Tanks But No Tanks

Around this time of year, we all start wondering if teams are really trying. You see, it’s in our society’s nature to assume the worst with people and try to find the conspiracy in everything. Personally, I blame Jack Ruby but that’s beside the point.

The point is that in the NBA there are three prevailing conspiracies: 1) The refs are in on it, 2) The league wants big market teams to win, and 3) NBA teams throwing games at the end of the season to ensure a higher probability for winning the draft lottery. The NBA can deal with the first two however they choose to deal with them but the last one seems to be just as serious for the season ticket holders around the league.

There have been a lot of examples of teams allegedly tanking games at the end of a season in order to try to win the lotto. In 1997, the San Antonio Spurs held David Robinson out with an “injury” in order to allegedly get a better chance at winning the rights to draft Tim Duncan. The Cavaliers in 2003 allegedly built a team around Ricky Davis in the hopes that it would get them the best shot at winning the LeBron James sweepstakes. The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics have held out their respective stars in 2008 and 2007 respectively in order to allegedly get a chance at securing a top draft pick. It happens every year and unless the league does something in order to even out the lottery odds, it’s going to happen every season until the robots take over the world.

And while you can try to figure out some teams that are currently tanking in the NBA (Wizards, Wolves, etc.), two teams you can cross off that list of potential tankers are the New Jersey Nets and Sacramento Kings. Both of these teams are towards the bottom of the league (okay, the Nets are below the bottom right now) but both could be back on their feet relatively soon. Both teams want to desperately get back to the success they saw in the early part of the previous decade. And both teams are refusing to tank for different reasons.

With the Kings, they’ve made a conscious decision that finishing the season strong is much more important than losing for more ping pong balls. It’s a strategy for building a franchise that has worked well in the past. The Oklahoma City Thunder started the season with an embarrassing 13-45 record last season before finishing strong with a 10-14 end to the season. They’re now currently fighting for playoff position. In the 2005-2006 season, the Warriors were mired in a nine-game losing streak and capable of tanking the remaining fives games of the regular season in order to reverse leap frog the Wolves and Rockets for better lottery positioning. Instead, they won four of five to finish the season before finishing the next two seasons with above .500 records and 90 combined wins.

There is not only a sense that you’re doing the right thing by playing out the final stretch of the regular season by trying as hard as you can but there’s also the aspect of building a winning culture. The Kings have been trying to change the culture of this franchise since draft night last summer. It started with Tyreke Evans, Omri Casspi and Jon Brockman. It continued with a rededication to this city and the fans. We saw it yesterday with the departure of John Thomas and we’ll see it continue to foster in the way the Kings are finishing out this campaign.

With the New Jersey Nets, they’re trying to win as many games as possible for an entirely different reason. They’re currently 7-63 this season. It doesn’t take a mathematical expert to realize that this is not a good winning percentage. In fact, it’s bordering on historically bad. The Nets need three wins in their final 12 games to avoid the 1972-1973 Philadelphia 76ers’ dubious NBA record of just nine wins in the regular season.

The Nets already set one horrible record this season when they started out the year with losing their first 18 games of the regular season. Since then they’ve changed coaches, gone through injuries, made a trade and still found very little success in winning basketball games. They’ve had three double-digit losing streaks this season (18, 10, and 11). They’re currently in an eight-game losing streak. But the future isn’t nearly as bleak as this season may lead you to believe.

They’re going to most likely have a Top 3 pick in this year’s top-heavy draft (although, we thought that about the Kings last year). They already have a fantastic point guard in Devin Harris and a future All-Star in Brook Lopez to man the middle. They’ve got good young role players in Chris Douglas-Roberts, Courtney Lee, Terrence Williams and Yi Jianlin. They’ve got oodles of cap room to rebuild with this off-season, a famous rapper as a minority owner to help woo free agents and the future appeal of busting into the New York market when they move to Brooklyn in a couple of years.

The only thing seemingly standing in their way is this task of winning three more games before the end of the season. While trying to convince yourself of leaving for greener pastures in the land of a 10-win team seems kind of silly, it’s much harder to want to associate yourself with a team that is coming off the most historically poor season in the history of the league. Whether they break the record or tie it, it will carry a stigma that could scare away potential free agent acquisitions.

So Wednesday night, you’ll get to see a rarity in this league. Two teams with bad records trying to actually win games at the end of a frustrating season. The Kings will try to avoid getting on the short list of Nets’ conquests from this season as they spend one more night without Tyreke Evans at the helm. The Nets on the other hand will continue to avoid historical impotency in the win column.

Either way, there will be no accusations of tanking at the IZOD center when these two teams play.

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