The 2013-14 season was billed as the Year of the Tank. With Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, and a whole host of other highly thought of college and international talent likely on the board this June, there was somewhere near a third of the NBA that prepared to have as poor of a record as possible.
Because of this, along with a few teams that were trying to be good but were simply too incompetent to do so successfully, there has been a huge imbalance between the Western and Eastern Conferences. The only teams in the West that were thought to truly be tanking this year were Phoenix and Utah, and the Suns have been anything but a tank-squad, holding steady at 29-20 and sitting in the 7th spot in the conference as of February 6.
At this point, Sacramento, Utah, and the Lakers are the only teams that are really, truly tank-worthy in the West. And it hasn’t been graceful, with both the Kings and Lakers not intentionally losing, but doing just that in the process. The Eastern Conference has been much more….muddled. And successful, if a poor win-loss record is the goal.
Since the East is so terrible, there will be multiple teams with losing records that reach post-season play. As the season has worn on, however, it has begun to look like the teams that are thought to be intentionally tanking (Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando) will successfully miss the playoffs after a scary early season period when they were playing better than they were intended to.
Let’s take a look at a trio of savvy tankers: Boston (17-33), Philadelphia (15-35), and Orlando (14-37). We’ll discuss how these teams stack up for the future, and who’s in the best position, based on future draft picks, cap room, and current talent on their rosters.
Danny Ainge went all in on the tank this year, trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and others while hiring former Butler head coach Brad Stevens to lead his increasingly young squad. Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, and Brandon Bass were the only proven NBA players on the roster at the start of the year, and it was anyone’s guess if this team would even reach 20+ wins.
As it turns out, the team got off to a decent start to the year, despite Green and Bradley both playing beneath their talent and level of expected performance. Bass has played quite well, and Jared Sullinger has backed up his impressive rookie campaign with a solid sophomore season.
Jordan Crawford played the best basketball of his career early on, allowing Ainge to flip him to a thin Golden State squad in a clear sell-high move. The inefficient gunner was moved for Joel Anthony and his expiring contract in a three-team deal with Miami, along with cash to cover the small difference in salary. They also acquired a protected first-round pick from the Heat (originally Philadelphia’s) that will turn into two second-rounders depending on how the Sixers finish.
They also received an additional second-round pick from the Heat. It was a good move by a tanking squad that didn’t have Crawford (or MarShon Brooks, who was also moved) in their future plans. Ainge took advantage of some unexpectedly solid play by Crawford and capitalized as best they could.
As far as Boston goes moving forward, well, they have a ton of picks. The Celitcs are owed four first-round picks and the right to swap first-rounders with the Nets in 2017, along with three second-round picks over the next four years. Oh, and they still own all their own draft picks. With a bunch of talent entering the league in the near future, this is a great spot to be in and a sudden and surprising rebuild by Ainge.
The contract situation is also pretty good, as the only money guaranteed beyond this season is to Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee, and the rapidly declining Gerald Wallace. Odds are, they can get someone to take Wallace and Lee next year, when they’ll only have one more year on their contracts. (Nobody should take Wallace, but check out what the Nets gave up for him not too long ago…someone will take on that hideous contract.)
The talent on the roster isn’t great, as rookie Kelly Olynyk has been somewhat disappointing, and Bass won’t be around after next season. Obviously there’s Rondo, but a lot of work will need to be done beyond him. Still, the Celtics aren’t in a bad spot, all things considered. Whether they use or trade their picks, they should be able to figure out a formula to put themselves back into the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference in the next couple of years.
The Sixers started this year with an opening night win over the Heat and a surprising 3-0 record. There was pre-season talk of them challenging for the worst record of all-time, but that would have been a difficult feat to accomplish in 2013-14, with all of the teams in their conference that are actively tanking. After all, they’d accidentally stumble into a few wins here and there.
