Which NBA Teams Should Tank, and Which NBA Teams Should Try?

To tank, or not to tank? Zion Williamson hangs in the balance

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Zion Williamson, tanking's ultimate prize / Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Ever since LeBron re-defined the necessary standard of caliber for a team to compete—and the Sixers literally created “The Process” for teams attempting to rebuild—the NBA has become a league of teams either “tanking” (fielding a poor product in hopes of earning a high draft pick) or “trying” (to win a championship). Some of these tankers may be unaware of their potential—just as many triers are doing so without the talent to compete.

While stringing together multiple losing seasons is a perilous concept, the implications of prematurely trying are much more critical — it can force teams to miss out on developing prospects, higher draft picks, and the ability to sign free agents that fit a team’s direction. But that’s why we’re here, to give the teams ahead of schedule the nudge of confidence to resume competing, and to give the pretenders a much-needed reality check. Let’s begin.

Teams That Should Absolutely Tank

Washington Wizards (5–11, 11th in East)

The Wizards! Ohhh, man. The Wiz have really tried to make this roster work. They were super fortunate to draft two franchise players—albeit two that work better separately than together—but every year it’s the same story. Each season some sort of locker room drama is reported (almost always involving John Wall), a Band-Aid is slapped on it, and then the Wizards proceed to underachieve in spite of a talented roster in a weak conference.

After first showing potential in 2014, advancing to the second round when Wall was 23 and Beal just 20, the Wizards have been leapfrogged by the Sixers, Celtics, Pacers, and Bucks. And after giving it the old college try (signing Dwight Howard) this offseason, it’s become clear that this roster, with its current core, is not going to compete for a title — let alone a conference title — ever.

Last summer, management opted for the easy decision, choosing John Wall over Marcin Gortat. But as rumors of the unstable relationship between Wall and Beal continue to bubble, the team will likely (and should) favor the younger, more well-rounded Beal over Wall, whose ball-stopping style has prevented him from cultivating the healthy relationships one would expect between a five-time All-Star point guard and the rest of the team.

But even if the Wizards accept that trading Wall in favor of some youth is the answer, the unfortunate reality is that there are much fewer suitors for him than in past years. Shockingly, the guard who is adverse to ”sitting at home and being boring” has never developed a consistent jump shot and GMs are wising up when it comes to adding guards who can’t space the floor (and have a fat contract). Sadly, it’s a lost cause for the Wiz to try but they’re more than a few steps from a proper tank.

However, lucky for Wall and the Wizards, we do know a GM with assets to spare that loves guards with a history of poor shooting numbers and rocky locker room culture, and they’re both signed to the same agency.

Cleveland Cavaliers (2–12, 15th in East)

So, turns out losing the best player in the world will make your team worse. So bad, in fact, that a guy who has only two years of NBA Head Coach experience would reject the position of the interim head coach of the Cavs.

Unfortunately, the Cavs (2–12) don’t have a clear path to tanking. They just locked up Kevin Love for four more years, and his continued injuries are hurting any chance of getting any return on a trade down the line, and the rest of the roster is made up of guys who have already revealed what their potential is.

Other teams wouldn’t even be gambling by trading for players like Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, or J.R. Smith — their upside has already been ruled out. By making roster moves to appease LeBron, the Cavs exposed themselves to the risk of this exact situation.

So, the horizon is bleak, but all the Cavs can really do is package up the above mentioned guys with their few quasi-assets (besides Sexton), Cedi Osman and Kyle Korver and hope they can flip them into a couple late first-rounders. They’ve had luck in the lottery before, and by the time LeBron’s L.A. contract is up, Bronny James will be graduating high school and the Cavs might have stacked a few lottery picks. In conclusion,  ?.

Minnesota Timberwolves (7–10, 14th in West)

The Wolves are the team in most need of being tank-checked.

Unfortunately, Tom Thibodeau is the anti-tank. And even more unfortunately he’s their GM too, which, as you can imagine, complicates matters even more. If Thibs was only their coach, he would coach his heart out, red-faced, and run up the minutes on his best players as he’s become known to do, but while under the supervision of higher management keeping the future in mind.

But as it stands now, there is no manager to speak with. And ice cream machine or no ice cream machine, the Timber-Bulls are going to play an outdated style on the court and make roster decisions with no regard to the recent trends of the league because there is nobody to tell Thibs otherwise. Inefficient shooting and actually trying to win games hasn’t been cool since like 2010. Find a new slant.

An example of Thibs’ naïve win-now strategy being detrimental was made explicit when he declined trade offers that were objectively more enticing because the pieces included picks and prospects, two things that would neither help win games next week or salvage Thibs’ job(s).

The Wolves are just trying hard for no reason at this point. Instead of competing against the Warriors — or more realistically, the twelve other teams in front of them — the Wolves should compare themselves against the Suns and Kings and prime themselves to be fit once the dust settles. KAT, Wig and Saric are young enough to withstand another two years of re-building but they'll never be able to build a roster capable of contending if they remain in limbo for the next two years.

