It's no secret that teams around the NBA—specifically, those without a prayer of making the playoffs, much less contending for the Larry O'Brien Trophy—are trying to do everything but win.
Because losing, as it happens, can open up paths to long-term success. Like the other major American professional sports, basketball rewards its biggest losers with plum draft picks. This affords the worst teams the best opportunity to snag the top talent of tomorrow, even (or, rather, especially) if it means putting out a mediocre product today.
In the parlance of our times, this strategy is referred to as "tanking." And, with what's expected to be a loaded pool of talent stepping into the 2014 NBA draft, tanking has become all the rage.
Which shouldn't come as any surprise. After all, one superstar can make all the difference.
The Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics all made major moves this past summer to strip-mine their rosters and drop like stones down the league standings. Chances are, they'll be joined in this apparent race to the bottom by the Charlotte Bobcats, Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic, among others.
As if there were any doubt that tanking is an actual thing, one anonymous general manager (via ESPN's Jeff Goodman) has confirmed that front-office executives are indeed pursuing purposeful putridity this season.
If you value earnest competition, as outgoing commissioner David Stern and current deputy Adam Silver certainly do, you can't be too pleased to hear anyone lending credence to this notion, however obvious its existence may be to hoops heads everywhere.
What, then, can Stern, Silver and their colleagues at the league office in New York City do to curb teams' enthusiasm for tanking?
Quite a bit, actually.
From left to right: commissioner David Stern, Patrick Ewing and then-New York Knicks executive Dave DeBusschere
The NBA draft lottery first came about as a way of curtailing tanking, but it wasn't always designed with its current weighting in mind.
In fact, when the lottery first came into being in 1985, every non-playoff team had an equal shot at landing the No. 1 pick. Essentially, the draft order among those franchises that failed to quality for the postseason was randomized.
According to Justin Trogdon, a senior research economist at RTI International (via TrueHoop), this system nearly wiped out "tanking" the very same year it was instituted. No longer was there an advantage to being so much worse than everyone else.
But this approach wasn't seen as entirely "fair"; for one, there was concern that big-city teams might wind up with picks that were consistently better than those they "deserved."
And clearly, a team that just misses the playoffs is less in need of a transformative figure than is one that's down in the dumps...right?
Maybe not. As ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz discussed, there's a paralyzing fear among some executives and within the basketball intelligentsia of landing on the "treadmill of mediocrity." Those in the middle can get stuck in a rut, never achieving the highest highs...or suffering through the lowest lows. That cycle can be demoralizing and tyrannical in its own way.
As the now-somewhat-conventional wisdom goes, it's better to lose big now so you can win big later than it is to try to win all the time.
But the evidence supporting this "en vogue" approach is slim, anecdotal and infrequent, to say the least. If there's no advantage (real or perceived) to stripping your roster down to the nub—and potentially turning your organization into a swamp of perpetual fail—then perhaps teams won't explore "intentional losing" as a better alternative to actually trying to win and do what's best for their fans and their internal culture.
Why race to the bottom when everyone else can get there just as quickly and as easily as you can, without the need for pain? We might just see more competitive games from start to finish, and fewer general managers going out of their way to undermine the efforts of the players they employ.
In today's terms, that would mean giving one ping-pong ball apiece to 14 teams at season's end and spinning the wheel for every pick—not just the top three. That way, everyone who's not good enough to play in the postseason can have a shot at landing a player capable of changing that trend.
If achieving strong competition all season long is the goal, then perhaps everyone should have a chance to play for something meaningful, regardless of where they finish in the standings.
This is the case across most of NCAA Division I basketball. A number of college athletic conferences allow the very worst among them to compete in their postseason tournaments, with the winners qualifying for March Madness, regardless of regular-season records and resumes.
This has been a boon to the excitement inherent in the NCAA tournament. Sometimes, middling teams qualify for the 68-team field. Most of the time, those teams get creamed by superior competition in the earlier rounds.
But, on occasion, teams like VCU and UConn (circa 2011) make the most of their postseason appearances and rip off deep runs that ruin brackets and bolster the popularity of the event all the same.
"Cinderella" runs aren't common in the NBA, but they do happen. Just ask the New York Knicks in 1999 or, more recently, the Golden State Warriors this past spring. The best teams in basketball almost always win championships, but, from time to time, there are those that get hot and take the field by storm.
With that carrot in the mind of championship-hungry franchises everywhere, why not open up the postseason field to everyone?
I know, I know, more than half of the NBA's teams get to play past mid-April anyway, and the playoffs are already way too long.
But what if the league instituted something akin to Bill Simmons' "Entertaining As Hell" tournament? Which is to say, what if the top seven seeds in each conference were decided as they've always been, with the eighth spot on each side decided by an eight-team, single-elimination tournament?
