Every year, in the weeks following the ringing in of the New Year, the same several weeks leading up to the NBA ’s All-Star Weekend (February 15-17) and (more importantly) trade deadline (February 22), the Association enters into what is quickly becoming one of the most (oddly) intriguing periods of the season. You thinking of All-Star balloting results? I’m not! How about playoff races? Gotta be the playoff races, right? Sorry! Guess again! I’m talking about TANKING SEASON! As they head toward the end of January, most NBA teams have a pretty good indication of exactly where they fit into the league’s food chain. Legitimate playoff teams and championship contenders start looking to make acquisitions in the interest of taking the “next step” and playing into the summer months.
As for the rest of the league, whether we’re talking about ex-contenders that have fallen back to earth or one of the NBA’s perennial rebuilding stories, it is at this time that the harsh reality of a fruitless season truly begins to set in. With little left to play for, these teams turn to the future, some will look at trades aimed at improving team chemistry, others will do so looking to dump salary, but they will all (provided their picks have not been traded) look to the draft. And without fail, as they have done time and again, the NBA’s bottom-dwellers will look to position themselves to land as high a draft pick as possible- this means losing games. A lot of games.
It may a little bit embarrassing, but it can't be ignored- NBA teams throw games. Going against the principles of competition, sportsmanship and customer service, NBA teams intentionally field weak lineups in order to lose games and potentially improve their positions in the draft. This is not a new concept, but last season, and probably again in the weeks to come, widespread tanking in the NBA has reached humiliating proportions, with sub-.500 NBA teams' acting like junkies looking for a fix in their desire for "more ping-pong balls" in the “[fill in the blank] Sweepstakes”. Last year it was “Oden-Durant”, this year it will be “Beasley-Rose”, next it will be the new “next big thing”. However, for all the attention paid to last season’s embarrassing, systematic dropping of games, this was not the first such occurrence in the Association.
In the 1980s the Houston Rockets twice tanked late season games for the rights to draft both Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, with the latter leading to the implementation of the modern-day lottery. And a decade ago, with Tim Duncan, as NBA-ready a big man as there has ever been, looming as the grand prize, the San Antonio Spurs, those beacons of ethical behavior, shelved David Robinson for all but 6 games of the 1996-97 season. Of course, Robinson’s injury was legitimate (seriously), but make no mistake, when it became clear the season was a lost cause, the Spurs did little, if anything to encourage his speedy return to the floor. Last season, the Boston Celtics did everything but take bats to their players' knees in their epic quest for losses (karma sure bit them on the ass, huh?); the Memphis Grizzlies fired Mike Fratello, a proven, successful NBA coach in favor Tony Barone (who? exactly!), who's revolutionary "run around and shoot" system did not exactly produce a high level of basketball (shocking!); the 76ers thought they were tanking the season when they traded Allen Iverson, only to play better-than-.500 ball after January 1 (damn it!); once the Indiana Pacers accepted that playoff success wasn't in the cards, they traded for the starting frontcourt of the "What the $%^& Contract" All-Stars; late in the season, the Sonics, Timberwolves and Bucks declared their best players out "indefinitely", which quickly turn into "out for the year."
As for this season? Well, not much will change, except for some of the names involved. You can bet that a host of talented pros, including Pau Gasol of the Grizzlies, Luol Deng and/or Ben Gordon of Chicago Bulls, Jermaine O’Neal of the Pacers, Ron Artest, and Mike Bibby of the Sacramento Kings, Andre Miller of the Philadelphia 76ers, and (maybe) Tracy McGrady of the Rockets and Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards will be available in the trade market. And on the injury front, look for the Artest and Bibby, along with the Los Angeles Clippers ’ Elton Brand, the Bucks’ Michael Redd (again!) to really take their time in rehabbing any injuries they may be nursing between now and April. Why? Ping-pong balls. Last June's NBA Draft, headed by Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, was touted as the deepest in at least a decade, and teams want a piece of the action! While the consolation prizes were enticing, all these teams really wanted either Oden or Durant, and the blatant tanking that this brought on gave the NBA Draft Lottery of May 22, 2007 a greater feeling of suspense and significance than many playoff games. Only two teams, the Portland Trailblazers and Seattle Supersonics, claimed the ultimate prizes, the rights to draft Oden and Durant, leaving 14 heartbroken lottery teams looking for a silver lining while trying not to vomit.
Not to worry, quality NBA players are always found at the top of the draft! Yeah, about that.... History shows that the teams who choose to mortgage improvement, competitive pride and the goodwill of their fans will not necessarily be rewarded with a star-quality player. Sure, they'll have a bigger pool of talent from which to choose, but that's hardly a guarantee. It's no secret that every year, teams do well in the draft despite not having a top pick, proving that how teams draft has far more impact on their success than how high they draft. Here is a look at the lottery busts and best non-lottery draft picks (along with their overall draft position) since 1996. It's plain to see that teams can, in fact, play to win, make the playoffs, and draft successful players, several of them All-Stars, even an MVP. In the interest of not making snap judgments and allowing young players time to develop, the 2006 and (obviously!) 2007 drafts have been omitted. Maybe the problem isn’t the fact that the NBA’s lottery system is unfair to less successful teams, but that most teams simply come up woefully short in the area of talent assessment. Just something to think about while praying that your favorite team doesn't leave the lottery with the second-coming of Todd Fuller, Nickoloz Tskitishvili or Olivier Saint-Jean:
Lottery Busts: Fran Vasquez (#11 overall), Yaroslav Korolev (#12)
Late Finds: Zach Randolph (#19), Gerald Wallace (#25), Samuel Dalembert (#26), Jamaal Tinsley (#27), Tony Parker * (#28), Gilbert Arenas * (Round 2, #31 overall), Mehmet Okur * (#38), Bobby Simmons (#42)
2000 (Yeah, I know! This whole draft pretty much sucked!)
Lottery Busts: Stromile Swift (#2 overall), Darius Miles (#3), Marcus Fizer (#4), DerMarr Johnson (#6), Chris Mihm (#7), Jerome Moiso (#11), Etan Thomas (#12), Courtney Alexander (#13; Whew! Anyone else tired after this peach of a lottery class?)
Lottery Busts: Keith Van Horn (#2 overall; Quick, somebody name a Jake Gyllenhaal movie from 2001!), Antonio Daniels (#4), Tony Battie (#5), Ron Mercer (#6), Adonal Foyle (#8), Olivier Saint-Jean (#11)
Lottery Busts: Lorenzen Wright (#7 overall), Samaki Walker (#9), Erick Dampier (#10; not a bad player at #10, but this pick looks pretty crappy with Kobe Bryant going at #13), Todd Fuller (#11), Vitaly Potapenko (#12; I’d love to hear the rationale behind taking this guy over Kobe!)
* - Played in at least 1 All Star Game, Bold - MVP Award winner (non-lottery players only)