It's never too early to start scheming
They call it tanking.
You know what I mean - losing games intentionally so your team can get a better spot in the upcoming draft. Teams have been accused of it for many years -so much so that the NBA came up with a draft lottery rather than just handing the top pick to the team with the worst record.
A lot of times, even when it looks like a team is tanking, it probably isn't. A very famous coach, one who has won an NBA title and several hundred games in the league, told me he didn't think he could get his players to tank games even if management wanted him to do it.
'There's really no incentive for the players,' this coach said. 'A good many of them don't want the No. 1 pick on their team, anyway. I know that sounds crazy, but players know a top pick will eventually take a bigger share of the salary cap and more media attention away from them. And very often, that top pick will take an established player's job. So they don't want him as often as you might think.'
And, in spite of what you hear from people who don't watch a lot of NBA games, teams play pretty hard even when their team is out of contention. There's a degree of pride involved, and players don't want someone else to embarrass them.
The only way to tank is, coincidentally, what's going on right now with the Trail Blazers. Understand, please, I'm not in any way saying the Blazers are tanking games. I'm just saying the best way to do that is to systematically remove players from the lineup so what's left can't possibly win.
The lineup Portland trotted out Saturday night in Dallas had no chance of beating the best team in the league. The Blazers' very best lineup has little chance of beating the Mavericks.
The Blazers are doing the smart thing, regardless of circumstances. Risking the long-term health of any player by trying to win a game when you're not in playoff contention is silly.
Risking the long-term health of a player you think will someday be a cornerstone of the franchise is even worse. It's stupid. So sitting Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge is the right thing. Same with Zach Randolph.
There obviously are two prizes at the top of the draft, but even if Portland doesn't end up with Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, it would be a huge break to get a top-five pick.
It would make sense for the Blazers to package the pick with an established player - Randolph, for instance - to get a big-time veteran player. The team has enough youth. Oden and Durant would be great choices, of course, but otherwise, if the Blazers can land an experienced player of all-star caliber in a trade, they would immediately be a playoff contender.
So, there is plenty of incentive for the Blazers to be tanking. Not that they would ever do it, of course.