State of the NBA tank
We have five teams at or below .250. A couple of them didn't expect to be here. What now?
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Portrait of Maud Cook, Thomas Eakins, 1895
At just about the quarter mark of the NBA season, something coming into view is the state of the race for the bottom of the standings. At this point, five teams have winning percentages at or below .250: the Spurs (4-12), Pistons (4-13), Magic (4-14), Pelicans (3-16) and Rockets (1-16).
Two of those teams (San Antonio and New Orleans) were not obvious tank candidates coming into the season: they are just bad. One team expected to be down here in the mud — the Thunder — have had a surprisingly competent start to the season for the second straight year, as they are 6-11 (.353), sitting in the No. 11 spot, two games out of the play-in. Last year, Oklahoma City made some rotational decisions near midseason to emphasize playing time for young players. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander also went out with an injury around that time. The Thunder ended up sinking to the bottom of the standings in one of the more aggressive tank jobs in the post-Process ecosystem. It’s unclear whether OKC will repeat that plan: Derrick Favors is the only older veteran getting minutes, and Shai could be in the mix for an All-Star reserve nod if the team stays afloat another two months.
I’m not sure exactly whether the Cavaliers were “expected” to be down here, but they are at .500 despite four straight losses. Collin Sexton is out all year, but provided that Evan Mobley comes back reasonably close to schedule and the first three weeks of his career were not a mirage (they were not), this team seems on par with the play-in contenders in the East. Cleveland also obviously wants to make the playoffs and has a foundational star (Mobley) already with other strong young pieces, so tanking is not remotely attractive.
The Pelicans, surely, would like not to be down here and will almost assuredly try to make a run at the play-in if Zion Williamson returns before Christmas. New Orleans is already six games out, but it’s the Timberwolves they are chasing, so despite a nice little recent run for Minnesota, it seems plausible to catch them. It’s the Timberwolves! The same applies to the Kings, who sit at 6-12 (.333). Sacramento has the sixth worst record in the NBA. If the losing streak continues much longer and the murmurs about potentially trading De’Aaron Fox grow louder, it’s an open question about whether the Kings might give up on this season and sprint to the bottom. I’m skeptical, but it’s also plausible that the Kings will just be this bad or a little worse all season. It’s also plausible that they will be as streaky as they were last year and vaccilate between Frisky and Dreadful only to end up Disappointing.