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  • The Downside of Tanking: Treading Water with No Real Upside

The Downside of Tanking: Treading Water with No Real Upside

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
Kristaps’ injury was a tough pill to swallow for the Knicks, but losing 50-plus games for another season leaves a terrible taste in their collective mouths. Tanking may allow teams to slide to a potentially better draft selection, but it neglects veterans at the wayside and causes developmental destruction when done without focus.

It’s no secret: tanking is more prevalent and blatant than ever in the NBA. The league’s bottom nine teams have been comically noncompetitive since the All-Star break, and the Knicks have done their best (worst?) to keep up (down?) with the rest of the field.

Look, bottoming-out is absolutely the most prudent strategy to employ at this stage in the season. A top 10 draft pick is an incredibly valuable asset, especially in a year with a (projected) loaded lottery class. The NBA’s current draft structure plainly incentivizes losing, and the Knicks are appropriately taking advantage of this, while offering minutes to the young players employed on the roster.

And with the right attitude, tanking can certainly be its own kind of fun, the NBA social media communities have fully embraced the race to the bottom. At least it’s something to follow and root for during an otherwise lifeless homestretch.

Having said that, losing is still a bad thing in life, and shameless tanking is not without consequences. Fans can laugh about it from a distance, but the players and coaches actively dealing with it every day are becoming understandably cranky about the relentless L’s.

The season’s promising first few months (which feels like eons ago) were fueled by positive vibes (except Tim Hardaway Jr.’s injury) and a palpable enthusiasm for a fresh culture and direction post–Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony. Even after a rough January, the team was still riding that wave and publicly pining to shoot for the postseason. This ambition and confidence felt distinctly unusual for a Knicks locker room.

We know what happened next: KP’s untimely injury and the perpetual slide down the standings prompted the front office to throw in the towel. Before the current two-game winning streak (home blowouts over putrid Charlotte and Chicago teams), the Knicks (26–45) had dropped 17 of 18 contests, yet still trail eight other fellow-tankers in the race to the bottom.

The veterans—who have seen their minutes greatly reduced—are understanding to the situation, but not happy. Jarrett Jack has barely played since the All-Star break. Michael Beasley‘s initially enjoyable comeback season is ending in a frustrating whimperCourtney Lee was on pace for his most efficient season in the pros, but has been increasingly perturbed by recent developments. Enes Kanter—who has been outspoken about his love for playing in New York—caused unwanted commotion by criticizing the organizational strategy:

More troublingly, Emmanuel Mudiay has bombed in his “audition” for the starting point guard role. He’s shot just 31.9 percent from deep in New Yorkand it’s fair to worry if the internet roasting and daily criticism will affect his confidence going forward.

None of this has been easy on Jeff Hornacek, who is trying to earn another year on the sidelines. The post-All-Star repulsiveness has festered doubts about the head coach’s leadership, locker room support, and developmental skills. The constant tanking-related questions have been tiresome and irksome for Hornacek (and the players). Hornacek had to hold a meeting last week to actually ask his players if they care about winning, and in doing so called out Mudiay’s effort for failing to take a late-game charge in the loss to Philly. Nobody seems to be in a good mood right now.

It’s crucial for perennially hapless franchises to establish a stable and hopeful culture, and the Knicks have long been far away from that thanks to top-down dysfunction. If the franchise wants to re-establish itself as a free agency hotspot, then it needs to offer an appeal beyond location—no longer as important in the League Pass/internet era. At some point, the team needs to give off the vibe of a winner, not just another bottom-feeder that can’t hang for more than three months.

So do the pros outweigh the cons? Maybe. The vets will most likely get over it and hopefully the front office evaluates Hornacek fairly considering the rough luck (Triangle Offense/Phil antics, ball-stopping ‘Melo, KP injury, blatant tank orders…) dealt with during his tenure. But perhaps that’s just the typical pandemonium that comes with being the Knicks head coach, a trend that shameful tanking won’t help reverse anytime soon.

At least the young guys get to play, right? Well, Troy Williams has made the most of his opportunity, turning a 10-day contract into a two-year deal thanks to solid play and elite athleticism. Besides that, though, what can the Knicks truly be encouraged about? Frank Ntilikina “exploded” with a career-high 15 points (meh) versus Charlotte and his defensive numbers remain stellar, but he’s still averaging just 5.6 points per game on a 40.6 eFG%. Trey Burke (22.2 points per 36 minutes, 55.7 eFG%) has been their best guard post-All-Star break, but also sounds fed up with tanking talk and projects as an energizing backup anyway. Mudiay’s struggles have been eye-opening and well documented. G League call-ups Isiah Hicks, Luke Kornet, and Damyean Dotson have not shown enough to convince anyone that they can be needle-moving contributors.

Plus, the goofy lineups and air of losing has sapped the team’s focus and energy, causing dangerous habits to pop up. The Knicks’ ball-movement and defensive effort has been putrid, and they’ve generated nightly doses of embarrassing highlights:

Furthermore, as Hornets coach Steve Clifford pointed out, throwing out raw, inexperienced players in meaningless, unstructured March games alongside unproven teammates is a flawed way to develop their skills and evaluate their value.

Obviously, if the Knicks nail their draft pick (Trae Young? Miles Bridges?), all of this will be worth it. Unfortunately, the franchise has a checkered recent history of developing prospects, in part due to the organizational messiness and general losing atmosphere. And now, another once-positive season is petering out amid negative vibes and bad publicity and will ultimately leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

At least KP is already shooting J’s.

Staff Writer

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