Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
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The Oklahoma City Thunder are the tanking MVPs
The NBA took several recent steps to limit late-season tanking, implementing the play-in tournament and flattening lottery odds, and only five teams have been eliminated from playoff contention in late March. Yet, three games on Wednesday had nothing but draft positioning on the line, and the teams acted accordingly.
You will be shocked to learn that all six teams involved in those otherwise meaningless games — the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs — rank among the NBA's 12 lowest payrolls and account for the five worst attended arenas.
Not to worry: Any lost revenue for those team owners is offset by eight-figure luxury tax payments from teams actively trying to win. Here I was thinking billionaires opposed taxing the rich to benefit the less fortunate.
A fourth game on Wednesday featured the last-place Houston Rockets (18-55), who have benched healthy five-time All-Star point guard John Wall the entire season. They are so committed to losing that the Dallas Mavericks felt comfortable giving Luka Doncic Wednesday night off in Houston and still won in a landslide.
The three worst teams will enter the lottery with equal odds to secure a top-four pick (52.1%) and the No. 1 overall selection (14%). Odds slide downhill from there. The importance of landing in that range is magnified by a draft class that projects to feature four potential franchise cornerstones: Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero and Jaden Ivey, who form the top tier of Yahoo Sports expert Krysten Peek's latest mock.
One of those three spots was up for grabs on Wednesday, when the Thunder hosted the Magic in a battle of the West and East's 14th-place teams. Rising Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has rested twice this month, and wouldn't you know it — both came against the Magic this week. Orlando countered on Wednesday by resting Wendell Carter Jr., who scored a game-high 30 points in Sunday's win over OKC.
The Thunder have also been cagey with the availability of their second- and third-best players. Over the past month, rookie Josh Giddey's hip soreness progressed from "could miss some time" in late February to "a couple of weeks" in early March to a scheduled reevaluation at the end of next week. Likewise, Lu Dort's left shoulder bruise in November became a strain by mid-February and a torn labrum that required season-ending surgery days after he participated in pregame warmups and weeks after he last played for OKC.
The standings can dictate how injuries are managed, and only Giddey's Rookie of the Year case suffers from taking every precaution. This safety tanking did nothing for the Thunder on Wednesday, when Theo Maledon scored 25 points in 32 minutes off the bench, both season highs, in a 118-102 win over the Magic. The victory left OKC with slightly worse odds at a top-four selection (48.1%) and the No. 1 pick (12.5%).
The guise of tanking is the commitment to developing young players who make enough mistakes to lose games, and hopefully everyone is better for it by season's end. The youth gains experience, and the team drops in the standings. You just hope chasing losses does not create a culture that hinders a prospect's development. Occasionally, a Maledon moment occurs, and as encouraging as that is for his come-up, that feeling is juxtaposed with the discouragement of a front office desperate to draft a potential superstar.
Here is who was on the floor for OKC and Orlando in an eight-point game with 3:48 left: Maledon, Ignas Brazdeikis, Jeff Dowtin, Vit Krejci, Chuma Okeke, Isaiah Roby, Olivier Sarr, Admiral Schofield, Mo Wagner and Lindy Waters III. You can guess who plays for whom. Half of them were not NBA players in December. One of them signed with the Magic on Tuesday and played the entire fourth quarter of Wednesday's loss.
Thunder executive Sam Presti and Magic counterpart John Hammond are respected general managers. They have drafted four MVPs between them. You tell me if those closing lineups are designed to win.
And still neither team is submitting the year's most impressive in-season tanking performance. That honor belongs to the plunging Blazers, who held a two-game lead on the final play-in tournament spot on Feb. 23, when they were riding a four-game winning streak spearheaded by Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons.
Portland promptly shut Nurkic down with the same plantar fasciitis he had played through since September. Simons scored 38 points over 40 minutes on March 5, and then rested a sore knee for two games. Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said Simons was "nearing a return" on March 9, but an MRI the next day revealed mild patellar tendinopathy in his left knee that was to be reevaluated in 1-2 weeks. He has not played since.
Blazers star Damian Lillard underwent abdominal surgery on Jan. 13, when the team said he would be reevaluated in six weeks. It was barely a week before he declared, "If we’re gonna play for a draft pick ... it wouldn't make sense for me to play." Portland inevitably ruled out the possibility of his return this week.
Meanwhile, the Blazers dealt CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Larry Nance Jr. for what amounted to Josh Hart, a protected first-round pick, three second-rounders and a ton of salary cap space. The trade deadline confirmed what Lillard already suggested: Portland was embracing the tank this season.
Billups conceded as much when he told our Vincent Goodwill recently, "This is not a rebuild at all. Retool. We’ll take a few small steps back, develop some young guys, then boom, free agency and the draft."
Portland's 133-96 loss to San Antonio on Wednesday dropped the Blazers behind the Spurs into 12th place in the Western Conference. It was their eighth loss by 30 or more points in their last 13 games. They started CJ Elleby, Trendon Watford, Justise Winslow, Drew Eubanks and Kris Dunn. Only Elleby was on the 15-man roster at the start of February, and he was barely in the rotation before joining the starting lineup on Feb. 4.
