In a memo sent to the NBA’s board of governors announcing Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s historic fine for his comments about tanking, commissioner Adam Silver strongly admonished the practice and warned teams that his office will be closely monitoring the final weeks of the season.
“The integrity of the competition on the playing court is the cornerstone of our league,” Silver wrote in the memo obtained by USA Today’s Sam Amick. “It is our pact with the fans and with each other, the fundamental reason we exist as a preeminent sporting organization, the very product that we sell. With everything else changing around us, it is the one thing in our league that can never change. We must do everything in our power to protect the actual and perceived integrity of the game.”
There is no doubt that the NBA sees tanking — real or perceived — as a threat to the league, especially after the Philadelphia 76ers so blatantly threw away four seasons to restock their roster with high-end draft picks. The league’s owners almost unanimously approved draft lottery reform this past summer, smoothing out the odds in an attempt to lessen the incentive for teams to finish with a worse record.
Those changes don’t go into effect until 2019, so the NBA faces one last season in which the odds of landing a top-three pick increase exponentially the closer teams finish to the bottom of the standings.
A third of the league has been all but eliminated from the playoffs already. Eight teams — the Knicks, Bulls, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Magic, Kings, Hawks and Suns — are incentivized to improve their draft positioning, and seven of them are within 2.5 games of each other. Those eight teams are a combined 2-23 since the All-Star break, with one of those wins coming in a game between the Knicks and Magic.
This is why the NBA takes tanking so seriously. When Cuban tells his players “losing is our best option,” he’s reinforcing the perception that when seven lottery-bound teams lose at once, as they did Saturday, they’re doing so on purpose. The NBA can’t have people thinking it’s the WWE for six weeks.
“Over the past several seasons, discussions about so-called ‘tanking’ in the NBA have occurred with some frequency, both in the public discourse and within our league, and you as governors have taken steps to address the underlying incentive issues by adopting changes to our draft lottery system that will go into effect next year,” Silver wrote to the league’s owners upon issuing the fine against Cuban, according to USA Today. “Throughout this period, we have been careful to distinguish between efforts teams may make to rebuild their rosters, including through personnel changes over the course of several seasons, and circumstances in which players or coaches on the floor take steps to lose games.
“The former can be a legitimate strategy to construct a successful team within the confines of league rules; the latter — which we have not found and hope never to see in the NBA — has no place in our game,” added Silver. “If we ever received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.”
As we discussed in our Tanking Guide, there is little incentive for coaches to submarine a season, considering jobs are often at stake, and even less incentive for players, who are motivated by both personal pride and financial gain. Front offices, though, can take several steps to make a team less effective, from jettisoning veteran contributors to resting ailing stars and selling a youth movement. It’s tough for the NBA to discipline teams for taking these measures in the name of rebuilding.
It’s easy when the owner is openly discussing the topic on a podcast with Julius Erving.
“We have no basis at this time to conclude that the Mavericks team is giving anything less than its best effort on the court, and Mark has assured us that this is not the case,” Silver finished. “But even a suggestion that such conduct could be occurring is obviously damaging to our game, as it creates a perception of impropriety. It is also extraordinarily unfair to the players and coaches who are, in fact, competing at their highest possible level every night. You are therefore advised to avoid such statements, and to pass along this admonition to all other key personnel in your organizations. We will continue to monitor closely the play of all teams during the remainder of the season.”
Just days after Silver issued the memo admonishing Cuban and the practice of tanking, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that NBA executives suspect multiple teams, including the Mavs, are “potentially” using their analytics departments to construct lineups that will give them the best chance of losing.
— Outside The Lines (@OTLonESPN) February 26, 2018
That accompanied a published report from Windhorst and ESPN colleague Tim MacMahon:
Active tanking is more complex and, therefore, more rare. But in a race to the bottom so intense, it’s something that some have started to notice. One executive told ESPN that he suspects the use of “reverse analytics.” Instead of using data to determine which lineups may be most effective in a certain matchup, coaches may be provided with data that could yield the opposite.
“It’ll be like ‘Mission: Impossible,'” the executive said, tongue partially planted in cheek. “The coaches will get the data on paper that will self-destruct right after they read it.”
We should note that Cuban’s Mavericks are the only team among eight incentivized tankers to win a game against a playoff contender since the All-Star break, beating the Pacers on Monday night. Whether that victory was a response to Silver’s strongly worded memo, we may never know. Therein lies the problem: It’s almost impossible to police tanking. We just know Adam Silver doesn’t like it.
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