Dave DeBusschere and David Stern pose following the NBA's first draft lottery (Getty Images)
The discussion surrounding NBA teams “tanking” and willingly turning in losing efforts in order to obtain high-end draft picks has reached a fever pitch. Though some teams have been more “successful” than others in punting games this season -- and even though finishing with the worst record guarantees only a 25 percent chance at the top overall pick during the NBA’s yearly draft lottery -- many fans and scores of print personnel see this type of rebuilding plan as a bad thing for the league.
Things came to a head on Monday when Grantland’s Zach Lowe, a mindful sort who isn’t among those rattling the cages while kvetching about tanking, published a proposal that has been discussed by the league as a resolution to end the tank jobs. In the system under discussion, the NBA would set up a “wheel” of rotating draft picks, one that would ensure a team a top overall pick every 30 years, with established guaranteed picking spots at all points in between 2 and 30 in the ensuing years. Though it isn’t as severe as a fantasy draft, the selection points aren’t unlike a team having the final pick in the first round, followed by the top pick in the second round.
The process would do away with the NBA’s draft lottery, which has been in place since 1985 and weighted heavily since 1994. Whether it would change the landscape of the league all that much is anyone’s guess. From Lowe’s report:
The team that gets the no. 1 pick in the very first year of this proposed system would draft in the following slots over the system's first six seasons: 1st, 30th, 19th, 18th, 7th, 6th. Just follow the wheel around clockwise to see the entire 30-year pick cycle of each team, depending on their starting spoke in Year 1.
The system is designed to eliminate the link between being very bad and getting a high draft pick. There is no benefit at all to being bad under a wheel system like this. If you believe tanking is morally wrong, or that it hurts business by alienating fans and cutting into attendance, this is a system you could get behind.
The sticking points behind this plan are almost too numerous to mention, so we’ll try to keep this under 20,000 words.
All drafts are not created equal, as the differences between the 2013 and '14 drafts have already proven. The Cleveland Cavaliers may have erred in drafting Anthony Bennett first overall last June, but any player they would have taken at that top slot instead of Bennett – even if Nerlens Noel hadn’t torn his ACL – would have been a top-five or -six prospect at best in next June’s loaded draft. It’s true that taking Andrew Bogut over Chris Paul or Andrea Bargnani over LaMarcus Aldridge in certain years is the franchise’s fault, but it certainly isn’t the franchise’s fault when they land a top pick in, say, the “John Wall year” instead of the “Derrick Rose year.”
And again, as we’ve discussed over and over and over again for years … the lottery works.
You may not like it, and fans of teams with the worst overall record may not like the fact that they’re guaranteed only a 35.7 percent chance at one of the top-three overall picks in any draft, but the lottery keeps things on the level. The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics famously tanked in 2007 for a shot at either Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, and the lottery eventually had them slide all the way down to grab the fifth and sixth picks in the first round that year, the farthest they could fall. The Bobcats, outside of picking up Ben Gordon (a move that was really made to grab another first-round pick) barely made any transactions in the 2011 and '12 offseasons in order to lose games, and they’ve yet to pick first overall. There’s no guarantees, by design.
On top of that, look at what’s gone “wrong” for the teams that entered 2013-14 hoping to lose games.
The Philadelphia 76ers may have fallen back to earth after a hot start, but they remain one of the more entertaining teams in the league to watch and have piled up far more wins than most expected they could by this point. The Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns are also on that entertaining list, and both are in their conference’s playoff bracket as we head into 2014. Same goes for the Toronto Raptors, who are actually leading their division. When you “tank” by outfitting teams with young and hungry players and an intelligent coaching staff, you can’t help but back into wins.
This is how it goes in Major League Baseball as well, but nobody seems to mind because the rosters are so deep, and the baseball draft is barely noticed by a healthy chunk of even the most ardent baseball fans. Youngsters need reps and seasoning. Win-now lineups that hand heavy minutes to veterans you can count on to keep things close, at the expense of giving needed minutes to developing players, are routinely revealed as penny-wise and pound-foolish. One only needs to look at the disappointing production of Utah Jazz big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, in their first year as go-to starters, for proof.
This would also give team owners a chance to skip on scouting, because a payroll department would have less interest in flying scouts and front office personnel all around the college and international landscape when they knew the team “only” had the 25th pick to work with. Scouts need to see picks 1 through 60 so as to have a handle on each of the incoming potential picks for future trade and free-agent purchases.
What’s less concerning to me but of major concern to the average fan and the league’s head office is the dwindling interest viewers would have in the NBA draft. The draft lottery draws in a primetime crowd and generates huge web traffic every year, and that would be scuttled. Furthermore, fans of cellar-dwelling teams would have little interest in both that team’s bad season, and the subsequent 27th overall pick they would grab in spite of their 27-win season. A few bad moves or unfortunate injuries and you’re going to lose some fans for a good two to three years. With the current system in place, at least a Utah Jazz or Milwaukee Bucks fan has the 2014 NBA draft to look forward to.
Even if the proposed “wheel” system gave the putrid Jazz or Bucks the top overall pick in the 2014 draft, there’s no guarantee that this beleaguered fan would get some payoff in the end for his team’s terrible season. Because each of those potential top overall picks, looking to avoid a small market like Salt Lake City or Milwaukee, could just decide to stay in school for another year to take their chances should a bigger-name team come up to the top of the wheel in 2015.
This would suddenly put a slew of teenagers in charge of their draft fate. It’s true that this is ideal in nature, something most would call “the American way” as these prospects could choose their employers, but it would also ensure that we’d nearly be sent back to the days before the rookie salary cap, when players could hold out for money or force a trade away from teams they didn’t want to play for. If the difference between Minnesota having the top overall pick in 2015 and Miami having the top overall pick in 2016 is another year at Kansas for a “student/athlete,” then this is an easy pick for some. They’ll stay the extra year and go to the team that they want to go to.
Is that fair to the youngster? Well, it’s not about fair. Just because a player has NBA-level talent, he’s not guaranteed the right to play in the NBA. It’s a private league and they’re allowed to collectively bargain their own rules of employment for the health of the league, including teams 1 through 30.
Again, this is just a proposal; and Lowe points out that it hasn’t even been sent to all 30 teams yet for discussion. It’s just something to chew on.
That said, this is a unique year. The NBA suffered through a historically poor 2013 NBA draft, with the 2014 NBA draft having a chance to be one for the ages – and that’s a pretty rare turnaround. A confluence of factors has resulted in the Eastern Conference turning in its worst season in decades, be that through teams tanking (only Philadelphia is successful so far, we should reiterate), poor decision-making (the Bucks and Cavs), bad luck (Chicago), or both poor planning and bad luck (the Knicks and Nets).
This is a strange year, in ways that are as frustrating as they are intriguing. That frustration is no reason to change a system that, for all the hand-wringing and blog post padding, actually works. Don’t invent this wheel, NBA.
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