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.