Going Aquarium: Tanking in the NBA is Backfiring

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Joel Embiid Andrew Wiggins

Paradise Island, BAHAMAS; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) and guard Andrew Wiggins (22) look to rebound during the game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at the 2013 Battle 4 Atlantis in the Imperial Arena at the Atlantis Resort. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It is true, we have not seen an NBA draft class accumulate so much hype since the 2003 NBA Draft. Throughout the past two seasons, the conventional thought was that the smart thing to do was to get in position to “tank” for the 2014 NBA Draft because of the potential franchise building players that would be available. Experts and fans alike have sworn that this would be the only way teams can start building a championship contender. This thought process has resulted in many teams giving up on the current season long before it started.

The Phoenix Suns have been working this plan for the last couple of seasons in order to be in position to get a high draft pick for 2014. Instead, the Suns are holding down the eighth seed in the Western Conference and are 13-6 at home. One of the reasons why I thought tanking would be a bad idea for many teams is that teams still have to put a worthy product on the court in order to keep TV ratings high and to bring the fans into the arena. The Suns ranked 23rd in home attendance last season. With the idea that they would be tanking for this season, they have seen themselves fall to 27th, averaging 14,567 fans per game. To their credit, after embarking on a five-game road trip, the Suns’ have averaged 16,000+ in their last two home games. Nevertheless, attempts at tanking have backfired as the Suns are not even in the lottery and fan interest has dwindled. At least the Suns have a chance to be bad with star player Eric Bledsoe out indefinitely with a knee injury.

Tanking in the NBA has also resulted in poor quality of basketball, especially in the Eastern Conference. Already a much inferior conference in the NBA, the East has four playoff-bound teams with a sub-.500 record. To put that in perspective, there are two winning teams in the West that would be out of the playoffs if the current standings hold until the end of the season (Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies). The East has turned into a two-horse race with the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers being the class of the conference. Admittedly, not all the teams in the East are purposely tanking (see the Brooklyn Nets), but there’s no extra incentive for teams to really try this season.

The Chicago Bulls recently traded star player, Luol Deng. Personally, there was nothing wrong with unloading Deng, but with the East being so weak, the Bulls’ chances of getting a lottery pick for the 2014 draft are not very good. Unlike other teams in the East that have been trying to be bad enough for a high lottery pick for the upcoming draft, the Bulls have actually been trying to chase a championship in the last couple of seasons, even without former MVP Derrick Rose. The Bulls are behind schedule in terms of truly tanking. Even after Rose injured his other knee back in November, the Bulls were still able to win eight games since Rose’s injury. That’s one more win than the Milwaukee Bucks have all season. Even after they traded Deng to Cleveland, the Bulls have won four out of their last six games.

The Toronto Raptors shipped Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings back in December. A very terrible fit in Toronto, stunting the growth of DeMar DeRozan, Gay was described by Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski as “an obstacle to the franchise’s desire to begin the rebuilding process.” In that same deal, the Raptors received point guard Greivis Vasquez, described by Wojnarowski as “an unselfish team-building playmaker to start rebuilding its team around.” With all this talk about the Raptors rebuilding and giving up on the season so they can increase their chances to draft local product, Andrew Wiggins, the complete opposite occurred. Toronto is 14-6 since shipping Gay to Sacramento. Not only that, but the Raptors are playing a very entertaining brand of basketball, as witnessed firsthand by yours truly back in mid-December, and have scored 100+ points in 10 of their last 20 games. Compare that to hitting the century mark only seven times in their first 18 games with Gay in the lineup. A prime example of tanking gone wrong.

And that brings us to the prospects of the 2014 NBA Draft. The reason for this race to the bottom of the NBA Standings:

  • Andrew Wiggins
  • Jabari Parker
  • Marcus Smart
  • Julius Randle
  • Dante Exum
  • Aaron Gordon

In a recent article written by Mark Heisler for Forbes.com, these prospects are not the superstar-caliber, cornerstone franchise players that many people thought they were. Heisler explains that “no one in this class is as highly regarded as [former number one picks since 2008].” Heisler does admit that the 2014 NBA Draft is deeper than what we have experienced in the recent past (especially the 2013 NBA Draft), but he’s not sold on all the surrounding hype.

He concedes that Parker is the best player of this potential class, but is concerned about his lack of athleticism which limits his chances of being that type of player that a franchise can build its team around. Exum is described as this year’s version of Michael Carter-Williams with more athleticism, but same suspect shot. Meanwhile, Randle was given the biggest insult you can give to a potential, NBA power forward; he was called a tweener:

The 6-9 Randle is a powerhouse inside but that height in college usually means 6-7 1/2 in stocking feet at the pre-draft camp.

Heisler saves the biggest criticism for Wiggins:

Wiggins, a 6-8 small forward, is blessed with fabulous athleticism and length but often drifts, or as scouts say, “Motor?” He has a “loose handle” with a high dribble and drives in straight lines, making it hard to get past defenders (“doesn’t beat you off the bounce”) and create his own shot, a make-or-break skill for NBA superstardom.

Wow, he might as well insult his “momma” while he’s at it!

NBADraft.net has Wiggins’ teammate, late-blooming center Joel Embiid as the number one pick in their most recent 2014 NBA mock draft. Heisler explains:

Scouts dare to compare him to another late bloomer, Hakeem Olajuwon. “The people who went to Kansas practices to see Wiggins emerged liking Embiid more,” says [an Eastern Conference scout].

To be fair, Wiggins leads the Kansas Jayhawks in minutes per game and Parker leads Duke in scoring at 18.8 points per game. We’re still far away from the actual draft. But those teams that were expecting to catch a big fish for their new aquarium may end up not reaping the “benefits” of tanking. There’s a good chance that these teams will not be selecting a franchise savior after all.

Felipe Melecio was the managing editor for the blog Pathological Hate. When not watching sports, he's listening to music--or listening to music while watching sports. Keep tabs on all his knee-jerk reactions on Twitter: