No true competitor on a basketball floor, regardless of the situation, will ever want to lose. Even when a team is in rebuilding mode and reaching the playoffs hadn’t been a realistic possibility for months, players and coaches don’t want to be embarrassed.
Of course, in the NBA, that doesn’t mean that every team in that situation has to play its best players, knowing that in the bigger picture, more ping pong balls in the draft lottery could mean a shorter rebuild and a quicker path to contending.
A prime example of those contrasting approaches revealed itself at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, in the New York Knicks’ 110-92 win over the short-handed Chicago Bulls.
Although each teams’ seasons had long been pointing toward the lottery from a realistic perspective, New York (26-25) and Chicago (24-46) entered the night tied in the loss column and separated by just one win, with each still mathematically alive for a postseason berth.
Yet while the Bulls opted not to fly three of their its key young players and top three scorers (Zack LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn) to New York — claiming illness or minor injuries for each — and left center Robin Lopez on the bench as a healthy scratch for the entire contest, the Knicks played their regular available starters and role players in a simultaneous effort to win the game and develop their younger players alongside veterans.
New York’s win officially eliminated Chicago from playoff contention, and although the Knicks played to win — and did — they likewise saw an official end to their already long-fading playoff hopes when Miami later beat Denver to clinch New York’s fifth straight year without a postseason berth.
Following a poor-shooting opening quarter for each team, after which the Knicks led 19-18, New York outscored Chicago 64-49 over the middle two quarters to break the game open.
The Knicks’ pedestrian 11-for-35 shooting from behind the arc looked like that of the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors compared to the Bulls’ repeated misses. Limited in part by New York’s improved perimeter defense, Chicago made just 3 of its 30 3-point shots, with the Bulls’ starters missing all 19 of their attempts from deep.
Although veterans Tim Hardaway Jr. (22 points), Michael Beasley (17 points and six rebounds) and Enes Kanter (13 points and 10 rebounds) led the way, several of the Knicks’ young bench players factored heavily in helping New York to its second straight win, marking the first time in 20 games that New York won consecutive contests. The victory gave the Knicks as many wins in their last two games as in their prior 19.
Following a career-high of 12 points in New York’s blowout win over Charlotte on Saturday, rookie G League call-up, forward Isaiah Hicks, had nine points and eight rebounds in nearly 21 minutes.
Rookie first-round draft pick, point guard Frank Ntilikina, who likewise reached a career-high in scoring against Charlotte (with 15 points), contributed eight points and five assists, with only one turnover in 24 minutes.
Fellow point guard and first-round pick Trey Burke (who came up from the G League in his fifth season this year) matched Ntilikina’s five assists and one turnover, while scoring nine points in 21 minutes.
Second-year forward Troy Williams contributed 11 points and seven rebounds in 19½ minutes.
And in less than nine minutes, rookie forward and G League call-up, forward Luke Kornet, scored nine points.
“We’ve been able to get the young guys a little bit of a rhythm,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “They’re playing a few more minutes so I think they’re feeling more comfortable. They’re not pressing too hard, trying to make something happen. They’re just letting the game kind of come to them… that’s good experience for the younger guys.”
Although some Knicks fans would like their team to lose down the stretch for better draft positioning, Hornacek — a fierce competitor over a successful 14-year NBA playing career — sees it differently.
“Everything’s meaningful, even these games,” he said. “We might not be in the playoffs, but we’re still trying to win games, to do the right things, makes the right passes and I think our young guys have done that.”
That wasn’t the case at first, when the Knicks had only three assists on their first 12 made field goals, through nearly 1½ quarters. However, they finished with 25 assists on their last 31 made shots.
Hornacek believes that winning, instead of tanking, is especially valuable for players like Burke, Hicks and Kornet.
“As the year went on, we’ve had several guys come up from the G League [who] have now had some good [NBA] minutes,” he said. “It builds their confidence. You don’t want to go out there and lose games and have that hurt their confidence, so I think the wins will help them.”
Burke noted the same type of progress for young players like himself.
