But as top competitors fill the squad holes ahead of the chase, another far less glamorous race develops. That’s right: the tank is for the Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, and anyone else who chooses to join them.
The NBA has taken anti-tanking measures in recent years, including reducing draft lottery odds and adding a play-in round to the postseason field. Those steps seemed to work in some cases this season; Losing teams like the Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans decided against a widespread sale as of the deadline.
However, there are other incentives at work that should fuel a strong downside, including the curtailed and curtailed schedule. This year, the trading deadline has been postponed until after the All-Star hiatus, meaning the last day of the regular season is only seven weeks away. In a typical season, the trading deadline occurs in early February and there are more than two months until the end of the regular season. Bad teams always pack it up early and now have less time to burn.
Also, consider the impact of limited crowds due to the coronavirus pandemic. While vaccination efforts are moving faster than expected in many states, resulting in larger audiences and more publicly accessible NBA buildings, bad teams are still under less public pressure than usual to deliver a high quality late-season product. Perversely, this is the best year imaginable, with Ran’s veterans sitting and giving potential customers heavy minutes, even if it means accumulating losses. Every team will start over with the ticket buying audience next fall, and bad teams will find this reintroduction with a top lottery talent like Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley or Jalen Suggs much tastier.
This is where things get really fascinating thanks to a pair of loaded draft picks. After trading for D’Angelo Russell last year, the Timberwolves will have to send their pick to the Golden State Warriors if they end up outside the top 3. The Rockets, who have the second worst record in the West (13-32), will have to send their first round election to Thunder if they end up outside the top 4. The flattened lottery odds should be irrelevant to Minnesota and Houston, which must finish on one of the league’s three worst records in order to maximize their chances of keeping their picks.
In a best-case scenario for the Thunder (19-26), he could land the top pick in the draft and the fifth pick courtesy of Houston. Right on schedule, Oklahoma City switched to development mode after the All-Star hiatus. Trade guard George Hill agreed to buy out Rivers and announced that the Al Horford launch center would be closed for the season, even though he is healthy. Emerging star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has plantar fasciitis and it is unclear when or if he will return.
While Detroit (12-33) and Orlando (15-31) don’t have to worry about pull-ax transportation, they desperately need franchise players. Troy Weaver, Detroit’s new general manager, has aggressively reworked its roster by buying out Blake Griffin and trading Derrick Rose. But the 2020 lottery pick, Killian Hayes, missed most of the season due to injury and the team’s new top scorer, Jerami Grant, is underqualified to run a winner. Given that the Pistons have the worst record in the East, their selection for 2021 already seems to be their most important asset.
The Magic, meanwhile, launched a full demolition as of the deadline, sending out the all-star center Nikola Vucevic and starters Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier to help build a youth movement. Long-term injuries to Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, and Cole Anthony, as well as ongoing health issues for Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., and Gary Harris add to Orlando’s prospects. Much rides on the upcoming draft that could determine whether the Magic is headed for a quick reboot or a tedious rebuilding slog.
Indeed, there are high stakes everywhere. The Timberwolves must decide whether to still trust the injured Russell as a centerpiece or whether to design a new lead playmaker. The Rockets need a headliner to step into the void created by James Harden’s departure to the Brooklyn Nets, and they need to restore some level of hope after losing in their last 20 games. The Thunder is sitting nicely with young talent and a plethora of additional future draft picks, but an A-lister like Cunningham, who played in the state of Oklahoma, could help the retail market organization regain some of the hype it had at the start of Kevin Durant’s career .
The best thing to do now is to prepare for an adventurous run through the league. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Durant are among the injured stars, and competitors will be highly motivated to rest in the playoffs for the key players.
For the teams at the bottom, however, the run-up to the lottery could be downright ugly – if they haven’t already.