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To Tank or Not to Tank: What Should NBA's Fringe Playoff Teams Do This Season?

Zach Buckley

Every NBA season, a select group of teams congregating around the back end of the playoff picture asks itself the same question.

Is it time to embrace the tank, or are we pushing forward with what we have?

Because the draft-lottery system offers a potential jackpot prize to the league's biggest loser, there's always some temptation for a non-contender to race toward the bottom in hopes of reeling in a big fish. And, yes, that temptation exists even when—like we're seeing this year—there is no clear-cut prospect atop the upcoming draft class.

This push-and-pull creates a delicate dance, and one that often lacks an obvious answer. Luckily, we'll tackle that topic for eight different teams who find themselves in this very predicament. While several other clubs have records in the "fringe playoff" range, we'll exclude those who are obviously pushing for maximum competitiveness, like the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Atlanta Hawks: Don't Tank

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As per usual, the Hawks keep hovering around .500 and struggling to gain any kind of traction in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They can't keep logging mileage on the treadmill of mediocrity forever, so at some point, they'll need to consider making drastic changes if things don't improve.

That point isn't now, though.

Coach Quin Snyder, who was hired in February, hasn't completed a full calendar year on the job yet. Trae Young's 25th birthday just passed. This is only his second season with backcourt mate Dejounte Murray. Jalen Johnson was only scratching the surface of what he could do in a significant role before a wrist injury forced him off the floor.

Atlanta has way too many paths toward internal improvement—Onyeka Okongwu has long appeared ready for an expanded role—for the front office to abandon hopes already. The Hawks may not soar to greatness this season, but pretty-goodness feels doable, and that's before accounting for any substantial trades that could be in the works.

Brooklyn Nets: Don't Tank

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The Nets have been competitive in their first full campaign since splitting up the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving-James Harden trio, though not the kind of competitive that puts them anywhere near the title race. They've seen steady play from the likes of Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, plus a boatload of buckets from Cam Thomas, but they may lack the high-end talent needed to make any real noise in the East.

One could argue, then, that Brooklyn could at least consider taking the long view toward fixing this issue. Outside of Thomas—who doesn't contribute much beyond inside-the-arc scoring—the Nets don't have any up-and-comers flashing star potential, and Bridges could be a bit over his skis as a primary option.

While this situation might normally call for a bottoming-out in hopes of landing a top pick, the Nets don't have that option. Not when their first-round pick belongs to the Houston Rockets regardless where it lands, one of several unpaid draft debts stemming from the January 2021 trade that brought the Beard to Brooklyn.

The Nets may eventually need to embrace a top-to-bottom reset, but the timing isn't right to tank now.

Charlotte Hornets: Tank

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Nearly a decade has passed since the Hornets last made the playoffs (2016), and still it might be generous to even include them in this discussion. They've lost nearly two-thirds of their games and now face a potentially extended absence from star guard LaMelo Ball.

So, if Buzz City held any hope of this squad having some sting, it's already time to give that up. That feels obvious—to anyone outside of the franchise, at least. Internally, though, the team "is focused on getting healthy and competing for a playoff spot," per HoopsHype's Michael Scotto.

That could be comical if it didn't sound so sad.

The Hornets need to develop any and all young talent they have. That should guide them through a hopefully active trade season, as their young players could really use the minutes going to Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier. They could check the trade market for Miles Bridges, too, especially if they don't plan on keeping him next offseason.

For a big chunk of this playoff drought, the Hornets haven't had a bad enough record to snag a top draft pick. That needs to change. While they're building an intriguing young core with Ball, Brandon Miller, Mark Williams and Nick Smith Jr., they need more help, and the draft lottery is their best bet for finding it.

Chicago Bulls: Tank

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There are myriad ways to discuss this disastrous season playing out in the Windy City, but the simplest might be the most poignant.

"It's not fun at all," Bulls center Nikola Vučević told reporters recently.

This was a make-or-break season for the Bulls, and they look completely broken. Their three best players—Vučević, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan—are either in their primes or past them, and this team still has more than twice as many losses as wins, plus the league's eighth-worst net rating.

A rebuild is overdue, even if the Bulls haven't totally accepted that fate yet. While they've made trading LaVine "the main organizational focal point," per NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson, they haven't committed to more changes beyond that and reportedly want "to see what the roster looks like post-LaVine trade" before doing anything else.

