Tanking Is A Problem In The NBA, And The Solution Is Simple
This article is a piece of the ‘Take Notice” column. Read other column pieces here.
The Philadelphia 76ers won their sixth game of the season on January 20. What was once a rare sight, yet another victory — the team is 6-11 since trading two 2nd-round draft picks for point guard Ish Smith– shows the dungeon dwellers are in the process of a plotting an escape.
The 20-year-old face of the franchise, big man Jahlil Okafor, poured in 20 points as Philly beat the Orlando Magic 96-87. The game was representative of what may be to come. With Okafor as a centerpiece, the 76ers are in a position to build a fantastic roster with their giant collection of draft picks and subsequently giant cap space. Not to mention the itching potential and trade value of Nerlens Noel and a healthy Joel Embiid.
Philly may reclaim its spot at the upper-echelon of the Eastern Conference within the next decade with its young core in tow. But it will be a death march to get there, as it was to arrive at six wins in mid-January.
The 76ers set a major sports record with 27 straight regular season losses earlier this season, and it was truly pitiful for the city of Philidelphia and the NBA itself. By every measure, the 76er’s 6-38 record is a blemish on the league’s image. While too much parity isn’t always a good thing, the rules shouldn’t allow a team this terrible to be compiled.
It isn’t just the 76ers. The Los Angeles Lakers are fully embracing the tanking strategy. Head coach Byron Scott curiously neglects to play young franchise cornerstones DeAngelo Russell and Julius Randle in fourth quarters, instead electing for a Brandon Bass and Ryan Kelly front court pairing, and newcomer Marcelo Huertas at the point guard.
That plan just doesn’t make sense. Instead of creating the best possible rotations, LA decided to give Kobe Bryant — at one time shooting around 35% — the most minutes of any player in his sendoff season.
However, Scott isn’t directly behind the tanking. The head coach position, in general, isn’t.
Tanking is purely a front office strategy, and that includes hiring staff. Signs point to the Lakers hiring Scott on purpose — knowing they could easily add ~10 wins with a better coach — in pursuit of holding on to their top 3 protected draft pick.
Fans were miffed at the New York Knicks last season for winning its last few games instead of purposely losing to achieve the worst record.
Teams should never have to consider that a loss would be more helpful than a win.
The NBA not only allows but encourages teams to lose those games with its rules, and it’s inexcusable. It doesn’t even fully acknowledge it at times — commissioner Adam Silver called tanking “the T-word” at a conference in 2014. Tanking is a bad way to run a franchise. There’s no way around it. However, in my goal to examine both sides of every argument, it needs to be asked: is a solution needed?
If the future of the NBA is in consideration, there is no immediate need to fix tanking. It doesn’t jeopardize the games of top teams. In fact, it adds offense and wins and can provide multiple “starters rest” games in April.
When it’s all said and done, the lottery system works, at its most basic level, as it should — the worst teams are in better positions to potentially improve their franchises immediately.
But while the system is good enough, it isn’t as streamlined as it could be. There’s a better system out there that simply doesn’t allow teams to pile up draft picks, nearly hit the salary floor, and only win six games by mid-January. Again, too much parity isn’t ideal, but the NBA could use more of it to create a better product for fans.
My own proposed solution, the Streamlined Lottery and D-League System, won’t check all the boxes at once. No plan could. But with deliberate action over three or so offseasons, something similar to this is certainly plausible.
In order to take away the incentive to sink down to the worst three records in the NBA, the lottery odds need to be streamlined across every team participating. Currently, the worst record has a 25% chance at the first overall pick, the second-worst has a ~20% chance and the third worst a ~15%.
While it makes sense, in theory, rewarding teams like the 76ers for league-worst records in consecutive years does nothing for the league. Sure, they may hit on each of their *thousand* picks in the coming years and become competitive, but how many years of pitiful basketball did it take to get there? And what’s to stop more and more teams from taking the hint and doing the same?
Conversely, if they don’t hit on their top picks, we are back to square one.
Giving each of the 14 non-playoff teams an equal chance for the first overall pick is a possible solution. No percentages or lottery balls, just a pull-it-out-of-the-hat sort of thing. Philly or LA won’t have any worst-record advantage, and it is just as likely for a borderline playoff team to dramatically improve as it is for the Philidelphias of the league to jump forward.
Each NBA team is a LeBron James or Kevin Durant away from the playoffs, and that is why this system is plausible. If a team owns a star at that level, the playoffs (and likely more) are guaranteed. Just because this system leaves a team’s success in the coming years entirely up to chance, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. The NBA is already full of random record changes without the assistance of the lottery.
For one of many examples, see the 2012-13 draft. The Bobcats and Suns — two of the worst teams that year — drafted fourth and fifth. Cody Zeller to Charlotte, Alex Len to Phoenix.
The Suns improved by 23 wins the next year and missed the playoffs by a hair; the Bobcats improved by 22 wins and were the 7th seed.
Zeller on the top and Len on the bottom in the above photo (zoom in if it’s too hard to read). Clearly, neither team got there with their latest top draft picks. It was done with smart roster management and coaching. The current system is already random, independent from the lottery.
Although often overlooked, the D-League in its current form can be an excellent building block for a full-fledged minor league system. The MLB and NHL (but not the NFL) each have setups that provide an affiliate to each team, allow for more flexible roster building, and — most importantly — have considerable financial support from the respective parent league to make the former possible.
The current D-League commands none of those three criteria. How do we fix this?
Give each NBA team an affiliate
Currently, 11 teams have no D-League counterpart. This is the worst part of the current system. If all teams have another equal and reliable avenue for development, more will use it to its full potential. Which leads into the next point…
Separate Cap Balancing and Player Development
Money is on every NBA GM’s mind, and most have to toe the line each offseason. Usage of the D-Leauge would provide many more benefits if a team could spend up to a fixed amount per year (say $3 million) on a player in development that wouldn’t count against the cap. This proposal could certainly work with the upcoming salary cap inflation.
To prevent this from being exploited, picks 1-30 would be paid on a fixed scale no matter which level they play at.
Make Foreign and US Signing Processes Equal
Right now, foreign players can declare more than two months earlier than American prospects, and are often better inclined to stay overseas for more pay and playing time. Get rid of a declaration date altogether, make every player eligible, and — if the above two points are implemented — these players would receive more pay and playing time here instead of there.
While the streamlined lottery system, or any change to the current model, may take a while to arrive, a solution to the D-Leauge is certainly plausible. The value of some NBA franchises are reaching into the billions, and there is even more potential for growth if more future NBA players were starting their careers in a “safer” environment. At the very least, it would create a greater connection with fans and a more marketable product to compete with European leagues.
With the salary cap jump season rapidly approaching, now is the time to reinvent these parts –the weakest parts — of the NBA’s ever-changing landscape.
Grant Thomas View All
18 year old Washington sports fan and Penn State freshman. I'll cover the MLB, NFL, and NBA.
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