A few weeks ago, I joined our Fastbreaks panel to discuss, among other things, the rationale behind tanking and whether it’s good for, or hurts, the NBA. So basically, the potential benefits of… losing on purpose? – Remind me Herm, why do we play?
If the point of professional sports is to win… what’s there to discuss here?
But our writers were split on the topic… just as I’d imagine many of you are. You’re not wrong. The NBA’s lottery system has made intentionally fielding a bad team the most sensible move for many non-championship contending franchises. I’d argue that the league handicaps the mediocre and rewards the terrible.
So yes, under the current structure, losing has its strategic merits. But there’s something wrong when a player can score 41 points in a WIN… and end up on a blooper reel.
The article linked is correct in stating that “…the Lakers want to do anything but win at this point…” but the process itself hurts the fans as well as the integrity of the sport.
Before we go further, let’s clear up any confusion there might be as to what the lottery process actually is. The fourteen teams that miss the playoffs are entered into a raffle to determine the order of their draft picks. Each team is given ping pong balls that correspond with their in-season record. The worst team gets 250 and the team slotted 14th gets just one. Only the first three draft picks are up for grabs. So, the more games you lose, the better chance you have at landing that coveted top pick.
There’s a reason the NFL and other sports leagues don’t have the same tradition of tanking that the NBA does. Basketball is unique in the impact that a single player can have; one solitary superstar can affect the game in ways that similarly skilled athletes in other sports just can’t. There are 33 positions in football and the average NFL team cycles through about 45 players in a game. There will always be more “great” players around in football, if only for the fact that there are more roles to fill. The 2003 NBA draft – widely considered one of the greatest classes of all time – brought the league eight total All-Stars. That same year’s NFL draft fielded forty-three future Pro-bowlers – a number greater than ten percent of the entire NBA populace. The NFL is set up so that you can consistently find star level players in the late first, second, and third rounds. That’s not the case with basketball, where there’s often a huge drop off between even the first and second picks in the draft.
The talent drop-off between the top of the NBA lottery and the bottom is often huge and forces “middle class” teams (fringe playoff contenders) to blow up their rosters or build through free agency. The problem is that it’s much harder to convince a superstar to come to Milwaukee than it is Los Angeles. Even after drafting one of the greatest players of all time in LeBron James, Cleveland was unable to secure other top tier free agents because, regardless of the players they had, small market/cold weather cities are at a huge disadvantage in recruiting because superstars have other, brighter options. The best teammate LeBron ever had while on the Cavaliers was a player already on the team when he got drafted. And while Big Z was a fine player, he was also the team’s starting center the year they won 17 games – the season that put them in position to land LeBron in the first place. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was by no means a proper secondary star.
Because these teams are unable to surround their players with the proper talent, homegrown heroes will inevitably leave to greener pastures. The only way that these teams can hope to contend for a title is to be really bad for a really long time and hope they don’t flub too many picks.
This long road to contention hurts the cities where these teams are based as well. After LeBron left for Miami in 2010, the Cavaliers dropped from 61 wins and the best record in the league to 19 in 2011 – the second worst total. According to reports, the fallout cost Cleveland businesses over 150 million dollars.
The league knows that the lottery system is flawed as evidenced by the countless rumors of change. But the wheel system (wherein teams have a set draft order for thirty years), has been picked apart by countless pundits and (thankfully) lost steam.
But the NBA has been remiss in not confronting the issue more publicly. Commissioner Adam Silver, between sessions of delivering Batman-style justice, commented, “The coaches and players, or some subset of that group, trying to lose, I don’t think that’s going on anywhere in the NBA.” I hear this argument all the time, and it drives me crazy. It dodges the question and the problem. Of course the players aren’t trying to lose – they’re playing for a contract. It’s not the coaches who are doing it either – they’re usually the first out the door when the rebuilding process ends and the team is deemed “ready to contend”. The D-League caliber team you see out on the court is only ever a construct of the front office.
A system that incentivizes tanking hurts the players, the public, and the sport – but we’ve been conditioned to accept that it’s “just the way things are”.
It doesn’t have to be.
Institute a single game elimination tournament among the fourteen teams that did not make the playoffs. Given an uneven amount of pair-ups, the teams with the two worst records would be granted a first-round bye. The tournament winner gets the first draft pick. Every other pick is distributed by in-season record.
By rewarding teams for getting better, more small market franchises keep their players. If a superstar prospect were to land on a team that already had talent, they’d be much more likely to win and – in turn – re-sign. Teams are encouraged to always get better because more talent would mean a better shot at winning the tournament, therefore disincentivizing tanking.
More great teams would mean more parity for the league. Superstar prospects won’t spend the first several years of their career wasting away on terrible teams. They’ll be able to contribute to the pursuit of a championship from the start.
It ensures the truly bad teams get their due. The way things currently are, the worst team in the league has only a 25% chance at landing the top overall pick. They’re actually ten percent more likely to land the fourth pick than the first and – as in this year’s draft – the difference between the third and fourth pick could mean acquiring a potential superstar in Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid, or a relative unknown in Dante Exum. In my system, the worst team in the league would get at least the second pick.
The single game elimination aspect would keeps things exciting and give fans of bad teams something to look forward to. Seven game series aren’t kind to the underdog and people love upsets. What makes March Madness so thrilling? Would the Super Bowl not lose its luster were it not one grand show? This would be the perfect way to reward fans who’d stayed loyal to their teams even through bad teams.
And, while I’m not a proponent of the conspiracy theories that say that the lottery is rigged, a more transparent system can only help public opinion.
“But wouldn’t that encourage teams to tank to miss the playoffs?”
Maybe, but think about it. To intentionally miss the playoffs to give your team a chance in a single game elimination tourney is incredibly risky, and would draw huge backlash from the fans. If this hypothetical team were to get knocked out of the tournament, they would then be just another sad franchise at the back of the lottery.
“Will the players really give it their all to acquire a player that may hurt their own job security?”
Maybe not. If you believe your players may not give it their all when it comes time to play, you have to adjust your strategies accordingly.
“When would this take place?”
Obviously this is one of the less important points. The league I’m sure could figure this out, but you would have to make sure that you didn’t take too much time to take away from the playoffs. Push the playoffs back a week, and hold it right after the regular season. A constricted time frame would make the aforementioned byes for the two worst teams particularly important given how little rest these players would be getting.
The lottery system is broken and we all should be pushing for change. Let’s hope the commish can come to our rescue once again.
Mark is currently studying political science at San Diego State University. He is Editor-in-Chief for the BMB, hosts the Bad Men Podcast, and writes about movies and basketball.
If you have questions or comments, you can reach him on Twitter @Mlaturno