The stretch run of the NBA season is upon us. The trade deadline is behind us. All-Star Weekend has come and gone, and just the final 23-25 games of the regular season lie ahead.
For 19 teams, that means it’s time to ramp up the postseason push. In the West, it’s a 10-team battle for eight positions, including a giant pack from the No. 3 to No. 10 separated by only 4.5 games. Out East, nine teams are in the playoff hunt, with the Pistons at 28-29 holding on to postseason hopes behind the Heat and Sixers.
The other 11 teams in the NBA have no playoff hopes and the final two months of the regular season will be all about positioning themselves for ping-pong balls. These teams can’t come out and say that at the risk of a $600,000 fine, but they can do their best to rest veterans, play young players and hope for some development coupled with losing to set themselves up with the best draft lottery odds.
It’s important to note that players and coaches don’t actively try to lose in games, because that’s how those guys lose their jobs. However, front offices have different ideas and can dictate who gets more minutes and who rests in order to give the team a better chance to lose. We’re going to look at those 11 teams to figure out where they’ll likely end up come April and what, if anything, they can do to ensure they get more ping-pong balls.
Charlotte Hornets (24-33): The Hornets have let GM Rich Cho go and will try to bring in former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak this summer, but rebuilding in Charlotte is a tall task. This is a team that isn’t tanking, they just aren’t very good. Cho didn’t make too many outrageously bad moves, but seemingly every gamble he took on signing a solid player to a bigger deal and every draft pick failed to pan out.
They have an All-Star point guard in Kemba Walker and that’s about it, with Dwight Howard occupying a lot of cap space and paint space and Nicolas Batum’s massive contract looking worse and worse by the day as he’s still yet to find his shooting form. There’s not a lot the Hornets can do to chase a better pick, so they’ll just keep plugging away and hope that this summer they can get out from under a contract or two and hit on a late lottery pick.
Remaining Strength of Schedule: .460, 29th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 2/27 v. Bulls, 3/10 v. Suns, 3/15 at Hawks, 4/3 at Bulls, 4/6 at Magic
Los Angeles Lakers (23-34): The Lakers don’t own their pick, so they don’t have incentive to tank right now. The Celtics would love for them to chill out, but it’ll be full speed ahead for L.A. in their effort to prove this young core has enough talent to be appealing for LeBron James and Paul George to want to jump to the Lakers this summer. Integrating Isaiah Thomas into the lineup will be interesting to watch once Lonzo Ball comes back and they’ve struggled since the trade deadline, but this is a team that will be playing to win the rest of the way.
Remaining SOS: .502, 16th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 2/23 v. Mavs, 2/24 at Kings, 2/26 at Hawks, 3/7 v. Magic, 3/24 at Grizzlies, 4/1 v. Kings
New York Knicks (23-36): The Knicks may have won too many games with Kristaps Porzingis to have a chance at a high lottery pick, but of this trio, this is the squad that will most likely bottom out and make things interesting. Without Porzingis, this is an exceedingly bad basketball team. While they’re five games up on the worst record in the league, they’ve dropped eight straight and have the third toughest schedule of the bottom 11 teams, courtesy Tankathon.com.
The Knicks might be barely in the top 10 right now, but don’t be surprised if they find themselves with a healthy number of ping-pong balls by the end of the season. They don’t really need to mess with the lineup much to get there either. Play Frank Ntilikina to get him reps and let the rest of the roster take care of the rest.
Remaining SOS: .514, 11th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 2/22 at Magic, 3/4 at Kings, 3/13 v. Mavs, 3/19 v. Bulls, 4/3 v. Magic
Chicago Bulls (20-37): The Bulls’ front office is a disaster, so it’s no surprise that they couldn’t even tank right when they clearly should have been the league’s worst team this season. Their little win streak in December may have done them in as Chicago is three games up on the Hawks and Suns right now, but the calvary is coming.
Oh yes, the Bulls are deploying the ultimate tank weapon: Cameron Payne. Don’t count out these Bulls just yet. They’ve got a 15-game losing streak in them if they commit to trotting Payne and the rest out there for significant minutes. It will be a battle of the Bulls’ roster vs. a weak schedule (26th in the league and the second weakest of these 11 teams, only to Charlotte, remaining) the rest of the way.
Remaining SOS: .474, 26th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 2/26 at Nets, 3/2 v. Mavs, 3/7 v. Grizzlies, 3/11 at Hawks, 3/15 at Grizzlies, 3/30 at Magic, 4/7 v. Nets, 4/9 at Nets
Brooklyn Nets (19-40): The Nets are only a game off of pace in the loss column, and while they have no incentive to tank because Cleveland owns their pick, they just might be bad enough to have a chance at the top spot. Brooklyn’s schedule is right in the middle of the pack, so no advantage or disadvantage there. They’re going to be playing hard the entire way and Spencer Dinwiddie has emerged as a real player, but there just isn’t much on this roster that can lead them to a ton of wins. Brooklyn won’t be actively going after that top pick but they could accidentally get there anyways.
