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Karnes: Where losing trumps winning (Nov. 8)

By Casey Karnes | Friday, November 8, 2013


The 2013-14 NBA season has finally begun, which means it’s time to begin analyzing the most exciting race in sports. No, not the race to finish second to Lebron for the MVP award, or even the battle for playoff positioning. I’m talking about the most unpredictable annual competition of all: the struggle to tank for the first overall pick.

The NBA is uniquely associated with tanking, as, unlike football or baseball, the nature of basketball allows one transcendent talent to turn around the fortunes of an entire franchise. The NBA’s lottery system gives the teams with the worst records the best chance of receiving the top picks in each year’s draft. Many teams see bottoming out as a way to hit the jackpot with a top college player as an easier way to a championship than being a middling playoff team that builds slowly through free agency and mid-first round picks.

This year’s jackpot is undoubtedly Andrew Wiggins, a freshman at Kansas who most say would have been the first pick in the last draft if he had been able to enter after high school. Comparisons to Lebron and rumors of a $140 million-plus shoe contract offer already follow the young forward, and if he lives up to even three-quarters of that hype, he’ll be the best first overall pick since Derrick Rose. It’s no surprise that teams are willing to dismember their seasons for a chance at him, but which team receives him will likely be a surprise. Since 1990, only three teams with the worst record have received the first pick in the draft. 

In reality, all these teams are really just tanking for the right to be the most disappointed with their lottery pick results. Regardless, let’s look at how a few teams are doing in their race to the bottom.

Boston Celtics (Current Record: 1-4)

The once-proud Celtics are in full-rebuilding mode, and their pursuit of Wiggins is off to a promising start. The Celtics got their tanking started early by trading Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for overpaid underperformers Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace. They got their season started with their second-worst five-game start in team history. Boston’s next step should be to trade the injured Rajon Rondo, their only remaining All Star-caliber player, before he can return and lead them back to respectability. In the meantime, as long as they keep starting the likes of the selfish Jordan Crawford and anonymous Vitor Faverani, the Celtics should be able to happily continue their downward spiral.

Utah Jazz (Current Record: 0-5)

The only team to fall to the Celtics thus far? It’s the hapless Jazz, who are also the only team to have already lost five games. Utah’s willingness to relinquish their top two players, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, without equal compensation this offseason signaled their status as a real competitor for Wiggins. So far, the Jazz have fallen back upon the tested tanking formula of combining unready young players with washed-up veterans, creating lineups that give fans hope for the future, but frustrate them in the present. Against the Celtics, the Jazz started Jamaal Tinsley and Richard Jefferson, players I admired during their primes in the early 2000s. Between their winless record and hapless lineup, I’d say Utah is off to the most impressive start n the race for the first overall pick.

Philadelphia 76ers (Current Record: 3-2)

Prior to the season, the 76ers were the odds-on favorites to land Wiggins. They had traded their best player, Jrue Holiday, for an injured Nerlens Noel and future draft picks, and rookie coach Brett Brown told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his team only had “six NBA players” on its roster. With such a promising offseason, it’s safe to say the start of the season has been a disappointment. The 76ers won their first three games, two of which were against the Bulls and Heat, and rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Mondak. Luckily for Philly, it’s a long season, and two consecutive losses give hope that they may have gotten on the right path.

Contact Casey Karnes at wkarnes@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.