By Reinis Lacis (@LamarMatic)
The Victor Wembanyama tankathon is yet to hit its full stride. Some of the teams that were previously considered suspect are winning games. The worst records can be explained away by injuries and youth. There’s also plenty of time to trade away players or start riding with 10-day contracts in Spring.
Yet most of us foresee that at some point something delightfully tanktastic will happen. Any other outcome doesn’t seem possible in an environment where the next Nr. 1 pick isn’t even playing on US soil, yet his games are already broadcast on the NBA App. The irony that NBA’s commissioner Adam Silver relayed a message about deliberate losing isn’t lost on anyone.
This time around the thousands who follow religiously will capture that moment – whether it’s a remarkably helpless lineup, miserable body language amidst a losing streak or something else. It will mark abject and voluntary misery in favor of lottery balls. And it will be a social media hit, cherished by those who accept the silliness of professional sports.
With Silver’s notice somewhat looming, I wonder will NBA teams have what it takes to record a new low. There definitely is a current tanking lowlight candidate that comes from the 2005-06 season. Bill Simmons certainly didn’t hold back after it happened. “I have never seen a professional team throw a game this blatantly, in any sport, at any level.“
That’s quite the statement.
Especially when you wonder about everything the NBA has seen. It’s a league, where Bill Fitch admitted that he played Elvin Hayes a staggering 88 minutes in the last two games of the 1983-84 season just so the veteran would reach 50 000 career minutes (and, also, so Houston would land one Hakeem Olajuwon).
Or where Gregg Popovich openly questioned if it’s even worthwhile playing David Robinson. “Do we bring him back or not? It’s not always two plus two equals four,” Pop told Sam Smith. Two plus two equaled Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft.
However, Simmons was talking about the last regular season game of the 2005-06 season between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies. Some might know it as The Mark Madsen game. The beloved and hard-working center – who had attempted nine 3-pointers in his NBA career up to that point – went on a 1-for-15 bender (0-for-7 from deep) as the Timberwolves conveniently made sure that they overtake the Celtics in the lottery race (explains Simmons’s concern).
The visiting Grizzlies prevailed in two overtimes, with their starters laughing at the sight of Madsen bombing away from long range in both overtime sessions. (Unfortunately, the Timberwolves broadcast aired replays over two of his 3-pointers.)
Rashad McCants – the only participant of that game to share an on-the-record comment for this blog – calls it a very bad memory of his. “It was a circus. A disappointing time in basketball,” writes the former Timberwolf.
Minnesota had started the season 12-6, yet dropped below .500 in February. Come April, even Kevin Garnett was sitting out games or “taking a dive”, as McCants puts it. The Wolves entered the last game of the season at 33-48, one game ahead (or rather behind) of the Boston Celtics (32-48).
To make matters even more comical, we hark back to the last time when winning a division guaranteed a top-3 playoff seed. The Memphis Grizzlies (48-33) arrived in town after dismantling a fourth quarter roster of Boniface N’Dong, Željko Rebrača, James Singleton, Walter McCarty and Daniel Ewing for the Los Angeles Clippers (46-35). In what could be a separate video to bring back, the Clippers masterfully avoided a meeting with the Dallas Mavericks (60-22) in the First Round. Mavs placed fourth in the West just because they played in the same division as the San Antonio Spurs (63-19).
Both the Minnesota and Memphis front offices faced situations where it wasn’t worth winning games in the last week of the regular season.
(How did the basketball gods reward the Grizzlies? They were quickly swept by the Mavericks, whereas the cunning Clippers beat Northwest Division champions (yay!) Denver Nuggets who had won 44 games and ridiculously clinched the third seed.)
To their credit, Jim Petersen and Tom Hanneman called the Wolves-Grizzlies bout as they saw it. The announcers noted the Summer League type of game quality as numerous lesser known players got to stretch their games. Rookie Bracey Wright – playing in his seventh NBA game and scoring a career-high of 19 – was forthright credited with an ulterior motive to slam the door on any competition coming in the draft.
“You used to think that everybody on NBA rosters is one of the best players in the world. The Memphis Grizzlies are making me rethink that right now,” Petersen quipped on the broadcast.
Despite the principle Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello had demonstrated in the Clippers game, he also had every reason in the world to rest his starters. It forced the Wolves to lead throughout the game, however, with 38 seconds left and a 3-point advantage they were all too close to an unneeded victory.
That’s when the Timberwolves ran a staggered pindown for Bracey Wright, only for screen setter Mark Madsen to pop out for the shot. At that point Madsen was only 1-for-6 on a flurry of unsuccessful attempts in the paint. This attempt marked him stepping into deeper waters.
“Casey put Mad Dog in and drew a play for him to hit a 3. And we kept running it,” McCants remembers.
On the following play Madsen lost Brian Cardinal for a game-tying 3-pointer as the Grizzlies reconciled with the fact that somebody had to actually win this game. Furthermore, Dahntay Jones even got the chance to steal the W on a one-man fast break. The defensive specialist took off running after a Bracey Wright turnover, yet clumsily fumbled the ball. Crowd groans. Overtime.
That’s when the madness started. Mark Madsen took five 3-pointers with the game well in reach, however, neither team seemed poised enough to actually pull away.
