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NBA

Prepare Yourself For Some Shameless NBA Tanking

HENDERSON, NEVADA - OCTOBER 04: Scoot Henderson #0 of G League Ignite runs back on defense after Victor Wembanyama #1 of Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans 92 grabbed a rebound in the third quarter of their exhibition game at The Dollar Loan Center on October 04, 2022 in Henderson, Nevada. Ignite defeated Metropolitans 92 122-115. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The NBA season starts next week, and thanks to Draymond Green’s penchant for fisticuffs, the Brooklyn Nets’ purely theoretical existence, and a slate of big-time stars returning from lengthy injury layoffs, the race for the championship looks refreshingly open. There is no clear favorite, and the list of potential contenders is both long and suffused with intrigue. Is this the season the Sixers decide to get their lives together? Will the Clippers finally deliver on their promise? Does LeBron James have one more miracle left in him? All very cool, but none of it is our concern here.

A shadow looms over the league. Two shadows, actually: Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson are coming, and the league’s stable of old guys has only so much time in which to win their remaining titles before two of the best prospects in decades enter the NBA and impose their wildly distinct brands of physical dominance on everyone. Accordingly, we are about to witness some of the most shamelessly stinky basketball that fans have ever seen. The league’s worst teams will abase themselves in working to lose as many games as possible, and so win the best possible chance at drafting one of Wembanyama or Henderson. For two lucky teams, it will be worth it, and while the also-rans will rue their bad luck, the rest of the lottery also seems pretty spectacular this year. But before we answer the question of Who?, let us briefly re-center Why?

The Reason To Do Bad Stuff

As a national TV audience got to witness last week, Wembanyama is a basketball prospect without any real precedent. The obvious magnetism of his physicality and polished skillset—Did that telephone pole–looking guy really just cross over that quickly?—are what distinguish him as a player worth setting a season on fire for, but they also mask what an intelligent player he is. In a way that has been true about literally no human being his size to date in the sport’s history, Wembanyama’s game is not spatially deterministic. He’s comfortable off the ball, either spacing the floor or making cuts, and his handle is tight enough and his shooting good enough that he’s deadly from basically every foot of space within 35 feet of the basket. Knowing where to stand is the sort of nuanced skill that usually takes big men a few years in the league to master. Wembanyama is already there, and he can also do what needs doing himself if everything else fails.

Because Wembanyama is so astonishing, Henderson is entirely too easy to miss. He’d probably be selected first overall in a clear majority of the last 25 drafts—only Zion Williamson, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and maybe Anthony Davis truly stand out in comparison. Again, as with Wembanyama, Henderson’s shocking athleticism obscures an impressive level of craft to his game. In his one game against Metropolitans 92, Wembanyama’s pro club, Henderson shot the ball well and humiliated people at the rim, as expected. But he also showcased a sophisticated passing game, seeing and making the sorts of killer passes that indicate a player who processes the game at an alarming speed. It is also hard not to be drawn to his ironclad mentality.

It is now time to talk about which teams might get one of these guys.

The Poo-Poo Toilet Teams

Tanking is not all that precise of an exercise, mechanically speaking, as every single NBA player in the league is playing for themselves every time they step out on the floor. Nobody is going to set their career ablaze and maim their earning potential by intentionally turning it over or shooting it from half-court to help a team whose stated position is to replace them with an 18-year-old as soon as possible. Along that same line, bad teams that have already floated to the top of the lottery and snagged someone they believe can be a part of their core don’t necessarily want to stifle their development by being too terrible.

For that reason, tanking is is best understood as a structural choice, something akin to letting a field go fallow. Whether Anthony Bennett or Andrew Wiggins is regarded as the top prospect in any given draft class, the worst teams in the league will tank because that’s simply what a team does at the nadir of a rebuilding cycle. It is important to underline that this is different from the degree of tanking we’re going to see in this case. The point at which a team packs it in, and also the form said packing-in takes, will be dramatically more shameless than in years past. An NBA GM told ESPN that the Vegas showcase will kick off a “race to the bottom like we’ve never seen.”

