NBA tanking wars: Eight teams in tight race for last place in standings, draft lottery balls

The tankathon is on. With about a quarter of the season remaining, there is an extremely close eight-team race to the bottom of the NBA standings. Let's take a look at who is tanking most egregiously and who has the best shot at being the worst. (This does not include the 20-45 Brooklyn Nets because they do not own their draft pick and thus have no incentive to lose.)

Disclaimer: The term "tanking" is a bit nebulous. It can refer to throwing games outright, coaches prioritizing player development over short-term success or front offices intentionally assembling teams that have no realistic chance of being competitive. For the purposes of this story, it is any and all of these things. If your favorite team is discussed here, do not take it as an indication that I think the players aren't trying or the franchise is doing something reprehensible. 

Memphis Grizzlies

Record: 18-46 (lost 15 in a row)

The Grizzlies' season fell off a cliff because of injuries. This roster was absolutely not built to withstand Mike Conley playing only 12 games, and it has hurt that JaMychal Green, Tyreke Evans and Chandler Parsons have missed so much time, too. If they intend to try to compete with Conley and Marc Gasol next season, though, then adding a top-tier prospect in the draft could be the best way to get back on track. 

Memphis might be the most fascinating team on this list, not just because it has the worst record but because it's such a good example of the trade-offs that come with extreme losing. The 33-year-old Gasol recently expressed his frustration by telling reporters, "This is the NBA, not the G League." His brother, San Antonio center Pau Gasol, later weighed in, via the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery: "Of course he's upset. He should be upset."

It is easy to argue that the Grizzlies should have traded Gasol before the deadline. The front office didn't have much leverage, though, and it's not as if he is getting in the way of their quest for lottery balls. This is how a marquee player completely wastes a season at the tail end of his prime. 

ESPN's Zach Lowe pointed out that Memphis has used some hopeless lineups for extended minutes, like playing Green and Jarrell Martin -- two power forwards -- next to Gasol. I'd like to call attention to the starting lineups the Grizzlies trotted out when Gasol sat out in the second half of two recent back-to-backs:

Lottery odds: 63.6 percent chance of top-3 pick, 25 percent chance of No. 1 overall

Key games remaining: @ DAL on March 10, vs. CHI on March 15, vs. SAC on April 6

Phoenix Suns

Record: 19-47 (1-13 since beginning of February)

On February 21, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough announced that they wouldn't tank the rest of the season, explaining that they wouldn't have traded for guard Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline if they were trying to lose. At the time, Phoenix had lost 12 of 13 games. It has lost six of seven since then. If this organization is not trying to lose, it is because it does not have to try. 

It is true that the Suns are not deliberately resting fully healthy players the way they did this time last year. They are playing their core players big minutes and giving them a lot of freedom to make plays. The best example is rookie Josh Jackson, who has turned into something of a gunner in the last couple of months. Jackson makes more than his fair share of mistakes, but since Phoenix is committed to giving him opportunities, that's OK. 

In late January, Jackson scored two points on 0-for-13 shooting against the Rockets, then scored 20 points on 6-for-16 shooting the very next day against the Grizzlies. He averaged 17.7 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 45.4 percent in February. On Monday, he had three points and four turnovers in 29 minutes against the Heat. This is how it goes for him.

Lottery odds: 55.2 percent chance of top-3 pick, 19.9 percent chance of No. 1 overall

Key games remaining: @ ORL on March 24, @ SAC on April 3

Orlando Magic

Record: 20-45 (have lost nine of last 11)

Remember when the Magic started the season 8-4 because they couldn't miss a 3-pointer? They won four of the next 31 games after that, and now they're in a position to get another core player in the draft. Two recent victories against the Grizzlies and Pistons hurt their lottery odds, and they might have eked out another needless win on Wednesday if not for one of the strangest endings I can recall. 

Orlando erased a nine-point Lakers lead in the last minute and a half but Los Angeles big man Brook Lopez put his team up by one point by making two free throws with 0.6 seconds on the clock. Orlando called a timeout and inbounded the ball from halfcourt, but the clock started early, with the ball in the air. Rather than letting the Magic inbound again, the NBA replay center ruled that neither team had possession of the ball when the malfunction occurred, so there had to be a jump ball at center court. 

This apparently adheres to the letter of the law, but it is insane and cost Orlando a chance to win. Plenty of its fans, however, were OK with the result. 

One positive that has come from this disappointing season: Mario Hezonja had the best month of his career in February, averaging 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.2 steals with a true shooting percentage of 57.8 percent. Orlando declined his player option for next season, though, so he likely won't be on this roster for long. 

Lottery odds: 30.5 percent chance of top-3 pick, 9.4 percent chance of No. 1 overall

Key games remaining: @ SAC on March 9, vs. PHX on March 24, vs. CHI on March 30, @ ATL on April 1, @ NYK on April 3, vs. DAL on April 4

Atlanta Hawks

Record: 20-45 (have lost six of last eight)

There are some neat stories on this Hawks team. Dewayne Dedmon has been solid when healthy, even showcasing 3-point range. Rookie John Collins looks like a steal. Second-year forward Taurean Prince is evolving. Atlanta's front office simply never planned to win much this season, and I wish the previous front office had traded Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague in recent years rather than letting them all walk for nothing. If it had done that, it could still be bad, but it would at least have a brighter future. 

On Sunday, the Hawks rested guard Kent Bazemore against Phoenix. It was not the second night of a back-to-back. He was not recovering from an injury. He had scored a career-high 29 points in their previous game. Guard Dennis Schroder scored 21 points against the Suns but didn't play a single second in the fourth quarter because of an apparent leg injury. He said he felt fine after the game, though. 

