Heading into the 2013-14 NBA season, several teams knew that they not only had zero chance of playing postseason basketball this year, but that they were going to be downright terrible. At the same time, front office executives knew what awaited them after this season: One of the strongest NBA draft lotteries ever.
So they did what you might expect: They set out on a Rachel Phelps-like mission to fail.
Here's how one anonymous executive put it to ESPN last month:
Our team isn't good enough to win and we know it. So this season we want to develop and evaluate our young players, let them learn from their mistakes — and get us in position to grab a great player. The best way for us to do that is to lose a lot of games. This draft is loaded. There are potential All-Stars at the top, maybe even franchise changers. Sometimes my job is to understand the value of losing. [ESPN]
Indeed, the 2014 draft class is expected to be one of the strongest ever, topped by a trio of freshmen who could each plausibly go as the top overall pick.
Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, who this year became only the second freshman ever to earn preseason All-American honors, leads the group. The 6'8'' guard averaged 23.4 points and 11.2 rebounds as a high school senior last year. The glowing recruiting notes read like "something that will be in an autobiography or…that will be on an ESPN 30 for 30 one day," wrote SB Nation's Mike Rutherford.
Wiggins won pretty much every national high school hoops award last year. And with his mix of athleticism and size, he has drawn lofty comparisons to another former high school phenom, LeBron James.
However, he's not the only one being compared to the reigning NBA MVP. Last year, Sports Illustrated dubbed Jabari Parker, now a starter for Duke, the "best high school player since LeBron James."
On Tuesday, the two lived up to the hype when Kansas and Duke faced off in the second game of the Champions Classic. Wiggins finished with 22 points and eight rebounds; Parker put up 27 points to go along with nine boards, while adding one block and two steals.
Not a bad prime-time debut for either player.
On the same night though, Kentucky's Julius Randle outdid them both, scoring 27 points and collecting 13 boards in a tough loss to Michigan State in the first marquee matchup of the night. At 6'9'', Randle "is a young wildebeest," wrote ESPN's Michael Wilbon, who dominates below the free-throw line and who will "command a double-team every time he touches the ball."
Then there's Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Kentucky's Andrew Harrison, fellow freshmen who are expected to go high in next year's draft. That's not to mention all the seasoned upper classmen preparing to make the leap to the pros. As in 2003, when James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade all went in the top five, whichever teams win the coveted lottery picks next year should have plenty of franchise-changing players to choose from.
Still, there's no guarantee that tanking will work. The NBA draft doesn't reward the worst team with the top pick, but merely gives them a greater chance of winning the lottery. And for every LeBron James, there's a Darko Milcic, the Serbian big man Detroit drafted second overall in 2003 — ahead of Wade, Bosh, and Anthony — who went on to have a miserable career.
Then again, when you consider how loaded the draft is, the chances are higher of picking the next James than a flop. If you're the Utah Jazz, there's really nothing to lose — except, you know, dozens and dozens of games this year.