It’s a strategy in sports that can yield criticism but can also provide results – tanking.
In the NBA, oftentimes towards the end of the season, teams may start benching key players in favor of youth to improve their odds of landing a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.
The Portland Trail Blazers are a prime example from last season. After an injury to star guard Damian Lillard essentially derailed Portland’s chances of making the playoffs, the team shipped CJ McCollum to New Orleans and embraced a rebuild. After ending the season with 27 players appearing in at least one game and a 27-55 record, Portland landed the No. 7 overall pick and grabbed Shaedon Sharpe out of Kentucky, a potential top-five pick in this year’s class.
Though the Trail Blazers are expected to be in the playoff mix this year, there are other franchises to watch for as a potential “tank” team, especially when there’s a prospect like Victor Wembanyama looming.
Let’s look at eight franchises that could be tanking this upcoming season:
San Antonio Spurs
After clinching a playoff appearance 22 seasons in a row, you wouldn’t expect the Spurs to be on this list, especially with Gregg Popovich at the helm. But after the team traded 2022 All-Star Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks, it’s safe to say San Antonio is not looking to contend this year. Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley were the team’s three first-round picks in 2022, and their development alongside recent first-rounders in Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and Joshua Primo is worth monitoring.
Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s not a secret that Oklahoma City has hoarded first-round draft picks. The recent years of tanking landed them Chet Holmgren at No. 2 overall this year, but with Wembanyama coming, one may think general manager Sam Presti has something up his sleeve. If the Thunder don’t land the first overall pick in 2023 through the lottery, assuming they’re still too young to make the playoffs, then using their treasure chest of picks may be enough to influence whoever has the luxury of holding the top pick.
The Rockets are in a similar position with the Thunder in terms of young talent already on the roster. Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter Jr. are joined by 2022 first-rounders Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and TyTy Washington Jr – and we haven’t mentioned two other 2021 picks in Josh Christoper and Usman Garuba. That’s still a young roster that might be a few years away from competing, so keep an eye on them to add more talented youngsters going forward.
The Pacers were supposed to be in the playoff hunt last year, but Rick Carlisle’s first year with the organization did not go well. The franchise traded Domantas Sabonis to the Sacramento Kings near the trade deadline and moved Malcolm Brogdon to the Boston Celtics this summer. Tyrese Haliburton and Aaron Nesmith were the two youngsters that came back to Indiana in those deals, with 2022 No. 6 overall pick Bennedict Mathurin, Chris Duarte, Jalen Smith and Isaiah Jackson also in the mix.
Troy Weaver and the Pistons seem to be constructing a dreamy young roster. Cade Cunningham leads the way, while Saddiq Bey, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart, Isaiah Livers and Saben Lee are on the roster. Former 2018 No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III received a fully guaranteed three-year, $37 million extension this summer, so the Pistons seem to believe he can find a new level that didn’t emerge in Sacramento. Still, like the other teams and the one coming next, they need more seasoning.
Another young-but-promising team is on the list. Paolo Banchero will have all of the attention as he went No. 1 overall to Orlando this year, and he’ll have 2021 lottery picks Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs to accompany him. Markelle Fultz will also be available for the start of the season, and though he hasn’t lived up to the billing as a former No. 1 overall pick himself, hopefully an injury-free campaign can change things. They should be in the conversation for next year’s lottery.
The Hornets have been one of the flashier teams to watch after LaMelo Ball’s arrival, but they’ve suffered blowout losses in the play-in tournament two seasons in a row. James Bouknight and Kai Jones had disappointing rookie seasons last year, but maybe they could be in for sophomore surges with more minutes. Mark Williams out of Duke hopes to resolve the Hornets’ center situation that has been broken the last few seasons, but all eyes are on what happens to Miles Bridges, who was recently arrested – and later released – after a felony domestic violence charge. Charlotte doesn’t appear to have a roster that can contend this season.
From being one of the top contenders in the Western Conference to potentially tanking during the 2022-2023 season, the Jazz are not singing the right tunes. Utah traded Rudy Gobert to Minnesota in a blockbuster move that saw four future first-round picks and a pick swap in 2026 involved in the return. Donovan Mitchell is still on the squad, but beyond him, the Jazz don’t have a playoff-caliber roster – unless they use those picks to land another star.