With the Brooklyn Nets’ latest loss to the Chicago Bulls Thursday night, their hold on the fourth seed — and thus home-court advantage in the first round — shrunk ever so slightly. The Nets, at 43-32, are now just 1.5 games ahead of the Bulls, at 41-33, and Atlanta Hawks, at 42-34. With a swing between the fourth and sixth seed still in play over the last two weeks, an important question arises: should the Nets try to sabotage their own season for playoff position?
The case for tanking:
There’s only one strong reason why the Nets would have any interest in moving down in the seeding, but it’s a big one: LeBron James. The Miami Heat, who clinched the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference weeks ago, will (after presumably dismantling the 8th-seed Milwaukee Bucks) face the winner of the 4th-5th seed matchup in the second round of the playoffs.
With the Indiana Pacers five games ahead of the Nets for the 3rd seed, all but guaranteeing the spot, the Nets would only have a shot at avoiding the Miami Heat until the Eastern Conference Finals if they fell from fourth to sixth, then defeated two of the Pacers/Knicks/Celtics en route to the ECF. If they played the Miami Heat in the second round, that’s almost assuredly as far as they would go.
Given the current seeding, tanking is also the only way a Nets-Knicks matchup in the first or second round is plausible. (That said, the Knicks would have home-court advantage.)
Mikhail Prokhorov said in his official press conference earlier this season that a successful season for the Nets would be to make the Conference Finals, and the Nets have a much better shot at that if they can avoid Miami in the second round.
The case against tanking:
Yes, if the Nets kept playing to full capacity and locked up that fourth seed, their maximum playoff potential would likely fizzle out by the end of the second round. But that also doesn’t take into account a number of factors. First, if the Nets tank out of the fourth seed, they’d be giving up home-court advantage for the first round, and likely all subsequent rounds (unless they face a lower seed in the second round and beyond).
The above case — the one for tanking — also operates under the assumption that the Nets, if they tank, will pull off not just one, but two upsets en route to getting smoked in the Conference Finals. The road is far from guaranteed. If the Nets tank in an attempt to jockey for position, only to lose in the first round to the Indiana Pacers — or worse, the Knicks — the season will have been a massive failure to launch.
Finally: if you consider that the Nets’ potential is “getting as far as Miami” — which I think is reasonable, at this point — does it matter much if they run into them in the second or third round?
Don’t tank. Putting aside the reasons above, heading into the playoffs with a series of losses under your belt isn’t exactly the finest way to begin Brooklyn’s great foray into postseason basketball. The final years in New Jersey were marred by tanking, even if the Nets didn’t have a guaranteed draft pick. (For those of you blissfully unaware: the last play in New Jersey Nets history was then-backup guard Sundiata Gaines goaltending a three-point attempt to put the opponent, a Toronto Raptors team also in full-on tank mode, up 98-67.)
So yes, even if it means the only shot at getting past the second round involves a miracle or a barrage of injuries, hold onto that home-court advantage. Maintain a semblance of dignity. Keep trying to win.