Traditionally, ‘tanking’ has been defined as teams losing games on purpose—either through a decimated roster or the benching of good players—in order to obtain a higher draft pick in the NBA Lottery system. The issue of tanking in the NBA has been a hot topic this season, with a terrible Eastern Conference ruining the quality of play in the league. Franchises are salivating at the thought of the loaded 2014 draft class—touted as one of the best in league history.
The NBA itself has publicly recognized the issue this year, as losing teams have been thought to bring in less revenue and lower the overall entertainment value of the league. An alternative solution to the Lottery—which has been accused of rewarding losing teams—has been dubbed “The Wheel,” an option which emerged earlier this year in which a yearly drafting order is set in advance. However, the proposed solution has been widely criticized for giving college players the power to wait for a preferred team’s no. 1 overall draft year, thus potentially further penalizing smaller market teams.
This week, Trib Sports weighs in on our thoughts on the NBA Lottery and tanking, and whether or not there are any acceptable solutions for the league to adopt.
A matter of incentive
Even if you aren’t a Philadelphia 76ers fan, there’s not a soul who can take pleasure in a 26-game losing streak. Schadenfreude has its limits. For a game that already produces the most predictable outcomes out of the “Big Four” North American sports, tanking is threatening to turn the NBA regular season into a glorified dress rehearsal for the playoffs from the first tip-off. Teams such as the Phoenix Suns will always be around to surprise fans, but the conference finals are all but set in stone. Nobody can blame the bottom-feeders of the league for tailoring their “strategy” to the incentive system provided by the NBA.
Incentive is the keyword here. A 25 per cent shot at the first overall pick doesn’t seem juicy enough to entice teams to aim for the worst record, but at the very least it can give an otherwise depressing season a concrete long-term goal. In other words, it’s a great way to reassure a restless fan base.
The chance of landing the first pick was actually increased to its present odds from 16.7 per cent, after the Orlando Magic somehow won the 1993 NBA draft lottery after barely missing the playoffs in the previous season. If the NBA were to revert to the pre-1993 system—or even further lower the odds 10 per cent—front offices wouldn’t find it so easy to sell tanking as a feasible strategy.
Rewarding the efficient
According to new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the effectiveness of a draft pick is dependent on the competency of a franchise’s management—not the talent of the drafted player. This is a logical position given that NBA teams only get two draft picks allotted to them. No matter how talented the player, a team’s system has the greatest impact on the win totals—just ask Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Teams must be incentivized to encourage good management and effective basketball. The NBA should raise salary caps for non-playoff teams who meet certain defensive and offensive targets, respectively. For example, the best five non-playoff teams in the league by means of point differential should have a salary cap increase for the following year, thus rewarding their better play. This would allow other teams greater flexibility in the team building process rather than solely relying on the draft, a hit and miss endeavour. The NBA should be encouraging a more efficient and winning style of basketball by using the salary cap to increase incentives for teams to win.
Strategy is strategy
If you ask any die-hard fan if they’d rather see their team finish just out of the playoffs or in dead last, you can rest assured they’ll almost always answer with the latter. While many find tanking unethical, the reality is that tanking is merely a strategy to position yourself at the top of the draft in hopes of accumulating assets for future success.
Over the past 10 years, the NBA’s worst team has only received the no. 1 overall pick once, while teams outside of the bottom three have received the highly coveted pick a surprising seven times. For teams who are lucky enough to get a top three pick, drafting a franchise player is no sure thing. Since 2004, four players taken in the top three of the draft have turned into superstars, while about 20 per cent of those picks have been considered a bust. The San Antonio Spurs turned the 1997 first overall pick into almost two decades of success, while teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers consistently find themselves in the lottery, despite having had four top-five picks in the past three years.
Tanking might seem like a good strategy, but with the way the lottery is set up alongside the chances of drafting a bust, it is clear that losing in the present doesn’t guarantee future success. The NBA doesn’t need to prevent teams from tanking, because good organizations know that losing intentionally is never a good idea.
March Madness in the NBA
Success in the NBA—real success, the kind that is only achieved by winning a championship—is only tasted by a select few franchises. The other organizations, the metaphorical 99 per cent, have turned to tanking with mixed results. To fix the issue, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver should create an exciting way to punish reward poor team-building. One such idea would be to host a parallel post-season for the eight worst teams in the league by record, a spin-off on the ‘Entertaining as Hell Tournament’ proposed by ESPN’s Bill Simmons. These franchises would play in a single elimination tournament akin to the NCAA Tournament for the right to the highest draft pick in the upcoming entry draft. The winner of the three round tournament would receive the first overall pick, while the runner-up would pick second. For the teams who got knocked out in the semifinals, the franchise with the worse record would get the third pick while the other gets the fourth. Finally, teams that were eliminated in the first round, would receive picks five to eight based inversely on record. This would incentivize against having D-League talent on an NBA roster, while giving downtrodden fan bases a more accessible form of hope in a win-or-go-home tournament.