Tanking, the strategy of losing as many games as possible to improve draft position, has never sat well with me. Fundamentally, its contrary to my sense that every team should try to win every game it plays. So I’m pretty solidly in line with Herm Edwards on this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W42iiCcFbxE.
When the NBA combines teams that are purposefully non-competitive with too-often shaky officiating, it pushes the league perilously close to professional wresting, an athletic enterprise with no competitive value or genuine drama. That drama only exists when there is uncertainty of what will happen when competitive teams pursue the same objective. If that uncertainty is undermined because some teams decide to simply not compete, then there is no drama and no reason to watch something that suddenly starts to feel less than legitimate. That threat to legitimacy is the true danger of tanking and no league can afford to have its authenticity called into question.
Beyond the damage to the league’s credibility, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that tanking for draft picks isn’t even an effective strategy to build a championship team. Seven different franchises have won the NBA championship since 2000 and none of them acquired the key pieces of their team by tanking to get high draft picks:
- Los Angeles Lakers 2000-2002: Shaq and Kobe landed in Los Angeles via trade.
- San Antonio Spurs 2003, 2005, 2007: Tony Parker (28th pick) and Manu Ginobili (57th pick) were late selections well outside the lottery and though Tim Duncan was a No. 1 overall pick, contrary to revisionist history, the Spurs got him through blind luck rather than tanking.
- Detroit Pistons 2004: Cobbled together a champion with Tayshaun Prince, drafted 23rd, as the only one of their five best players drafted by the team.
- Miami Heat 2006: Led by Dwayne Wade (5th pick) with three starters acquired by trade and the fifth (Udonis Haslem) signed as an undrafted free agent.
- Boston Celtics 2008: Aggressively tanked games to improve their lottery odds of getting Duncan in 1998. They didn’t win the top pick and suffered another decade of irrelevance before they won a championship with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, players they got in trades.
- Los Angeles Lakers 2009, 2010: The post- Shaq Lakers won another two championships with Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, all acquired through trade.
- Dallas 2011: Dirk Nowitzki (9th pick) was the only starter drafted by the team. The remaining four starters were acquired in the draft or free agency.
- Miami Heat 2012, 2013: Our current champion the pulled of the most infamous coup in league history by signing both Lebron James and Chris Bosh in free agency.
Add in the uncertainty of high draft picks morphing into superstars while playing with the team that drafted them and its fair to think that teams would be better served by trying to be competitive while improving their team through free agency, solid player selection regardless of draft position, and team continuity.
And oh yeah, at least attempting to be competitive serves the clearly less important (in the minds of tanking GMs) goal of not antagonizing and alienating your fan base.
So what to do? How can we remove the incentive to pursue the dubious tanking strategy without damning teams to mediocrity while also maximizing the season’s drama?
Through two easy steps.
First, adopt Bill Simmons’ idea of the Entertaining as Hell tournament. I won’t do a deep dive into the tournament concept since you can read about it at http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6749669/if-ruled-nba-world. The gist of the idea is to hold a single elimination tournament among all the teams that finish below the seventh seed. The winner of the tournament gets the eighth seed. Having a chance to jump into the playoffs at the end of season will infuse the NBA with March Madness style excitement and discourage tanking since every team will have a chance to sneak into the playoffs right until the end.
The second and more revolutionary step?
ELIMINATE THE NBA DRAFT
Here’s what we’ll do: eliminate the draft and replace it with a three week signing period after the Finals during which any team can sign any player not in the NBA who agrees to play on their squad. Each team will be allowed a hard salary capped pot of money that it can use on players over a two-year period. The new-player cap would be renewed after the two-year period and have no an impact on the existing salary cap structure for players already on the team. Roster sizes would also remain the same.
So if the Heat choose to spend 60% percent of their new player budget on Wiggins, and he agrees to play there, both parties are free to make it happen. However, that would leave the Heat with only 40 % of their new-player budget to spend on other non-NBA players during the current and next signing period. The cap will prevent attractive big city teams from cornering all the talent and allow players to have the same right of self-determination that every other job seeker enjoys.
Shedding the draft will also place a premium on smart, effective, management, which is the real key to building a contender. Most importantly, it aligns the incentives of the game with the most desirable outcome of the sport, which should be maximum competitiveness on and off the court. With no carrot attached to accruing losses, teams will focus on being competitive enough to either make the playoffs as a top seven team or navigate the play-in tournament for the final playoff spot.
I know what you’re thinking. Won’t eliminating the sacrosanct draft, the presumptive ladder to success, relegate poor, small market teams to be steamrolled year after miserable year?
The draft has been in place for the entirety of the existence of the Wizards, Raptors, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Clippers, Warriors, and Bobcats who have a collective lifetime winning percentage of just .411, which amounts to 34 wins per season. In other words, a quarter of the league has been consistently horrible so lets divorce ourselves from the myth that the draft uplifts bad teams.
Bad teams get better when management gets smart enough to capitalize on opportunities provided either by luck or savvy. However, smart management is de-emphasized by a disjointed, lottery-based draft system. Besides, why should crappy mismanaged teams get rewarded for ineffective management with high lottery picks that they can then continue to mismanage? Teams should be rewarded for success not ineptitude.
While we’re here, lets not forget that the draft is just downright un-American. In no other segment of society are businesses allowed to conscript employees into their company regardless of the desire of the recruit. Why should Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker have to begin their professional careers in Charlotte or New Orleans simply because those teams won a lottery? Would we ever tolerate Goldman Sachs controlling the vocational rights of a business school grad simply because the company won a lottery based on weighted degrees of incompetence?
The NBA game is best when its inventive, bold, and aggressive and the same approach should be applied to getting rid of the draft and getting rid of tanking.