Tanking is not a new phenomenon, and it is one almost unique to the NBA.
This strategy of deliberate losing exists only because of the curious vehicle that is the NBA Draft. Very few other basketball leagues outside of the NBA and WNBA have anything comparable, and although other American sports have draft systems of their own, they do not have the egregious annual deliberate losing that makes for a good basketball tank.
With the possible exception of an NFL quarterback, an individual player usually make as much of an impact in a team sport’s fortunes as much as one single player can in the five-a-side sport of basketball. As the Los Angeles Angels continuously prove, one player alone can reverse the direction of a franchise more readily in basketball than baseball. The NBA Draft is therefore a uniquely powerful tool, and the optimal strategy for succeeding in it has often meant teams not always trying their hardest to win. No one likes it, but even fewer can dispute it.
Tank-offs are particularly widespread in years with transformative talents in the draft pool. 2023 is expected to be one such year, headlined by the unique abilities of Victor Wembanyama, a man who stands as essentially a 7’4 guard unlike any other. And one team out in front of the race for Victor – and thus at the bottom of the NBA standings – are the Houston Rockets.
With just five games left in the regular season, the 18-59 Rockets are last in the Western Conference, and doing whatever they can to stay there. Losers of seven straight games, the Rockets sold off the competent Eric Gordon and Garrison Mathews at the deadline, lest they inadvertently do something that will see them overtake their interstate rival San Antonio Spurs (19-57). Were it not for the 16-60 Detroit Pistons out east, Houston would have the worst record in the NBA; regardless of that, with those three teams long having broken away from the peloton and far adrift of the Charlotte Hornets (26-51) in fourth-last place, they are certain to finish as the bottom trio in some order, and thus each get a 14% chance at Victor.
Beyond the draft positioning it offers, losing can also be a productive process for the incumbent team, if it is done right. The formula prescribes that, if a team is not in any meaningful contention, they should aim to get younger, get their potential future core plenty of opportunities on the court, and live with the immediate bumps in the road for the greater good of the future. Invariably, a select number of veterans play (and sit on the bench) alongside these young pieces so as to provide guidance and stability both on and off the court, yet they are not meant to stand in the youngster’s way on the ladder, and are instead there to help them up.
For that to work, though, the team must actually try and implement the “right way”. Tanking and continuous losing can only be productive if the right habits are instilled, and if not everyone is floundering at the same time. The point guard and the power forward, for example, are going to improve both their individual and collective pick-and-roll chemistry at a better rate if at least one of them knows where to be. Execution in a team game relies upon embedding the right principles. Every school group project needs someone to take charge.
The risk, of course, is that of the counter-productive tank. A season of losing that is just tearing down rather than building anything back up. And in the case of the 2023 Houston Rockets, given the lack of measurable in-season growth by that same young core, might they have been too bad?
This season, the Rockets have been giving sophomore Daishen Nix and Kevin Porter Jr most of the minutes at PG. Point guard is something of a generous description of Porter, a more natural two-guard learning the position on the fly, while Nix appears to be too overmatched athletically to be an NBA rotation player. With respect, therefore, there is a causative link between the heavy saturation of this pair (who have combined for slightly over 3,000 minutes this season) and the profound offensive struggles of the team as a whole.
On the season, the Rockets rank 27th, or fourth-last, in the NBA in offensive rating. This comes in spite of having some supposedly potent offensive weapons on the team. Since selling off at the deadline, Houston has almost exclusively run a nine-man rotation featuring Porter, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith II, Tari Eason, Usman Garuba, Jae’Sean Tate, Josh Christopher, Jalen Green and Kenyon Martin Jr.
Whereas once P.J. Tucker was very willing to set up in the corner and stay within his role, the Rockets’ young backcourt want to prove they have a much wider bag of tricks. This is understandable, and inevitable, yet to have too much of that at any one time means a lack of offensive clarity. The idea of a “hierarchy” may be an overused misnomer by basketball commentators, self included, yet there must at least be some kind of understanding of who is served best where. If everyone wants to be everywhere, this cannot work.
Further to this, the quality of the Rockets’ team passing has been inhibiting to their growth. The Rockets throw the twelfth-most passes in the league, but rank stone cold last in assists, a testament to the fact that passes rarely arrive in the shooter’s pocket. This in turn affects the quality of shooting, which in turn affects the quality of spacing, which in turn affects the efficacy of cutters and the options available to Sengun and Smith II inside.
Serving as good evidence of this lack of offensive continuity are the struggles of Tate, a young veteran. In his first two NBA seasons, he was one of the better under-heralded role players in the league, yet this season, his numbers are down across the board. A man who operates best as a finisher is not getting much set up for him, which speaks to the season-long problems that the Rockets have had with the balance between looking to score and looking to facilitate. And it starts in the backcourt.
None of this is meant to scapegoat any particular player or players, when everyone is culpable to some degree. Regardless of the limited results, the young Rockets do seem to compete on the court, and a hunger to prove oneself is certainly better than apathy. Nonetheless, the expected shot values of the looks that the young supposed future stars are receiving are consistently below par. No matter how tantalising of a prospect Wembanyama is, these are not habits the Rockets will want them to get stuck with.
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