Roundtable: The Mid-Season Tankies

With the mid-year just passing, we decided to have a little round table on the most relevant topic to New York City basketball: tanking.

Which player is most valuable to his team’s tanking chances?

Kurylo: Josh Smith. Wait what??? His teams were trying to win???

Oh, then this has to be a tie between Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams. The pair have combined for 2700 minutes and neither has a TS% above 46%. It’s hard to pick between the two since they hurt (help?) their team in different ways. If you want to get killed under the boards and with low volume scoring, then Noel’s 8.6 REB/36 and 9.6 PTS/36 is perfect. If you want to die from outside and just give the ball away then MCW’s 25.6% 3P% and 4.5 TO/36 will do the trick. And both are young, so you can just play them as many minutes as you want “for development.”

This driver is sure to be the Knicks next GM
This driver is sure to be the Knicks next GM

Fisher-Cohen: It’s not just how bad a player plays that determines his value to an aspiring tanker. It’s the cover he provides. Secretly awful name brand players who GMs can sell as part of some vague plan to “compete” are are the prize possessions of any GM who wants to maximize his ping pong balls but for political reasons, must do so stealthily.

In this sense, Kobe has been my MVT (Most Valuable Tanker). Sentimental fans refuse to give up on the idea that Kobe is still a superstar no matter how bad his numbers are, so despite MVT runner up Michael Carter-Williams being the better in-game tank asset, Bryant’s ability to mask the tank gives him the leg up.

Cronin: Up until this point, I think it was Zach LaVine, who was quite possibly one of the worst starters in the NBA this season. Minnesota lost their starting point guard and basically said, “Eh, I’m sure we can manage to get by with this unprepared rookie” and boy were they wrong. Going forward, with LaVine being replaced by Ricky Rubio and Kobe Bryant on the shelf, I suppose I would have to go with Michael Carter-Williams, who seems to actively enjoy playing for a terrible team so long as he is allowed to shoot as much as he wants to shoot.

Topaz: I’ll go with Kobe, as well, but for a different reason: He’s the highest-paid player in the NBA. Just as top teams find surplus value on cheap contracts, tanking teams benefit from overpaid players who don’t live up to their deals and hamstring the team’s ability to get talent. Whereas Kobe ($23.5 million, #1 in the NBA) shot less than 38 percent from the field taking more than 20 shots a game and then got hurt for the year, the Knicks have actually gotten some actual value out of their secret tank weapon, Amar’e Stoudemire ($23.4 million, #2 in the NBA) on the offensive end.

Ephus: Andrew Wiggins. He started slow and has improved in the last thirty games. Now, he has to show that he can run headlong into the rookie Wall. Minnesota is going to keep running him out there to get as much experience as possible. Could get some 8 point/ 7 turnover nights.

Which team will tank the best (aka win the lottery)?

Kurylo: I have to go with Minnesota. It takes a special kind of tanking ability to play zero defense, and the Twolves are dead last in opposing points per possession and opposing shooting percentage. Who would have thought a team would get worse on defense after getting rid of Kevin Love?

Fisher-Cohen: Minny has the headstart, but it’s hard to see them staying at the bottom now that Kevin Martin, Vucevic and Rubio are all healthy. It’s tempting to write off Philly’s chances as well since after losing its first 17 games, they have gone 10-22, but even in the last 32 games, Philly’s point differential is -10.0.

Were it not for my lack of trust in Jackson and Anthony, I would pick the Knicks. Minus Melo, the boys in blue have a net rating of -13.5, but the Knicks’ recent decisions to play Melo big minutes alongside veteran 10 day contract players suggests that they don’t take this competition seriously. My pick: the 76ers.

Cat + Sports Blog = Win the Internet
Cat + Sports Blog = Win the Internet

Cronin: Minnesota certainly seems to have the pole position, but it does seem hard to believe that they’ll continue to lose quite this much once their team is healthy (which is why I keep expecting to see a “oops, Vucevic ‘re-injured’ himself in a freak accident that also ‘injured’ Gorgui Dieng” story out of Minnesota). I think I would give the Lakers the best odds. Their coach was terrible when he was ostensibly trying to win, if he actively tries to lose they should be exceptionally bad and they play in the harder conference, so it is easier for them to rack up losses. That said, I think the team that will be the best at actually tanking will be the Celtics. They will be the best at trying to lose (Danny Ainge is an old pro at this) – they just have too much room to make up, so I don’t think they’ll ultimately “win” the race to the bottom.

Topaz: The Sixers are probably the right pick, because A) they’re just a game behind the Wolves for worst record and B) more importantly, they are the most committed team to tanking in the NBA. Sam Hinkie is in the early stages of executing his grand tanking plan horror show, and unlike several other teams, the Sixers won’t let sentimentality or dignity get in the way of losing games.

