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Ball Don't Lie

Faced with a terrible NCAA draft pool, Phoenix Suns players don’t get why they have to tank games

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Nothing says "tanking" like minutes for Michael Beasley (Getty Images)

Apologies for the downer take, but this has to be a particularly depressing time for fans of teams at the bottom of the NBA’s standings. Not only have they sat through five months of bad basketball, but watching this year’s NCAA Tournament can’t be encouraging hopes for lottery greatness this summer. The rumored number one pick, Kansas’ Ben McLemore, is coming off of an ohfer nine performance in the second round of the tourney. Last summer’s rumored top prospect, Indiana’s Cody Zeller, was bounced from the bracket after a 3-10 shooting night against Syracuse, seeing several of his weaker attempts blocked. There is no savior in the 2013 NBA draft.

The teams that are playing out the string in the 2012-13 season are more than aware of this, and faced with the uneasy prospect of either being accused of tanking as the season winds down, or ruining their franchise’s lottery chances by, y’know, playing hard and attempting to win ballgames. The Phoenix Suns are the worst team in their conference and currently own the fourth-worst record in the NBA, and they’re more than aware of their station as the season moves into its final three weeks.

From Paul Coro at the Arizona Republic:

The timing and the idea of holding out Goran Dragic, the Suns’ best player coming off his best game, for the past two nights said something to fans and players about the lack of importance to win for a last-place team. Dragic did not want to sit out. He was told to sit and it is not like when a 38-year-old Steve Nash did it to save his body for a playoff push.

The Dragic move privately disturbed some Suns who have been trying to adhere to the mantras for all-out effort, no excuses and a winning culture.

“I watch college and nobody there could impact the team like what people think. There are no game-changers. That’s so irrelevant to guys in the locker room.”

[…]

“We don’t look at it as tanking because we’ve still got to go to practice every day,” Suns co-captain Jermaine O’Neal said. “If you go out there, you really are trying to win. It’s a tough period with nine games to go and everybody wants that draft pick. I guess since the women’s team (the Mercury won the WNBA draft lottery’s No. 1 pick). I wasn’t even here and I heard that a lot last year — tanking the season to get Brittney Griner. If you’re going to do it, then that’s what you do it for because she changes the outlook of that team right away. I don’t believe any college player on the men’s side can have the same effect as a Brittney Griner.”

(To that end, it’s probably worth it to tank to get Brittney Griner. Hell, forfeit some games and show up to contests with just three active players, if it means acquiring Brittney Griner.)

Dragic scored 31 points in a close loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday, dropping 12 assists and collecting nine rebounds in what may have been a career game. The Suns are mindful that Dragic will have to put in work with the Slovenian National Team this summer, and that the two games he’s sat out recently (losses to Utah and Sacramento) really don’t matter much in the grand scheme.

Still, it feels like scheming. This isn’t like the Orlando Magic telling veteran forward Al Harrington to take it easy with his surgically repaired right knee from game to game. This is Goran Dragic, all of 26 years old and someone still acclimating to playing as a full-time starter with a heavy minutes load. He can still use the reps.

This speaks to the fractured nature of the Suns’ franchise, though. The team waited entirely too long to deal Steve Nash last season, only securing some lower-rung first round picks in a sign-and-trade deal after their leverage was shot in the offseason. Faced with an obvious rebuilding year, the team (and this is giving Phoenix quite a bit of credit) decided to at least ramp up the entertainment value of the franchise by bringing in offense-first types like Luis Scola (yay!) and Michael Beasley (not so much) in to pick up minutes. Jermaine O’Neal was acquired to shore up the front court. Veteran players who have basically leveled out, not the typical fare for a rebuilding team.

Understandable on some levels, but not for a squad that for two years was stuck on the lottery fringes. Dragic was benched in order to hand more minutes to rookie guard Kendall Marshall, a low lottery pick from 2012 that the Suns were forced into drafting because they were just a step-below mediocre (as opposed to bottoming out) during the last two years of the Steve Nash era.

Now they’ve reached the bottom. Or, at least, they’re close to it (even after a 7-8 start to the season) enough to keep those fingers crossed for the top pick in June’s draft. And for their suffering they’ll get … who?

It s a bad year to a bad team.

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