51 Q: Besides Sixers, who else is tanking?

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By now, we know the Philadelphia 76ers’ program. They’re entering year three of the Sam Hinkie era, year three of #TrustTheProcess, year three of completely disregarding the idea of being a competent NBA team in the name of collecting assets. It’s a controversial strategy, but a logical one for what they’re trying to accomplish. They’ve been a lightning rod around the league for arguments in favor of lottery reform and other preventative measures to combat this blatant lack of competitiveness. But the problem isn’t as widespread as it seems: a look around the league heading into the season shows most of the bad teams at least trying to be better, even if they won’t be successful.

The closest thing to another all-out tank job looks to be the Portland Trail Blazers, who lost four out of five starters, including LaMarcus Aldridge. In their place, they’ve loaded up on prospects. The highest paid player on their roster (until next year, when Damian Lillard‘s massive extension kicks in), is Al-Farouq Aminu, making just over $8 million. Moe Harkless and Tim Frazier figure to be rotation players on this team. With the core of a perennial Western Conference contender gone, GM Neil Olshey is instead opting for a more palatable version of the Sixers’ model. It helps their watchability that they already have a franchise player in place in Lillard. Around him, for now, they’re just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping to hit on a few fringe players and pick up extra first-round picks by taking back bad contracts (their cap room is almost unlimited). It’s a sound plan for where they find themselves in a post-Aldridge existence, but it’s going to be ugly, at least for this season.

Most of the rest of the teams that might have been seen as tanking have made legitimate moves to get better. The Lakers have a stated goal of getting back to contention soon, which is absurd, but they’re not going to purposely lose in what will likely be Kobe Bryant‘s final year. They made a few big offseason acquisitions of legitimate NBA rotation players, including Roy Hibbert and Lou Williams, and have No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell and a healthy Julius Randle in the fold. If everyone is healthy, they’re going to be at least competing to be in the group of teams just outside of good enough to seriously compete for a playoff spot in the west. Ditto the Kings, who added Rajon Rondo and Marco Belinelli. Everything could go to hell in a second for them — it’s always in play there — but at least on paper, they figure to be better.

Even in the notoriously inferior Eastern Conference, there are going to be more teams shooting for 30 wins than the Knicks’ 17. New York had a solid offseason of signing veterans and taking incremental steps to being a normal basketball team. The Nets, as mediocre as they may be, have no incentive to tank since they don’t have their own pick in next year’s draft. The Pacers are getting Paul George back. The Pistons should be better with a roster that actually fits Stan Van Gundy’s style.

That’s not to say some teams won’t pivot strategy during the season when they see that a playoff spot isn’t happening. The Nuggets are a prime candidate. Right now, they’re a strange mishmash of quality veterans and completely unproven youngsters that, on paper, should be worth a solid 35 wins. If they decide to blow it up, though, it will be easy to move the contracts of Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. Denver already took a step towards this youth movement by unloading troubled point guard Ty Lawson and handing the keys to No. 7 pick Emmanuel Mudiay. A rookie point guard is always a tricky proposition, even when it’s someone as talented as Mudiay, but at least for now, he has competent teammates that will at least be competitive every night.

Charlotte is another team with a lot of variance in how their season could shake out, and Rich Cho has never been afraid to shake things up. It’s not impossible to imagine a world where they’re competing for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference; it’s also not impossible to picture them winning 20 games and having a fire sale in February. Nicolas Batum, just acquired this summer from the Blazers, is a prime candidate to be moved to a contender as a rental if the Hornets’ season falls apart.

For as much attention as the act of tanking gets in the conversation around the NBA, there are only two teams actively engaging in it from the start. A look around the league’s lower tier shows most teams taking steps to improve, at least in theory. Whether they will or not is a different story, but at least they’re trying.

Mark Cuban’s plan for a restart, “I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way”

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Wild, fanciful ideas for restarting the NBA that would never fly in a typical year — 1-16 seeding, or maybe a soccer World Cup-style group stage — are getting an airing this season because everything is on the table. As the NBA moves closer to a restart plan, countless ideas are being floated.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his own plan.

Shocking, I know. But it’s interesting.

“What I proposed is that we extend the playoff format to 10 teams from each conference, and play at least five games prior to going into playoffs,” Cuban said laying out is plan to NBC’s Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.” And if we do that, every team in the Eastern Conference would have a chance to make the playoffs, and all but two in the Western Conference would do it [Ed. note: Golden State and Minnesota].

“Then, what I would do, once we got 10 and 10, I would reseed them, and 17 would play 20, and 18 would play 19, in a one-game series. The winner then would take on the eighth-place seed in a five-game series, while the No. 1 seed in each conference would get a bye. Then you go ahead normally from there.

“That gives us a chance to have more meaningful games, it gives almost every team a chance when we come back for whatever is left of our regular season. I think we’ve got to change it up some, I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way.”

Cuban later added, speaking to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, that he wants to see all 30 teams come to Orlando for regular season games, building excitement for the NBA’s return in every market. This dream, however, seems a long shot, and Damian Lillard spoke for a lot of players when he said he’s not playing if there is not a path to the playoffs for Portland.

