But as top contenders fill roster holes before the championship chase, another far less glamorous race is developing. That’s right: The tank is on for the Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic and anyone else who decides to join them.
The NBA has implemented anti-tanking measures in recent years, including flattening the draft lottery odds and expanding the postseason field with a play-in round. Those steps appeared to work in some cases this season; losing teams such as the Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans opted against widespread selling at the deadline.
However, there are other incentives at work that should fuel a robust rush to the bottom, including the shortened and condensed schedule. This year, the trade deadline was pushed back until after the all-star break, meaning that the final day of the regular season is just seven weeks away. In a typical season, the trade deadline occurs in early February, leaving more than two months until the regular season ends. Bad teams always tend to pack it in early, and now they have less time to burn.
Also consider the impact of limited crowd sizes because of the coronavirus pandemic. While vaccination efforts are proceeding more quickly than expected in many states, leading to increased audiences and more NBA buildings open to the public, bad teams still face less public pressure than usual to deliver a quality late-season product. Perversely, this is the best year imaginable for also-rans to sit veterans and give heavy minutes to prospects, even if it means accumulating losses. Every team will start fresh with the ticket-buying public next fall, and bad teams will find that reintroduction a lot more palatable with a top lottery talent such as Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley or Jalen Suggs.
That’s where things get really intriguing, thanks to a pair of encumbered draft picks. After trading for D’Angelo Russell last year, the Timberwolves, who have the NBA’s worst record (11-35), must send their pick to the Golden State Warriors if they land outside the top three. The Rockets, who have the West’s second-worst record (13-32), must send their first-round pick to the Thunder if they land outside the top four. The flattened lottery odds should be irrelevant to Minnesota and Houston, who must finish with one of the league’s three worst records to maximize their chances to keep their picks.
In a best-case scenario for the Thunder (19-26), it could land the top pick in the draft and the fifth pick courtesy of Houston. Right on schedule, Oklahoma City began shifting into developmental mode after the all-star break, trading guard George Hill, agreeing to buy out Rivers and announcing that starting center Al Horford would be shut down for the season, even though he is healthy. Rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is sidelined with plantar fasciitis, and it’s unclear when or if he will return.
While Detroit (12-33) and Orlando (15-31) don’t need to worry about draft pick conveyances, they desperately need franchise players. Troy Weaver, Detroit’s new general manager, has aggressively remade his roster by buying out Blake Griffin and trading Derrick Rose. But 2020 lottery pick Killian Hayes has missed most of the season because of injury and Jerami Grant, the team’s new leading scorer, is underqualified to carry a winner. Given that the Pistons have the East’s worst record, their 2021 pick already looks like their most important asset.
The Magic, meanwhile, embarked on a full teardown at the deadline, sending out all-star center Nikola Vucevic and starters Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier in deals to set up a youth movement. Long-term injuries to Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony, plus persistent health questions for Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and Gary Harris, complicate Orlando’s outlook. A lot rides on the upcoming draft, which could determine whether the Magic is headed for a quick reboot or an arduous rebuilding slog.
Indeed, there are high stakes all around. The Timberwolves must decide whether they still trust the injured Russell to be a centerpiece or whether they need to draft a new lead playmaker. The Rockets need a headliner to step into the void created by James Harden’s departure for the Brooklyn Nets, and they must restore some level of hope after a recent 20-game losing streak. The Thunder is sitting pretty with young talent and a bounty of extra future draft picks, but an A-lister such as Cunningham, who played at Oklahoma State, could help the small-market organization recapture some of the hype it enjoyed early in Kevin Durant’s career.
It’s best to start preparing now for an adventurous stretch run across the league. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Durant are among the stars sidelined with injuries, and contenders will be highly motivated to find rest for key players as the playoffs approach.
For the teams near the very bottom, though, the run-up to the lottery could get downright ugly — if it hasn’t already.