Though the battle for the NBA championship will not begin in earnest until April, when the playoffs get underway, another race is already underway that has many fans regularly checking the bottom of the standings.
Intentionally losing in order to increase the chances of attaining the top draft pick isn’t a new accusation in the NBA. But the unusual depth of the 2014 draft class, loaded at the top with players such as Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart and Duke’s Jabari Parker, means speculation about which teams are tanking has been heated since the offseason began. There are even rallying cries on social media: “Riggin’ for Wiggins,” “Take it Apart for Smart,” “Being Sorry for Jabari.” And although it’s nearly impossible to prove a team’s intention to lose, one NBA general manager gave prudence to the theory by anonymously admitting in a ESPN the Magazine article that he’s discussed tanking with his owner.
Problem is, teams that some pinpointed as tanking candidates after trading away some of their best players during the offseason have jumped out to strong starts. The Philadelphia 76ers won their first three games, including a 114-110 victory against two-time defending champion Miami. Meantime, the Phoenix Suns began 2-0 before narrowly losing to Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Both sit at 3-2 thrugh Thursday’s games.
Some NBA executives (at least publicly) scoff at the notion of tanking. Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, an obsessive competitor during his playing days, brushed off such talk earlier this season.
“If that was my intention, I never would have paid [free agent] Al Jefferson $13 million a year,” joked Jordan, whose Bobcat teams have gone 62-128 during his three-year tenure as owner.
Hidden within Jordan’s humor is one reason why tanking could appeal to some NBA executives. While Miami has the finances, complementary roster and attractive surroundings to draw free agents like LeBron James and Chris Bosh, franchises such as Milwaukee, Utah and Sacramento aren’t known as cushy destinations in the annual free agent sweepstakes. Therefore, some teams find their best, and cheapest, option to be building a contender through the draft. After enduring four losing seasons, Golden State reaped the benefits of this approach by building a playoff contender around draft picks Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
But while tanking increases one’s chances within the NBA draft lottery, the league’s worst teams have struggled to win in that arena, as well. Since the NBA went to a weighted lottery system in 1990, the team with the worst record has won the top pick just three times. Teams with the third-worst and fifth-worst records, meanwhile, lead the race to the first pick with five lottery wins apiece.
BY THE NUMBERS
Field goal made by No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett through his first five games. The Cleveland Cavaliers rookie is 1 for 20 from the field with a three-pointer and 2 for 4 from the foul line for a total of five points.
Players in league history who have scored at least 10 points in 500 straight games after Miami’s LeBron James joined the club on Tuesday. Others to reach this feat are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (twice), Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Moses Malone.
“I think sometimes he’s penalized for being a nice guy.”
— Chicago Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau on Derrick Rose, who attempted just 10 free throws in his first three games.
“Retirement was a thought, it was a serious thought. It still is. … It’s still career-threatening. I’m a shell of myself on the court right now. I’m just struggling mentally.”
— Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum on ongoing issues with his knees. In his first four games, Bynum averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 13.3 minutes.