Cuban’s point that this is the year to try something different, not to play it safe, has real validity. This season is already upside down due to the corona

Cuban’s plan is a long shot, but is it any longer a shot than any of the other ones out there?

 

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: Thunder considered trading James Harden for me on draft day 2012

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The first three picks of the 2012 NBA Draft, which was held in June:

1. New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans): Anthony Davis

2. Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets): Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

3. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

That August, the Thunder reportedly offered to trade James Harden to Washington for Beal. Washington reportedly rejected the offer due to Harden’s desire for a max contract extension (which Wizards owner Ted Leonsis denied). The Rockets were more than willing to pay Harden, and Oklahoma City dealt him to Houston that October.

Apparently, Washington had a chance to land Harden earlier that offseason.

Beal on “All The Smoke:”

We’re sitting in the draft room. Sure enough, my agent is tapping me. He’s like, “It’s possible you might go to OKC.” I said, “Damn, how am I going to go there? I ain’t even worked out for OKC.” I only worked out for three teams – Washington, Cleveland and Charlotte.

So, the deal was to trade James to Washington, right? OKC gets the third pick. It was either the second or third pick. They were going to trade up to 2 or 3, get me, trade James to Washington.

I would have been in OKC with KD and Russ.

That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.

I can’t tell whether Beal is also revealing a Harden-to-Charlotte offer or just got mixed up on which teams held the Nos. 2 and 3 picks. Obviously, if Beal was the main prize to the Thunder, they would’ve cared only minimally whether they got him with the No. 2 or No. 3 pick. So, there might have been trade talks with Charlotte, too.

But I’m not convinced Oklahoma City valued Beal that way.

The Thunder were a championship contender. They had just lost in the 2012 NBA Finals to the Heat. Oklahoma City couldn’t have depended on a rookie Beal to contribute on that level.

That’s why – in addition to picks/young player acquired from the Rockets for Harden – the Thunder also got Kevin Martin. The veteran Martin was much better than Beal in 2012-13. (Ironically, the open title window was also a strong argument for just keeping Harden, whatever his contract status).

But the 2012-13 season didn’t go as planned for Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook got hurt early in the playoffs, and the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the second round. Martin left for a lucrative contract with the Timberwolves the following summer.

Even with the long runway Kevin Durant and Westbrook provided, Oklahoma City never got back to the Finals. Beal could have grown into a third star whose shooting complemented the duo. The Thunder might have won a championship with this trade (or, again, just keeping Harden).

The Wizards almost certainly would have won more. Harden has perennially gotten the Rockets to the playoff. (They’ve gone further in years he has had more help.) Beal hasn’t singlehandedly carried Washington like that.

So, this is an interesting “what if?” – if you take it at face value.

Beal’s agent warning him of a trade possibility means something. But we don’t know which other pieces were involved.

The Thunder didn’t trade Harden until just before the rookie-scale-extension deadline, suggesting they wanted to give themselves time to extend him themselves before taking the drastic step of trading him. Would Beal have been enough of a return to give up in June (or even August) on keeping Harden? Maybe. Harden didn’t fully blossom until reaching Houston. But I’m skeptical. At minimum, Harden had already established himself as young and good. Beal was young, promising and under greater team control. There’s significant value in the certainty of a player being at least a near-star, and Harden – not Beal – had that.

Even in hindsight, we’re still revisiting the situation with only limited information.

Report: NBA games could resume in August, not July

Bucks center Brook Lopez and Raptors center Marc Gasol
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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A week ago, the NBA was looking to resume games in July at Disney World.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In fact, there’s a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.

It’s good the NBA is being flexible on a start date. The coronavirus presents so much uncertainty.

The league is approaching its most lucrative time – the playoffs. The NBA should make every effort to play the postseason, whenever that can be done safely.

Everyone can figure out next season later, especially because there’s a willingness to delay the start.

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski as a senior advisor to owner Tom Gores in 2018. Among Stefanski’s duties: Assist in the ongoing search for a new head of basketball operations. But it quickly became clear Stefanski would just run the front office himself.

Now, two years later, Detroit is finally getting around to that general-manager search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

If Stefanski is still running the front office, a new general manager would be the No. 2 – equivalent to assistant general manager on many teams.

After taking over an inflexible roster left by Stan Van Gundy, Stefanski couldn’t do much. Stefanski’s big move was trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers just before the trade deadline. That positioned Detroit to have major cap space next offseason, but it’s unclear how much will actually materialize. The salary cap could drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pistons must determine whether they’re still building around Blake Griffin, the 31-year-old due $36,810,996 and $38,957,028 the next two years. Last season, he returned to stardom and carried Detroit into the playoffs. This season, he missed most of the year due to injury.

If they’re trying to win now with Griffin, the Pistons are short on quality complementary players. If Detroit is ready to rebuild, its pool of young talent – Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, impending free agent Christian Wood, its own first-round pick – is hardly assured of success.

After years of being stuck on a path charted under the Van Gundy regime, the Pistons can soon pick a new course. This is the time get the front office up to full staffing.