Of the popular meanings of the word tank, two have roots signifying damage and destruction. There is the blunt military vehicle, and the less subtle term that is popular in our contemporary basketball lexicon.
The basketball version of tanking will unavoidably be a central theme in the upcoming 2013-2014 season.
Compared to previous seasons, the 2014 NBA draft class is projected to be filled with All-Stars and franchise-changing players, headlined by Canadian wing Andrew Wiggins, who will play at Kansas this coming season. Supposedly, it’s the most “loaded” draft in a long, long time.
For fans of teams with little to no chance of making the NBA playoffs, there is this rather odd obsession with ping-pong balls. Generally confined to rec centers and frat houses, those ping-pong balls also signify hope and promise for those previously mentioned moribund franchises.
See, the more losses a team accumulates in this fictitious race to the bottom, the better chance a team has of having its ping-pong ball drawn at the NBA draft lottery that would give them the top overall selection. The worst team has a 25 percent chance of getting the first selection and cannot slip beyond the fourth pick.
Losing as many games as possible, without making it look too obvious, is the art of tanking.
Here are the odds of each bad team getting the top pick:
|Worst Record||Chances out of 1,000||% for 1st||% for 2nd||% for 3rd||% for 4th||% for 5th||% for 6th||% for 7th||% for 8th|
|Worst Record||% for 9th||% for 10th||% for 11th||% for 12th||% for 13th||% for 14th|
Even if a team loses all 82 games in a given season, there’s only a one in four chance of being “rewarded” with the first choice. And unless you’re one of the three or four worst teams, the chances of getting of getting one of those premium picks is really slim.
Since the current draft lottery format was implemented, the team with the worst overall regular season record hasn’t won the lottery since 2004, when Orlando took Dwight Howard.
Over the last 10 years, the average lottery winner had a 10.72 percent chance of striking gold. The fact that teams with the fourth- to fifth-best chance of winning the lottery have had their ping-pong ball combinations come up over the last decade should be a deterrent for teams to purposely botch their seasons. This seems cliche, but we’ve gotten used to expecting the unexpected to happen each year when the draft order is unveiled.
The average franchise value rose 30 percent in 2012, according to Forbes figures, but (not surprisingly) that success did not extend to the teams with the worst records. Charlotte, the team with the worst record in 2011-2012, lost $13.3 million that season. The Bobcats didn’t win the draft lottery that year, settling for the second pick. So finishing with the worst record not only lost the team money, but didn’t work out in their favor for the future either.
So which teams have the best shot at having the worst record and the best statistical chance of landing Wiggins?
The three teams who are, let’s say, strategically rebuilding at a fairly convenient time: Utah, Philadelphia and Phoenix.
The Jazz lost their two best players, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, to free agency and will replace their production with young big men Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. Rookie Trey Burke will start at point guard, and the cap space Jefferson and Millsap took up will be occupied this year by $20 million in underachieving, expiring contracts acquired from Golden State so the Warriors could grab Andre Iguodala. The Jazz are a team set up to lose a lot of games, and something tells this writer that Utah management will have no problem with that.
After a really disappointing season, the Philadelphia 76ers hired a new front office and, much later, a new coach. The Andrew Bynum experiment ended in disastrous failure, and Jrue Holiday was traded to New Orleans on draft night. That pair will be replaced by rookies Nerlens Noel and Michael-Carter Williams. Unless Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes turn into really good players this season, Philadelphia is slated for a large amount of losses at just the right time.
Phoenix is also not making a real effort to hide its rebuilding plans. Veteran shooter Jared Dudley was traded for young point guard Eric Bledsoe, and Caron Butler was traded for Ish Smith and Slava Kravtsov to free up the cap space to release noted cannabis connoisseur Michael Beasley. With Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and rookie Alex Len leading the way, it’s tough to envision this team scoring a lot of points on a nightly basis — despite what rookie coach Jeff Hornacek has planned.
The Suns, among the other clubs slated to be the league’s worst, can also do what we call “stealth-tank.” For the sake of giving younger players experience, a team like the Suns could play Len heavily instead of the better Gortat because Len is technically a part of the long-term plan for the franchise. That also helps a team’s short-term goals if one of those goals is getting in a better position to improve its lottery odds.
The other teams rounding out the bottom five are the Bobcats and Magic. Despite signing Jefferson, Charlotte will still be really, really bad as well. Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will still get a lot of playing time as both try to develop, and Cody Zeller could take some minutes from Bismack Biyombo.
Orlando didn’t really do anything this offseason except draft Victor Oladipo second overall, but they have a nice developing core around Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Oladipo and Arron Afflalo. So the Magic may not be as bad as some would think, and they could do some stealth tanking of their own by gradually reducing the minutes of Jameer Nelson and other veteran players.
These five teams may have the best shot at landing Wiggins or other players with huge potential, but we’ve found out over the last decade that losing the most games (or tanking) is far from the surest path to the top pick in the NBA draft.
Shlomo Sprung loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter.