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The Great NBA Tank-a-Thon of 2018

Rob Schumacher - AZCentral Sports

With so many bad teams competing for the worst record in the league, 2018 might see the greatest tanking race in NBA history.

While most NBA fans will spend the final month of the regular season anxiously watching the logjam that is seeds 3-10 in the Western Conference, the bottom of the league will have just as much excitement; excitement in a depressing, shameless tanking sort of way.

There are currently eight teams within three games of each other, all competing for the league’s worst record. With this season being the last with the NBA’s current lottery structure, all eight are trying to ensure they have the most ping-pong balls this summer. This list goes through all eight of those teams in their current lottery standings, and how their tanking will look over their final 20 games.

With how close all of these teams are, winning a single game could have drastic consequences for the future of their franchise. The difference between the number one pick and pick number eight has meant getting Ben Simmons or Marquese Chriss in 2016 and Karl-Anthony Town or Stanley Johnson in 2015. These teams know just how important every loss can be, and 2018 may have the most blatant and widespread tanking we’ve ever seen.

Chicago Bulls — 20-41 (Eighth-Worst Record)

Chicago already has 20 wins this season which means they’re likely stuck near the top (bottom?) of the eight teams. Yep, that is how bleak this is going to get.

The Bulls have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way and should have a pretty high effort level in most of those games. Their core lacks the talent to win on most nights, but Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and Lauri Markkanen are all capable of having fantastic games and pushing Chicago to an unfortunate victory.

Brooklyn Nets — 20-42 (Seventh-Worst Record)

Of all the teams on this list, Brooklyn has by far the least incentive to tank. Cleveland will swap picks with them this season so winning games has no negative effects on Brooklyn’s draft position. That’s why, had Brooklyn been able to pull off the upset in Cleveland on Tuesday night, it would have been one of the worst losses of the year for the Cavaliers.

The good news for Cleveland is that Brooklyn may decide not to win anyway. With the Nets lacking depth, replacing veterans with young guys like Jarrett Allen, Isaiah Whitehead, and Jahlil Okafor would all but ensure a loss on that night. Okafor, in particular, would almost ensure a successful tank for Brooklyn as he is a -25.7 per 100 possessions this season. Like Chicago, Brooklyn’s 20 wins will keep them from getting near the top of this list, but they likely won’t win more than a few games the rest of the season.

Atlanta Hawks — 19-43 (Tied Fifth-Worst Record)

Atlanta’s tanking situation is a little complicated. Head coach Mike Budenholzer should be safe, but if he’s worried that tanking may cost him his job he will push the team down the stretch. Additionally, Dennis Schröder may take it upon himself to lead the team these final 20 games to ensure his leadership and role next season. While that wouldn’t be a marked change from how he’s played all season (and look where that’s gotten Atlanta) he could get hot and win the Hawks a game or two.

Atlanta had two logical shutdown candidates, but both Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova are now in Philadelphia. The good news is that 16 of Atlanta’s final 21 games come against winning teams and 10 of them are on the road. That tough schedule and diminished bench will put the Hawks in solid contention for the top lottery spot.

Dallas Mavericks — 19-43 (Tied Fifth-Worst Record)

We all know that the eight teams on this list are tanking. There’s no real point in being coy about it. That’s why it was somewhat refreshing to hear Mark Cuban admit as much on Julius Erving’s podcast. It may have cost him a cool $600,000, but the honesty was nice for a change.

Now that we know Dallas will be tanking unabashedly, it will be interesting to see how they go about it. There’s no chance they shut down Dirk Nowitzki given he may be just months from retirement. While JJ Barea and Wesley Matthew could be shut down, both may wish to stay on the court to sustain their value. The most likely course of action is Rick Carlisle handing Dennis Smith Jr. the keys to the offense. Allowing Smith Jr. to make as many mistakes as possible will both help down the road and ensure Dallas their best lottery chances.

Phoenix Suns — 19-44 (Fourth-Worst Record)

For my money, the Suns are the worst team in the league and will end up with the best lottery odds this summer. Outside of Devin Booker, this team is completely starved of NBA talent and has appeared overmatched almost every night.

Elfrid Payton and Alex Len both are going to be free agents and should be playing hard, but neither has the real ability to shift many games. After Atlanta, Phoenix has the second-most games remaining against winning teams and five games against other teams on this list. Even with Booker’s explosive offense, given how Phoenix handled Eric Bledsoe last season we know they aren’t scared to shut down one of their best players. If the Suns play their cards right, Phoenix should hold the most lottery balls this summer.

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Brandon Dill - AP Photo

Memphis Grizzlies — 18-42 (Third-Worst Record)

Memphis is a team whose lottery odds could dramatically change with just a couple key decisions. With Mike Conley already ruled out for the season, the only players keeping Memphis afloat are Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans. If the Grizzlies shut down one or both of those players, they immediately throw themselves in contention for the top lottery spot.

The problem for the Grizzlies is that the rest of their roster still has incentives to play hard. Memphis has a ton of role players who aren’t sure if they’ll get another NBA paycheck, and even interim head coach JB Bickerstaff is coaching with his next job in mind. While removing Gasol and Evans from the mix should be enough to ensure a loss most nights, strong effort and a couple bounces could earn Memphis a few more wins than their front office would hope.

Orlando Magic — 18-43 (Tied Worst Record)

Of all the rosters on this list, Orlando has the most talent still invested in this season. Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja are both impending free agents looking for big contracts and they likely see the final 20+ games as a chance to improve their next contract. It remains to be seen if that’s enough to win games, but it’s clear the locker room and front office have conflicting interests.

With Gordon and Hezonja likely playing the final 22 games, Orlando doesn’t have a lot of veterans they could shut down. Arron Afflalo and DJ Augustin are potential candidates, but they aren’t really impactful enough to truly make a difference even if they are playing. Based on talent alone Orlando should be in the mix for the league’s worst record, but with more effort than some other teams on this list, they may slip down the lottery ladder a bit.

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Jose Luis Villegas -

Sacramento Kings — 18-43 (Tied Worst Record)

Sacramento is 29th in both offensive and defensive rating and have the worst Expected W-L in the league. The Kings don’t really have to change anything to complete their tanking; they’re doing a pretty good job of it already.

A few weeks ago Sacramento announced they’d be periodically resting their veterans in order to give their young players more playing time. With George Hill now in Cleveland, most of their other veterans probably wouldn’t be helping them win many games anyway. The team now will be led by De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and a few others, which should ensure an ugly, but productive, next few weeks in Sacramento.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

Who was the last team to win the lottery the same season they had the league's worst record?
Created 2/28/18
  1. 2017 - Brooklyn Nets
  2. 2016 - Philadelphia 76ers
  3. 2015 - Minnesota Timberwolves
  4. 2014 - Cleveland Cavaliers

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