When asked a few days after the NBA All-Star Game, ESPN insider Brian Windhorst was asked about what he most excited to see in the second half of the NBA season. He didn’t say the Cavaliers who are going into the latter half with essentially an entirely different roster nor the Rockets who are hitting more three-pointers than the mighty Warriors nor the Celtics or Raptors who are still fighting to prove they can challenge the Cavs in the East.
Instead of being excited about the teams atop the standings in the NBA, Windhorst said he was excited to see the race to the bottom of said standings. He pointed out a particularly peculiar loss by the Knicks shortly before the All-Star break in which they were up by 27 points and still found a way to lose.
What he is referring to is the growing problem the NBA is having with some of its teams purposely losing or “tanking” to better their chances of having a high draft pick. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for recently admitting tanking was the best option for the team.
The Philadelphia 76ers made the tactic infamous while living by it for years in an attempt to put themselves in position to draft good, young talent over the span. The reasoning behind this tactic resounds particularly with smaller markets as there are usually two or three real difference-makers in the draft and usually found in the top five. So if a team can get in that range and draft a player that turns out to be a superstar, they have that player under contract for the better part of a decade.
The NBA is particularly vulnerable to this problem because of the way they determine the draft order. Other major sports leagues determine draft order by records. In the NFL, the Browns finished 0-16 so they immediately were rewarded the first pick. In the NBA, the team with the league’s worst record simply has the highest chance of getting the first pick.
The NBA has a lottery in which the order of draft picks are determined by a lottery with the 14 teams that missed the playoffs. The better their record, the worst chance they have of being high in the draft. The team with the worst record has a 25 percent chance of getting the first pick and it moves down from there based on record. This incentivizes teams to have a worse record than their peers so they can have the higher percentage chance.
There is a lot of discussion around the question if tanking is even a problem and on the national stage, it probably isn’t. The local fan bases, however, deserve to have a team that isn’t actively trying to lose. I know this may seem like it runs counter to a previous column about why it’s okay to be happy with a loss if it means the betterment for your team’s long-term future but there is a key difference.
NFL teams don’t put in their all their backups once they’re eliminated from the playoffs to try and tank. They still attempt to win and if they don’t, that’s fine. What NBA teams are doing is purposely putting a bad product on the court.
So an important piece of NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s main agenda was to fix this tanking problem. His solution was to lower the chance of the worst team in the league of getting the first overall pick from 25 percent to 14 percent.
This change also decreases the second worst team from 20 percent and the third worst slightly from 15 percent. So while it may sound like a good solution, Silver actually gives the two teams that have slightly better records an equal chance they didn’t have before. Albeit, not greater but equal.
This supposed fix will not solve tanking but rather increase it. Now more teams have more incentive to tank because even if they can’t do that right, if they can just lose a bit then they have a better chance than they did in previous years to get the first pick. They discourage the worst team by helping those above it.
Even teams outside of the top three will have better chances of jumping higher. So if there is a mediocre team in the Western Conference, the NBA’s far superior one, who has a .500 record and it’s clear they aren’t going to make the playoffs, why should they not tank?
In the past, it wasn’t worth all the risks for a 1 percent chance of getting a high pick but now that chance is raised, they have all the incentive they need. The NBA’s fix has solved tanking at the top but the trickle-down effect will likely cause it to spread.
The change, which will begin in the 2019 draft, essentially eliminates the message that it’s okay for teams to be mediocre. The fear of potentially upsetting its fans by going hard for the eighth-best chance of getting a top-three pick was enough to keep a large number of teams from tanking but now that fear is gone because the chances of greater reward are so much higher.
Fixing tanking is a complicated issue and one that I’ll discuss in another column but this proposed solution isn’t the answer. Teams will now aspire to begin tanking after the All-Star break if it’s clear they aren’t going to make the playoffs. That’s unfair to the fans and a move meant to help them is, in fact, doing the opposite.
Tad Desai covers sports and education for The Sealy News. He can be reached at 979-885-3562 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.