Of the 10 teams we will discuss here, four are fully in the tank, right now. They are, and in one case have long been, straightforwardly determined to lose as many games as possible, starting next week, with little-to-no consideration for the consequences. The Thunder, Jazz, Spurs, and Pacers begin the season in the toilet, and in the toilet they shall remain. This is where they want to be.

We can sort these teams into two categories, distinguished by the presence or absence of defined future core guys. San Antonio and Utah just cleared out their rosters and traded Dejounte Murray, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert for a total of 10 first-round picks and three pick swaps. As they have yet to cash in any of that haul and are presently stocked with a bunch of 20-year-olds who might be bad and definitely will get ample playing time this season in which to be bad, they will certainly combine to lose one million games. Utah, weirdly, has a few intriguing younger veteran players on their roster, at least for the moment. Collin Sexton just had to watch as his team passed him by within one season and then offered him a cut-rate deal, so he’ll be extra-motivated to put together a redemptive season. Talen Horton-Tucker is not bullshit, nor are Lauri Markkanen, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Holdovers Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson are still in town, for the moment, though more trades are probably on the horizon. There is something like a competitive roster latent in that mess, although it is in the Jazz’s interest not to try to realize that possibility. San Antonio is an even more barren version of the Jazz, with Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl currently the only goodish, youngish guys on a team otherwise exclusively populated by 19-year-old shooting guards. There’s no reason to watch these teams play, unless you really want to see the frustrating steps of, say, Walker Kessler and Malaki Branham figuring it out. Well, no, actually Jeremy Sochan rules. But that’s it!

Oklahoma City (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and Indiana (Tyrese Haliburton) each have a hot-shit young point guard that will play big minutes while surrounded by an otherwise extremely blah team. The Thunder were set to have Chet Holmgren this season, though he’ll miss the entire year. In his stead, they’ll play a bunch of former first-rounders (including Chet Holmgren’s Waluigi, Aleksej Pokusevski), Jalen Williams, and Jaylin Williams, so they’ll be fun and bad; if you are looking for a team to pull for, here, consider how funny it will be if they pair Wembanyama and Holmgren (and Poku). Indiana has spent its summer attached to a hypothetical trade with the Lakers, and while the fabled 2027 and 2029 firsts might not be the return they get for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, those guys are super out of there. Bennedict Mathurin, last year’s lottery pick, is not going anywhere, and he is cool. Haliburton can make or at least help anyone do cool stuff, as he showed with the Kings, but the Pacers will play zero defense this season. Watch them if you want to see your favorite team rack up stats, but under no other circumstances. The Pacers also have the structural advantage of being the sole Eastern Conference team in this bucket, which brings us to…

Teams Who Already Have Multiple Core Guys But Will Probably Head South At Some Point

Detroit has Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, Orlando has Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, and Houston has Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. Mind you, none of these teams figure to be good, exactly, though each of them is in the second year of a rebuild that cannot and should not be stopped, so while they have as much incentive to Poot For Scoot, they also should all be trying to figure out whether their core guys are legit and will be capable at some point of winning games.

The good news: Nobody in this section is going to win many games this year. Houston is in a great position to tank by omission, as the striation in the Western Conference is incredibly stark, with 10 really good teams, four really bad ones, and another that we will get to at the end here. I like Jalen Green, although he is very much still figuring it out, and while their team is full of cool guys, it’s not clear how many of them can actually be on the floor at the same time.

Detroit just traded for Bojan Bogdanovic, which might seem to hurt their chances to lose in volume, but they probably just want to flip him at the deadline. Jaden Ivey spent two years in college doing cool shit, but is on the raw side thanks to playing in Purdue’s broken-ass system; he’ll get a lot of good time to run alongside Cunningham no matter how well or how poorly he adapts to the NBA game. Detroit’s top-line talent is great, so they’ll be happy their depth is so cruddy this season. I just listened to Cade Cunningham tell Zach Lowe he wanted to make the playoffs this season and then I looked up the Pistons 2021–22 net rating (-7.8 points, 26th in the NBA) and started looking forward to Dwane Casey initiating the Marvin Bagley Protocols as soon as February. Orlando is the team most likely to break out of this group by winning too many games, though not necessarily on purpose. Franz Wagner appears to be in the process of making “the leap,” and Banchero seems ready to play big minutes right away. Still, unless they’re close to .500 reasonably late in the season, they are young enough that they will at some point start rolling over and trying, like, three-center lineups.

