WASHINGTON -- Imagine this: John Wall slithers between two Pacers defenders, finds space at the foul line, and as he's prepared to toss in a game-tying floater he pauses and thinks "Wait, would I rather play with Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?" The answer is obvious (Davis is the consensus No. 1 overall pick) and so Wall hesitates just enough so that the official is already waving off the shot as it splashes through the net.
This didn't happen. But you probably thought about it. Why not? In the NBA, the draft lottery provides big incentive for non-contending teams to lose -- and lose BIG.
The NCAA tournament heralds NBA Draft season, especially for fans of lottery-bound teams who see March Madness as a showcase of prospects ready-made to be save their franchise. There is no worse fate in the NBA than mediocrity. So just like that one day each spring when everyone switches from hot coffee to iced coffee, there's a moment when fans start rooting for their favorite team to lose, in order to win more ping pong balls.*
*Quick refresher: The lottery is weighted so that the worse a team's record is, the better its chance of obtaining the first pick in the draft. So if the season ended today after the Wizards avoided their 12th win on Thursday while New Orleans beat the Clippers, Washington's chances would sit at 19.9 percent while the Hornets would have a 15.6 percent. Every bit helps.
Great tank, Wizards! Anthony Davis, we comin' for ya!— David Malitz (@malitzd) March 23, 2012
Here's the thing: Despite the seemingly obvious motivation to tank, there's a disconnect between how fans and players view tanking. It's kind of against an NBA player's religion to look ahead to the draft. Sorry, Wizards fans.
"We don't think about the draft," Kevin Seraphin said. "The Wizards think about it."
Seraphin likes the lottery system, but he doesn't see much merit in playing the odds when he's trying to build good habits for himself and a better atmosphere in Washington. Also, he likes winning.
"That's a good thing, because if you're bad you need someone to come help you," he said. "But now, you can't play to be bad to get the good guy in the draft. … If you're in the NBA you have to be a challenger, you have to want to win."
But some teams clearly don't. At the trade deadline, the Trail Blazers sold off Gerald Wallace for the Nets' top-three protected 2012 first round draft pick. Not to be outdone, the Warriors -- still in the hunt for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoffs -- moved Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for the indefinitely injured Andrew Bogut. Sure this was about manufacturing a defensive identity, but the Warriors were in another hunt: to keep their first round pick, which goes to Utah if it's outside the top seven. Golden State has sat Steph Curry so often this season that Twitter calls his injury a #TankleSprain.
The Bobcats season has been less basketball than an avant garde experiment in tanking worthy of its own MoMA exhibition.
Some fans might cheer these efforts -- especially in Charlotte where their only bright spots this season seem to be playing college ball. But just because the front office is trading away starters, and the fans are celebrating losses doesn't mean the players are on board.
"I saw a couple of fans write that on Twitter after we had -- I'm not sure which game we won," Trevor Booker said. "But they were like 'We should keep losing so we could get a better draft pick.' ... They're not out here playing so they don't understand what we feel.
He added: "I don't know if they just want to try to build for the future or they see us -- we're having a losing season so far -- that they really don't care."
The other question: Does it matter this year? Sure, Anthony Davis is the consensus number one But after that there are any number of players that could help out in Washington. Kidd-Gilchrist would look great in Washington next season, as would Thomas Robinson, Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal, etc.
That won't keep fans from rooting for losses, even if Jordan Crawford said fans have the capacity to understand why the guys on the floor are still trying to win.
"I think fans understand the reason not to tank," he said. "When teachers are teaching, when school's almost over, I'm sure they don't just tank because the year's almost over. It's just like any other job."
Still want the Wizards to lose out for the rest of 2012? (Right, of course you do.)