He said, “Everyone’s getting accustomed to the system, the plays that are run, the plays that are more successful than others, and as point guards, me, Emmanuel (Mudiay) and Frank, we’re doing a great job of getting the team into [our] sets… we’re just going to have to continue to play that way.”
Toward the end of the Knicks’ most recent losing streak, veteran shooting guard Courtney Lee was vocal with his teammates about their level of effort and attention to detail.
So has he liked what he’s seen in New York’s past two games?
“A hundred percent,” he said. “You see the ball is moving a lot [better] now, the defensive effort, everybody is trying to help each other out. That’s all you can ask for, especially going forward, not making the playoffs, all we can do is try to get better as a team.”
Despite the latest attempt to seemingly put their lottery position ahead of winning and growing, the Bulls insisted they were playing to win with the personnel they had on the floor, something with which Burke concurred.
“I can’t speak for that franchise, but I know one thing — those guys were playing hard,” he said. “They may have missed shots tonight… but it wasn’t easy [for us]. You can tell when a team’s playing hard. I didn’t see them purposely going out there trying to lose, but I could be wrong.”
Head coach Fred Hoiberg said, “I thought defensively, we really did try to guard,” while forward Denzel Valentine added, “I believe the effort was there. We were playing hard.”
For Knicks fans who can’t bring themselves to root against their own team, even if they know losses might help more than wins over New York’s final 11 games of the season, Burke provided assurance that tanking intentionally isn’t an option for his team.
“I think it’s something that is unacceptable in my eyes,” he said. “That’s not having any respect for the game, going out there and trying to lose. I can’t remember somebody going out there and just blowing the game. I understand from a fan’s standpoint, but here in this locker room, we’re going out there to win games. We’re playing hard and we’re making plays to win the game.”
For teams that might see situations like that of the Knicks and Bulls differently, maybe there’s another solution to combat tanking.
Perhaps playoffs for non-playoff teams, instead of the league’s current playoff lottery system, might fix the situation.
One idea I floated by Burke would be to hold single elimination playoffs (or possibly short series), like a best-of-threes, to win draft picks instead of acquiring better ones by losing.
Obviously, it wouldn’t be fair to have the worst team and the 14th-worst team in the same playoff bracket among the 14 teams which fail to reach the NBA playoffs each year.
However, the 14 teams could be split into two groups, in which the seven-worst teams play for the top seven draft picks, while the next seven-worst teams play for picks 8 through 14.
Highest seeds would be awarded to the worst teams first, and so on, down to the better teams in each group. The higher seeds would also play at home against the lower seeds.
In the first group, the top seed would receive a first-round bye and would play at home against the winner of the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds. Nos. 3 would host No. 6 and No. 2 would host No. 7.
The same would follow in the second group, for seeds 8 through 14.
For fans who remember the epic playoff battles of the 1990s between the Knicks and Bulls, but who haven’t seen those teams meet in the postseason since 1996, watching a highly-charged playoff battle for a draft pick in April would be a lot more interesting than seeing the Bulls leave players home and tank for a better pick while New York puts its best players possible on the floor for a regular season game in March.
Of course, there would still be some tanking for a few teams like those in the present spots occupied by Chicago (which has the NBA’s eighth-worst record) and New York (which is right behind the Bulls with the ninth-worst record), trying to get into the grouping of the seven-worst teams. However, tanking should otherwise be limited a lot more with a “lottery postseason” compared to the current system.
Burke was at least one person sold on the notion.
“I like that,” he said. “I think that’s something that you’re playing for. You’re playing for a guy, a piece for the next year that could possibly change the whole dynamic of your team. I think that’s something that the commissioner could look into. Obviously, it’s just an idea right now, but you never know the direction of [where] the future of basketball is headed. I’ve never heard it [before], but I like the idea.”
Until then, or until maybe something else which might work better, the Knicks’ focus will remain on trying to win as much as they can, while growing in the process, rather than tanking.
Of course, if Chicago grabs the player New York wants most one pick earlier in June, then the Bulls might be the real winners by losing to the Knicks now.