Sitting in last place among Western Conference teams in the NBA standings, the Minnesota Timberwolves have very little chance of making the playoffs. Not only do they have the lowest winning percentage in the West, but they also have the worst record in the entire NBA.
Usually, teams don’t enter a season with the foreknowledge that they will be tanking their season. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances change a team’s plans on the fly, similar to a team becoming a buyer or seller at the trade deadline. For the Timberwolves, several setbacks have quickly taken the wind out of their sails.
With their current season headed nowhere, we dive into why the Wolves are better off tanking the remainder of their games.
Top 5 reasons to justify the Minnesota Timberwolves tanking
D’Angelo Russell’s injury
Minnesota Timberwolves star point guard D’Angelo Russell had missed seven games due to an injury and fans began wondering if there was more to the story. What was previously described to be “left leg soreness” now has some more clarity behind the situation.
Last week, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that Russell will undergo left knee surgery and is expected to miss four to six weeks.
While this is yet another blow to another disappointing Timberwolves season, it at least provides an answer as to why D-Lo couldn’t play. Sitting at last place in the NBA, this is obviously not what the Wolves had in mind when they swung the trade for Russell over a year ago, giving up a top-three protected first-round pick to the Warriors in the process.
The 2020-21 schedule isn’t getting any easier
After 31 Minnesota Timberwolves games, they are 7-24, with 41 left to play.
Currently in last place, if the Timberwolves can guarantee themselves a bottom-three finish in the NBA standings, they will have a 14% chance to land the top pick in the draft. If not the first, they have an equal chance with the other two teams with the worst record to pick second or third.
Alternatively, the Wolves would have to win 29 of their next 41 games just to get to .500, which would currently be good for ninth-place in the Western Conference. Going on a hot streak of that magnitude would be next to impossible for this team.
Minnesota’s core is still at least one more player away
Of course, tanking for the rest of the season will not lead to any success this year under new coach Chris Finch, but maybe it can help set up 2021-22 to be the start of a new era. One that actually can celebrate winning basketball.
Improving the odds of landing a pick in the top-three in what will be a loaded draft class, could lead to a large leap in wins for years to come. It’s possible the Wolves already have many of their core players on the roster, but it never hurts to add more athletes with potential on rookie contracts.
Imagine a starting lineup consisting of these stars going forward:
- PG – D’Angelo Russell
- SG – Malik Beasley
- SF – Anthony Edwards
- PF – Jonathan Kuminga
- C – Karl-Anthony Towns
Kuminga is a supremely athletic player at the 4 who’d present yet another dynamic, versatile option up front and would complement Karl-Anthony Towns nicely.
With such a talented young group in place, perhaps the Timberwolves could convince other established pros to join forces with them. Again, though, it depends on the draft, where Minnesota can’t afford to miss.
Timberwolves could lose their top-3 protected pick
One of the biggest issues with the idea of the Timberwolves getting hot and winning some games is the fact that if they fall outside of the top three picks, their pick goes to the Warriors from the D-Lo trade.
Getting a few meaningless wins at the end of a lost year could be the difference between not having any selections in the draft at all. The Warriors also have Minnesota’s second-round selection, and will get the Wolves’ 2022 first-rounder unprotected if things work out Minnesota’s way this time around.
Consider this article from back in 2013, when an anonymous GM admitted: “The last place you want to be is in the middle.”
In other words, teams are better off tanking for a top pick than to barely make or miss the playoffs. It doesn’t exactly paint any losing basketball operation in the best light, but unless you’re a big market and can attract star players who’ll instantly flip your fortunes, tanking is the lesser of most evils.
Tanking has worked in the past
As much as some fans hate to hear the idea that their team would purposely find a way to try and lose games, it has happened many times in the history of the NBA. Here are a few examples of teams that arguably tanked during the Lottery Era and came out ahead.
- 1982-83 – Houston Rockets – Ralph Sampson
- 1983-84 – Houston Rockets – Hakeem Olajuwon
- 1996-97 – San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan
- 2002-03 – Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James
- 2006-07 – Seattle Supersonics – Kevin Durant
- 2007-08 – Seattle Supersonics – Russell Westbrook
- 2013-14 – Philadelphia 76ers – Joel Embiid – Trust the Process
- 2015-16 – Philadelphia 76ers – Ben Simmons
It was no coincidence that after the Rockets’ shenanigans to earn the top pick in back-to-back drafts, the very next year, the NBA Draft Lottery was put in place.
While there are many times tanking may have helped a team, there are just as many examples where it has led to a less-than-ideal outcome. Any time you are banking on a lottery process, you are taking a major gamble.
Why tanking in the NBA should be stopped
The compelling above argument notwithstanding, tanking occurs in every sport, but the NBA is notorious for it.
Organizations know that landing a top pick in the draft presents their best opportunity to land the next phenom. Because of this, year after year teams who find themselves stuck in mediocrity or derailed by injuries become subject to rumors that they are losing games on purpose in an effort to become contenders in the near future.
For organizations based in a smaller market, the draft serves as their best opportunity to quickly alter their franchise’s outlook. For a team like the Timberwolves, nailing their draft picks is paramount to their success.
Tanking may be the Timberwolves’ best option, but it’s time the NBA finds a better way to prevent teams from tanking any of their seasons. With 82 games (or 72 this year), having teams play up to 50 meaningless games in a season only hurts the overall product. Ticket sales, TV ratings, memorabilia sales, it all hurts the bottom line when a team is in the gutter.
What if the NBA put some drastic rules in place, where a team who drafts in the top five in back-to-back seasons is ineligible for the next draft or for the playoffs? Perhaps that would finally scare teams into always trying to put the best team on the floor for all to enjoy. A sincere, league-wide effort by each team to make the playoffs every season would make the regular season more meaningful and probably lead to more parity.
At the end of the day tanking isn’t what it used to be. In 2019, the NBA made changes that make it possible for the team with the worst record to end up with a pick as low as five. Previously, they were guaranteed a top-3 or top-4 pick.
Not only that, the team with the worst record has a 47.86% chance of picking fifth, compared to a 40.17% chance to pick 1-3. The NBA continues to alter the odds to increase the chances that a team in the bottom tier of the league falls in the draft. They hope to eliminate teams from tanking as much as possible.
It looks like the Timberwolves may be better off tanking their season due to unforeseen obstacles and a trade involving a draft pick that did not work out. However, that doesn’t mean it’s right, and it’d be better if the NBA found a way to cease tanking altogether.