While a most teams continue to battle for wins to secure a playoff spot or grab a better seed, some teams are in an entirely different kind of battle. The tank is on all over the NBA. As soon as a team is eliminated from playoff contention, the incentive to win games is diminished and the idea of losing games becomes a little more appealing.
While I'm sure the players on the court still want to win, the management may have other plans. The bottom teams around the NBA are putting out all sorts of interesting lineups, such as the Suns, who put out a starting lineup with a younger average age than 7 of the 8 NCAA tournament teams playing that day. Maybe they are experimenting and seeing what some players can do, but it seems very likely that there is an ulterior motive even if that is the case. Ping pong balls.
While the Nets have the top spot just about locked up, the race for the rest of the top 9 is interesting (the other 5 teams were too busy trying the make the playoffs to get into the tanking sweepstakes). In perhaps the most important race, the Lakers and Suns are battling for the second spot. Currently, the Suns hold the 2 spot in the lottery after the Lakers defeated the Grizzlies and Spurs in consecutive games. While the players were happy, the rest of Laker Land has to be horrified. If the Lakers pick falls out of the top 3, they must give the pick to the 76ers, a pick they still have not conveyed after sending it to the Suns in exchange for Steve Nash. If the Suns don't win again, only one team will have to jump the Lakers in the lottery for them to fall outside the top 3. For the Lakers, that's the difference between adding a top talent in a stacked draft class and being forced to continue on with the same roster. Even worse, if the Lakers surrender their pick to the 76ers this year, they will also be forced to surrender their first round pick to the Magic in 2019 as a part of the Dwight Howard trade. However, if they retain the pick in the top 3, they will keep their 2019 first round pick and the Magic will receive the Lakers' second round picks in 2017 and 2018 instead. If the Lakers get jumped in the lottery, their recent 2-game win streak may go down as the worst win streak in franchise history.
The 76ers, Magic, Knicks, Timberwolves, Kings, and Mavericks are all still fighting for those last few spots. In reality, the 76ers, Magic, and Timberwolves are really just young and inexperienced so they haven't really been trying to lose as much as they have been staying the course. Meanwhile, the Knicks, Kings, and Mavericks all seem to have turned up the tank later in the season and they are all failing miserably at it.
In 2 of their most recent games, the Knicks defeated the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, two teams fighting for the 8 seed in the East. The Knicks beat the Heat without Carmelo Anthony and with a starting lineup including Ron Baker and Sasha Vujacic, who has played in only 39 games this season despite being healthy. More recently, the Knicks defeated the Chicago Bulls without Kristaps Porzingis and with Maurice Ndour, having played only 29 games this year, getting his first career start.
The Kings trade their best player, DeMarcus Cousins, during the all-star break and it seemed as though the team was aiming for the highest draft pick possible. The plan was working perfectly to start, as the team lost 8 of its first 9 games without Cousins. However, the Kings have gone 6-6 in their last 12 games, not a great stretch for a good team, but an amazing stretch for a team that should be losing.
The Mavericks seemed to have turned on the tank when they decided to waive Deron Williams, their starting point guard, in order to give the position to Yogi Ferrell, an undrafted rookie who had been cut by the Nets earlier in the season. It seems as though, they could have just kept both players but they decided to go in a different direction. Ultimately, if the Mavericks plan was to lose games by cutting their starting point guard, it has failed, as the team has gone 10-11 since parting ways with Williams. The Mavericks stayed in playoff contention much longer than anyone anticipated after that moved, thanks in large part to the play of Yogi Ferrell. Because they uncovered a hidden gem in Ferrell, they find themselves looking at a pick in the latter half of the top 10.
In the end, losing is a lot harder than it looks.