Coronavirus exposes NBA’s late-season tanking wasteland

NBA Draft lottery
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

The Knicks won one game – one game! – in all of March 2019. So, they certainly proved their losing bona fides entering an April Fool’s Day matchup with the Bulls. But Chicago had a perfect counter: A starting lineup of Walt Lemon, Wayne Selden, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Robin Lopez. The Bulls fell behind by 20 in the first quarter. Though New York gave 41 minutes to Damyean Dotson and used just three reserves (including Lance Thomas playing 31 minutes), it was too late.

The Knicks had been out-tanked.

***

These types of all-too-common ugly games are the subtext to the NBA’s coronavirus-crisis plans.

The league could resume by jumping straight into the playoffs or some enhanced postseason – either a play-in tournament or group stage – with 20-24 teams. All 30 teams returning has been discussed only as a cash grab. Continuing the regular season at all has been favored only as a ramp up to the playoffs.

But everyone finishing the regular season because it actually matters?

That’s a non-starter.

***

Sam Hinkie – who oversaw “The Process” with the 76ers – has become the face of tanking in the NBA. He took Philadelphia through an ambitious multi-year plan to lose a lot and reap the rewards.

In response, the NBA reformed its lottery. Now, there’s less incentive to finish with the league’s very-worst record.

But a team setting out to tank multiple seasons was incredibly rare.

The far more pervasive problem: Teams that enter a season trying to win, fail then pivot into tanking.

At that point, what is there to lose by, um, losing? Once out of the playoff race, the lure of a high draft pick is just too tempting. Even minor improvements in lottery odds come with the upside of a young franchise-changer. Additional wins carry minimal tangible value.

***

The NBA has spent more effort fighting discussion of tanking than tanking itself.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver defines tanking by its most narrow terms – players and coaches actively trying to lose games. But tanking manifests in other ways.

General managers trade away quality players. Teams become beyond cautious with injuries. Raw young players get more playing time. Coaches experiment with odd lineups. A general malaise sets in as everyone sees the true goal.

That’s why I define tanking as anything a team does intended, at least in part, to improve draft position by losing.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when each team begins tanking. But official elimination from the playoff race is a generous starting point. Most tanking teams adopt the approach even earlier.

***

When the season was halted, 259 regular-season games remained. Far too few of those will be missed.

From the same point last year through the end of the season, 47% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

It was even worse the prior season. In the same time frame, 50% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

At best, eliminated teams have already traded their draft picks and have no incentive to lose. Even then, those teams have shown minimal desire to win.

At worst, teams are aggressively chasing better draft position. In 2018, an owner reportedly berated his coach for winning. George Karl said he had a similar experience while coaching. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has repeatedly trumpeted tanking. Travis Schlenk acknowledged the Warriors tanked to get Harrison Barnes. Bryan Colangelo admitted the Raptors tanked under his watch.

Fans – wisely – feel let down when their already-lousy team wins to hurt it’s draft position.

That’s an awful setup.

***

Every so often, the NBA is forced to confront its annual tanking epidemic.

After the Pelicans denied Anthony Davis‘ trade request and kept him past the trade 2019 deadline, they had a standoff. Davis wanted to play. The Pelicans wanted to sit him. They preferred to tank for a better draft pick and protect their superstar asset in a lost season. Eventually, the NBA threatened to fine New Orleans, and the sides struck an imperfect compromise.

The year before, the NBA warned the Bulls to stop resting healthy players.

But coronavirus has shined a much brighter spotlight on the problem

It’d be practically criminal to force bad teams to quarantine, live in an isolated environment, risk injury after a long layoff, risk contracting and spreading coronavirus… just for games they want to lose, anyway. Damian Lillard put voice to the issue, saying he wouldn’t play if the Trail Blazers can’t make the postseason this year. The already-eliminated Warriors have made clear they prefer just to be done.

It’s obviously far more tolerable to play these games in normal times.

But the NBA ought to reconsider a system that creates so many games of awful product.

***

I still believe a draft that rewards losing teams is good for the NBA. It’s important to engage every fan base. If fans of a bad team can’t enjoy wins, at least they’ll have hope.

But the league should strike a better balance.

I’ve advocated for a system that improves draft position with early losses and late wins. Most teams enter a season trying to win, and those that fail would get draft help. But teams – from the top down – would also be incentivized to remain competitive throughout the season. Intentionally losing early then winning late would be a nearly impossible needle to thread.

There’s plenty to sort out – how to value early losses vs. late wins, when to flip the switch, etc. I’m even open to including a Silver favorite – a play-in tournament (that also boosts draft position for teams that win).

But, please: Do something to reduce the large number of late-season tank games.

This situation shows how frivolous they are.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

0 Comments

The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
0 Comments

Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
0 Comments

In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
Matteo Marchi/Getty Images
0 Comments

“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.