LOS ANGELES — Despite the NBA’s best efforts to discourage it, tanking will be a large part of the rest of this season. So much so that fans, journalists and internet provocateurs have come up with a bunch of names to make “giving up” sound far sexier than it is.
There is the Race for Zion (movie-title dramatic), the Road to Zion (sentimental and biblical) and Dyin’ for Zion (morbid, but factually accurate). Others lazily have christened it Tryin’ for Zion, which is the polar opposite of what is really going on, as a sorry collection of useless teams jockey for a preferred position in the NBA Draft Lottery.
And with it, the increased possibility of securing a potential franchise-altering game-changer in Duke freshman Zion Williamson.
“There’s a mindset that if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad,” commissioner Adam Silver said during the All-Star festivities, with more than an implied nod to the awful New York Knicks, floundering their way through an 11-47 run that included an 18-game losing skid.
Silver hates tanking and devotes a considerable portion of his intellect to conceiving ways to combat it. So far, they have proven fruitless. “I believe personally (tanking is) corrosive for those organizations,” Silver added.
Even with fresh regulations aimed at removing the reality of a poor finish being a ticket to possible lottery gold, there are more bad teams in the NBA than ever.
Thus, the Race for Zion is a four-pronged battle. The Knicks and the Phoenix Suns, with 15 consecutive losses, head (or tail) the field. But the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls are right there with them. Whenever a combination of those teams meet, as the Cavaliers and Suns do in Cleveland on Thursday, the games take on real significance.
It would be an insult to the players to suggest they are giving anything less than full effort. But the clubs in question have stripped their squads so bare or arrange their playing time in a way that on most nights, defeat virtually is inevitable.
Knicks head coach David Fizdale admitted he is more concerned with development than results, and the blockbuster trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. to Dallas effectively burned any hope of getting more than a handful of “Ws” between now and October.
Cleveland always was going to suffer the post-LeBron blues. Chicago started miserably and only got worse. Phoenix has some nice young players, but a deeply entrenched losing culture.
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All of them would dearly love a prime spot in an enticing draft that sees Williamson as the standout, and also includes his stellar teammate RJ Barrett and an enticing prospect in ultra-talented Murray State point guard Ja Morant.
For the four bottom feeders, all of whom could easily end with a record worse than last season’s last-place 21-win Suns, there apparently is not enough incentive to try to be better. There also has never been less incentive to suck. Yet suck they do, willingly so – can we say deliberately so –, at least at an administrative level.
Silver loves his league and almost everything about it but he looks with a tinge of jealousy at European soccer competitions, where relegation is the ultimate punishment for failure.
“(In soccer) you pay an enormous price if you’re not competitive,” Silver said. “And I think for the league and for our teams there’s that ongoing challenge if we can come up with a better system.”
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Relegation is never going to fly in the franchise model of American sports, but what Silver hopes to do is stop gifting teams that tank an immediate prize.
That’s why this time around, the worst team in the NBA will have just a 14 percent chance of picking first on May 14, the same percentage as the teams with the second and third-weakest records. Previously, losing more than anyone else was good for a 25 percent stake in the lottery game.
Even with the change, the advanced analytics departments among the faltering four seem to have dictated that tanking still is the way to go, and we shouldn’t expect any sudden improvement.
That quartet was actually five-strong (or five-weak) for most of the season, before one team got sick of losing and decided to do something about it. It would be some kind of sweet poetry if the Atlanta Hawks, a genuinely bad team that didn’t give up and has improved considerably, ended up with the top pick to add to the momentum it has built behind Trae Young’s swift feet. An Atlanta slice of lottery luck would be a bitter pill for the others, but it might also serve as a valuable lesson. The odds are still against the Hawks, however.
It is Silver’s problem and it is a real one that he will be hard pressed to eliminate.
In a few months’ time, possibly the most exciting player to enter the NBA in more than a decade will turn pro and bring his electrifying skills with him. Sadly, the chances are he will go to a team that “earned” him by failing.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno