Tanking remains a concern for many NBA fans and analysts, but there's no question why teams consider it a useful plan. Strategic losing gives teams a chance to rebuild and reload their rosters through the draft. It's the most apparent way of landing a star-quality player and becoming a true contender.
This manner of rebuilding has become such an acceptable plan that it's easy to identify several franchises that enter the season with little hope of making the postseason. This fall, those intentional losers appeared to include the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns (a surprise playoff contender until finally being eliminated on Monday night), and Utah Jazz, among others. Yet the worst team of the 2013-14 season may not have intended to be anywhere near this terrible.
On Monday, the Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Atlantic Division champion Toronto Raptors 110-100. The defeat pushed the Bucks' record on the season to 15-66, or three games worse than the 18-63 Sixers, who defeated the Boston Celtics. With only one game remaining for both teams, the Bucks have now clinched the worst record in the NBA and the highest odds of winning the draft lottery at 25 percent.
It does not appear that the Bucks planned to be picking this high in the draft. This summer, the Bucks made it very clear that their leadership (including owner and former U.S. senator Herb Kohl) does not condone losing on purpose and thinks such a practice would harm their public image and put them in a precarious financial position. Although the Bucks lost backcourt members Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, and Brandon Jennings in the offseason, they believed that pickups like O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, and Gary Neal would meld with young and improving frontcourt players Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, and John Henson to form a group capable of challenging for a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference.
Instead, Milwaukee has experienced something like a worst case scenario. None of the offseason pickups has played up to expectations, with Neal getting dealt at the deadline; Sanders has undergone a season-long nightmare that includes on-court griping and regression, off-court issues, injury, and suspension; and no one else has made enough of a leap to make up for it (although rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like one of the league's most promising young talents). It's been a giant mess, and Bucks fans will likely to be glad to see the season end (if they haven't checked out already).
The Bucks can now do no worse than the fourth selection in the draft. However, as the math suggests, they're not guaranteed to have their pick or the litter in June. The worst team in the NBA has won the lottery only three of 24 times since the league adopted a weighted system in 1990. The Bucks still have 25 percent odds, since the math doesn't change regardless of past results, but that history does show that getting the first pick is no sure thing.
The question for the anti-tanking crowd is if they deserve it. Based on their common claims, the system worked in the 2013-14 season. If the Bucks did indeed enter the season with the intention of winning, then they lost while giving it a fair shot, standing as one of the NBA's worst seasons for pretty much the full 82-game schedule. On the other hand, this show of effort made the Bucks significantly less watchable than those teams that appeared to enter the season with tanking in mind. The Bucks' pursuit of veteran free agents didn't just make them irrelevant, as some of us predicted they would be — it also made them a horror show on the court. As ever, putting forth an effort to win is not necessarily a form of progress.
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- the Bucks