We're over two months into the NBA season, and in some ways the league's landscape is very different from what most of us envisioned back in October. But, big picture, all the relevant cement is nearly dry: Four (maaaybe five) teams can win the championship, three teams definitely won't survive beyond the mandated 82 games and everyone else dances in a relatively hopeful purgatory.
There's nothing wrong with a postseason appearance being enough to satiate ambition; for the most part, playoff berths are at worst a face-saving gesture and at best a symbolic step in the right direction for several middle-class organizations that badly need to display some linear progress. But foresight is crucial for every franchise, and the draft makes them all (outside Brooklyn) come to terms with who, where and what they are in 2016.
Self-evaluation can be hard, but it's never not important. Here are seven teams that should/will/did throw in the towel.
Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards
You can make a fair case for any of these teams to embrace intentional losing as an intelligent strategy, but Portland and Sacramento are only two games back from the No. 8 seed, and it'd actually be quite meaningful to see them qualify for the postseason with their inexperienced rosters. (The Kings have already invested too much time and energy pushing for the playoffs, and the personalities on that roster would basically riot if the front office abandoned ship.)
As bad as Washington is, a tank job would reduce their shot at Kevin Durant from 1 percent to nil.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
It's sad to include the Grizzlies on this list, a team as rugged and reliable as any over the past half decade. But let's be real: This team is nothing beyond identifiably huggable right now. They're *still* one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league, and lineups with Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are getting outscored by 5.8 points per 100 possessions. As their three best players, that's extremely discouraging and a sign that it's finally, mercifully, time to reverse course.
Memphis already owes protected first-round picks to the Denver Nuggets (2016) and Boston Celtics (2018), so now might be a fortuitous time to cash out on Randolph, Conley and even Gasol. That is, if winning a championship is the top priority -- which it very well may not be.
6. Phoenix Suns
When it's the first week of the new year, and you're a fringe playoff team competing in a conference with two all-time bone crushers, and your best player recently underwent season-ending knee surgery, and you just fired two assistant coaches, and the Philadelphia 76ers beat you, and you're currently riding the longest losing streak in the league, and your head coach is a lame duck, guess what? It's time to tank.
After miraculously falling into a 48-win season back in 2014, the Suns have spent the past couple years believing that if the pre-James Harden Houston Rockets could fight for a playoff berth while still gathering assets and maintaining cap flexibility, then they can too. But the NBA isn't big enough for two franchises to get that lucky in the same decade. The Suns have a couple of nice players, resourceful talent evaluators and have "successfully" adopted a fan-friendly aesthetic, but their personnel moves are too erratic and lack any semblance of foresight.
From the Isaiah Thomas signing to the Morii-twin salary dump, Suns GM Ryan McDonough has barred human emotion from the decision-making process, and the result is a spewing volcano. It's time to embrace the lava and start from the ground up. Make everyone except Devin Booker available on the open market, gather as many draft picks as you can (remember: Phoenix already owns Miami's future thanks to the Goran Dragic trade) and rebuild the old fashioned way.
Trade Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker; let Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Archie Goodwin and Alex Len feast on as many minutes as they can handle. Do it, Phoenix.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
The Greg Monroe signing wasn't bad, per se, but given the team's defensive drop off it might've been a misevaluation of Milwaukee's timeline. Jabari Parker and Giannis Antentokoumpo aren't the tag team champions of the world just yet, and this team could badly use a franchise point guard (preferably one with range) from this year's draft.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Pretend we're baking cupcakes and already have some of the best ingredients at our disposal. There's basically a zero percent chance these aren't the most delicious cupcakes ever, right? There's a 95 percent chance they come out perfect and uber-delicious. Now, imagine someone comes to you with a big bag of rare chocolate chips. They aren't a missing component -- there's actually a chance they make the batch too sweet. But there's no way you're turning them down because chocolate chips are awesome.
OK, bear with us on this delicious metaphor ...
The cupcakes are the Timberwolves. The chocolate chips are a 2016 lottery pick. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are already destined for annual visits to All-Star weekend, and having two blooming stars in place is the most desirable thing any franchise can ask for (besides two fully-grown superheroes). But what if they land three franchise players in three years? The Timberwolves have a chance to be exactly what we thought the Oklahoma City Thunder were destined to become.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
After starting 1-11, New Orleans is back on track, relatively speaking, thanks to a healthy Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday thriving off the bench. They've have had a top-10 offense for about a month now -- just about everyone except poor Norris Cole is knocking down threes at an unsustainably high rate -- but their defense hasn't stopped looking like a mudslide, and few of their wins are against quality opposition.
This was supposed to be an enlightening season for the Pelicans. The year Anthony Davis walked on water; the year continuity and luck and a new coach with championship experience led them to victory in the postseason. But that doesn't appear to be in the cards. Instead, it makes more sense for this team to add another high lottery pick to help Davis in the future.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have to give their 2016 first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers if it lands outside the top 3. That's not an ideal situation, and it makes losing an absolute must for this team as it heads towards a critical, landscape-shifting summer. No pick this year also ensures that the Lakers will have to give the Orlando Magic a first-round pick in either 2018 or 2019. (If the Lakers keep their pick this year, they only have to forfeit a pair of second-round picks.) Lose now, win later.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Hi. Do you watch the NBA? Do you own a Twitter account and/or know how to operate a MacBook? Do you breathe air and drink water? If the answer is yes to any of the above questions, then you already understand why the 76ers should continue to tank.