The NBA’s great tankathon of 2018 is on.
This is the last year before the lottery odds change and having a worse record considerably helps the chances of getting a higher draft pick. The combination of what is seen as some very good talent at the top of the draft board and the fact that a lot of NBA teams are currently bunched up — the eight teams at the bottom of the standings are within two games of each other, all between 18 and 20 wins as you read this (and that’s not counting the struggling Knicks) — is leading to teams putting out very young lineups, trying odd player matchups, resting guys at key times, and generally putting out a product likely to lose. Fan bases for teams that need hope are okay with that.
The NBA is not. The fact that teams are not competitive, the fact that there are fan bases actively hoping for their team to lose, eats at guys in the league office who fear for the integrity of the game. That’s why Mark Cuban got fined $600,000 for his comments.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to NBA teams this week warning them about tanking, reports Sam Amick of the USA Today.
“Over the past several seasons, discussions about so-called ‘tanking’ in the NBA have occurred with some frequency, both in the public discourse and within our league, and you as governors have taken steps to address the underlying incentive issues by adopting changes to our draft lottery system that will go into effect next year,” Silver wrote in the letter which was obtained by USA TODAY Sports. “Throughout this period, we have been careful to distinguish between efforts teams may make to rebuild their rosters, including through personnel changes over the course of several seasons, and circumstances in which players or coaches on the floor take steps to lose games.
“The former can be a legitimate strategy to construct a successful team within the confines of league rules; the latter — which we have not found and hope never to see in the NBA — has no place in our game. If we ever received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.”
The problem is proving it. Tanking is often in the eye of the beholder.
As Silver said, playing young players to develop them and see what a team has is a legitimate strategy. Teams are not telling their players to lose, the guys on the court and playing to win. However, put out a lot of young guys, tinker with lineups (in the name of seeing which guys can play well together and which can’t) and you become far more likely to lose. If the league came at the Kings or Suns or Magic, they could rightfully say they are playing their youth because it’s the best long-term decision for the franchise in terms of developing players. Losing is a byproduct of that. Just one that has some ancillary benefits.
This tank race to the bottom the rest of the season is fascinating. It’s going to lead to some potentially ugly basketball (for example, when Toronto plays Orlando Wednesday, or any matchup of a playoff-bound team and a tanking team could get ugly), but when Phoenix plays Memphis on Wednesday someone has to win despite neither franchise really wanting to. It becomes interesting. Even if the league office doesn’t think so.