In a matter of weeks, Portland has plummeted from potentially making the playoffs to sole possession of the seventh-best lottery odds. No team has more games left against teams also in lottery contention. In their next eight games, the Blazers play two apiece against the Rockets, Thunder, Spurs and Pelicans. The Blazers will need to out-tank Houston and OKC, or they risk playing their way back into play-in contention.
Portland also has a stake in New Orleans’ failure. The Blazers get the Pelicans’ pick if it falls from 5-14. (The pick conveys to Charlotte if New Orleans makes the playoffs.) Next week’s two games between the Blazers and Pelicans will be fascinating. Lose both, and Portland (27-45) improves its chances of dropping behind Sacramento (26-48) and Indiana (25-48) into the fifth spot in the lottery (10.5% shot at the No. 1 pick, 42.1% at the top four). Win both, and the Blazers increase their odds of securing a pair of top-10 picks.
The next tier of top prospects in this year’s draft class tops out around eight more safer bets, before the rest of the first round becomes a bigger gamble. Would Portland rather have a 42% chance at one of Smith, Holmgren, Banchero and Ivey, or something like a 26% shot at a top-four pick, plus another top-12 pick?
No team can manipulate the lottery and play-in tournament more than the Blazers over the next 17 days. Whether or not they dust off Simons against the Pelicans next week will tell us how bad they want to be.
Current lottery odds
1. Houston Rockets (18-55). No. 1 overall pick odds: 14%. Top-four pick odds: 52.1%.
2. Orlando Magic (20-54). No. 1 overall pick odds: 14%. Top-four pick odds: 52.1%.
3. Detroit Pistons (20-53). No. 1 overall pick odds: 14%. Top-four pick odds: 52.1%.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (21-52). No. 1 overall pick odds: 12.5%. Top-four pick odds: 48.1%.
5. Indiana Pacers (25-49). No. 1 overall pick odds: 10.5%. Top-four pick odds: 42.1%.
6. Sacramento Kings (26-48). No. 1 overall pick odds: 9%. Top-four pick odds: 37.2%.
7. Portland Trail Blazers (27-45). No. 1 overall pick odds: 7.5%. Top-four pick odds: 31.9%.
8. San Antonio Spurs (29-44). No. 1 overall pick odds: 6%. Top-four pick odds: 26.2%.
9. Washington Wizards (30-42). No. 1 overall pick odds: 3%. Top-four pick odds: 13.9%.
10. Los Angeles Lakers* (31-42).
*The Lakers' pick conveys to the Pelicans if 1-10 or Grizzlies if 11-30.
10. New York Knicks (31-42).
10. New Orleans Pelicans** (31-42).
*The Pelicans' pick is top-four protected (conveys to the Blazers if 5-14 or Hornets if 15-30).
(When two or more teams finish with the same record, they split the odds assigned to their lottery slots. Coin flips determine the odds in the event of an uneven split. In the above example, the Lakers, Knicks and Pelicans would split the cumulative odds for the 10th, 11th and 12th slots (a combined 6.5% chance at the No. 1 pick and 30.5% shot at a top-four pick). Two of them would get a 2.2% shot at No. 1 and an 11.3% chance at the top four, and the third would have a 2.1% chance at No. 1 and a 10.9% shot at the top four.)
The New Orleans Pelicans can still rule the draft
There is another interesting dynamic at play between the Pelicans and Lakers over the next few weeks.
The Pelicans only keep their own first-round pick if they win a top-four selection. They owe it to Charlotte (via the Devonte' Graham deal) if they make the playoffs or Portland (via the McCollum trade) if they miss the playoffs and do not move up in the lottery. New Orleans also owns a first-round pick from the Lakers (via the Anthony Davis deal), but it conveys to Memphis (via the Jonas Valanciunas trade) if it lands 11-30.
In other words, the Pelicans could finish with two top-10 picks, no picks at all or split the difference.
The Lakers will be punching up at potential playoff foes for their next eight games, save for a pair against New Orleans in the next seven days. They are in a virtual tie for the league's 10th-worst record, and head-to-head losses to the Pelicans would increase the likelihood the Lakers finish the season in the bottom 10.
If San Antonio fails to make a final push for the play-in tournament, New Orleans might have a shot in a game between the ninth- and 10th-place teams to knock the Lakers out of the playoffs. L.A.'s unprotected pick will convey to the Pelicans if it remains in the top 10 when the Ping Pong balls are drawn on May 17.
If the Pelicans succeed in that regard and lose their second play-in tournament game, falling into the lottery themselves, they could enter the draw with a one-in-three chance at another top-four pick. Fail to navigate that narrow road successfully, and New Orleans risks losing both its own pick and the Lakers' selection.
As if Pelicans needed more reason to root against Davis and the Lakers.
Your 2022 NBA tanking season schedule
Come for the hilariously bad basketball, stay for the lottery odds.
Washington Wizards at Detroit Pistons
Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers
Sacramento Kings at Orlando Magic
Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers
New York Knicks at Detroit Pistons
Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers
San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets
Orlando Magic at Washington Wizards
Sacramento Kings at Houston Rockets
Sacramento Kings at Houston Rockets
Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs
New York Knicks at Orlando Magic
Detroit Pistons at Indiana Pacers
Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs
Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder
New York Knicks at Washington Wizards
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