COMMENTARY | When the middle of March comes around every year, college basketball fans start salivating over the NCAA men's basketball tournament and the hysteria of filling out their brackets. Diehard NBA fans start paying closer attention to the standings as teams vie for the top seeds, home court advantage, and the last playoff spots. However, fans of about a half-dozen NBA teams start studying the race for a more dubious honor.
The odd truth is that many fans of bad NBA teams actually start cheering against their favorite teams when it becomes apparent they won't qualify for the playoffs. In fact, some fans openly encourage their teams to "tank" games; i.e. lose on purpose, to secure better odds of obtaining a good draft pick. Should NBA teams break the ultimate code of competition and tank games to improve their chances of winning the NBA Draft Lottery?
The issue of tanking games primarily seems to be an issue in the NBA. Football and hockey are so inherently violent that no NFL or NHL player in his right mind would step onto the field or ice with a mindset of taking it easy. Tanking doesn't lend itself well to MLB either where few draft picks, even first rounders, are a sure bet. Also, the tradition of September call-ups, expanded rosters, and off days would render tanking unnoticeable in MLB.
This is why the issue of tanking appears to be unique to the culture of the NBA. In 1985, commissioner David Stern introduced the NBA Draft Lottery to counter tanking so every non-playoff team would have a chance at the top picks. Unfortunately, fans have criticized the NBA Draft Lottery more than bad teams tanking and the process has come under fire numerous times.
In the NBA Draft Lottery's first year, the New York Knicks landed the top pick, Patrick Ewing, despite only having the third-worst record. Critics noticed the Knicks' card in the hopper was bent. In 1993, the 41-41 Orlando Magic somehow won the NBA Draft Lottery two years in a row and used their top pick to select Shaquille O'Neal. 19 years later, the New Orleans Hornets hit the jackpot right after Tom Benson paid the NBA $338 million to buy the team.
In fact, the NBA team with the worst record has only won the lottery four times. So tanking only guarantees a team a bad record and nothing more. The 2011-12 Hornets seemed to have been rewarded by the NBA gods or karma for not tanking. In April 2012, the Hornets had a winning record, going 8-6. Meanwhile, the team with the worst record, the Charlotte Bobcats, lost its last 23 games.
Another problem with tanking is that it asks a number of mediocre and young NBA players to put a series of bad performances on their resumes. For example, if a starting point guard plays poorly, it could result in the team using its top pick to draft that point guard's replacement. Then that player's bad stats will hinder him from landing a roster spot on another team.
Alternatively, if an NBA team tanks by having the coach bench the stars and play the benchwarmers, the coach now has a terrible win-loss record. Nearly every coach eventually gets fired and tanking games at best could lead to a less lucrative contract elsewhere and at worst could cause him to never land an NBA coaching job again. With no guarantee of receiving the first selection in the NBA Draft, the risks of tanking clearly outweigh the benefits.
However, the NBA opened itself up to all sorts of criticism, intrigue, and conspiracy theories when it began holding its lottery behind closed doors away from a live audience, television, and the internet. If fans could see the ping-pong balls go in the hopper, bounce around, and get drawn fairly, it would silence some of the critics. Most real lotteries can be seen live on television. The NBA Draft Lottery should be no different.
Instead of encouraging your favorite team to tank, a better approach may be to look at each game optimistically as a no-lose situation. If your team loses, its chances of getting a better draft pick increase. If your team wins, then celebrate a rare win for a bad team. But asking players and coaches to tank games rarely works out for anyone in the long-term.
Patrick Michael was born in New Orleans and currently resides in the Big Easy. Patrick has followed the Hornets since they moved to New Orleans and has covered the team since 2010. He was in attendance the night the Hornets were one win away from the Western Conference Finals. Follow Patrick Michael on Twitter at patmichael84.
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