The NBA has a tanking problem. This is not a secret. Teams are intentionally and unapologetically trying not to win. Many people have written about it, and whether or not the tactic has any merit or not is something that can be (and has been) debated elsewhere. I want to talk about a system that removes the incentive to lose repeatedly. Bad seasons happen, injuries to key players happen, but consecutive miserable seasons without justification should not. But in the NBA they do, and teams are rewarded for it with high draft picks and luxury tax payouts from teams trying to win (or at least teams owned by Mikhail Prokhorov). This has to stop, and here’s how.
It is a model foreign to North American sports fans, but it has worked for years in Europe (most famously in English Premier League soccer), and it ensures that regular season games involving struggling (or outright failing) teams maintain at least some level of credibility by threatening them with demotion to an inferior league. The infrastructure doesn’t exist for the NBA to actually relegate teams to a lesser league at the end of a losing season… oh, wait a minute, it absolutely does, the D-League should exist for this very reason! In its current form though, the D-League is a minor league to the NBA’s major, and relegation in the European form requires multiple major leagues with incremental drop-offs between collective skill at each level. So if traditional relegation isn’t an option, what is the answer?
The NBA Draft. The very reason tanking is being undertaken in the first place is the best place to penalize perennial failures, and this is how to do it.
The collective agreement severely penalizes those franchises who repeatedly exceed the luxury tax threshold, and I would apply similar repeater penalties here. Single-year atrocities get a pass, as they can happen unexpectedly (key injuries, etc), and are not reflective of a systematic attempt to fail.
However, if a team finishes in the bottom four of the league in back to back seasons, their first round draft pick in the following draft would fall into the 27-30 slot in the first round, in reverse order of their win-loss record (the worst team in the league would get the 27th pick, the second worst the 28th pick, and so on). There is a slight wrinkle here depending on the results of the Entertaining as Hell Tournament (copyright Bill Simmons), but hold that thought.
If a team finishes in the bottom four in three consecutive seasons, they forfeit their first round pick entirely. A bit Draconian maybe, but the NBA has had no problems doling out harsher penalties against teams that were actually trying to be good, so why not punish the teams who are trying to suck intentionally?
If a team finishes in the bottom four in four consecutive seasons, they forfeit their first round pick for that season and the next.
Since 1994-95, no team has finished in the bottom four of the league for five consecutive seasons (not even the immortal Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies), so I’ll refrain from associating a penalty for that kind of behaviour, but I would recommend a league imposed sale of the franchise to a group from Seattle, St. Louis or Vancouver. A guy can dream, right?
The first, and most hypothetical, wrinkle? If the Entertaining as Hell Tournament (copyright Bill Simmons) or some variation is implemented, a team (or potentially two) in the bottom four (determined prior to the beginning of the tournament) would have the ability to win their way out of draft relegation by winning or finishing as the runner-up in the tournament (i.e. – making the playoffs). Should this occur, the winning team(s) would retain their draft position, and “break” their streak of finishing in the bottom four, removing them from repeater penalties the following year. The remaining teams in the Forgettable Four (let’s test out some monikers now), would be slotted to the final picks of the first round or would lose their pick entirely, depending on their situation.
The second wrinkle concerns draft picks that have been previously traded to other teams. If the Knicks (just randomly picking teams here everyone, calm down) deal away their 2018 1st round pick, but finish in the bottom four of the league in either 2016 and ’17 or in 2015, ’16 and ’17 (i.e. – affect their pick through incompetence), the team who acquired said pick receives it in the original, pre-relegation slot. If the Knicks (in this example) lost their 2018 pick entirely, but it was already gone in a trade, they would then lose their 2019 pick to uphold the deterrent. The lesson here: you shouldn’t be penalized if you’re smart enough to acquire first round picks from James Dolan.
Some highlights of how this would have affected the draft in the past two decades, in reverse chronological order:
- Cleveland forfeits the chance to draft Anthony Bennett and give Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose simultaneous heart attacks.
- The Washington Professional Basketball Franchise lands an impressive triple facepalm, missing out on John Wall, and getting Jordan Crawford at #27 instead, then forfeiting the picks that became Bradley Beal and Otto Porter (okay, maybe only a double facepalm).
- Sacramento drafts Greivis Vasquez at #28 instead of Boogie Cousins at #5.
- Atlanta forfeits the pick that lands them Al Horford.
- Philadelphia, ironically enough, takes the top prize by losing the pick that landed them ALLEN IVERSON, instead drafting Priest Lauderdale at #28 (bitter note from a Vancouverite – even if this had happened, Vancouver and Toronto still wouldn’t have been able to draft Iverson because fuck David Stern, and the Answer would have become a Milwaukee Buck).
By taking away the one carrot that tanking franchises have to look forward to, you effectively remove the incentive – teams are no longer tanking, they just suck. Wouldn’t you prefer to hear that from befuddled general managers?