Tanking is open to interpretation. As distasteful as it is to watch an NBA team give less than its full commitment to winning games in hopes of getting slightly better lottery odds, it can be challenging to discern which teams are holding back on purpose and which teams are just plain bad.
The New Orleans Hornets were just plain bad this season. The same could be said for the Charlotte Bobcats, of course, who were every bit as ugly as their .106 winning percentage suggested. Had the lottery balls bounced Charlotte's way on Wednesday night, it truly could have been said that the worst team won. Instead, the winner was the Hornets, who by all indications will select Kentucky power forward Anthony Davis with the first pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
The Hornets were not quite as bad as the Bobcats. (No team in NBA history ever has been as bad as these Bobcats.) They were last in the Western Conference, but they would have been tied for only third-to-last in the East, so that's something, considering they shipped out franchise point guard Chris Paul in a controversial preseason trade.
Monty Williams, the Hornets' second-year coach, had been through a similar situation before. He was a forward on the 1999-2000 Orlando Magic, led by rookie coach Doc Rivers, that by all rights should have been in full-on tanking mode. The Magic had won 33 games the previous season under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly, and the upcoming draft included athletic frontcourt players Kenyon Martin, Stromile Swift and Darius Miles. (In retrospect, that might not seem like such a great haul, but any team would have been happy to draft one of these guys in the top five at the time. Really.)
The Magic were also preparing for a roster purge with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill due to be available the following offseason. Ben Wallace, before he morphed into a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, started 81 games while Bo Outlaw and John Amaechi each started more than 50 games. Darrell Armstrong, an undrafted 5-foot-11 combo guard out of Fayetteville State, was the team's leading scorer. Only six players from that squad returned in 2000-01.
Yet that group of castoffs went 41-41 and finished one game out of the eighth and final playoff spot. Their postseason hopes ended with a gut-wrenching two-point loss to the Bucks, who won the eighth seed, on the second-to-last game of the season. That team still holds a soft spot in Rivers' heart, 12 years and a championship later.
This year's Hornets did not exactly match that Magic team's fire. They were nowhere close to .500 or to a playoff berth, but they played hard to the final buzzer. The team's only winning month, apart from a 2-1 December, came in April, when most of the league's bottom-feeders had cleared the bench in a quest to pile up losses. The Hornets, meanwhile, went 8-6 in the final month of the regular season and ruined their chances of having the best odds in the lottery.
The Hornets' struggles lay largely in the fact that the NBA owned them and kneecapped any hope of the front office putting the roster on solid footing. The league's foremost concern was keeping the team financially attractive to a prospective buyer, who turned out to be Saints owner Tom Benson. The spastic reaction from Bobcats fans and others is that the NBA awarded the Hornets the first pick as a back-room deal to entice Benson to buy the Hornets. Who knows? The lottery has come up with some fishy results before.
Tanking became a popular talking point this year, especially after a presentation at the Sloan Sports Analytics conference proposed a new way to combat the practice. In this case, things worked out without any fancy mathematical solution. A bad team that played hard right to the finish, without a whiff of holding back to improve its lottery odds, received some good fortune and got the top pick.
Now, Davis, who won a championship ring with the Wildcats in New Orleans in April, will try to get another one in the same city.