This wouldn't address the pitfalls inherent in the existing draft system, though it could be used as an adjunct to other draft-related anti-tanking strategies. It would encourage teams to get their act together down the stretch of the season.
Players who want to win should get on board, and executives who appreciate the added revenue of more (and more meaningful) games won't mind the extra coin that comes in.
Here's a solution for tanking straight from the heart of the vaunted MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (via Jared Wade): Decide the early draft order according to the total wins teams rack up after being eliminated from postseason qualification.
To clarify: Let's say one team is eliminated from postseason consideration with 20 games to go, while one is knocked out with five left. The former could still take the top pick with a losing record—one of, say, 7-13—and finish ahead of the latter, even in the event of a 5-0 finish. The second, though, could just as easily leapfrog slightly lesser teams (i.e. ones with 4-6 records after elimination) as reward for finishing strong.
Think about it. Most of the time, teams don't stink because they "want" to stink; they stink because they don't have talent, they're struggling with injuries or some other combination of factors beyond organizational intent.
If the league wants to encourage teams to compete all the time, they should give teams that just so happen to be bad something positive to strive for. Those teams that are plain terrible will be eliminated from playoff consideration much earlier than those that fall just shy of the 16-team field. Thus, bad teams will have more opportunities to win games that could be important to the future of the franchise in a tangible way.
Give bad teams something to play for, even if there's no trophy at the end of the immediate tunnel. That way, players can actually be of service in making their teams better, not just worse.
Now, if you really want to get into Sloan-style sports-economics nerd-dom, consider the concept proposed by Arup Sen and Timothy Bond of Purdue University (via TrueHoop).
In their scenario, the draft order would be determined by auction. Rather than racking up picks year after year, teams would be given "credits" to be spent on draft slots. The teams with worse records would receive more credits than their better counterparts.
Hypothetically speaking, every team would have access to the top pick in a given year if it uses its credits judiciously over the course of time—and if the talent warrants lodging such a bid. This would create a "market" of sorts, through which teams could gauge the value of prospects and the picks needed to land them on a year-to-year basis.
This system could also have controls to guard against teams intentionally tanking for credits. That is, if a squad's record during the second half of a season is so much worse than in the first as to arouse suspicion of planned putridity (see: the 2011-12 Golden State Warriors), the league could penalize that team for engaging in such pernicious activity.
Sure, this might not cure tanking entirely; chances are, the most desperate (and sneaky) teams would find ways to circumvent this system by either claiming injuries that don't exist (but can't be disproved) or trumping up actual maladies.
Moreover, asking the NBA to meddle in the affairs of its member teams so closely and so frequently may not be the best idea. Just ask fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, some of whom (like yours truly) are still smarting over "basketball reasons."
But, if nothing else, an auction draft would give fans, chiefly those of the geekier persuasion, an intriguing event to follow, one that gives everyone a glimpse, however limited, of the inner workings of their favorite teams. You can bet Basketball Twitter would be abuzz with debate over whether a team should've spent X credits to lock down Slot Y...and, hopefully, Player Z.
What if I told you the NBA didn't need a draft at all? That the league could achieve competitive balance by allowing teams to pursue incoming players as free agents?
You might say that an approach like this would ruin competitive balance, that it would allow big-city teams to dominate even more than they do now by wielding their financial might on the open market.
But consider a few key counterpoints:
1. As West Virginia University economics professor Brad Humphreys noted for ESPN's TrueHoop in September, the league's salary-cap and luxury-tax structure already has controls for much of that. There are only so many spots on a given team to fill, and there's only so much money that teams are allowed to spend to fill them.
2. Humphreys also notes a body of research that debunks the "myths" that drafts, caps and revenue sharing have any positive effect on competitive balance.
3. Historically speaking, TrueHoop's Henry Abbott reminded us last year that the idea of a reverse-order draft in American sports was borne not of a desire to make leagues fairer by rewarding mediocrity, but rather as a means of depressing the player salaries, particularly those of incoming youngsters. The draft, it seems, has merely been solid as an equalizer since then.
Why not get rid of the draft then? Those teams that already have great players on their rosters won't have the need or the resources to go after the next generation's top prospects. The "have-nots" will still be subjected to forces beyond (what would seem to be) their immediate control, but that would be the case with a draft anyway.
And, most importantly, improving your team would come about not by being bad on purpose, but rather through smart, savvy management—which is already the case among the NBA's better teams and ought to be for those whose organizational structures are currently in decay.
In other words, don't incentivize and empower bad owners and bad front offices that run dysfunctional franchises. Rather, give the advantage to those teams that do things the right way.
Which is something that, ideally, every organization can accomplish, regardless of the talent on the floor.
Which tanking solution do YOU think is best? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter!