PBT’s Top 10 Stories of 2014, No. 2: Tanking

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I do a fair amount of sports talk radio interviews across the nation, and through most of 2014, no matter what corner of the nation the station was located in, two topics almost inevitably came up. One was LeBron James and the drama that surrounded him in both Miami and Cleveland.

The other was tanking.

It has become part of the national conversation about the NBA — and the part that is an embarrassment to the league. The perception that a franchise would intentionally try to lose as many games as it could — even if the strategy made sense long term — was offensive to the American sports psyche. As the NBA moved through a fantastic playoffs in 2014 tanking was an ongoing parallel conversation. It was a PR nightmare for the league. It got to the point that the owners almost voted this summer to radically change the NBA Draft Lottery system to thwart the most egregious tanking. However, the owners backed away from that ledge at the last minute.

Let me be clear: No coach nor any player intentionally tried to lose a game. There is no evidence of this. Nobody is throwing games in a 1919 Black Sox sense.

Rather some organizations are intentionally putting a product on the court that is not going to win many games. There is logic to the plan. First, keep your draft picks and stockpile others in trades as you send out your veteran players. Next, be bad so your draft pick is as high as possible (the luck of the lottery will determine just how high). Play those young draft picks and inevitably be bad again — they learn on the job and you get more draft picks. Eventually you have a nice core of young talent for the future.

It sounds good on paper, you can sell that. But it’s ugly to watch in person.

Let’s be honest here — we’re primarily talking about the Philadelphia 76ers. Other teams have gone this route, but not like the Sixers.

Sixers GM Sam Hinkie has become the poster child of tanking. Back in June 2013 Hinkie traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for a draft pick, which they used on the inured Nerlens Noel, who didn’t play a game in the 2013-14 season. Hinkie traded Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes for guys that were not going to help then win games, plus some picks. This past draft the Sixers took Joel Embiid, a promising center but one not expected to play this season. Meaning the Sixers would be bad in the 2014-15 season — and they have been, they are 4-26 and again on their way to a top pick.

There are other teams, both in the past and currently, that have tried to be bad to get good. But nobody has tried to be this bad and been this naked about there intentions.

If you put a bad product out on the court people are going to complain.

It should be noted there was far more of an outcry outside Philadelphia than in it. Sure, there are some unhappy season ticket holders, but that’s not the norm. We talked with Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com for the PBT Podcast and she said that the first year fans were fully on board with the plan. Now the fans that are showing up to the arena are supportive of the players, but there is a growing exhaustion in the city with this much losing. They get what is going on, but the hope with this team seems very far off.

To be fair, in 2018 we’ll be saying Hinkie was a genius or a fool with this strategy, but it’s hard to know how it will pan out before then.

The question is how will the tanking perception and talk alter the NBA landscape going forward. There is always going to be a little of this — you need star players to really win in the NBA and the only way for middle to small markets to really land those elite players is through the draft. If they can be bad and increase their odds, they will. The Bucks did this in 2013-14 — they entered the season thinking they could be a playoff team, but when things went sideways they embraced being bad and got Jabari Parker for it. But this season the improving Bucks are a playoff team.

The Sixers are an ongoing conversation. And the question is in response will the owners change the lottery system to discourage that level of tanking in the future? And would that even work?

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.

Spurs playoffs hopes remain alive with 123-105 win over Rockets

Spurs playoffs
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Spurs aren’t out of it yet.

Keldon Johnson had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and San Antonio kept alive its chances of becoming the first team in NBA history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances with a 123-105 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.

San Antonio has won three straight and five out of seven since arriving in the Florida bubble.

DeMar DeRozan added 23 points. Jakob Poeltl finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Johnson said his mindset since the season restarted has been to fill in whatever role is asked of him.

“Whether it’s hustling, running the floor – just doing whatever I need to do to help us win,” he said. “Help from my teammates has definitely helped the game slow down for me.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Johnson is playing with the confidence they saw when they drafted him 29th overall last year.

“That’s what he does,” Popovich said. “He’s a high-energy guy. He’s very physical. Very competitive. Very coachable. He’s just a winner.”

The Western Conference is guaranteed to have a play-in for its final playoff spot, with Memphis beginning the day with just a half-game over Portland and one game ahead of Phoenix and San Antonio.

The Spurs will need help to be one of the teams playing this weekend for the final spot in the Western Conference, but made sure they couldn’t be eliminated Tuesday with their win.

Russell Westbrook had 20 points and seven turnovers in his first game back in the lineup for Houston after missing two games with a bruised right quadriceps. Jeff Green had 17 points. Ben McLemore added 16.

The Rockets played without guards James Harden (rest) and Eric Gordon (ankle).

The Spurs took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Rockets 35-24. San Antonio led by as many as 29 points.

San Antonio built a 19-point lead in the first half. DeRozan set the tone with 15 points in the opening 24 minutes, with Lonnie Waker IV, Poeltl and Johnson each scoring 10.

Regardless of whether the Spurs make the playoffs or not, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is proud of how his young players have stepped up in during their time in the bubble.

“Part of it is you have to be realistic,” Popovich said. “I don’t think our chances of winning the championship were great at the beginning of this, nor are they now. If that’s a fact, then you need to do everything you can to develop and be prepared for next season.

“The development has been off the charts. We’re thrilled with it. So it’s a win-win no matter what.”

Popovich said it would be “thrilling” to get some help and have a chance to extend their season, but he’s not using it as a measuring stick for the season.

“We’ve already accomplished what we thought we were capable of accomplishing, that’s what’s important. If we got in now it would be icing on the cake.”