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SALT LAKE CITY — Tanking, or purposefully losing, is not a new phenomenon in the NBA, nor is it a new strategy to improve a basketball roster.
It’s a logical strategy, and it’s easy to mask with bad rosters. If a team is bad enough to miss the playoffs, there’s an incentive to play and develop the younger players on the roster. This, in turn, makes the franchise more likely to lose games while improving their draft odds.
Like any opportunity to find a competitive advantage, tanking was quickly exploited and taken to such extremes that the NBA felt the need to change its lottery system. The new change begins this year.
But even under the new system, teams haven’t stopped tanking games. The New York Knicks have just 16 wins this season, while the Phoenix Suns have just 19. Last year, before the new rules were put in place, the Suns won a league-worst 22 games, while the Memphis Grizzlies won just 23 games.
But what happens when winning teams start tanking?
That happened Sunday night in Portland when the Denver Nuggets benched their three best players — Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, and Jamal Murray — before the game, and sat Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Monte Morris when the Trail Blazers had surprisingly made the game competitive.
While there have been some awkward NBA games with bad teams throwing out embarrassing rosters, the Nuggets' blatant attempt to lose a basketball game felt different, even though their motive was the same.
The Nuggets are trying to game the playoff system by losing games on purpose to move the Trail Blazers up in the standings while forcing the Houston Rockets down. The Nuggets are doing this in hopes to avoid Houston in the second round of the playoffs.
The issue isn’t just the lack of competitiveness in a game designed to highlight competition, but the reckless hubris Denver is displaying by thinking about the second round before playing a single first-round game.
The current Denver roster has never made the playoffs and the franchise hasn’t seen the postseason in any of the last five years. Head coach Mike Malone has never even been the head coach during a playoff series.
Denver's tanking could have a major impact on the Utah Jazz, who currently sit in fifth place in the Western Conference. Barring a bizarre outcome, that’s where the Jazz will finish.
Like Denver, the Jazz could potentially play the system to their advantage in hopes of avoiding the Rockets in the first round. If Houston were to lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night on the road and fall to the fourth seed, the Jazz could look to avoid the fifth seed by losing their final two games in hopes of falling to the sixth seed to face either Portland or Denver.
But should they?
The first problem for the Jazz is the awkward timing. The Jazz play the Nuggets Tuesday before the Rockets and Thunder face off. The game in Utah tips off 30 minutes before the game in Oklahoma City.
The Jazz could be scoreboard watching, and at halftime choose to adjust their approach. But even if the Thunder were to beat the Rockets and the Jazz were to lose to Denver, the Jazz would need to lose to the Clippers Wednesday night and would need the Thunder to beat the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks on the final night of the season in order to drop to six.
Much like the Jazz do not want to face the Rockets in the first round, it’s likely the Thunder will not go out of their way to match up with Houston either. The Thunder could avoid facing the Rockets by losing to the Bucks on the final night of the season to stay with the sixth seed.
The second problem for the Jazz is it normalizes losing. It’s a strange mindset to introduce to a team this late in the year, particularly when every game matters in the playoffs. Do the Jazz want to run the risk of adding that distraction to the roster before the postseason starts? Does Quin Snyder want to lay out the idea that the Jazz don’t want to play the Rockets in the first round when, despite their best efforts, the Jazz could meet them regardless?
The good news for the Jazz is that most of these hypotheticals won’t matter, as there’s a good chance the Rockets beat the Thunder Tuesday night and lock the Jazz and Blazers into a first-round series. However, even if the Jazz have the opportunity to rig the system for their benefit, it’s a dangerous game to play and seems to run counterintuitive to the Jazz DNA.
Tanking is a part of basketball and exists despite the NBA’s efforts to fix the system. But tanking from playoff teams is a relatively new phenomenon and may be difficult for the NBA to police.