Trying To Win, Probably Not Succeeding

Here is where it gets fun. The previous seven teams will all be varying degrees of bad, on purpose, and have no legitimate expectations to make the postseason. The real test of a Tank Season is in how many teams are moved to punt on otherwise normal campaigns in order to try their luck in the lottery. Because the first and second picks are so great this year, teams will feel more incentivized than usual to self-yeet down the standings, just given that a 12.3 percent chance to get a top-two pick (the eighth-placed team’s lottery odds, essentially giving them the same shot at a big-time hotshot prospect that the worst team gets in a normal year with one clear top pick) is not that difficult to sell to management when the prize is this spectacular. The strongest two such candidates to do this are Washington and Charlotte, who played each other in a preseason game and somehow both lost key starters to ankle injuries. LaMelo Ball’s sprain is apparently not that bad, though the post-English that the report was formatted in is open to some interpretation. Similarly, Kristaps Porzingis’s ankle injury was also termed “nothing severe.” If both those teams set their sights on winning throughout this season, a pair of unserious injuries in the preseason probably would not matter at all.

However, both teams are in rather precarious positions, and a 3-12 start without a star player could instantly create the conditions for a measured, strategic push of the self-destruct button. Charlotte’s second-best player, Miles Bridges, doesn’t seem headed back to the league anytime soon after his arrest for domestic violence this offseason. Unless one of their (bad) centers or James Bouknight (who played 304 minutes last year) turns out to be the truth, nobody else in a Hornets uniform is going to be a part of any good team’s core. Their veterans make for theoretically interesting trade chips, and even if Ball is healthy and everyone pulls in the same direction, they are easily worse than, at absolute minimum, nine other Eastern Conference teams. There’s no reason to think they’ll keep trying when improving their lottery position seems a far simpler matter than making the 10 seed.

The same goes for Washington. Bradley Beal is beginning to decline a bit, albeit from an all-star level, and though Kyle Kuzma rocks and they have what feels like seven different guys who were picked between eighth and 12th on their roster, none of those picks have turned out to be much; one of them, Corey Kispert, is already hurt. Like Charlotte, they find themselves on the periphery of the play-in race, and like Charlotte, they are also squarely in the worst place they could possibly be with regards to team-building: too bad to make the playoffs, too good to win the lottery. This year’s chase to land the top two picks is going to be so audacious precisely because this tier of team will be moved to pack it in earlier and with even less shame than usual in an all-out effort to improve their position in the draft. We are going to see some hilarious rotations and fake injuries this year, and while Charlotte and Washington are the two most obvious candidates to fuck off, they’re not the only ones.

New York is probably too good and too deep to really be bad, Portland still has Damian Lillard, and whichever team in the HawksCavsBulls triad disappoints, they’ll still have too much talent to chase bulk losses before March. But someone will get hurt at some point, or some team’s chemistry will implode, and also there has never been such an obvious incentive to pack it up as there is this year.

This means that the coming spring is going to be a wasteland of bad basketball, as between seven and 12 teams jockey for positions in the lottery. The real test is going to be whether anyone punts on the play-in in order to try to improve their top-two chances from one-in-20 to one-in-eight. The expanded play-in hasn’t stopped tanking, but it has so far limited its scope. That setup has never been truly tested like it will this year, because the incentives have never been as high. What good is the right to get swept by the Bucks, an Eastern Conference owner might think, if it costs us a spin at the lottery wheel? The mechanism of making that choice will be truly odious basketball, of the sort I relish. I love bad things, and we’re going to see some really silly nonsense and, ideally, a rogue veteran coach pushing back against a directive to lose or a player giving an interview saying essentially, “Fuck Victor Wembanyama,” after helping his awful team win a game in February. Which brings us to our last tank competitor:

The Sacramento Kings

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