Winning games in the NBA is hard. Each team is made up of 13 of the world’s best athletes, most of whom trained their whole life to become stars on the hardwood. Winning one game is difficult – winning enough to compete for a championship is nearly impossible.
Rich Cho and the Hornets know as well as anyone that without a top-tier superstar, it’s nearly impossible to win a championship. Without that superstar, it’s a lost cause. Which is exactly why Charlotte needs to stop trying to win.
The Hornets’ best chance at winning a title is to add another star to their Kemba Walker-led core, and their best chance finding that star is a high draft pick. With every victory this season, the team is lowering its chances of competing with the league’s best franchises. And it’s not like the team is really working towards anything special this year, either: they’re sitting well outside the playoffs, only technically still alive for a spot in the postseason. Continuing to fight for that eight seed is admirable, but it’s also a fool’s errand. Even if a miracle happens and Charlotte makes the playoffs, it’s due for a date with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Is a likely first-round sweep really better than a chance at a difference-maker for the franchise?
This isn’t a new idea, of course. Tanking has existed as long as the draft has, and it’s become even more prevalent in recent years. The Philadelphia 76ers did it more obviously than ever before, with their multi-year “process” becoming a controversial discussion point around the league.
Of course, the Hornets wouldn’t be taking on a scheme nearly as major as the 76ers’. Where Philly threw away several years, Charlotte would just be tanking a handful of games. There are only 10 games left in the season, and while it’s too late to vault into position for a top-five pick, every loss could inch the team closer to a higher pick and a better player. Next season, a core of Walker, Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller and a high lottery player on the wing could be enough to return to the postseason. In the coming years, depending on the development of that draft pick and the decline of LeBron, the Hornets could even compete for a conference championship.
Now, Steve Clifford is never going to draw up terrible game plans in an attempt to kill his team’s chances of competing in games, and he shouldn’t be asked to. Instead, the Hornets could take a page from the Lakers’ or Suns’ book and choose to rest some of their players down the stretch. It wouldn’t even have to be the same level of rest that’s drawing so much ire from talking heads and fans. Rather than dressing Batum and Walker in street clothes and have them watch every game, maybe Clifford could simply cut their minutes back.
In addition to helping the team lose games and earn a better pick, cutting minutes for the major players would also decrease the risk of injury, which has been a major issue all season for the Hornets. A long-term injury to Walker would be absolutely disastrous for the franchise, and the team needs to be wary of that. There’s always a slight risk of injury, but limited minutes would a start in soothing the concerns about losing Walker for an extended period of time.
Finally, fewer minutes from the stars means more time for younger players. There are plenty of interesting young players that could use more time so the team could figure out what they have in them. Plus, in-game experience is invaluable to young players in the league, and that experience could end up being valuable down the road if Charlotte becomes competitive again.
Everyone in the organization, from owner Michael Jordan down, is too competitive to lose games on purpose. Besides, it’s probably too late to make too much of a difference in the lottery anyway. But keeping the stars’ minutes low would have a number of positive effects on the team.
If one of those benefits is a better draft pick and another star on the roster, that’s just gravy.