Teams that Should Start Trying

Sacramento Kings (8–8, T-11th in West)

Somehow, the Kings have found a way to both maintain irrelevance since 2006 and also avoid cashing out on any single draft pick, until recently. To the naked eye it may appear that they’ve been tanking, but the reality is they’ve been trying. Really, really hard.

Even worse than misjudging players out of college, on multiple occasions the Kings then misevaluated the player’s potential after drafting them. Whiffing on draft picks like Ben McLemore, Thomas Robinson and Jimmer Fredette set them back, but not as much as trading away the studs they did draft, for peanuts. In two years, the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas and Hassan Whiteside, and weren’t able to flip any of them for All-Stars.

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Chart courtesy of Jacob Forchheimer

But after three straight years of nailing draft nights, the Kings are surprisingly ahead of schedule — even for them. De’Aaron Fox (Fifth Pick Overall, 2017) and his averages of 19 points and 7 assists on 50 percent shooting are largely responsible for the Kings’ sudden leap, but this year’s difference in pace is a better indicator that Swipa deserves the credit. With Fox leading the way, the Kings have soared to second in the league in pace after finishing last season dead last.

Much more than a viable game plan, this illustrates the Kings’ willingness to lean in to the trends of a progressive NBA (not like this) — something they were previously averse to (see above). With a 21-year-old franchise point guard built for the modern NBA — and the security that comes with it — a youthful supporting cast including the 2018 number two overall pick, the Kings are proving that their sudden success can be sustainable.

Knowing the West is much more open than anticipated, the Kings should continue to steer themselves towards contending. While in recent years, they’ve at times behaved like a team feeling the pressure of a conference contender, the only difference is, with a few tasteful acquisitions and the development of their core, in a few years the Kings actually might be one.

Memphis Grizzlies (10–5, 3rd in West)

Last year the Grizzlies checked off the all the boxes for a team on the verge of a multi-year skid: publicized benching of best player, coach fired in November, 19-game losing streak, 61 point loss, 22-60 record.

But with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol healthy, the Grizz have steered the team back in a winning direction. And 15 games into the season -— even though Grind City knows no other way — they’ve proved this season is worth doubling-down on. It’s worth noting though, that Memphis did start off hot last year with a 5-1 record, but this year’s victories are much more convincing.

Their wins include beating the Jazz in Utah twice, the Nuggets when they were at the top of the West, and the Bucks.

In a much more even (besides the Warriors, always) West than we anticipated, it is not inconceivable that the Grizzlies can finish as a five seed heading into the playoffs (they’re sixth right now). And with 19-year-old Jaren Jackson Jr. showing flashes of all-star potential, tanking would just feel redundant.

Portland Trailblazers (11–5, 1st in West)

Okay, so the Blazers were never going to actually tank. But there were definitely rumors of splitting up CJ and Dame — especially after the absolute collapse in the first round of the playoffs last year. After starting 11-5, they have now, at the very least, justified continuing to invest more resources into their roster with the goal of competing.

However, our co-sign comes with a caveat. If the Blazers finish out the season in the top four (or anywhere, really) of the West, but fail to advance to the second round again, they should consider restructuring their roster. If they can’t finesse a third All-Star to nudge them into contention,* it may be worth shopping Dame and/or CJ to find a player or pick whose prime would be in stride with the potential frontcourt version of the former, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. If not, the Blazers risk the trade value of Dame/CJ depreciating, forcing the team to feel obligated to ‘try’ because they have two All-Stars, instead of preparing for the future.


Special Knicks-Only Section Because We Want To

New York Knicks (4–13, 13th in East)

The Knicks don’t really fit into either of the two categories. Like the Kings, they’ve been bad for a very long time without salvaging talent in the draft until recently. But like the Wizards they’ve also put pressure on themselves to win each year despite lacking the team to do so. Their current roster is comparable to that of the 2015 "Trust the Process" Sixers, but without a clear process that can be pointed to.

They don’t really fit in the ‘tank’ category because they’re already 26th out of 30 teams, and they don’t belong in "try" category because they’re just too far away. Regardless—we’re sure they deserve some space on this list. It's the Knicks and they're always fun to think about. 

Now, it would be a far cry to say that the Knicks are overachieving by any means, but with KP’s return date still a question, this season is objectively a wash. And any single win is a step in the wrong direction for the Knicks. Essentially, there’s no excuse that they aren’t already running away with last place. The Hawks at least have Trae Young’s precious development and psyche to be conscious of. The Knicks have no other responsibility besides protecting their young guys from sustaining any cataclysmic injuries.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is averaging 24 PPG and Enes Kanter, a double-double off the bench, while Frank Ntilikina is only playing 25 minutes per game. If there is a process, the Knicks need to raise the level of internal communication from a whisper to a bellow. It takes ten toes to tank. Zion awaits.

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