Meanwhile, the locals in attendance openly agitated in favor of the loss. If the tanktastic stakes weren’t already transparent thanks to the laid-back broadcast of the game, microphones picked up a fan yelling “DRAFT PICK!” after Eddie Griffin knocked down the first out of two free throws. The forward had just made it 85:85 at the end of the first overtime. Griffin helped Minnesota reach another overtime by missing the second one.
Even announcer Jim Petersen appeared to join in on the fun and audibly urged Mad Dog on to keep shooting. Madsen followed suit and closed out the season with two more long-bombs in the dying seconds of the game.
Following the game, Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey put it off as allowing the team to enjoy themselves. “The guys were having fun with it. For what we’ve been through this season, I thought the guys deserved it. I hope what we did didn’t make a mockery of the game,” AP quoted Casey.
Years later members of the 2005-06 Wolves staff haven’t been willing to offer any further details. For one, the Detroit Pistons responded that coach Casey has respectfully opted not to take my media request, informing me that he currently is focused on this season. It’s understandable. There’s probably little use for anyone from that coaching staff to revisit events which happened 16 years ago.
Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, however, is among the media members who witnessed that game. He also recalls Casey giving the aforementioned explanation. In Krawczynski’s opinion, it clearly was a strategy of dumping the game in favor of the draft.
“Would Casey have allowed that to happen if there was nothing to be gained with a loss? I don’t believe so,” Krawczynski offers his thoughts. “I have great respect for Coach Casey. A great coach with impeccable integrity. But I do think they tanked that game away. There’s really no disputing that.”
Mad Dog himself, following the peculiar shooting contest, was all smiles. “My rookie year, I shot 1.000 — 1-for-1,” Madsen said after the game. “Like my old teammate Greg Foster used to tell me, ‘If you don’t let it go, you never know.'”
Unfortunately, it might have been a bit of a facade on his part. Perhaps, some years had to pass for him to fully digest the events of that game.
An article written in 2015 by Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda paints a different picture. It detailed the now retired Madsen somewhat wishing the game had never happened. The center recalled that kids had come alongside the court and told him to shoot. And that’s what he did, partially wishing to prove the crowd wrong as most in the Target Center had the top-10 protected pick in mind.
“Every time I touched the ball, a lot of the arena is telling you to shoot, shoot, shoot. It makes you feel bad because basically they’re saying if you shoot, you’re going to miss and that’s good for the team.”
It’s certainly sad to learn that someone who was as liked by his peers as Madsen has had to endure negative emotions due to something as silly as the events of an 82nd regular season game.
Call it the Ben Uzoh factor of tanking – throwaway moments belong to guards. Just as it applies to any other rather unorganized form of basketball. Meanwhile, 7-footers of Madsen’s ilk make it to the league thanks to their work ethic and impressive height that few possess. The crowd cheering them on for garbage time 3-pointers is the rare moment in any field where somebody rather gifted has to attempt something so out of their range.
It also makes one bring up the prevalent way of thinking – front offices tank games, coaches and players do not. For every starter who sat that or any other night, there’s a slew of Mark Madsen’s or Bracey Wright’s, players who are on the edge of an NBA roster and try to make the most out of a rare opportunity.
For what it’s worth, Madsen told Zgoda that nobody told him “to shoot the ball like that.” He might be referring to the whole 1-for-15 performance. It seems clear that in overtime he got carried away. Nobody could have directed that from the sidelines.
However, the way the Wolves ran that first particular play makes me trust McCants and his claim that the coaching staff did have a lot to do with it. The journalist in me wishes that I had more sources to back it up. Maybe when the tankathon really starts up this season my North American brethren will find out more.
Yet it does seem like we can call this one of the times where the coaches were willing to follow front office orders. Good for them!
Ironically, the Wolves’ efforts basically didn’t matter. They did surpass the Boston Celtics who beat the playoff-bound Miami Heat on the last day of the regular season. However, in a draft day gaffe they used the sixth pick to draft Brandon Roy, yet shipped him off to Portland in exchange for Randy Foye. Foye had been selected one slot later by the same Celtics team. A report by Jonathan Givony implored that Portland had outmaneuvered general manager Kevin McHale.
To add insult to injury, it was the second season in a row that Minnesota had opened up the year 12-6 and missed the postseason. (Hello, Utah!). Marc Stein recently noted that here have only been 10 such teams since 1983-84. Among their corresponding draft picks is one true outlier in Ja Morant.
Lastly, how about the theory of this being the most blatantly tanked game ever?
On the one hand, it’s easy to proclaim something like that. Few performances have marked bigger statistical deviations from the particular play’s norm than Madsen suddenly going full-on Manute Bol.
However, I would venture to say that the mere ability to witness something on the court always makes it worse. Just as we’ve seen in the cases of malicious NBA owners, visual or audible piece of evidence is much more dramatic than one having to plow through pages of an investigative report.
You can’t compress the warts of the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats or The Process 76ers in a 2-minute long video. Those teams willingly put together pathetic rosters for long stretches. Now, that’s more of a crime against the customer, at least in comparison with the fun the Wolves had.
Can anybody top the Timberwolves on a single-game basis? That could be the real question. Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson look pretty darn good.
Maybe Madsen is lucky he did it before the Internet era really started.