The NBA’s fascination with fighting for a higher draft pick is unique among the major professional sports, tanks to the NBA model of tiny five-man lineups that allow pure individual talent to win over systemic execution of a game plan.
When you’re only playing five guys at a time, the team fielding the best 2-3 players wins more often than not.
All you have to do is to have the best couple of players on the court. One isn’t enough. But two... now you’re getting somewhere. Give me the two best players on the court supported by a league-average rotation and I’ll bring home more wins than losses.
It’s as simple as that.
What’s incredibly hard to do is to acquire those difference-making players.
One method is the NBA Draft, where once a year every team gets to add the world’s best non-NBA talent to their roster for the next season.
To promote parity, the worst NBA team gets the first chance to add the very best non-NBA talent just by simply calling his name. The next worst gets the next shot, among whoever is left. And so on and so forth.
The NBA puts a little quirk into it, though, in a negligible effort to curb tanking. It’s called a lottery. The very worst team doesn’t get 100% chance at first dibs in the draft. They only get a 25%, with a 75% chance to drop as low as (but thankfully no lower than) 4th overall.
But still, 25% is better than anyone else’s chances for that top pick. So tanking is alive and well. With or without a lottery system.
Every year, a half-dozen teams dream of that 25% chance at the top pick.
But those dreams or marred with nightmares over that 75% chance they will drop to a lower pick anyway.
Twice in the five years under GM Ryan McDonough, the Suns have lost ground to the ping pong balls.
- In 2013, they had the 4th worst record, but the ping pong balls weren’t kind and dropped the Suns to 5th (Alex Len).
- In 2017, they had the 2nd worst record, but the balls dropped them to 4th (Josh Jackson).
- In 2014 (T.J. Warren), 2015 (Devin Booker) and 2016 (Dragan Bender), the Suns stayed right where their record put them
- Not once have the lotto balls moved the Suns UP to a higher pick
So this year, McDonough decided to go “all in” on his efforts to increase the Suns odds at grabbing that all-important second “our best guys are better than yours” player to go along with (/crossing fingers) Booker.
Sadly, that need for the best chance at the #1 pick is how you rationalize rewarding your franchise’s investors and fan base with ugly milestones throughout the 50-year anniversary season, like “first team to experience a 50-point deficit in a game” and “first team to amass 50 losses on the season”.
Oof. Sucker punch right to the solar plexus of every loyal season ticket holder all the way down to the casual fan.
But life wasn’t meant to be easy. Not our lives. Not in this world.
The Elite Eight - tanking style
Even in a race to the bottom.
While McDonough built a roster consisting of zero “better than you” players and a way-below-league-average supporting cast, so did a few other GMs.
Not a single one of those franchises entered the season with even one player that would be better than the top player on any of other 22 teams.
Devin Booker is great, but he’s not greater than the best player on any of the preseason playoff contenders. At least the Suns can argue that Booker is the best of the eight original tankers, though, amiright?
Yet, even best-laid plans can go awry.
Joining these lovely tankers, thanks to massive player injuries, are the perennial playoff contender Memphis Grizzlies - who might walk away with that 25% chance after all, even with Marc Gasol staying healthy and Mike Conley coming back next year. The Grizz front office has done a masterful job to make sure the players around Gasol are so bad the spaniard can’t thwart the neo-tank by himself.
Don’t tell the players and coaches about tanking
Players and coaches don’t like to tank though. Give them a chance to win a game and they will.
Despite ugly rosters, the Mavericks and Bulls have won too many games now to think about that #1 pick.
The Lakers* and Nets had nothing to gain by losing, since they’ve already traded their top pick away to the East’s best teams, yet only the Lakers have won enough games not to have nightmares over it. Nets fans have a special place in solar plexus history, thanks to Billy King.
*Remember that coveted future Laker pick the Suns shipped out for Brandon Knight? According to bball-ref’s projected draft order model, it’s almost certainly going to be late-lottery pick this year, no higher than 10th and most likely 12th. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the nuts if we had waited all this time for that Laker pick and it’s only the 12th pick in a year we already have three of the top 16 picks?
Grizzlies and Hawks the only competition left
McDonough and the Suns have nearly survived the most epic tanking effort in franchise history, rivaled in NBA history by only the Sixers.
The Grizzlies - who just snapped a 19-game losing streak on Saturday - and the Hawks are the only remaining real competition for worst record. All those other tankers have at least two more wins than the Suns with just 11 games to go.
Yet the Grizzlies and Hawks are both just as dedicated to the tank as the Suns and they are all in a dead heat in this race to the finish.
Which team will find more ailments among the team’s best players as the race heats up? Which team will strategically “evaluate” more G-league players?
There’s a real possibility that after the ugliest season in franchise history, the Suns will still end up with the 4th or 5th pick after the lotto.
The Hawks have lost 6 straight after inexplicably winning two of three to dump them into only the third-worst record. They have a pair of potentially winnable games before the season is out (Magic, Kings), but might find a way to finish the season on an 18-game losing streak.
The Grizzlies had lost 19 straight before disappointing everyone with a win on Saturday night to drop them to 2nd worst record behind the Suns. The Grizz have a few winnable games left too (Nets, Hornets, Kings, Pistons), but you can’t overestimate their ability to finish the season with 13 straight losses, giving them 32 losses in their last 33 games.
The Suns have a few winnable games as well (Pistons, Magic, Kings, Mavericks) but could finish the season on a 19-game
winning losing streak. Skeptical? Any team that can lose by 15 points to an opponent with Nick Young and Quinn Cook as their back court starters has proven they CAN lose 19 straight tankyouverymuch.
The Suns’ last four games, which include the Kings and Mavericks, might be the most epic, nail-biting week of basketball all season.
Tanks, Golden State. We appreciate you for keeping the Suns’ dream alive.