Much of the NBA’s playoff picture is already rounding into form a quarter of the way through the regular season, at least in terms of who will be and who will be out. Eleven of the 16 playoff seeds are virtual locks, barring significant injury, and two more are leaning that way. Eight teams are vying for the final three spots.
That means a third of the league will have their season wrapped by Christmas, and the best way for those teams to ensure themselves of a top-four pick is committing to tanking early. Not every team will pack it in by mid-December. Some will live in denial of their lottery inevitability, others will see value in chasing wins.
Regardless, we are here to rank the 10 teams that should be most motivated to start sinking to the bottom of the standings, with No. 10 being the least desperate and No. 1 representing the outfit in direst straits.
Keep in mind, talent evaluators have pegged four prospects as candidates for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft: suspended Memphis freshman center James Wiseman, North Carolina freshman scoring guard Cole Anthony, Georgia freshman guard Anthony Edwards and New Orleans Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball’s younger brother, LaMelo Ball, who is currently playing in Australia’s National Basketball League.
Also, with last season’s NBA draft lottery tweaks, which expanded to include the top four picks and smoothed the odds, the three teams with the worst record this season will all have an equal opportunity to land both the No. 1 overall pick (14 percent) and a top-four selection (52.1 percent). The fourth- and fifth-worst teams will both have an 11.5 percent chance at the top pick and a 45.1 percent shot at the top four.
Now, without further ado ...
The Tanking Rankings
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-12): The Thunder are currently in seventh place in the West, but five teams are within one win of them, and almost all are less likely to be demonstrably worse by the trade deadline. OKC would gladly rid itself of the $100 million-plus left on Chris Paul’s contract, and Danilo Gallinari’s expiring contract could fetch Thunder general manager Sam Presti another asset to add to his war chest of draft picks. It also behooves them not to win too many games, since the first-round pick they owe to the Philadelphia 76ers is top-20 protected and transfers to a pair of future second-rounders after this season.
9. New Orleans Pelicans (6-17): The Pels may have challenged for a playoff spot with Zion Williamson and a number of rising stars in tow, but they dug themselves an early hole that is only getting deeper with each passing week that the No. 1 pick is sidelined. The New Orleans brass is already cautioning us that Williamson will require load management whenever he returns from his knee injury and not to consider him the “cavalry” in a playoff pursuit. Still, if he is the generational talent he was made out to be, smart teams generally try to pursue a winning culture around a prized prospect, and I think the Pelicans fit that bill.
8. Chicago Bulls (8-16): The Bulls entered this season developing a young roster with hopes of chasing a playoff spot this season. In fact, Zach LaVine guaranteed the franchise’s first berth since his arrival in 2017. His publicly debate over his own defensive effort with head coach Jim Boylen is one of many reasons that Chicago appears bound for a third straight lottery campaign. That said, both may be stubborn enough to believe they can make a run at it, and you know Boylen will run his young Bulls ragged trying, even in vain.
7. Charlotte Hornets (9-16): Technically, the Hornets are within sniffing distance of the East’s eight seed, and they have been surprisingly competitive following Kemba Walker’s exit, but let’s get real. Charlotte should have no interest in winning. Michael Jordan may be morally opposed to tanking, but even he has to recognize that no star is walking through that door without a high-end lottery pick. Jordan has done well to identify P.J. Washington and Devonte’ Graham in the draft, but his last two top-five picks were Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and he has not had a third swing at a franchise-altering talent since. It is time.
6. Atlanta Hawks (6-17): The Hawks started the season with a pair of wins that had folks wondering whether they could compete for the playoffs ahead of schedule, what with Trae Young scoring like Stephen Curry, but John Collins’ 25-game PED suspension derailed any momentum toward that end. Young looks like a perennial All-Star in the making, and Atlanta already has several other promising pieces, but I’m not sure any one of them will ever be good enough to carry the Hawks into contention. Atlanta could use one more crack at an additional franchise cornerstone who might help them forget they passed on Luka Doncic.
5. Washington Wizards (7-15): The Wizards have long searched for a third star to slot alongside Bradley Beal and John Wall, but Wall’s Achilles injury forces them to consider even more creative ways to ascend. With Wall strangling the salary cap and few assets to trade for a top-flight talent, conventional wisdom had Beal tied to Wall’s deal in a blowup trade. Instead, Washington gave Beal a massive extension, removing him from the trade market this season and leaving the lottery as the only path forward. In a cruel twist, the Wizards now have to hope Beal is not good enough to prevent them from achieving true terribleness.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-17): The Cavs were walking a tightrope well to start the season under John Beilein, but the new head coach’s college style has reportedly begun to fray the few fibers holding them together. They are now “expressing a willingness to listen to offers” for All-Star forward Kevin Love, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. That would cut any ties Cleveland had to competitiveness, and Tristan Thompson’s expiring contract could follow Love elsewhere. Besides, the Cavaliers’ first-round pick is top-10 protected by way of their 2017 trade for Kyle Korver, and there is no sense in risking that it conveys.
3. Memphis Grizzlies (6-16): Led by rookies Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke and sophomore Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies are another bottom dweller that has yet to be a pushover. They play hard for head coach Taylor Jenkins, but if the weight of a season bound for nowhere does not derail them, management might have to step in. Their first-round pick is only top-six protected, and their current lottery odds give Boston a 54.1 percent chance of securing it in 2020. Unless Memphis is higher on the 2021 draft, when that pick becomes unprotected, you can bet the Grizz will find a way to flip those odds in their favor come June.
2. Golden State Warriors (5-19): The Warriors want as high a draft pick as they can get in this throwaway season, one more asset for their inevitable comeback campaign. GM Bob Myers is already planning a trip to Australia to scout prospects LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton. The first-round pick they dealt to salvage D’Angelo Russell in the sign-and-trade that sent Kevin Durant to Brooklyn is top-20 protected, and they are at no risk of finishing with a top-10 record. The only reason for them not to tank is the personal pride of a champion, especially if Stephen Curry returns from his hand injury, but even then the incentive is to lose.
1. New York Knicks (4-19): It is unclear whether the Knicks intended to tank this season, but they cannot help themselves. The front office has tried to sell the public on the notion that signing all power forwards and point guards was a means to a competitive end, even using David Fizdale’s firing as a scapegoat for the organization’s roster-building failures, but this is a team constructed to lose. The Knicks are no longer “the cool thing” in free agency, if they ever were, and the draft is their only chance to put a face on the marquee that is not James Dolan’s. R.J. Barrett is a start, but the Knicks are still starting from the bottom.
Who’s got next in the Tanking Rankings?
For those of you following at home, that leaves four open lottery spots for the 20 teams still in contention.
The Eastern Conference locks: Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and Miami. Indiana and Brooklyn are close, but both are at risk of falling to the bubble with another injury to a key rotational player. The Nets owe their first-rounder to Atlanta, but the Pacers’ pick is only lottery protected and therefore tank eligible. Otherwise, Orlando and Detroit will fight for the eighth seed and the right to get stomped in the first round.
The Western Conference locks: Both L.A. teams, Houston, Denver, Utah and Dallas. That leaves two spots for San Antonio, Portland, Sacramento, Phoenix and Minnesota. Count the Spurs out at your own risk, but injuries to the Blazers have seriously opened the door for one more young team to sneak into the playoffs.
Karl-Anthony Towns is the best player on the three top challengers to San Antonio and Portland’s reign, and the Kings have surprisingly kept themselves afloat in the injury absences of De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III, both of whom could be back by the new year. Meanwhile, the Suns have started to fall back to Earth since their 5-2 start to the season, and their schedule leading into Christmas will do them no favors.
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