Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson reiterated Saturday before a win over the Knicks that “tanking” is not in the vocabulary. Teams can get better without it.
The timing of the question was odd, but that’s contemporary media for you. After a win Friday night, Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was asked before Saturday’s game about the idea of tanking in order to improve the team’s draft position.
It’s relevant since the team actually has a draft pick to potentially tank for. There is some merit to the idea — the Nets own their own first-round pick in 2019 for the first time in six years, since Mason Plumlee was chosen with the 22nd overall selection in 2013.
But the NBA has taken some measures with the lottery process to limit the benefits of outright tanking, measures that take effect beginning with the NBA Draft Lottery coming up in May.
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Under the former system, the team with the worst record had a 1-in-4 chance of getting the top overall pick, followed by odds declining from 19.9 percent all the way down to a 0.5 percent chance for the team in the lottery with the best record.
But with the new system, each of the three worst teams gets an equal 14 percent chance at the top pick, with the odds for the other teams in the lottery slightly improved (except for the team with the best record, which remains at 0.5 percent).
For his part, Atkinson reiterated the message he’s sent all season (via Greg Logan of Newsday):
"“(Tanking) doesn’t exist. Just doesn’t exist. It’s not in our conversation at all. … Of course, the fans can speculate and have opinions of what’s best for the club. But this is what our ownership, (general manager Sean Marks) and I think is best for this team going forward.“We need to establish a culture that we’re playing hard, competing every night and trying to win. None of those guys in there (gesturing to the locker room) want to sniff it, won’t talk tanking, don’t even want to hear that word. It’s like taboo. It doesn’t exist in their mentality.”"
Before diving into why it’s OK if the Nets continue with this crazy notion of actually trying to win professional basketball games — sit down if you need to, because I know it’s a concept that is way, way out there — one should understand that the concept of tanking was not invented recently.
Tanking — the act of putting together a team so non-competitive that it sinks to the bottom of the standings in order to maximize its chances of landing at the top of the lottery — has been around for a very long time.
It’s been around so long it’s the reason why we have a draft lottery in the NBA.
The Rockets were two years removed from an NBA Finals appearance and had been in the playoffs five times in six seasons with Malone at the center of things. In 1982-83 with the 76ers, Malone won his third MVP award. Without Malone, the Rockets went from 46 wins to just 14.
In those days, the top pick was determined via a coin flip between the teams with the worst records in each conference. Houston won the flip from the Indiana Pacers and drafted Virginia legend Ralph Sampson with the No. 1 overall pick.
Sampson had a Rookie of the Year season, but the Rockets still had too many other holes. They were on the periphery of the playoff race at 24-36 in early March before players started going down with mysterious injuries — back spasms was a favorite non-injury injury back in the day.
The Rockets won just five of their final 22 games and nosed out the San Diego Clippers for the worst record in the West. They won the coin flip again, this time from the Portland Trail Blazers — who owned Indiana’s pick thanks to a trade three years earlier for the legendary Tom Owens.
So Houston picked Hakeem Olajuwon from the University of Houston. With Hakeem — then known as Akeem — the Rockets returned to the playoffs, played in the Finals in 1986 and eventually won two titles with Olajuwon as their anchor.
And the next year, the NBA Draft Lottery was born. The seven non-playoff teams had envelopes tossed into a hopper and the first seven picks were set via random draw. It was a flawed system, yes, but it eliminated the benefits of outright tanking.
Just not for very long. The putrid teams complained loudly when the not-so-putrid teams were getting higher picks than were they and the NBA began tweaking the lottery system, at the same time reinstating the incentive to go big tank or go home.
The Philadelphia 76ers, under general manager Sam Hinkie, turned tanking from this quiet, seldom-discussed topic to an organizational foundation.
The net result was Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, with some high-profile misfires at the top of the draft as well, such as Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel (acquired via trade) and — at least for now — Markelle Fultz.
