NBA Position Battles: Taking Advantage of the Tank
It's the most wonderful time of the year, everyone. No, I'm not talking about the days leading up to March Madness, nor am I referring to the upcoming NFL Combine. I'm talking about tanking season in the NBA.
The All-Star Game is behind us, and each team has somewhere between 20 and 26 games remaining in their season. For some, every game counts. Those teams are fighting for playoff spots and seeds. Meanwhile, others aren't so interested in winning each game. They value each game for a different reason: the chance at a higher draft pick.
They won't admit it -- they're "seeing what they have" or "going with youth" or "rebuilding" -- but what they're really doing is tanking.
Tanking is a cringe-worthy word to a lot of people in the NBA office. They want each and every one of their teams to be competing to win, for the integrity of the game. But that doesn't diminish the effects of the process. Not only can it help a team acquire younger talent, but it means a lot for rotations and starting lineups -- and therefore rest-of-season fantasy value.
The New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls are already making moves that would suggest that they're tanking. So let's take a look at whose arrow is pointing up and who's trending down as we near fantasy trade deadlines and the fantasy playoffs.
New York Knicks
At 24-36, the Knicks are 6.5 games back of the 8 seed in the East. That would be a tough mountain to climb if they were firing on all cylinders, but they'll be without their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, for the remainder of the year. Without him, their playoff chances are very slim (0.2%), according to our models. For that reason, we turn our attention to their lottery odds. Via Tankathon, they have just a 6.1% chance of landing a top-three pick and a mere 1.7% chance of landing at number one.
With the Unicorn out, they figure to see those percentages rise as New York seems headed toward a more concrete tank job. This week, coach Jeff Hornacek announced that they would be divvying up the point guard minutes among the younger guys while sending Jarrett Jack to the bench. In their first game under that plan, Emmanuel Mudiay started and played 23 minutes with Frank Ntilikina and Trey Burke logging about 30 minutes apiece.
This is something we saw coming before the break, though. In the three games Mudiay played in, he led the way with 23 minutes per game, followed by Ntilikina at 20.9. Jack averaged 17.8 and played more than 18 minutes just once.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Jack out of the rotation completely. He's 34 and on an expiring contract. As for the other three, they're all 25 or younger and only Burke isn't under team control next season. Accordingly, we should expect things to be somewhat predictable moving forward. Hornacek will likely go with the hot hand, but Ntilikina's and Mudiay's minutes carry much more value for the future -- and playing the two together seems to be in the cards.
Since Mudiay's arrival, he and Ntilikina (both 6'5") have shared the floor for 48 minutes in four games. They own a -5.8 net rating due to a poor defensive rating (114.9) in that time, but their 109.1 offensive rating and 2.78 assist-to-turnover ratio are causes for optimism. Really, what do the Knicks have to lose anyway? So they might as well let Mudiay and Ntilikina play together.
On the fantasy side of things, it's hard to get too excited about this situation. Neither Mudiay or Ntilikina have shown much upside in the way of scoring or shooting efficiency from anywhere on the court, let alone the three-point line (33.3% for Ntilikina and 33.9% for Mudiay). If you want to take a chance on either guard, Frankie Smokes is probably the way to go. He's improved his true shooting from 41.6% to 59.3% while on the floor with Mudiay. If the youngster can keep that up, he might provide more value on top of his tidy 5.6 assists and 1.7 steals per-36 minutes this season.
Whichever way you look at it, the Bulls are either right behind or directly in front of the Knicks. Their 20-38 record is 12th in the East, 9.5 games out of a playoff spot and 3 games worse than the Knicks. As for their chances to make the playoffs, they are zilch, nada, precisely 0%, per our models.
On the flip side, the Bulls possess a 9.9% likelihood of grabbing a top-three selection in the 2018 draft and an outside chance (2.8%) at selecting in the top spot this June. What should make Bulls fans even happier is that the Brooklyn Nets are the team directly behind them. In case you didn't already know, the Nets don't own their own pick (it's now owned by Cleveland) this year, so the Nets have zero incentive to tank. For the Bulls, they should easily be a bottom-seven team by season's end.
While that's certainly interesting, not many fans follow basketball just for the chances that a ping-pong ball dictates their position in the next draft. Most of us are all about the on-court product, and for a team near the bottom of the league, the Bulls haven't been too terrible this season. They're 28th in net rating, but they were 11th in net rating for the month of December. They showed some promise before trading away Nikola Mirotic and incorporating Zach LaVine into the rotation.
In noticing the direction they're headed, management (vice president John Paxson) has decided to trot out more youth for the remaining 25 games. It all started on Thursday when Chicago started David Nwaba over Justin Holiday and Cristiano Felicio over Robin Lopez. Holiday and Lopez didn't play, and Cameron Payne returned to take over the backup point guard duties from Jerian Grant.
It's safe to say that Lopez, Holiday and Grant should be off the fantasy radar. If they're not phased out entirely, they're unlikely to get the minutes necessary to help out your squad. The biggest beneficiaries from these changes should be Nwaba, Portis and, in a different way, LaVine.
On Thursday, Nwaba played 33 minutes and put together a nice game, hitting 9 of 14 shots for 21 points and grabbing 9 rebounds in his starting role. Portis (38 points and 8 rebounds in 33-plus minutes) far outplayed Felicio (5 points and 3 rebounds in 12 minutes) off the bench in what was his best game of the year. And then there's LaVine, who put up 23 points (with five triples) on 7-of-16 shooting with 4 assists and 3 rebounds.
Per NBAWowy, LaVine has shot a better percentage from three with Nwaba in place of Holiday. His usage has dipped in that split, but that could lead to an improvement from the field, where LaVine's been a negative value, according to Basketball Monster.
So long as Nwaba and Portis are getting the minutes, they're superb fantasy pickups or trade targets. It would be smart to wait a few days, but it's hard to ignore their numbers.
Both are strong in the rebounding and steals categories, and they're at least solid in most areas. If either are on the wire, they're must-adds for Holiday and Lopez owners.