Houston Rockets: Don't Tank

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For as much fight as these suddenly feisty Rockets have shown, there are still ways to talk yourself into a tank job in Space City.

They do, after all, have top-four protection on the 2024 first-rounder they owe to the Oklahoma City Thunder, so they'd have to be atrocious to salvage the selection. They also might question their ability to compete at a high level when this still-youth-heavy roster is the Association's only team to go winless on the road.

And yet, Houston had parted with this pick long before its aggressive, acceleration-focused offseason, so the franchise has likely made peace with the fact that pick is gone. With up-and-comers like Alperen Şengün, Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. all making tangible progress, the Rockets might reasonably feel they're set when it comes to young talent.

Plus, the whole aim of this summer was to improve the on-court product, and that's been a smashing success (compared to the past few campaigns, at least). The Rockets have launched to sixth in defensive efficiency, and their 16th-ranked offense is rock-solid. Houston's front office seems plenty pleased with the progress and eager to see more, as the team plans to dangle "future draft pick(s) compensation" in search of upgrades, per Scotto.

Memphis Grizzlies: Don't Tank

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With franchise face Ja Morant serving a 25-game suspension and injuries impacting the frontcourt, the Grizzlies were surely prepared to encounter some turbulence at the start of this season. They probably weren't ready for this, though.

Memphis has been an absolute mess, dropping 13 of its first 17 games and failing to get anything going on the offensive end, where it ranks second-to-last in efficiency. This team can't shoot from any level, meaning manufacturing spacing could be a challenge even once Morant returns.

This could be a candidate, then, for some selective selling during trade season. Rival clubs are "keeping an eye on" sharpshooter Luke Kennard, per Scotto, who also labeled John Konchar "a candidate to be dealt."

Minor moves are fine, but if Memphis makes a big move between now and the deadline, it should be adding talent—not subtracting it.

The Grizzlies have a chance to make something of this season. The road to recovery is long, but Morant's return will be a massive boost on Beale Street. Last season, Memphis posted a plus-12.7 net rating when Morant shared the floor with Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. This team may not need more than a play-in tournament invite to make waves in the actual playoffs.

Toronto Raptors: Tank

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The Raptors could be the wildest of all wild cards this trade season.

They could, in theory at least, see themselves as buyers and make an aggressive move for someone capable of curing their offensive ills. They've been linked to the Zach LaVine sweepstakes, for instance, and could therefore presumably be in the running for any of the top net-shredders on the market.

What's most interesting, though, is their potential to sell. If they dangled Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby—both of whom could enter free agency after this season—they could have the two most coveted players on the market. It's also entirely easy to see players like Gary Trent Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. holding some appeal among win-now shoppers.

Toronto should punt on this season and aim to gain assets that could brighten future ones. The Raptors have essentially been a .500 team since the start of last season, so even their most optimistic fans would have trouble viewing them as a contender. This core isn't crashing the championship race. They need to add as many draft picks as possible in hopes of creating one that can.

Utah Jazz: Tank

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At last season's deadline, the Jazz dashed their own playoff dreams by discarding invaluable point guard Mike Conley. They were 27-29 at the time of the trade and posted a 10-16 record the rest of the way.

It was the proper way to close the campaign. Rather than jostle for a play-in tournament ticket, they instead embraced the race to the bottom and wound up holding onto the top-10-protected pick they owed the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Utah should take a similar approach to this deadline—due, in no small part, to the fact it still owes that pick to OKC (with the same top-10 protection). Plus, the Jazz are nowhere near the playoff picture, so it's not like they'd be denying this core some postseason experience. Even if they wanted to go for it, they could simply discover they don't have enough to hang in this deep Western Conference.

And that's fine. Despite what it showed last season, this team is still in the early stages of a rebuild. While it could accelerate things quicker than others thanks to an impact talent like Lauri Markkanen, he needs more help for this club to really climb the standings. The Jazz should continue looking toward the draft to find it. Their future already looks brighter based on the play of rookie guard Keyonte George.

Utah should continue stockpiling picks, though, especially since it has several players who could interest win-now shoppers. Between Jordan Clarkson, Kelly Olynyk, John Collins, Collin Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker, the Jazz have plenty of players to entice offense-needy buyers, and they should explore all of those opportunities, improving their draft lottery odds in the process.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and current through games played on Nov. 30.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on X, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

   

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