The roster is pretty bare, however. Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes are really the only starting-caliber players on the squad, and it’s actually pretty surprising that they’ve managed 15 wins to this point. The Sixers are in a great spot salary-wise, as Young is the only non-rookie with fully-guaranteed money beyond this season.
There are a host of first and second-year players on the team, including Michael-Carter Williams, Arnett Moultrie, Hollis Thompson, Lorenzo Brown, and Nerlens Noel, who hasn’t played in his rookie year due to recovery from his ACL tear last year in college. It’s not a bad stable of young players to start with.
Throw in the solid contract situation and most of their own picks moving forward, and the Sixers are sitting in a great spot. The interesting thing to keep an eye on is Evan Turner. The perception is that he’s having a very good year (17.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.8 APG), but he isn’t. His efficiency has been sub-par, and his defense has been pretty atrocious. His affinity for mid-range jumpers and high-but-unsuccessful usage rate have contributed to a lack of real, tangible, positive production.
It’s likely that the Sixers brain trust (general manager Sam Hinkie was Daryl Morey’s right-hand man in Houston, and head coach Brett Brown is from Gregg Popovich’s coaching tree) is aware of Turner’s overvalued worth around the league, and he’s an expiring contract after this year. He’ll likely be moved by the trade deadline, and the word is that they’re looking for a first-round pick in any deal. If anyone meets that price, it’ll be a coup for Philly, and they’ll be in a fantastic spot moving forward.
The Magic found themselves with the worst record in the league last year, but thanks to the fantastic system that is the NBA Draft Lottery, they fell to the number two overall pick. They were ecstatic, however, when Cleveland out-thought themselves and selected Anthony Bennett number one overall. Orlando’s target, Victor Oladipo, fell to them at #2, and he’s been everything they’ve expected thus far this season.
Their cap situation is a little more muddled than Boston or Philadelphia, but talent on the current roster is better. Which is kind of strange, since they’ve won the fewest games thus far of the trio (14). Arron Afflalo has been the Magic’s best player, and he still has next year plus an Early Termination Option on his deal for the 2015-16 campaign.
Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris have both been good, but haven’t quite taken the step forward that the Orlando front office and coaching staff would have liked. Even still, the heists that they’ve pulled off over the past couple of years with Philadelphia (pre-Hinkie front office) and Milwaukee have been net positives.
Oladipo hasn’t actually played too well this season, but he has shown enough flashes and enough physical tools that there’s a lot of optimism surrounding him. After all, he’s better than Bennett, right?
The Magic still have Glen Davis on the books for next season, and owe partially guaranteed contracts to the likes of Jameer Nelson, Jason Maxiell, and Ronnie Price. Kudos to the front office, however, for knowing that they won’t be ready to contend for the playoffs until the season after next anyways. Those contracts don’t matter a whole lot in the long run.
A nucleus of Oladipo, Vucevic, and Harris isn’t too bad. They’ll all be rotation players, but there may not be a star there. Afflalo is definitely a starter on a playoff team and a rotation player on a contender, but it’s likely they’ll be moving him for picks and expiring contracts/young pieces in the next year or two. There are a number of current contenders that would love to have him.
Orlando’s current construction and the fact that they own most of their picks means that they’re set up nicely. And their front office includes general manager Rob Hennigan, who is Sam Presti’s former right-hand man in Oklahoma City. They’re on the right track, and should be in playoff contention in about two seasons.
Who’s in the best spot? Though to say, but we do know one thing: all three of these teams are in a much, much better place than unintentional tankers in Milwaukee, Sacramento, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. The new-age, cutting-edge front offices in Philadelphia and Orlando know what they’re doing, and Ainge has long done a good job in Boston. He also has his savvy young head coach in Brad Stevens to help guide the process.
These fan bases should be excited about the future, and the investment that their respective ownerships have made in building great front offices and solid coaching staffs. Things are turning around soon, and these three teams will get to the promised land before teams like the Lakers, Bucks, Cavs, Kings, and others.
It’ll get better, and soon. Help is on the way.