How much tanking will we see inside the NBA bubble?

Ben Rohrbach
·7 min read

For better or worse, the NBA is forging ahead with its plan to restart the 2019-20 season at the end of the month in Orlando, Florida. As teams report to Walt Disney World for training camp, we will dive deep into the big-picture basketball questions left to be answered between now and October.

[A brief history of where the NBA left off and what it means for an impending return]

A lot of tanking. We could be in for a lot of tanking in Orlando.

A number of players have already opted out of the NBA’s restart. Others have cited injuries as reason for not participating. More have been forced out from positive COVID-19 tests. Rosters are being depleted. Even some of the players who plan on playing out the season have expressed reservations about doing so. There is little reason beyond financial gain for anyone to be there. It is all a recipe for bad basketball.

But worse than bad basketball is intentionally bad basketball.

If not for appearing on each other’s schedule, the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets might lose every game they play in Disney World. And for good reason. Neither team has any chance of winning a playoff series, and both would benefit greatly from missing the playoffs entirely. Athletes may not care about securing a higher draft pick who could potentially take their roster spot next season, but it is an unintended benefit for teams that their players are more motivated to showcase themselves than to win.

The Nets, in particular, lose their first-round pick if they advance to the first round, and they get a pick no lower than 14th if they drop into the lottery, along with a 2.4 percent shot at moving up into the top four.

Brooklyn is bringing a shell team to Orlando after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose to focus their rehab efforts on returning next season, Nicolas Claxton announced a shoulder surgery three-plus months into the hiatus, Wilson Chandler opted out of the restart for family reasons, and positive coronavirus tests led Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince to forego playing for the rest of the season.

If you are wondering why the Nets signed well-traveled veterans Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley — neither of whom could secure a roster spot anywhere in the league prior to the shutdown — rather than adding G League prospects who might prove worthy of earning a 2020-21 roster spot, you are not alone. Crawford and Beasley will arrive in Orlando wanting to win, but it seems they were brought there to lose.

If Brooklyn loses all eight games in the bubble, the Wizards would have to win just one additional game to force the least competitive play-in series for an eighth seed imaginable. It might be entertaining to see what lengths the Nets would go to lose two straight games to Washington and secure a first-round pick.

Wizards stars Bradley Beal and John Wall will not be making the trip to Orlando. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Wizards stars Bradley Beal and John Wall will not be making the trip to Orlando. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Of course, winning anything in Orlando will be awfully difficult for the Wizards, whose three best players are staying at home. Bradley Beal’s late decision to rest his rotator cuff was made out of concern for what “will be best for all of us in the long term.” John Wall is “110 percent” healthy but will not return from his Achilles injury until next season. And Davis Bertans is prioritizing his free agency over playing.

You cannot blame any of them for their decisions, but Washington’s focus has already turned to 2020-21, when the Wizards will be slotted ninth in the lottery and owners of a 20.2 percent chance at a top-four pick if they fail to make the playoffs. Should Ish Smith and Rui Hachimura lead them to an eighth seed, the Wizards would instead draft 15th with no chance of moving into the lottery. No small difference.

The Wizards are a prime example of why bringing 22 teams to Orlando was a poor decision, motivated by nothing more than money. If safety was the priority, unnecessarily adding 210 people from six non-playoff teams to the bubble would never have happened. Instead, two additional Washington players were not in uniform for the start of training camp this week because of positive COVID-19 tests, and the NBA is fielding a team unrecognizable from the one that had little chance of making the playoffs anyhow.

One fascinating tanking opportunity belongs to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers. OKC’s first-round pick conveys to Philadelphia if it falls outside the top 20. Otherwise, the Sixers receive a pair of future second-rounders. The Thunder (40-24) are currently tied for the 21st draft selection, one spot behind the Sixers (39-26) in 20th. Whichever team loses more inside the bubble can get the pick.

Overall, there should be less tanking in the West, where the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings are already inside the four-game window necessary to force a play-in series with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Blazers, with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back from injury, and the Pelicans, with Zion Williamson unleashed, might even be able to convince themselves they could give the Los Angeles Lakers a series in the first round if they were to unseat the Grizzlies for the eighth seed.

Meanwhile, Memphis has no motivation as an organization to fall out of the playoffs, if only because its first-round pick (top-six protected this season or unprotected in 2021) belongs to the Boston Celtics. The Blazers, Pelicans and Kings all own their first-round picks this year and have a low-percentage lottery chance of moving from the middle of the first round to the top of the draft. Their tanking would come from players losing interest in participating in an experimental business venture in a coronavirus hotspot.

You might think the San Antonio Spurs would be motivated by a 22-season playoff streak, but LaMarcus Aldridge’s decision to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery a month after playing 37 minutes in their final game before the break would suggest otherwise. The Spurs have not tanked since the Tim Duncan sweepstakes, and the franchise’s first lottery pick since then is waiting on the other side of the bubble. It all makes you wonder why the Spurs and their 71-year-old coach were even asked to travel to Orlando.

More egregious is the Phoenix Suns’ participation. They have no chance of making up three games on the four non-playoff teams in front of them, just to force a play-in series for the eighth seed. Their season is over, save for playing out the eight remaining games on their schedule, and they could not even field a full roster for their first practice because multiple players were left home due to positive COVID-19 tests.

With their spot in the lottery locked in at No. 10 (unless the Wizards manage to make the playoffs), the Suns may not be tanking, but they will be playing meaningless basketball, their presence serving nothing more than playing spoiler to the few teams on their eight-game slate still jockeying for playoff seeding.

Are you excited yet for the Suns and Wizards to restart the season against each other on a Friday afternoon? Circle that and the next day’s Wizards-Nets game on your calendar. What a world where NBA teams conduct a training camp during a pandemic to play games nobody cares about — ones in which they might benefit from losing. At least the rehabbing Kelly Oubre Jr. made the trip to maybe not play.

More from our NBA restart series:

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach