If you are reading this article, you have probably heard a lot about the scourge of tanking in the NBA. The national media has been clutching at pearls for some time now, fanning themselves and looking for a fainting couch as they worry about the fate of NBA franchises who aren't trying to maximize their win-loss record in a given season. They want to change an incentive structure that encourages teams to lose games in order to increase their draft position rather than fight the good fight until the very last day of the regular season. The Philadelphia 76ers have become the poster boy for this problem - a franchise run by private equity guys and analytics hounds who have thumbed their noses at the conventional wisdom and dared to build for the future and not the present.
In an effort to stop those dastardly 76ers, a wide variety of proposals have been floated. Nate Silver wants to distribute lottery balls proportionally based off number of losses instead of finish in the standings. Mike Zarren of the Celtics has invented something called "The Wheel". A lottery reform proposal that would have meant the Top 7 picks would be selected by chance, rather than the Top 3, was voted down by the owners before the start of the season. Either way, change is happening so that we can protect the sanctity of NBA regular season games in March and April.
However, if you take more than an even cursory look at the topic, you might start to ask yourself a few questions.
1) Why does it seem like the vast majority of 76ers fans on internet support the strategy? Who are we protecting from what exactly?
2) If the 76ers are such a disgrace to competitive basketball, how come they have a better record this season than the Wolves and the Knicks?
The first thing any well-meaning reformer has to do is look at the issue not through the lens of a hardcore NBA fan but of a general sports fan in the entertainment marketplace. I'm a Dallas Mavericks fan and I go to just about every game at the AAC but I would go to every game pretty much regardless of what the home team was doing just to see other teams and I would follow the Mavs even if they were 30-35 games below .500. In other words, I'm not the marginal consumer of NBA basketball.
I look at it more through the lens of the Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers. I'm generally aware of what happens in NHL and MLB but I don't follow things all that closely. I'm not a huge fan of either sport and I hardly ever watch or to go games. In that regard, I'm no different than most Dallas sports fans, who are about as shameless a group of front-runners as you will ever see. We don't live in the Midwest or the Northeast. We live in a pleasant part of the country and there are things we can do outside rather than watch bad professional sports teams. The only reason I'm going to pay attention to the Stars or the Rangers is if they are making a playoff push. Once those teams are eliminated from playoff contention, I don't have all that much interest in what they are doing.
If you don't have a very good team, which was the case for the Stars this season and certainly looks like will be the case for the Rangers, the best way to appeal to fan like me is to present hope for the future. The Stars have two young stars - Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin - and a core of talented under-23 defenseman who are still learning the NHL game. The Rangers have one of the best farm systems in MLB. My interest in both franchises is pretty much dependent on what they will do in the future and there really isn't much they can do to get me excited about a fairly mediocre present.
I think you can see how this dynamic relates to rebuilding franchises in the NBA. There aren't many scenarios where a marginal fan in a given city is going to care what happens to a losing team. Not when they can watch NFL or MLB or NHL or NCAA or Netflix or PS4 or their social media feed or really any piece of entertainment in the entire world. To paraphrase George Patton, Americans like to support winners and we don't give a damn about anything else. In that regards, any way of drumming up interest in a bad team that doesn't involve them getting some good young players next season is kind of pointless.
You can decide draft order by a rolling average of 3 seasons or a tournament of the worst teams in basketball or picking all 14 teams in the lottery out of a hat if you want. None of that is going to make an April game between the Lakers and the Knicks any more exciting for the casual basketball fan. The only way to get a marginal fan interested in what the Lakers or the Knicks are doing is the promise of getting one of the best young players in the game in the off-season by means of the draft. In short, the best thing a bad team can do to generate fan support is to begin a rebuilding process. Hope is the only thing they can sell to their fan base.
If you look at Mark Cuban's comments in Zach Lowe's piece on The Wheel, you can see him gently trying to put the whole concept to bed:
“I like the wheel conceptually,” says Cuban. “But I think it makes it harder to sell hope to fans. And hope is a huge connecting point between rebuilding teams and their fans. The wheel turns the NBA into a planning exercise that rewards smart organizations for being smart. I just don’t know if that dovetails with the business we are in.”The draft is not there to reward the most well-run organizations. The draft is there to depress the salaries of young players and to ensure that fans of bad teams have some reason to come out to the arena next season. The worst thing that can happen to a fan base is to have a terrible season and no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as a reward for all that misery. Maybe The Wheel would prevent a team from a slash-and-burn rebuilding job like the 76ers. How could The Wheel prevent a poorly run team from mortgaging their future or building a veteran-laden team they thought could win but was really this close to having the wheels come off? What happens to these versions of the Lakers and the Knicks if there's no way they can get a Top 10 pick until 2025?
That's the thing about a closed league where every team plays each other. This isn't the NCAA where big programs can schedule small schools and rack up wins regardless of how well their roster is put together. The NBA is a zero-sum game and for every team that wins a game there has to be a team that loses. What that means is if there is going to be a team like the Warriors that wins 65 games there has to be a team at the bottom who loses 65. It doesn't matter if you are trying to win or you are trying to lose. In a given distribution of basketball players, there are going to be a small percentage who disproportionately affect wins and losses and they are going to be concentrated on a select number of teams. There aren't 30 All-NBA caliber players in the NBA and there certainly aren't 30 franchise players.
Remember what happened to the Bucks last season? They were supposed to be the anti-76ers but they ended up having a bunch of injuries and plummeting to the bottom of the league. That's what happened to the Wolves this season - they weren't trying to tank from Day 1, not when they already had a potential cornerstone in Andrew Wiggins and were trying to save face after being forced to give away Kevin Love. A team that's tanking isn't forfeiting a first-round pick to include Thaddeus Young in a three-way trade. Similarly, a team that's tanking isn't going to give a 30+ star like Carmelo Anthony a maximum contract. Yet, somehow, Minnesota and New York have about the same odds of grabbing a No. 1 overall pick as Philadelphia.
In short, any move designed to punish the 76ers is going to end up harming a wide variety of franchises that didn't have their same intentions. Maybe that doesn't matter because we should be punishing all franchises for being incompetently run but that isn't exactly the business model we have for pro sports in the United States. If you want to make every game of every season relevant the only way to do that is relegation and that is never happening, not given the amount of money that each owner of an NBA franchise had to put up to get involved in the league. What happens to the franchise value of the Wolves if they end up playing in the D-League following the David Kahn era? That lets you know all you need to know about the feasibility of relegation in the NBA.
From a broader perspective, it certainly seems like the only reason relegation works in England is because there isn't much competition for the entertainment dollar. It's soccer, soccer, soccer over in the Mother Country and if one soccer team isn't doing well, there's another local soccer team for fans to support. That's not the situation the NBA, MLB and NHL find themselves in the US. Want to destroy interest in baseball, hockey or basketball in the North Texas area? Send the local pro franchise to the minor leagues and don't give area fans the chance to watch the best players in the sport up close. The quickest way for TV ratings for the NBA to suffer in Dallas is for the Mavericks to be bad for a long time. The same goes in 90% of the markets in this country.
Wooooo Hoooooo! It's official! 30th place is ours! McEichel is ours! #EmbraceTheTank #Tank4McEichel #Sabres pic.twitter.com/QCbZMBOOkn
— Michael Thomas (@MichaelThomas82) April 11, 2015
The worst thing that can happen to fan interest in the NBA in a given market is not the local team tanking and trying to lose games to improve their position in the draft. Most hardcore fans embrace the tank and want their teams to lose and casual fans aren't going to care regardless. Does it matter to the average Philly sports fan if the 76ers win 30 games as opposed to 20? The only thing matters to them is if Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel can live up to their potential and if the young guy the 76ers draft in 2015 can help them in that process. They have already tuned out for the season and there's precious little the NBA can do to tune them back in. What should worry the NBA is not what's happening in Philly but what's happening in Brooklyn.
