On the last night of the NBA season, all eyes were focused on the race for the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat were all in contention for the seventh and eight spots in the East, and each of those teams registered a win to cap their season, leaving the Heat as the odd team out of the playoff hunt.
As exciting as the race to lose to the Celtics and Cavaliers in the first round is, it’s not what people should have been paying attention to. In reality, the most exciting battle was the race to the bottom.
Tanking is nothing new – it’s existed as long as the draft has. But thanks to the Philadelphia 76ers and their multi-year “process,” it’s become a major issue. And honestly, it’s a lot more meaningful in the long-term than floundering in the no-man’s land that is the last few playoff spots.
Some teams are good at tanking, and some are very, very bad. The Los Angeles Lakers, for example, did the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to do by winning five straight games before dropping the season finale to the Warriors. The stakes are high for the Lakers, too – if their pick doesn’t end up in the top three, they’ll lose it to the Philadelphia 76ers. That’s already worrisome, but it gets worse. If Los Angeles sends out their first-rounder this year, they also owe their 2019 first to Orlando. One of those final five wins could be the difference between a core full of talented youngsters and a roster more barren than my cupboard after a month without shopping.
Similarly, the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic each won their final games of the regular season. Philadelphia, on the other hand, did its job by losing eight straight games to finish the 2016-17 campaign. It’s unsurprising that the kings of NBA tanking were the most impressive down the stretch in the fight for a top pick. There aren’t any elite big men for the 76ers to pick in order to continue their stranglehold on the league’s talented young centers, but a top-flight guard or wing player will be a great add.
Phoenix was also thick in the race for the top pick, but winning two of the last three games hurt the Suns. Still, Devin Booker and company lost 13 straight games before the final stretch, putting them in a great position to add another talented player to their already-intriguing roster. Booker has the chance to be one of the best scorers in the entire league, and adding one of the top prospects from this year’s great draft class could turn Arizona’s capital into one of the league’s hotspots.
Again, some teams are worse at tanking than others. But one NBA franchise is the undisputed worst when it comes to losing on purpose in an attempt to get a better draft pick. The Brooklyn Nets put together the worst record in the entire league and will have nothing to show for it thanks to their decision to trade three first-rounders and offer a pick swap to the Boston Celtics for short rentals of aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Even if your team isn’t among the best in the league at tanking, you can always be thankful that they’re not as short-sighted as the Nets.
Featured image by Keith Allison, courtesy of CreativeCommons.org