Tanking has taken an unprecedented place in the 2013-14 NBA regular season narrative–never has the subject of not trying to win, and essentially trying to lose, been discussed with such vigor among casual fans.
We all knew a year ago that the 2014 NBA draft was supposed to be special, and the tanking talk has been blaring nonstop ever since. In most circles, tanking is seen as a serious problem–bad NBA teams are motivated to lose instead of win. Especially in the latter half of the NBA regular season, we often see lottery-bound teams giving ample playing time to unproven, young and clearly inadequate NBA players. The goal is not to win, and sometimes not even to compete. The conscious decision to fail has been made in hopes of landing as high a draft pick as possible.
The Philadelphia 76ers this season are a particularly vivid example of this. After trading away Lavoy Allen, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner at the trade deadline, Thaddeus Young is the only solid NBA veteran left on their entire roster. Unsurprisingly, Philadelphia has lost 15 straight, and has the worst point differential in the league. This seems to have been the plan all along.
There is an argument to be made that, in terms of the big picture, tanking is actually good for the NBA. It draws more attention to the league, and fans of bad teams are more likely to continue following their team through their struggles by holding out for the salvation a top draft pick can bring.
However, if we remain rationally focused on the subject long enough, we inevitably come to think that tanking is a bad thing. It takes away from the integrity of the game, and has become such a hot-button issue that it no longer can justifiably be dismissed.
The NBA has recently been considering making serious changes to the drafting process, and possibly implementing some ideas that are more drastic than we might expect. But the easiest—and perhaps best—solution is just to go back to principles of the old lottery model that were shortly in effect in the mid-1980’s.
The simplicity of the older lottery model is striking: Each of the 14 non-playoff teams would have an equal opportunity to pick anywhere in the lottery. For instance, there could be 14 envelopes in a jar. The team whose envelope is drawn first gets the first pick. The next drawn team gets the second pick, the next drawn team the third pick, and so on. The process is repeated through pick #14, which is the end of the lottery. The entire process could even be reversed–so the 14th pick is drawn first–for increased television ratings and drama.
Critics of this abundantly practical lottery model will have plenty to criticize about it–but those arguments hold little merit in my opinion. The NBA is a highly competitive league, and there is little difference between the worst team in the league and one of the better non-playoff teams. The main difference in roster talent in the NBA is between the few superior NBA teams and every other squad. Between lottery teams there is little disparity–the main differences are simply how well these lottery teams are managed and coached.
The worst teams in the league can become some of the better non-playoff teams within a year’s time easily. Or they can do better than that. Charlotte and Phoenix, for example, had two of the worst records in 2012-13. This season they are on track to make the playoffs. When critics of a lottery system (like the one I have proposed above) say it is too random, they are not paying attention to how roster management works in the league.
There is no need to reward teams like the 76ers for being purposefully as bad as they are. They should have no worse or better a chance to receive the first pick in the 2014 draft as the Memphis Grizzlies (currently the best non-playoff team). Both of these teams should also have an equal chance to receive the 14th pick. A lottery system like this would not revolutionize or destroy the NBA. It would just make it a little bit fairer, and more interesting.
Drafting is too random of a process, and the league has too much inherent parity, for me to seriously believe that we need to give teams like the 76ers, Celtics or Jazz a higher pick in 2014 just because they consciously decided to be bad for the 2013-14 season. The priority for modern NBA front offices and coaches should be to get their teams to succeed. Losing does not ever need to be incentivized. The league can afford to be random with their draft lottery, and if they are, tanking will become a thing of the past.