The Nets are fighting till the last day of the season to squeeze into the 8 seed with a record way below .500. It's the same situation as the Celtics except the Celtics have a few young players they can build around and a bevy of future picks from the Nets, most of which they gave up in an ill-fated attempt to buy a championship behind aging players in Mikhail Prokhorov's first few years as the owner. As a result, the situation in Brooklyn is GRIM. They can't sell their fan base on rebuilding around quality young players because they gave away all their draft picks and they are going to have a hard time moving out from their malaise in the middle of a really bad Eastern Conference because they don't have many tradeable assets and the best free agents don't tend to sign with bad teams.
The result is a team that's going to flounder about for a long time with no real hope for the future. The future for the Nets is so much worse than the 76ers and that's a significant problem for the NBA. The Nets are operating in the middle of the biggest media market in the world and they are playing in one of the nicest stadiums in the league. They should be a crown jewel franchise. What can they sell their fans over the next 5 years? At least the Knicks will have no worse than a Top 5-Top 6 pick next season. Maybe Karl Towns or Willie Cauley-Stein or D'Angelo Russell or whoever doesn't fix all their problems or even most of them. It's something though. What are the Nets going to sell? The late first-round pick they get as part of their deal with the Hawks? The Nets need that lottery pick a lot more than the Hawks, that's for sure. Atlanta gave away their last lottery pick (Adreian Payne) because they are winning a bunch of games and not trying to bring rookies along.
When you look at it that way, the real problem to competitive balance in the NBA isn't tanking, it's teams who finish in the lottery who don't have lottery picks because they traded them away. So if you are talking about fixing a problem in the league's current structure, that's the direction I would be going in. Forget incentivizing teams not to tank - we should encourage them to do so if that's the best way they can appeal to their fans. What I would like to see is something along the lines of the Ted Stepein rule, which disallows teams from trading consecutive first-round picks. We can call it the Mikhail Prokhorov rule - a team that finishes in the bottom 10 automatically gets to keep their pick for that season. All high lottery picks become automatically protected.
A lot of people would disagree with that on the grounds of we shouldn't be protecting poorly managed teams from themselves, even though that's exactly what we do now with things like the Stepein rule. What these rules are really designed to do is to protect interest in professional basketball in every part of the country by ensuring that the local NBA team has the chance to become competitive in the medium-term future. That should be the goal of any reform effort when it comes to the lottery, not ensuring that every team ends up somewhere in the vicinity of 30 wins or, even worse, allowing the most well-run teams to run even more circles around their competitors. The NBA is not a meritocracy and it's not a free-for-all to ensure that the best run teams stay on top because they are smarter than everyone else. That's what Cuban was trying to tell Zach Lowe - that's not what the business of the NBA actually is.
The media-fueled obsession with tanking and the dangers of teams losing too many games in one season is an exercise in missing the forest through the trees. Not every team can be equally good every year - in a given season, there's only so many teams that can realistically expect to compete for a championship. What the other teams who aren't in that mix have to do is build for the future. The goal shouldn't be a season where every team is locked into trying to finish at 41-41 but a more free-flowing system that gives every franchise the chance to reach at least 50-55 wins over a 5-10 year window. Taking the option of slashing-and-burning out of the toolbox of the rebuilding team does nothing to ensure a more competitive league where interest is high in all 30 markets.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8It's the same in the NBA - there's a time to win and a there's a time to lose. As long as a draft exists, trying to construct a league where there is no tanking is like trying to create a forest where there are no fires. Every once in awhile, you have to clear out the underbrush and let new things grow. There was no need for the Suns to get a bunch of picks for Steve Nash (and derail the Lakers rebuild) anymore than there was a need for the Celtics to get a bunch of picks for KG and Paul Pierce. Those trades were going to happen regardless because it was time for Boston and Phoenix to start fresh and give younger players opportunities. From there, if a team like the Nets or the Lakers or the Knicks miscalculates as to what stage of the building process they are actually in, you want to make it easier for them to rebuild, not harder.
The problem is not fans in those cities rooting for their teams to lose. The problem is them not rooting at all.