The temptations of tanking are obvious, and this time of the season sees more teams trying to intentionally punt games than any other. Philadelphia started the likes of Ish Smith and Furkan Aledmir (while playing Hollis Thompson and a washed-up Jason Richardson a combined 49 minutes off the bench) and "won" Sunday's contest against New York, which started Lou Amundson, Shane Larkin and Lance Thomas, by losing 101-91. That loss, however, didn't help them create separation from fellow tankers such as the Lakers, which gave at least 20 minutes apiece to Dwight Buycks, Tarik Black, Ryan Kelly and Jabari Brown in a blowout defeat to the Clippers.
The ultimate prize for their futility was on display in last night's NCAA national championship game - Duke center Jahlil Okafor. At 6-foot-11 and 270 lbs., the ACC Player of the Year has an NBA-ready body and a developed back-to-the-basket game that already makes most pro bigs jealous. It's easy to see why teams view him as not only a building block, but perhaps the cornerstone for future title teams.
But the NCAA championship game, which Duke won 68-63 over Wisconsin, also showed some cracks in Okafor's armor. The freshman was held to 10 points and three rebounds and was decidedly outplayed by likely lottery pick Frank Kaminsky. The Wisconsin center exposed Okafor's subpar defense, forcing the Duke big to the bench early in the second half with his fourth foul. Okafor did return and make a pair of key baskets late, but the contributions of Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen were far more impactful than his.
In Duke's final four games, Okafor averaged 10.8 points and 6.3 rebounds and had a total of five blocks.
It's an overreaction to look at such a small sample size and claim Okafor isn't the NBA talent so many have promised he will be (don't forget, Anthony Davis shot 1-for-10 in the national title game in 2012). But NBA eyes see everything, and even tiny cracks in the dam can be worries about the future:
Okafor needs to start trying a little harder. Jogging up and down the floor like he's at the YMCA. If he won't go all out now, then when?— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) March 29, 2015
SBNation's Kevin O'Connor also wondered if Okafor's case for the No. 1 pick was crumbling before this weekend's Final Four:
Okafor is undoubtedly one of the top offensive talents in the 2015 NBA Draft, but his questionable fit, possible conditioning issues and shaky performances against legitimate competition during March Madness is causing him to lose his hold on the top spot in the draft.
If Okafor does slip, the No. 1 pick will likely be Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns, who carried the Wildcats in their last two games with a 25-point showing against Notre Dame and a noteworthy 16-point, nine-rebound performance in a loss to Wisconsin. But Towns had nine total points in Kentucky's two previous games and has a much more limited offensive game than Okafor.
All of this may simply be picking nits. On the season, Okafor averaged 17.3 points (on 66.4 percent shooting) and 8.5 rebounds and finished second to Kaminsky in every national player of the year award. He's a fantastic player who will likely go on to make several All-Star squads at the very least.
But these are the dangers of tanking. Getting a top pick always seems like a boon for a franchise, but Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Dion Waiters, Thomas Robinson and Derrick Williams were all top-five selections in the past four drafts. Mistakes happen, and some guys don't pan out. Okafor's defense might make him a Brook Lopez/Enes Kanter all-offense clone that hurts his team on one end as much as he helps on the other. Town's offensive game may never develop to allow him to average double digits in the NBA. Emmanuel Mudiay is obviously enticing, but what does his year in China tell us about his potential?
Of course, tanking pays off too - just ask the Thunder (Kevin Durant) and Pelicans (Davis). But the plan of intentionally losing games for the sake of moving up a few spots doesn't always come to fruition.
Maybe this is why, in the middle of an obvious rebuilding plan, Brad Stevens, Danny Ainge and the Celtics switched course midseason and decided to shoot for the playoffs instead of the top pick. Thanks to Stevens' wizardry, Boston has somehow improved after trading Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, its two most talented players, and dealt for Isaiah Thomas in making a push for the postseason.
There is no declaring the right or wrong way to rebuild. In a few years, Philadelphia, the poster team for tanking, could have a contender built around Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Okafor/Towns/Mudiay. The Lakers or Knicks could pair one of those top picks with aging stars Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony to lure a prime free agent to their luxury destinations.
The Celtics decided to take their future out of the hands of 19-year-olds and put it into Stevens'. For the moment, it seems like the right path. Only time will tell.
Photo credit: David J. Philip, Associated Press ImagesDan Hoppen 4/07/2015 09:12:00 AM Tweet Edit