A Knicks player sat at his locker March 19 with his eyes fixed on the TV. He was watching a tape of that night’s opponent. But some of the players he saw would not be at that night’s game.
The Bulls left three of their top players — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markannen and Kris Dunn — in Chicago. It didn’t appear that the Bulls came to the Garden to win that night, prompting the Knick to ask, “How can they do that? Will the NBA fine them?”
There was no punishment from the NBA because the Bulls listed each player as injured. Veteran Robin Lopez was healthy, but he didn’t play, leaving a squad of young, unproven players to take on the Knicks, who were a half-game ahead of Chicago in the standings.
The Knicks won the game, 110-92, and the Bulls held onto their position as the NBA’s eighth-worst team.
Throughout the league, the Bulls’ motive was clear. It’s a common and accepted practice in the NBA known as tanking — not putting your best team on the floor in hopes of getting the best draft pick possible. And Chicago is far from alone in doing it.
Tanking is a taboo subject. Most NBA players, coaches and front office personnel refuse to publicly acknowledge that it’s going on.
Jeff Van Gundy, the former Knicks and Rockets coach who is now ABC’s lead analyst, has strong feelings about the topic and says the integrity of the league is at stake if teams aren’t trying to win.
“It’s become accepted practice that they don’t try to win,” Van Gundy said. “If you’re not trying to win, you’re trying to lose. And if you’re trying to lose, to me, it’s a scandal. But it’s not seen as a scandal by most. To me it is.”
One of the biggest issues facing the league is that it can’t prove teams are not trying to win. The term “developing young players” has become a euphemism for tanking.
Teams are choosing to sit veterans in favor of young players who may or may not be part of the team’s future to get as many Ping-Pong ball combinations in the NBA Draft Lottery as possible.
Regardless of what it’s called, people around the game know a team that’s tanking when they see one, and Van Gundy says not enough people are concerned about it.
“There’s no media outcry,” Van Gundy said. “There’s no NBA outcry. There’s no fan outcry. If we’re saying it’s OK, and we are, from the league, to the teams, to the media, to the fans, no one’s holding anyone accountable other than to give them praise for doing it. It’s not going to change because no one wants it to change.”
The Sacramento Kings, currently the NBA’s sixth-worst team, announced in January they would sit at least two veterans per game to give their young players more minutes.
The Atlanta Hawks, who have the third-worst record, played their last game before the All-Star break without three starters. Dennis Schroder (back), Ersan Ilyasova (shoulder) and Kent Bazemore (rest) didn’t face the Pistons, a team Atlanta beat a few days earlier. All three played the night before, but resting players before a weeklong break raised red flags. The Hawks lost the game.
Bulls executive vice president John Paxson said after the All-Star break that for “blocks of games,” they would give more minutes to younger players and significantly decrease those of Lopez and Justin Holiday. Lopez has played seven games since.
The Knicks sat Jarrett Jack after the All-Star break and have gone with a young trio of guards to develop and evaluate. The team has won four of its past 27 games.
The last-place Phoenix Suns, who have won twice in their past 27 games, have played veteran center and leading rebounder Tyson Chandler just five times since Feb. 7. He was shut down last season for the final 25 games.
Grizzlies center Marc Gasol expressed his frustration during Memphis’ 19-game losing streak, saying the G League, not the NBA, is for developing players. Knicks center Enes Kanter has said similar things this season.
“It’s just accepted,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve rebranded it from ‘tanking’ to ‘We’re playing our young players to try to rebuild.’ They’re not really playing their younger players in a rebuilding effort necessarily. They’re trying to play their younger players so that they lose, so that they can get better young players than the ones they have.”
‘IT’S A HUGE PROBLEM’
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is trying to change the perception — or reality — that tanking is prevalent in his league.
He fined Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $600,000 in February for saying on Julius Erving’s podcast that “losing is our best option.” Silver called the remarks “detrimental to the NBA.”
Van Gundy gave Cuban credit for being honest.
“We’re trying to hide this as a league,” Van Gundy said. “We’re trying to hide what’s really going on. Since very few consider it a problem, in most people’s eyes, it’s not a problem. To me it’s a huge problem.”
Silver warned the Bulls about resting healthy players. He also sent out a memo to every NBA owner in February saying if the league “received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.”
When Kings coach Dave Joerger was asked about the memo before a game against the Knicks, he responded, “Does anyone have questions about the game?’’
