As we’re beginning the final third of the season, it’s time for us to get excited about the playoff push. Apparently, it’s also time for us to get excited about the lottery push.
There are approximately seven teams in the league - the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks, the Orlando Magic, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Sacramento Kings, and the Phoenix Suns - racing to the bottom of the league. Or, in other words, tanking.
Yes, we know that’s a bad word - Mark Cuban just got fined $600,000 for admitting to tanking on Dr. J’s podcast. But if done right, it’s the most effective way to rebuild a team. So, let’s take a look at some of the tanking stories - both good and bad - from the last few seasons.
The Boston Celtics - The Celtics are probably the best tanking/rebuilding story in the last five years. They began their rebuild in June 2013 when they traded the last of the Big 3 - Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett - to the Brooklyn Nets for their 2014, 2016 and 2018 first-round picks with the rights to swap their 2017 first round picks.
It has turned out to be one of the biggest swindles in NBA history, leaving the Nets in purgatory for years.
The thing about the Celtics tank is they only had one really bad year. They went 25-57 in the 2013-2014 season and have made the playoffs every year since.
That feat becomes even more surprising when you realize they haven’t drafted a generational talent until this year when they took Rookie of the Year candidate Jayson Tatum.
In 2014 they used their first pick on Marcus Smart, who has turned out to be a glue guy who plays defense and does a little bit of everything on offense.
In 2015, they drafted Terry Rozier who, despite what Danny Ainge may think, will be a good starting point guard but is unlikely to become an all-star in this league.
2016? They drafted Jalen Brown who struggled his first year and created questions for Ainge on why he took the Cal product with the third overall pick. Brown to his credit has turned into a near All-Star this season averaging 14 ppg/5 rpg on a top three team in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics successful tanking story is not about the players though - it’s about the coach, Brad Stevens.
When a team announces they’re rebuilding most fans scream about the impending tank. “We gotta lose as much games to get a top-5 pick,” they say. But all those great players mean nothing if you don't have the right coach or the right culture in that organization.
When you’re developing young guys you need someone you can do two things - manage those personalities and teach them how to play the game.
Brad Stevens, doing both, has taken taken a team with 11 players 25-years old or younger and turned them into the best defensive team in the NBA and taken them to a 41-19 record in the East.
If you don’t have the right culture or the right coach, you end up like our next team.
The New York Knicks - For most of the last decade, the Knicks have been one of those teams that’s shown they have no idea what they’re doing.
Then they finally did something right - drafting Kristaps Porzingis with the No. 4 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
A few months into Kristaps’ first season, the Knicks were in the playoff hunt and, while playing second fiddle to Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps was looking like a future franchise player.
Then everything went horribly. Derek Fisher got fired, Kurt Rambis took over and the Knicks finished in the lottery despite not having a pick in 2016.
Things only got worse the next year as then-President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson constantly attacked Melo in the media and threatened to trade Porzingis. Jackson was eventually fired and the Knicks traded Melo before the start of this season.
After the 2016-2017 season the Knicks had one more chance to draft another building block for the future. Unfortunately, they took Frank Ntilikina with the 8th overall pick.
Look, I’m not saying Frank won’t be a good player. He’s 19 and already one of the top ten defensive point guards in the league.
Unfortunately, what you needed is a future star and I’m not convinced Frank is going to be that. As this season progressed, there were times Head Coach Jeff Hornacek was sitting Frank in favor of journeyman point guard Jarrett Jack.
Speaking of the head coach, there have been rumblings around the league Jeff Hornacek won’t be back next season. I know here in New York, Knicks fans haven’t been pleased with his work.
Unlike the Celtics, who began their rebuild with one coach, the Knicks have gone through Fisher, Rambis and Hornacek. None of whom really inspire confidence.
But don’t worry Knicks fans, this summer could be the chance to get this rebuild back on track. The Knick are currently 24-36 and, according to Tankathon, currently have a 2.8 percent chance to get the No. 1 overall pick in arguably the best draft since 2003.
Also, if the Knicks choose to go another direction at head coach, they could bring in a young, intelligent basketball mind to teach this team to play the right way.
Finally, they traded for a 22-year old Emmanuel Mudiay at the trade deadline and Mudiay, a former top ten overall pick in 2015, could find rejuvenation with a new opportunity.
A star rookie, a motivated Mudiay, a new coach, and a hungry Kristaps Porzingis looking to rebound off a torn ACL, could turn a bad rebuilding situation into a success story.
The Orlando Magic - Does anyone, ANYONE, know what the Orlando Magic are doing? The Magic have been bad for the last five seasons winning more than 30 games only once.
So, if they’ve been terrible for five seasons you’d think they’d have at least one home grown superstar right? Wrong.
They drafted Victor Oladipo in 2013 but he’s having an all star season for the 34-25 Indiana Pacers.
They drafted Aaron Gordon in 2014 but they played him out of position as a small forward for the first three years of his career. This season he finally played the four and averaged 18 ppg/8 rpg. However, he’s been in trade rumors and he’s a restricted free agent this summer.
That same year they traded for Elfrid Payton on draft night but they’ve since traded him to the Phoenix Suns.
They drafted Mario Hezonja in 2015 but he was in the dog house with the organization for the first two years career watching his playing time dwindle as he struggled to learn the NBA game. This is the first year he’s seeing more playing time and hopefully the promise that made him the No. 6 overall pick translated to results.
They drafted Domantas Sabonis in the 2016 draft but traded him to the Thunder in a trade that included Oladipo. Sabonis, averaging 12 ppg and 8 rpg, now plays with Oladipo on that playoff-bound Pacers team.
In 2017 they drafted Jonathan Isaac who has played only 15 games hits year due to an ankle injury. The Magic expect him to be really good but they’ll have to wait until he gets healthy to get a better evaluation.
Look, I’m sorry I made you read all that but I needed you to understand just how ridiculous their “rebuild” has been. This season they’re headed for another lottery pick with a record of 18-40.
The Magic are the reason why not everyone likes, or should engage in, tanking. It’s one thing to lose on purpose while your team is building a culture and teaching your young players how to play NBA basketball. It’s another thing to be garbage every year and stay garbage every year.
At least the Magic got the coach right? Possibly? Frank Vogel has been to an Eastern Conference championship before so maybe, with the right pieces, he can lead the Magic, to playoff success.
But if the last five years are any indication, they’ll mess this up again and continue their streak of losing.