It’s almost that time of year again. No, I’m not talking about the NBA playoffs. Next month is the lottery for the 2011 NBA Draft. And what does that mean for lottery-bound teams? Losing is suddenly in style.
Tanking has become an annual tradition, as the lowest teams compete through March and April to be the worst of the worst. Even in a “weak” draft such as this year’s, it still pays to get a better chance at a high draft position. Teams looking to pick up a Derrick Williams or a Kyrie Irving don’t mind sacrificing a few meaningless wins. Franchises such as the Raptors and Timberwolves don’t attract big free agents and depend on the draft for their talent – they can’t afford to drop into the double-digit positions, where picks are much more risky.Speaking of Minnesota, let’s look at the team dominating the tank-fest this season. As of Monday morning, they are tied with Cleveland for the worst record in the NBA at 17-63. And how did they get there? Well, they’ve lost 13 straight games. This included an embarrassing 32-point loss to the Sacramento (who were one game below them at the time) in a game where the Kings were without their two best players for most of the game (Tyreke Evans was injured and DeMarcus Cousins got ejected early). Their best player, Kevin Love, has been sitting most of those 13 games with a mysterious “groin injury” (a.k.a. the one excuse for sitting him that nobody will ask too many questions about). Including the loss to Sacramento, they have managed to lose crucial games to three of their four biggest lottery competitors (the Wizards and Nets being the other two).
The T-Wolves haven’t won a game since March 11th. In fact, the middle of March seems to be the start of tanking season for most lottery teams. Minnesota had won 3 of 7 to start the month before launching into this losing streak. Toronto won 4 of 9 to start March, then suddenly went into a 1-9 slump before barely topping the Nets on Sunday. And apparently New Jersey didn’t get the news that they don’t have a first round pick this year, because after winning their first 5 games in March they are 2-13 since. Their two wins? A two-point victory over Minnesota, and a four-point victory against the Cavaliers in an overtime game in which neither team reached 100 points.
The Kings have won 8 of their last 13, and the Cavs are 4 of 10 recently, including their impressive win over the Heat. Despite their struggles this season, Cleveland and Sacramento don’t seem to be joining the tanking party.
The Wizards, however, seem to be trying to get an invitation, but can’t seem to figure out the art of tanking. They even started early, going 2-17 from February 16th to March 27th. But then they won 5 of the next 8, giving them an 7-20 record since mid-February. Ignoring the inexplicable 32-point win over Atlanta on Saturday (either the Hawks are just playing dead to get Orlando’s guard down, or they are literally dead), Washington’s other 6 wins over that period have been by 8 points or less against the Timberwolves, Nets, Jazz, Cavs, Bobcats, and Pistons – that’s right, all lottery teams competing for better draft positioning. If the Wizards had dropped even half of those games, they’d be looking at a high chance of getting the number one pick for the second year in a row.
Does tanking pay off? Well, last season the T-Wolves lost 22 of their last 23 games to finish second to last but only got the fourth pick in the draft. Sacramento (third to last) lost 11 of their last 12 and got the fifth pick. On the other hand, the Wizards (won 5 of their last 9) got the first pick, and the Nets (won 5 of their last 12 after going 7-63 to that point) got the third pick. Maybe karma does play a hand in how the balls roll.
By not playing the tanking game, will the Kings and Cavs come out on top this year?