Ultimately, it is Marks’ record with non-premium draft picks in his first three cracks at the draft that should give Brooklyn fans encouragement that the Nets can capture a quality player even if they land in the middle of the lottery, or later.
To review the Marks draft resume:
- With Brooklyn’s first-round pick going to the Boston Celtics at No. 3 overall in a pre-Marks trade, traded Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers to select Michigan wing Caris LeVert at No. 20 overall. While currently injured, LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer this season before getting hurt and is seen as one of two foundational pieces to the rebuild on the current roster.
- With Brooklyn’s second-round pick going to the LA Clippers in a pick swap at No. 33 overall in a pre-Marks trade for Reggie Evans, selected North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige with LA’s pick at No. 55 and then traded his rights with $3 million cash to the Utah Jazz for the rights to 42nd overall pick Isaiah Whitehead from Seton Hall. Whitehead started 26 games as a rookie and was eventually traded to the Denver Nuggets last summer for Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, a top-12 protected 2019 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round pick. Arthur was in turn traded to the Phoenix Suns for Jared Dudley and a 31-35 protected 2021 second-rounder.
- With the Nets’ first-round pick going to Boston in a pick swap at No. 1 overall in a pre-Marks trade, selected University of Utah combo forward Kyle Kuzma with the Celtics’ pick at No. 28 overall. Traded Kuzma’s rights along with Brook Lopez to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell. Later traded Mozgov, the rights to 2018 second-round pick Hamidou Diallo and a 2021 second-round pick to the Charlotte Hornets for Dwight Howard, who was immediately bought out.
- Having traded Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to the Washington Wizards in February 2017 for Andrew Nicholson, Marcus Thornton and a lottery-protected 2017 first-rounder, selected University of Texas center Jarrett Allen with Washington’s pick as No. 22 overall. Allen is the other young player seen as a foundational piece for the Nets.
- The Nets’ second-round pick went to the Atlanta Hawks in a pre-Marks trade for Joe Johnson, who was eventually bought out.
- With Boston’s second-round pick acquired in a pre-Marks deal, selected Bulgarian big Aleksandar Vezenkov at No. 57 overall. Vezenkov is currently stashed with Olympiacos in the Greek Basket League.
- Brooklyn’s first-round pick went to Boston in a pre-Marks trade.
- In July 2017, traded Justin Hamilton to Toronto Raptors for DeMarre Carroll, Toronto’s 2018 first-round pick and Lakers’ 2018 second-round pick. Selected Bosnian wing Dzanan Musa at No. 29 overall and Latvian forward Rodions Kurucs at No. 40 overall.
- Brooklyn’s second-round pick at No. 38 overall went to Philadelphia 76ers in a pick swap as part of a pre-Marks trade for Brandon Davies in exchange for Andrei Kirilenko, Jorge Gutierrez and a 2020 second-round pick and Philadelphia’s pick at No. 55 was traded to Charlotte in another pre-Marks deal in June 2015 for the rights to Argentine wing Juan Pablo Vaulet (selected 39th overall in 2015). Davies was waived in January 2015; Vaulet remains stashed with Bahia Basket in Argentina’s LNB.
So with only one first-round pick to work with (Boston’s 2017 selection), Marks has turned that into LeVert, Allen, Musa, Kurucs, Russell, Faried, Dudley, Carroll and a draft-and-stash player in Vezenkov.
As for draft picks themselves, LeVert, Allen, Musa and Kurucs is not a bad haul for picks ranging from 20th to 40th overall.
In 2019, the Nets currently hold their own first-round pick (currently No. 6), Denver’s first-round pick (currently No. 25) and the New York Knicks’ second-round pick (currently No. 35). Their second-round pick is currently headed to the Orlando Magic and Indiana’s second-round pick (currently No. 53) would not convey as it is 46-60 protected.
If Marks has been able to mine gems such as LeVert and Allen in the bottom of the first round and a potential diamond in Kurucs in the mid-second round, you have to like his chances with a potential top-10 pick.
All without the bother of actually tanking to get it.