Klein ’20: Who will win the NBA tank race?

The NBA playoffs are fast approaching, with anticipation growing accordingly. Sports fans cannot wait to find out if Stephen Curry can return healthy, if the Rockets can take down the Warriors and if LeBron James can make yet another NBA Finals appearance. But lost in all the playoff excitement is the closest race in the NBA, one that could have enormous ramifications for the future of the league: the race for last place.

The NBA’s lottery reform measures will begin next season, so for one last time, teams can secure the best possible lottery odds by obtaining bottom positions in the league standings. There are five prospects: DeAndre Ayton, Luka Dončić, Mohamed Bamba, Marvin Bagley III and Michael Porter Jr., who are all considered superstar potential, a talent pool that has led many organizations to take drastic steps for worsening their teams.

There are currently nine franchises vying for position, including a fascinating mixture of historic basement-dwellers and powerhouses: the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls. To be fair, the Nets are not tanking, since they do not control their first-round pick this year (still due to the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade, incredibly). But the roster simply cannot win many games even when giving full effort.

The Suns, Grizzlies and Hawks have emerged as the worst of the worst, leaving the other teams to finish behind them in the lottery. Phoenix has a putrid 20-59 record, outpacing the 21-57 Grizzlies and 22-57 Hawks. The Suns have to be the favorites to come in last. Devin Booker, the team’s best player by a long shot, is sidelined with a hand injury, leaving rookie Josh Jackson to lead the rest of the bunch. Forward T.J. Warren can score, center Tyson Chandler can rebound and Jackson can do a little bit of everything on offense and defense. Besides them, however, the Suns have few average-level NBA players. Elfrid Payton, their point guard, cannot shoot in part because his long, pointed hair gets in the way of his arm and the ball (yes, this is real). Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are already busts. The Suns surprisingly won their last outing against the Kings, breaking a 15-game losing streak, but it is safe to say that they will not enjoy much success from here on out.

The Hawks, in my opinion, could slide past the Grizzlies into second-worst place. Memphis has winnable games left against Sacramento and Detroit, but the Hawks face playoff teams for the rest of the season — in other words, sure losses. Atlanta’s top player, Dennis Schröder, is out with an ankle sprain for the rest of the season, forcing Taurean Prince, Kent Bazemore and rookie John Collins to step up. Unfortunately for the Hawks, Prince has shown that he can be explosive in scoring, with a pair of 38-point games last month. Atlanta may consider benching him if he plays too well on the court.

As mentioned above, Memphis has an easier schedule to end the season, which could spell trouble for their losing hopes. The Grizzlies boast the best player out of the NBA’s bottom three teams in center Marc Gasol. The 33-year-old can win a regular season game on his own, so Memphis has been reducing his playing time to stop that from happening. Gasol has not played more than 23 minutes in any of his last three games. Tyreke Evans is not playing either, as Memphis is perhaps the team most overtly tanking. But they cannot change their schedule, which could be their downfall.

While the bottom three teams have separated themselves, there is still plenty of competition for the other top lottery spots. The Dallas Mavericks pulled off an impressive loss against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night that helped their place tremendously. With Harrison Barnes (rest), Dennis Smith Jr. (knee) and Dirk Nowitzki (ankle) all off the court, the Mavs showed their commitment to the tank and have set themselves up for the fourth pick. Orlando must shake off their win and find a better way to limit the impact of Aaron Gordon. They should still finish in the top five, however. The Sacramento Kings have two clutch performers in De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanović. But they’ve proven to be clutch a season too early and could cost the Kings’ position against the Nets. Brooklyn boasts some talent but falls apart at the end of close games. Chicago and New York, meanwhile, stand firmly above the rest of the tankers.

The next week could decide the future of the league, though no one will be winning a championship, a playoff series or even two games. But with nine teams all trying their hardest to lose, at the very least, it will be an interesting travesty to watch unfold.

George Klein ’20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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