All of this leads to questions about the integrity of the game.
THE TANKING PROCESS
Tanking has been going on for decades, but it evolved into a science in recent years with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie, who was hired in 2013, traded the team’s best players, spent as little money as possible to sign free agents, acquired and hoarded draft picks and took injured players or those who would stay overseas. This strategy came to be known as “Trust the Process.”
The rebuilding “process” for the 76ers included four seasons that resulted in a 75-253 record and led to numerous high lottery picks. Van Gundy referred to that stretch of atrocious basketball as “a supersized approach to losing.” The 76ers are reaping the benefits now, though.
In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons — picked third and first in the draft two years apart — the 76ers have cornerstone players and a bright present and future. They clinched a playoff spot and could have home-court advantage in the first round.
More teams appear willing to try the same approach, but it doesn’t guarantee the strategy will work.
The Kings (25-54) have missed the playoffs for 12 straight years and have lost at least 50 games eight times in that span. Sacramento has had four top-five picks and 11 top-10 choices.
The Suns have dropped at least 58 games in each of the past three years and have had eight straight losing seasons. They’ve had three top-five picks in the last five years, but the team’s best move was taking Devin Booker at No. 13 three years ago.
The Magic has missed the playoffs six consecutive years and lost at least 53 games five times in that span. Orlando has had three picks in the top five and could have another this summer.
“There’s a bit of a gamble in that there’s no guarantee you’re getting the No. 1 pick,” one longtime league executive said. “You have to get lucky to turn stuff around when you’re bad. Sometimes it’s hard to recover from that.”
BLAME THE SYSTEM
Van Gundy doesn’t blame the players. He believes they are professionals trying to win and stay in the league as long as possible. Instead, he sees a systemic problem that rewards teams for losing.
“In some ways I don’t blame the organizations,” Van Gundy said. “They’re saying, ‘It’s the system, now try and get as good as you can.’ What’s the best way to get good? Everyone is trying to determine that. It starts with the system and integrity. This whole thing lacks integrity.”
The NBA definitely doesn’t share Van Gundy’s views.
“We have teams that have dealt with injuries and teams that are going through a genuine rebuilding process, where they are appropriately playing younger players in order to evaluate their long-term value to the team,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. “No player goes out there to intentionally lose a game — they give everything they have each night.
“The league office and the Board of Governors acknowledged several years ago that a ‘race to the bottom’ incentive was an issue, and approved a new draft lottery system to address it beginning next season.”
There will be a new lottery format in 2019 for the 14 teams that don’t make the playoffs. But how much of a difference will it make?
Under the current set of rules, the team with the worst record has the best odds (25 percent) to get the No. 1 pick. The second-worst team has a 19.9 percent chance and third 15.6 percent.
Beginning in 2019, the three-worst teams will each have a 14-percent chance of winning the lottery. The new system also ensures that the team with the worst record won’t pick any lower than fifth. In the current lottery system, the worst team picks no lower than fourth
“It flattens the odds among the worst-performing teams going into the lottery,” Silver said. “So there is no longer an incentive to try to calibrate between the worst record and the second-worst record, and the second-worst record and the third-worst record. But at the same time, it recognizes that poor-performing teams do need to get high draft picks as a legitimate way to rebuild their team.”
There are skeptics about whether the new system will accomplish its desired result.
“It’s going to expand the tanking beyond trying to have the worst record. You want to have one of the three worst records,” the league executive said. “Why not say, ‘You’re not in the playoffs, everyone has the same shot at the No. 1 pick?’ You want to eliminate it totally, do something drastic.”
According to a league source, there was a proposal that sought greater change to the lottery but it didn’t get the necessary votes among owners.
“The modifications to the lottery were so negligible that it obviously will put no dent into the fact that teams are trying to put the worst team out there that they can on many nights,” Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy said he doesn’t have a surefire remedy to fix things, but the NBA should “incentivize winning and de-incentivize losing.”
One suggestion Van Gundy made is expanding the lottery to include the eight playoff teams that don’t have home-court advantage in the first round. He agrees that the NBA has to make “a radical change” and it should get rid of the odds altogether.
“I don’t think there should ever be the question, ‘Should I try to get in the playoffs or not?’” Van Gundy said. “A fan should know when I go to a game the teams are playing to win.”