedule: CHI, MEM, SAC, @ WAS, @ ORL, NYK
Verdict: Barring a minor miracle, the Bobcats should lose 23 straight to end the season, which would tie them for the fourth-worst losing streak of all time. (The Cavs have the three longest streaks in league history. In 1982, they lost 24 straight, only to repeat the feat in ’83. Last year’s team lost 26 straight.)