Tanking has been one of the primary storylines behind the last couple of NBA seasons. Why? Because of Philadelphia, and because of the 2014 draft class, long touted as the most promising in the last decade, had been seen as containing at least seven players of significant worth, and directly led more teams than usual to throw away their hopes for a championship and pray for lottery balls. That’s the conventional narrative. The fact that it’s wrong (the 2014 season has seen about the same teams lose about the same number of games as the seasons before it) seems to be unessential. Fans know tanking when they see it.
And that’s true — fans know tanking, that is, the art of not putting the best possible product on the floor in order to directly affect a team’s odds of winning a game. It happens, in short bursts, all the time. It happened to the Spurs, who kept players out in order to try and land Tim Duncan. But the idea that vast swathes of NBA front offices have all come together to tank this year for these players is a little silly. The 76ers are tanking, for sure. But the Bobcats tanked in 2012, and no one said anything other than, “Hey, that’s a bad basketball team.”
So what’s different? Aside from the market size and relative marquee of the cellar-dwelling teams — the Lakers aren’t traditionally picking near the top of the draft or playing Robert Sacre massive minutes, and the Boston Celtics haven’t tanked since 2007 — there’s not a whole lot that’s changed, aside from a new CBA that gives more incentives to the team trying to keep their homegrown talents, rather than trade for them. Nevertheless, several solutions to the problem that may not be a problem at all have been put forward.
1. The draft wheel
When the draft wheel, the gist of which would be that each NBA team would know which pick in the draft they were getting years and decades in advance, was first brought out for a public accounting in December, it was quickly understood that there were no measures in place to keep prospective draftees from gaming the system — why declare for the NBA this year when you could go next year to a better/more desirable/hometown team?
Because you’re delaying the NBA paycheck, and waiting another year, a year that could see you dropped from that prestigious No. 1 spot and no guarantee you’d wind up on the team you wanted anyway. The NBA is so fickle that the prospects who were going to declare will declare, nine-times-out-of-ten. No, what screws the draft wheel is the fact that the fans would be able to see it.
““I like the wheel conceptually,” Mark Cuban told Grantland. “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 is currently being discussed around the league, and many assume it will be implemented in some form in the near future.
2. An unweighted lottery
“Equal odds for every non-playoff team,” also known as an unweighted lottery, has been thrown around as a knee-jerk reaction to the notion of tanking. It doesn’t hold up. While it’s true that the 76ers might have avoided conducting a full Sherman’s March on their last couple of season if they weren’t trying to get the best odds for the first pick, another, arguably more terrible form of tanking would follow.
Looking at the 2014 playoff situation, the Bucks, the 76ers, the Celtics and the Orlando Magic, all teams mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, would all have an equal chance to hit that No. 1 pick, so they might play harder. But what about the Atlanta Hawks, who had a blind man’s chance of seeing the NBA Championship trophy that year? They would still make the playoffs, where they will have a zero percent chance of winning the lottery as well as a zero percent chance of winning a title. And sure, the 2014-2015 season saw everything break right for the Hawks, but if they’d had the opportunity to wind up with a shot at Wiggins or Jabari Parker, they would have gone to it. Point being, if you don’t think that the end of the season would feature the nominal 7th and 8th seed teams furiously trying to lose their way into the lottery, you’re not thinking hard enough.
And an unweighted lottery featuring every team, not just the playoff squads? Yeah, that’s absurd. While it very definitively eliminates the incentives of losing — the key element in rejiggering the draft process — it does nothing to address the very real, already-existing talent disparity throughout the league. Would anyone be happy if the 2009 Lakers had landed Blake Griffin immediately after winning an NBA championship? Aside from Lakers Fans, absolutely no one.
3. Abolishing the salary cap
The idea that NBA Superstars are underpaid relative to their value is absolutely true. The idea that allowing players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant to be paid more than their worth by getting rid of the NBA’s salary cap, an idea detailed by Bleacher Report’s Tom Sunnergren, is preposterous. While Sunnergren is correct in leading with, “The league doesn’t have a tanking problem. It has a competitive-balance problem,” his assertion that allowing teams to offer unrestricted contracts to players will only shift the issue from an on-the-court talent issue to an off-the-court bank account problem.
Not all NBA franchises are created equal — consider the Brooklyn Nets, who at one point were so far into the luxury tax that their penalty fee of $80 million is more than all but two teams are paying in nominal team salary, and then consider the Oklahoma City Thunder, who traded away James Harden the season after they made the NBA Finals, citing (however disingenuously) the pressure of going over the luxury tax cap. This form of trickle-down hoopenomics doesn’t pay attention to the separate economic realities that surround the league: that there aren’t thirty Mikhail Prokhorovs behind the scenes.
By making the best players available to the highest bidder without any breaks for the hometown team — and there are several of those currently in place, the incumbent team offering the longest extensions, and so forth — Sunnergren is virtually cosigning less fiscally secure franchises, like Milwaukee and Sacramento or Charlotte, to a slow death. Which would result in contraction … which might help the competitive balance of the NBA, but at what cost?