Remaining SOS: .496, 17th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 2/26 v. Bulls, 3/1 at Kings, 3/17 v. Mavs, 3/19 v. Grizzlies, 3/28 at Magic, 4/7 at Bulls, 4/9 v. Bulls
Memphis Grizzlies (18-38): Losing seven in a row has the Grizzlies in real contention here. They’re tied in the win column with the teams at the bottom and simply need to catch up in the loss column. Not moving Tyreke Evans at the deadline may have hurt their tanking ability, but it’s not as though they’ve been burning things up with Marc Gasol and Tyreke leading the way anyways.
If they curtail the minutes for those just a little bit, it might help, but there’s stiff competition for that top lotto spot and this is a team that has better players than, say, the Knicks who are below them currently. The schedule is also fairly soft so there figure to be some wins coming their way to end the season that will shuffle them back in the draft lottery order.
Remaining SOS: .486, 21st in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 2/28 v. Suns, 3/3 at Magic, 3/7 at Bulls, 3/10 at Mavs, 3/15 v. Bulls, 3/19 at Nets, 4/6 v. Kings
Sacramento Kings (18-39): Sacramento looked borderline competent heading into the All-Star break, going 4-6 in their last 10, which isn’t ideal to tanking. This is not a good team and they have a horrendous net rating, but somehow they keep winning random games. They already do weird stuff with their lineups and trading George Hill will only help them be worse. The young guys like De’Aaron Fox will keep playing hard and those random wins they pick up against good teams (like the Warriors?!) will keep them from the top spot, but this is still a bottom five squad.
Remaining SOS: .504, 15th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 3/1 v. Nets, 3/4 v. Knicks, 3/9 v. Magic, 3/22 v. Hawks, 3/27 v. Mavs, 4/3 at Suns, 4/6 at Grizzlies
Orlando Magic (18-39): The Magic could chase down that No. 1 spot, but while they are a disaster at times, they, like the Kings and the Hawks (who we will get to), win just enough games that they shouldn’t to ruin their chances at that top spot. Orlando will get Aaron Gordon back soon (although they should rest him longer to help the cause), Mario Hezonja appears to have realized he has to get a contract this summer and has suddenly looked like he might be an actual NBA player and they’re just going to win enough annoying games to have a mid-lottery pick yet again.
Trading Elfrid Payton for a second round pick was a sneaky tank move at the deadline, but I don’t think that’ll give them the juice they need to out-duel some teams that are coming way harder for that top spot. They have a run of six straight games at the end of March and early April against fellow bad basketball teams that will likely determine it all for Orlando.
Remaining SOS: .486, 20th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 3/3 v. Grizzlies, 3/9 at Kings, 3/24 v. Suns, 3/28 v. Nets, 3/30 v. Bulls, 4/1 at Hawks, 4/3 at Knicks, 4/4 v. Mavs
Dallas Mavericks (18-40): The Mavs’ organization, in general, is a disaster right now and that’s a much bigger and more important issue than the team’s performance. The team on the court has been bad and Mark Cuban’s even admitted they are trying to lose, much to the chagrin of the NBA. It’s possible the squad will be galvanized to perform better in the face of everything swirling around the organization, but I think it’s more likely that it’s more of a distraction for a team already struggling to find its way. Dallas isn’t quite Phoenix bad, but this feels like a lock for the bottom three.
Remaining SOS: .484, 24th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 3/2 at Bulls, 3/10 v. Grizzlies, 3/13 at Knicks, 3/17 at Nets, 3/27 at Kings, 4/4 at Magic, 4/10 v. Suns
Atlanta Hawks (18-41): The Hawks should be well ahead in this race, but they just can’t stop beating Western Conference opponents and getting rid of Marco Belinelli is actually a move that makes them a better basketball team. This isn’t a team like the Bulls that will be flipping the switch to tank mode. This is a bad team that will continue to win meaningless games to ruin its chances at the top pick.
I won’t be surprised to find the Hawks outside the bottom three come the end of the season, simply because Mike Budenholzer is very good at in-game coaching and they have a few competent players that will win them a few games they shouldn’t. The biggest thing helping the Hawks is that they have the toughest remaining schedule of any tanking team.
Remaining SOS: .541, 3rd in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 3/4 v. Suns, 3/11 v. Bulls, 3/22 at Kings, 4/1 v. Magic
Phoenix Suns (18-41): The Suns are unfathomably bad at basketball and should be considered the fairly heavy favorites for that No. 1 lottery spot. They can lose by 40 seemingly at will and even with Devin Booker back in the lineup, they aren’t a team that competes on a nightly basis. This is a young team that wants to stop tanking this summer, but until they hit July 1 and start spending that cash, they’re going to be tough to beat out for the league’s worst record.
Remaining SOS: .534, 4th in NBA
Biggest Tank Matchups: 2/28 at Grizzlies, 3/4 at Hawks, 3/24 at Magic, 4/3 v. Kings, 4/10 at Mavs
Projected Lottery Top 11:
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