Atlanta used Jaylen Morris and Isaiah Taylor in place of Schroder. It closed with a frontcourt of Mike Muscala and Miles Plumlee. Prince became the primary playmaker, and he hit what turned out to be the game-winning 3-pointer with eight seconds left. That shot could have significant lottery consequences.

Lottery odds: 30.5 percent chance of top-3 pick, 9.4 percent chance of No. 1 overall

Key games remaining: vs. CHI on March 11, @ SAC on March 22, vs. ORL on April 1

Sacramento Kings

Record: 20-45 (went 2-9 in February; have won two of last four)

The Kings got a head start on some of their competitors when coach Dave Joerger announced in mid-January that he'd be resting different veterans every night. They were 13-30 at the time, and given how many young players are on the roster, it was hard to find fault with the decision. 

It is easy, however, to understand why guys like George Hill (who played some of the least inspired basketball of his career in Sacramento and has since traded to the Cavaliers), Zach Randolph and Vince Carter might have been miffed. The Salt Lake Tribune's Tony Jones reported that they were signed with the intention of trying to make the playoffs, but the plan completely changed when executive Scott Perry left to join New York's front office. 

In a hilarious twist of fate, second-year big man Skal Labissiere made a game-winning 3-pointer against Perry's Knicks on Sunday. Before the shot, it looked like the Kings were going to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory, having surrendered a 19-point fourth-quarter lead. 

Fun with lineups: Not only have they played two-center lineups all season long, they have gone this route in crunch time. My favorite five-man unit was used in the fourth quarter of a tight game against the Lakers on Feb. 24: Frank Mason, Garrett Temple, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos

Lottery odds: 30.5 percent chance of top-3 pick, 9.4 percent chance of No. 1 overall

Key games remaining: vs. ORL on March 9, vs. ATL on March 22, vs. DAL on March 27, @ PHX on April 3, @ MEM on April 6

Dallas Mavericks

Record: 20-45 (have lost 14 of last 18)

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is the only person associated with any NBA team who has talked honestly and openly about the incentive structure that leads to tanking. As a result, the league fined him $600,000 and sent a memo to all 30 teams. If you are in favor of truth and transparency, you should find all of this off-putting. 

If you are looking for more evidence that Dallas isn't exactly obsessed with winning, beyond Cuban's comments, you'll want to read Bleacher Report's Tom Haberstroh on the disappearance of Dirk Nowitzki in crunch time. The Mavs are atrocious at the end of close games, and it is plausible that part of this could be by design. 

Fun fact: Last Friday, Chicago ended its 108-100 win against Dallas on a 28-9 run. That one stretch could wind up looking extremely important for both teams. 

Lottery odds: 63.6 percent chance of top-3 pick, 25 percent chance of No. 1 overall

Key games remaining: vs. MEM on March 10, @ NYK on March 13, @ SAC on March 27, @ ORL on April 4, vs. PHX on April 10

Chicago Bulls

Record: 22-42 (went 2-9 in February; have won two of last three)

The Bulls started 3-20, just like they were supposed to, and then everything got weird. Nikola Mirotic made his season debut on Dec. 8 -- seven weeks after suffering facial fractures in a fight with teammate Bobby Portis at practice -- and they immediately won seven games in a row and 15 out of 23. A losing streak followed, and the front office traded Mirotic to the Pelicans at the beginning of February. Chicago has won just four games since, including a 119-110 victory over the Grizzlies on Wednesday.

The most notable thing about the win over Memphis was the fact that Justin Holiday was in the starting lineup, after the NBA warned the Bulls about shutting him and center Robin Lopez down. Executive vice president John Paxson said they will "adhere to their recommendations going forward," and coach Fred Hoiberg said both Holiday and Lopez will start against the Pistons on Friday. 

Lopez has not played since the All-Star break, and he provided one of my favorite quotes of the season when asked about tanking: "I'm not familiar with military artillery."

In the player development department, it's worth noting that center Cristiano Felicio has started five games since the All-Star break. The team has a minus-24.8 net rating with Felicio on the court. Cameron Payne has been playing over Jerian Grant recently, too. 

Lottery odds: 9.8 percent chance of top-3 pick, 2.8 percent chance of No. 1 overall

Key games remaining: @ ATL on March 11, @ MEM on March 15, @ NYK on March 19, @ ORL on March 30

New York Knicks

Record: 24-41 (have lost 13 of last 14)

After a somewhat promising start, the Knicks are back where they usually are this time of year: out of playoff contention and playing out the string. They have only one win since beating the Nets on Jan. 31, a stinky stretch that started all the way back when Kristaps Porzingis was healthy. 

At the trade deadline, New York sent Willy Hernangomez to Charlotte for two second-round picks. It also acquired Emmanuel Mudiay for Doug McDermott.

Among stat nerds, there was a sense that the Mudiay move could be part of a stealthy tank job. While I believe the Knicks genuinely wanted to bet on his potential, the numbers are truly staggering: In Mudiay's 218 minutes, New York has been outscored by 100 total points, or 21.8 points per 100 possessions. He is averaging 9.1 points on 10.1 shots per game as a Knick while shooting 33 percent from the field, 12.5 percent from 3-point range and 63.3 percent from the line.

Frank Ntilikina finally made the first start of his career in Tuesday's 111-87 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, but he did so next to Mudiay rather than in place of him. Afterward, Mudiay, who had three points on 1-for-9 shooting with four assists and six turnovers, said he was "overthinking," via The Athletic's Mike Vorkunov, and coach Jeff Hornacek said he might have to put 34-year-old guard Jarrett Jack back in the rotation. 

Lottery odds: 6.0 percent chance of top-3 pick, 1.7 percent chance of No. 1 overall

Key games remaining: vs. DAL on March 13, vs. CHI on March 19, vs. Magic on April 3

All lottery odds from tankathon.com.

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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