The NBA is so exciting these days that we’ve become spoiled by the superhuman exploits of some of today’s greatest players. One day it’s Anthony Davis dropping 53 and 17 on the hapless Phoenix Suns. Another day it’s James Harden breaking the Internet with one of the most disrespectful ankle breakers we’ve ever seen. Did any of you see LeBron James send Jusuf Nurkic back to the stone age? Everyday, there’s something new in the NBA that gets us all talking.
But have you really been paying attention to the most exciting race in the NBA today? I wish I could say it’s the Western Conference playoff race. That thing is brutal. Eight teams jockeying for six playoff spots, all separated by 4.5 games. Locking up those spots should go down to the last few games of the season, but it’s also not the race I’m talking about. Pay close attention to the league and you’ll know that the most exciting race in the last month season is the race for the most ping pong balls.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to NBA Tankapalooza 2018!
It’s incredible. Mind-boggling even. There are nine teams in the league that are still in the running to get the worst record in the NBA. As such, we’re seeing an unprecedented—and hilariously entertaining—run of horrible basketball and blatant disregard for the spirit of basketball competition. Part of watching this systematic display of finding out when taking teams stop being polite and start getting down to business of trying to lose games is embarrassing. It’s an affront at the players, the league, and most importantly, us, the fans. But this is what happens when there’s a flawed incentive structure that rewards losing. When teams suck, they don’t hide it anymore. They’re showing it off on the court, for all the world to see.
Take the Memphis Grizzlies, for example. Losers of 19 straight games, the Grizz are in co-pole position in the “race” for the worst record. (Side note: the mere fact that I used the word “race” to characterize losing tells you the absurdity of this whole process). Anyway, back to the Grizzlies. They have an 18-50 record as of today, and if you’ve seen them recently, they’ve actually started playing harder in recent games just to break their slide. It’s actually admirable, except that even with their 18-game slide, they’re still tied with the Phoenix Suns for the worst record in the league. Think about it: a team that hasn’t won since January 30 still hasn’t separated itself from this pack of losers. Fittingly enough, the team the Grizzlies last beat? The Phoenix Suns!
Speaking of the 19-51 Suns, they themselves are the proud owners of a modest six-game losing streak, though that streak would also be sitting at 18 games if it hadn’t beaten the Grizzlies on March 1. So, the Suns actually have a 1-17 record in their last 18 games with that one victory coming against the team that has lost 18 straight games! You can’t make this shit up!
The Grizzlies and the Suns have the inside track on the worst record in the league, but coming from the outside lane with its own dreams of the worst record are the 20-49 Atlanta Hawks. At the moment, the Hawks are 1.5 games back of both the Grizzlies and the Suns, and they’ve dutifully done their part to stink up as many games as they can. Just a few days ago, the Hawks hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder in Atlanta and were involved in a tie game (103-103) with a little over five minutes left in the game. Care to guess what happened next? The Hawks gave extended minutes to Isaiah Taylor and Andrew White III on their way to conceding a game-ending 16-4 run to the Thunder.
Memphis, Phoenix, and Atlanta can probably get away with it now more than other teams because they’re on the right path to ping pong heaven. But what about teams that are actually trying to catch them? The Orlando Magic say they aren’t tanking, but they’ve shut down Evan Fournier for the season because of an “MCL sprain” and promoted Khem Birch and Rodney Purvis to heavy minutes. That genius strategy has resulted in a 3-11 record that included a devastating “win” against the Milwaukee Bucks in their most recent game. Poor Orlando. They can’t even tank properly.
Speaking of not being able to tank properly, how about a hand for the Chicago Bulls! The Bulls have been the worst offenders of this tank race. They gave up on playing Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday after the All-Star break. The NBA noticed and warned them of such heinous acts, only for the Bulls to return the favor by playing Lopez and Holiday the entire first quarter of every game…and then sitting them the rest of the game. The problem with the Bulls’ tanking strategy is that while they are losing against the better teams (really counts as a win) they’re winning against the teams they’re trying to catch for the race to the worst record.
Case in point: the Bulls played the Grizzlies in one of the most incredible displays of tanking you’ll ever see. The Grizzlies took a 110-109 lead with just over 24 seconds left in the game. The Bulls didn’t take a timeout and ran the clock with the ball in the hands of...Antonio Blakeney. To his credit, Blakeney took the shot he should’ve taken: a contested three-pointer with 1.8 seconds that bricked badly. But that’s when the lunacy happened. Tyreke Evans fouled Blakeney, who proceeded to hit two of three free throws to give Chicago the one-point lead. The Grizz called timeout and got Marc Gasol a decent look. The shot didn’t go in and the Bulls inexplicably did not foul to send Gasol to the line for a chance to “steal” the game. Even when the Bulls are tanking, they’re still finding ways to win games.
We know the playoff races are heating up, but don’t sleep on Tankapalooza 2018 to quiet down anytime soon. On the contrary, over the next month, the tanking epidemic is going to be daily fixtures in the NBA. So get your popcorns, ready. We’re in for a month’s worth of all-time basketball comedy.