Preventing Tanking in the NBA

The term is ‘tanking.’ Essentially, it’s a way of saying, ‘we’re purposely going to be one of the worst teams in the league.’ In theory, it’s nothing new. Teams from all four major leagues have been doing this for years. So why has it garnered the spotlight in the NBA? Simple, the NBA is already an unbalanced league in terms of producing league wide competitiveness. To be clear, not when it comes to producing competitive games on a nightly basis, more or so, producing championship contenders. You can read our article on NBA competitive balance here.

Obviously because the NBA is tougher to produce an even playing field, the NBA needs to be more stern than say, the NFL, where you can tank all you want, it doesn’t guarantee anything (case & point: Cleveland Browns).
The NHL, yes, one player has a much bigger impact than in the NFL due to the smaller roster size, but even when you grab that ‘McDavid,’ ‘Crosby,’ or ‘Ovechkin’ type player, complimentary pieces are required to be a true cup contender; which is the goal, isn’t it? The NHL has also implemented a draft lottery that has refrained teams such as Buffalo & Edmonton to tank on a consistent basis. One could argue that those are two prime examples of why it’s as big of a problem within the NHL, as both of those franchises continue to struggle, even with the collection of top draft picks.
Obviously MLB draft picks usually don’t see the majors for years, so it’s not really about ‘tanking,’ more or less about good scouting. Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins, Kansas City Royals are prime examples of competitive teams put together with effective scouting. Yes, obviously the collection of top draft picks help said MLB franchise, but there are also teams like the Seattle Mariners, New York Mets, and Oakland Athletics who seem to have trouble putting the right pieces together to compete consistently.

The NBA is a different story. There are only five players on the court at once, meaning a superstar such as LeBron James makes up 20% of your starting lineup, and well… It’s LeBron James, so at that point the remaining 80% doesn’t really matter, there’s a good chance you will have a playoff team on hand. Compare this percentage to the NHL; where a player makes up 16% of your lineup on the ice, the MLB; where a player accounts for 11% of the fielded lineup, and the NFL; where a player only accounts for 9% of the personnel on the field (and that’s only one side of the ball).
As seen, one player makes an enormous difference in the NBA compared to the other three major professional leagues. So the NBA is finally stepping in and attempting to stop teams from ‘tanking.’ Now here’s the thing, because of the way the NBA is setup, wouldn’t you want teams to tank?

Example, the 76ers were obviously miserable for the longest time, and while they never openly admitted it, they tanked for several seasons to finally have the ability to be able to put a solid team on the court. Now, take away this strategy (and to be honest there really is no way to stop it, if a team wants to be bad, they’ll be bad), and the NBA balance could get even worse (if that’s even possible). By letting the Sixers tank, you indirectly created a competitive balance by giving another franchise, ‘their turn’ to compete for a championship. Take this strategic move away, and teams like the Nets, Suns, Hornets, Mavericks, Kings, etc. will be near the bottom of the league for an even greater period of time.
So while we understand the NBA not wanting owners like Mark Cuban to publicly admit they are tanking, as obviously you create the possibility of a PR nightmare, it might be wise to ‘turn a blind eye’ when teams who struggle turn to the good ole’ ‘tank’ strategy.

The fact that Adam Silver is going out of his way to monitor the lineups teams put on the court (ex. Chicago Bulls) is something that seems unnecessary, counterproductive, and a waste of time. As we said, you can ‘punish’ a team for tanking all you want, if a team wants to be bad, they’re going to be bad.
However, we’ll play both sides here. Obviously tanking seems like a cheap strategy that undermines the integrity of the entire league, and that’s what the NBA is trying to address, its’ integrity. Completely understandable, so we’ll play the role of the NBA for a second.

To get teams to upkeep the integrity of the league, and truly give 100% no matter where they are in the standings, you need to get rid of the incentive to tank in the first place.

“Well, that’s why they have the draft lottery!”

Ok, great, but teams are still tanking, so obviously a larger adjustment needs to be appointed.

“Well they just adjusted the entire setup of the draft lottery!”

Unfortunately, that setup won’t remove any incentive, as the top three teams are still given a greater chance to win. So essentially you just created incentive to tank, as you are giving a few more teams a chance to win the first pick… Well done NBA, well done.

“Well then what would you do?”

Ahhh, glad you asked… There are two ways to almost completely get rid of the incentive to ‘tank.’

Option A: All teams that fail to make the postseason will be given equal odds in draft lottery. Yes, you read that correctly. The team that finishes 9th in the conference gets the same odds as the team that finishes 15th. Think about it, is the team that finishes ninth in the conference really a championship threat? No. So why not give them the same odds as the worst teams? You would instantly eliminate the incentive of teams trying to finish last, as instead they would continue to try to win games, as they there would be an understanding they get no better odds than any other non-playoff team. So for example, if the standings held up, the Grizzlies would be the worst team in the NBA, the Pistons are currently the 9 seed in the East (and would technically be 15 in the draft order). The Pistons, Grizzlies, and every team in between all are given a 7% chance of winning the lottery. It would be the ideal scenario to prevent ‘tanking’ while obviously still giving the non-playoff teams drafting priority.

Option B: This one would work, but it people might have a tough time wrapping their heads around it (at first).
Ok, so you would completely get rid of the NBA draft lottery. Wait… Don’t throw your phone yet… The standings would not determine the draft order. We said wait…

The draft order would essentially become a preset rotation that can not be changed. So, here’s how the setup would work:

The initial set order is determined, so for example, in 2018 you determine the Grizzlies will receive the 1st pick, the Warriors receive the 30th, the Pistons recieve the 15th, the Nuggets receive the 16th. From here, it would be a rotation of swapping draft picks.

Obviously you couldn’t just move every team back a spot, because then the Grizzlies would be given picks 1, 2, and 3 for three straight years, and eventually teams like the Warriors could be in a position where they have picks 1, 2, and 3 for three straight years when they’re already the best team in the league.

The rotation example would go as followed:
2018: Grizzlies 1, Pistons 15, Nuggets 16, Warriors 30
2019: Grizzlies 30, Pistons 16, Nuggets 15, Warriors 1
2020: Grizzlies 2, Pistons 14, Nuggets 17, Warriors 29
2021: Grizzlies 29, Pistons 17, Nuggets 14, Warriors 2
2022: Grizzlies 3, Pistons 13, Nuggets 18, Warriors 28

Hopefully you get the idea… Essentially each team would ‘unofficially’ aligned with a swapping partner, and ideally you’d make each partner from the opposite conference. So perhaps align Atlanta with Golden State instead of Memphis.

Yes, teams like Golden State would receive a top pick, but it essentially assures every team given the same opportunity to compete for a championship. Maybe not immediately, but at one point down the line, this would create potential competitive balance, as well as prevent teams from tanking to uphold the league’s integrity.
We don’t expect huge support for option B, only because people don’t like change, and it is essentially pitching for the NBA to execute their draft in a way in which no other league has done before. However, you really think about it, it would work. If you still are sitting there shaking your head, well, we gave an option A (which keeps the draft lottery intact).

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