The NBA doesn’t like the word tanking, but the wording isn’t as important. Six teams are heading into this NBA season more concerned about losing and a good draft position than winning and making the playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks, suddenly stripped of all their recent talent; Chicago Bulls who waited too long before going in this direction; New York Knicks, free of Carmelo Anthony; the direction-less Orlando Magic; the super-young and talented Phoenix Suns; and the not too-far-from-competing Indiana Pacers.
Obviously, there are degrees to tanking, and none of these teams will start maneuvering to lose games right away. But none of them are likely to make the playoffs this season, and perhaps, even if they go through a surprising start, it’d be wise to start thinking about the draft and the future, considering how almost making the playoffs two years in a row under Jeff Hornacek set the Phoenix Suns back in a big way.
Since finishing with the best record in the East and making the conference finals, the Bud Budenholzer Hawks have taken steps backwards each season. Conference semifinals and another loss by sweep to LeBron James & co. in 2016, first round exit in 2017. This season? No playoffs. The lineup that led the Hawks to 60 wins in 2014-2015 is gone, with Paul Millsap joining the Denver Nuggets as the final departing piece of that puzzle.
The Hawks are basically an unhappy Dennis Schroder and pieces. Besides the German point guard, the highest scoring member from last year’s team still on the Hawks is Kent Bazemore (11 points per game). The Hawks seem more than just one year of losing before they can win again. Schroder isn’t here for the long run, and the additions they made, along with their draft picks, suggest it’s more than one transitional season for the Hawks until they can compete again.
Fred Hoiberg is 83-81 in his two years with the Bulls, making the playoffs once. As close to mediocrity as possible. And that didn’t bring the Bulls anywhere. Now, with Jimmy Butler traded, Rajon Rondo let go in free agency and Dwyane Wade bought out, the Bulls finally begin a rebuild that should have started a while back. Zach LaVine won’t start the season due to recovering from an ACL tear, but the Bulls have 0 players over 29, and a lot of hope regarding Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.
Nikola Mirotic ended up signing as an RFA, but the Bulls have a lot of developing and a lot filling up to do all across the board before they’re competitive again. Mirotic, with 10.6 points per game, is their remaining top scorer. Robin Lopez will probably be dealt, or at least the Bulls will look for deals during the season. This campaign will be about finding out which pieces are worth keeping around long-term, and whether Hoiberg is someone who can lead this franchise moving forward.
The Pacers weren’t bad the last two years with Paul George back to 100% from his injury, but they failed to make it out of the first round in the playoffs twice, and along with Paul George pretty much guaranteeing he wasn’t coming back once his contract was up at the end of the season, they had to make a move. The problem is, the move they made (landing Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) doesn’t clean the slate and build for the future as quickly as they’d hope for.
Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph. All good players. T.J. Leaf might have jumped to the NBA a year too early, but he certainly has talent, and wasn’t talked about enough due to the media storm surrounding Lonzo Ball coming out of UCLA. If Myles Turner takes another big step forward this season (14.5 points per game last year), the Pacers might be in for a shorter rebuilding phase than anyone on this list.
New York Knicks
The Knicks had a busy summer, and just before preseason began, made their biggest move, the one everyone was crossing their fingers would happen. Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, clearing the way for Kristaps Porzingis to become, or try to at least, the franchise player he’s hinted at capable of becoming. Having Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. (back in Knicks uniform) shouldn’t hurt. Who knows, maybe the Knicks find themselves making the playoffs if everything clicks, but it’s more likely that this is a season of finding out what they actually have.
Besides Porzingis, Hardaway and Kanter, the Knicks are giving Michael Beasley a chance to find new footing in the NBA, instead of going from team to team, with a mark of cain on his forehead for being a locker room problem, regardless of whether it’s still true or not. If Hornacek can make this group play some defense, the East might not be that difficult for the Knicks to squeeze out of .
The Magic don’t want to tank. They’ve been trying to get out of that category for two years. However, they still haven’t been able to recover from the ashes left out of the departure of Stan Van Gundy and especially Dwight Howard. This year wasn’t about hitting the reset button from the failure of last year, but thinking short term before last season led them to an unbalanced, incoherent roster.
Elfrid Payton, Arron Afflalo, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic. Good players, with experience. Jonathan Simmons could finally be getting the chance he’s waited for. Aaron Gordon might finally show he’s more than just a dunking machine. The Magic have big hopes regarding Jonathan Isaac out of Florida State. But to make all this mesh seems like a reach, and it’s more likely that Vucevic and Gordon, if not more, are traded during the season and the Magic finally figure out what kind of team they want to be when they grow up.
The Suns seem to be in no rush. They have an incredibly young team, not rushing into trading Eric Bledsoe, while building around Devin Booker. T.J. Warren showed he can score in the NBA like he did with NC State and Josh Jackson won’t surprise anyone if he wins rookie of the year in about 7 months. The Suns probably could do with better inside players, but this is a season of finding out.
The two players next to Jackson that will have a magnifying glass on them regarding their development are Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. Bender especially needs to show he’s moving places or that daunting ‘Bust’ label will be slapped on him soon. Chriss had a better rookie season, but the Suns want more than 9 points and 4 boards per game. They hope he becomes more than someone who plays 15-21 minutes a night, and give them another slot in the starting five they can be confident about for years to come.