Having said that … this nifty graphic shows the remaining strength of schedule for every team, and the Wolves — they of the league’s worst record — also have the toughest remaining schedule. I’m sticking with the Sixers because they have less talent and more of a tanking mandate, but the Wolves aren’t a bad pick, either.

Ephus: The Knicks. Once Melo sits, this team will be lucky to win three more games.

What team is hurting their chances at tanking?

Kurylo: When tanking, you want a player that has a TS% under 48% taking as many shots as possible. And when that same guy has a usage of 34.8 it’s nearly a perfect synergy of tankidity (tankitude? tankishness?). Unfortunately Kobe Bryant got hurt, and now the Lakers will turn to better scorers like Nick Young, Carlos Boozer, and Jeremy Lin, all near the league average in scoring efficiency. This is not a time for them to make an uptick toward mediocrity. They really needed Kobe on the court, and this injury will certainly hurt their chances at a decent pick.

Fisher-Cohen: I’m going to go with Indiana. If any team had a chance to make this a 96/97 Spurs season, it was the Pacers, who lost far and away their best player and really would have had nothing to lose by just blowing it up. Like they did with the Knicks, the gods blessed the Pacers with early injuries, removing all doubt that this was a lost season. Both Hibbert and West are good enough that a fringe contender would have gambled on them, yet the Pacers defied the will of the gods and instead chose to gamble the future of their franchise on finding a second elite player in the mid/late lottery, a once a decade type occurrence.

Cronin: I agree with Max. The Pacers really ought to be tanking, but they’re actively trying to make the playoffs, and obviously such a move hurts their chances at tanking.

Topaz: Let’s see … which team has a top-20 player by PER inexplicably playing heavy minutes on a knee that needs surgery and on the first year of a massive five-year contract? And what player scored an average of 29 points in 37 minutes in two recent wins against prime tanking opponents, the Sixers and Nets? The Knicks and Carmelo Anthony refusing to cede this year amounts to the biggest self-inflicted wound in the tanking sweepstakes, by far.

Ephus: Sacramento. They did all their damage early in the season, when they had Malone as their coach and Boogie Cousins was playing like an MVP. They fixed it by firing Malone, bringing in Ty Corbin and have played like veterans of the lottery.

Meep! Meep!
Meep! Meep!

What move could an outside (dark horse) team do to tank more?

Kurylo: Honestly I spent about 20 minutes trying to find a team other than the Knicks. And I’m all out of alternate ideas. It has to be shutting down Carmelo Anthony and playing Jason Smith as much as humanly possible. It’s painful as a Knick fan to suggest such torture (especially when I’ll be the one watching the games), but much like a vaccination shot – one dose of short term pain will make the payoff well worth it.

Fisher-Cohen: When you take health into account, Orlando is a pretty talented team relative to other bottom dwellers. They just have the same problem as the Knicks: no one can defend a lick, and it’s only gotten worse (114.8 defensive rating over their last 9, 15 losses in the last 17 games). Unlike Minnesota, they have no injured difference-makers waiting in the wings. Unlike the Knicks, they don’t have a star who cares more about playing in the All-Star game than his health or his team’s future.

If the Magic trade Tobias Harris (but please not to the Knicks!) and they let Jacque Vaughn continue to bumble his way through the season, Orlando has a real chance to be starting twin towers next season: Okafor and Vucevic. Their defense will still suck though.

Cronin: Orlando is definitely my pick for a dark horse tanking team. They could easily get into the mix if they start sitting some of their better players. The biggest argument against them tanking, though, is that they are apparently preparing to replace Jacque Vaughn as coach, and you tend not to bring in a coach just to tell him to tank. It is typically much easier to just have the outgoing coach do that.

Topaz: The Nuggets are one Ty Lawson ankle injury away — an injury that would derail my Knickerblogger fantasy basketball team as I struggle to close the gap with a seemingly immovable Gibberman in first place — from making a late-season play for tanking relevancy. The team is 1-9 in its last ten, has pretty clearly quit on its coach, and is completely directionless in an outrageously tough conference. They’re too far out to finish with the worst record, but they could easily leapfrog several teams in their way — Sacramento, Utah, Detroit — if things continue to get worse and/or the oft-injured Lawson is forced out for an extended period of time.

Ephus: I’m going with the Kings again. DeMarcus Cousins may kill Rudy Gay during the post-ASG run. Neither gives a single damn about defense at this point. Each will point the finger at the other. Boogie is much bigger. If not for the 17 wins they already accumulated, I would have them as odds-on favorites.

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