The NBA needs to do something to stop the practice of “tanking” because it hurts the integrity of the league. This would require making changes that eliminate incentives that can arise for franchises not to field their possible best teams.
This problem is more severe in basketball than in other sports because basketball rosters are so small that any one player consumes 20% of the lineup and has a big impact. In addition, sure things in the NBA draft seem a little more sure than other leagues. No other sport has as high a percentage of top 10 picks making such a big difference. It is no surprise that only basketball has a draft lottery.
There are two situations where tanking occurs. In one of them, a team’s front office realizes they will be a well below average team, so they decide to position the team to receive the best possible odds to win the next draft lottery. This is rare, but this is exactly what the 76ers have been doing–even being so blatant as calling it “the process” as discussed in part 1.
More commonly, tanking occurs when a team has traded away a future protected pick, as the Lakers did for this season. After the trade backfired for the Lakers and they are not the powerhouse they thought they would be, they can now keep their first round pick for next season only if they finish with one of the worst three records in the NBA. This disincentive to win is a very unfortunate dynamic for the NBA.
My proposed solution addresses both of these root causes.
As the Celtics have demonstrated through their 60 years of high-jacking future draft picks in their Boston Trade Party discussed in part 2, GM’s seem unable to contain themselves when faced with the opportunity to trade future picks for current players. Based on the prevalence of these trades, the NBA may need to start a support group, something along the lines of “Future Draft Pick Anonymous”.
So if trading future protected picks can lead to tanking, does this mean that to end tanking we must also end the trading of future picks?
Not so fast. Some teams have made some savvy moves when trading future picks. For example, when the Warriors signed Andre Iguodala, it was beneficial for them to make it a sign and trade for both salary cap reasons and to clear current salaries on their rosters to make room. So Denver, Utah, and the Warriors orchestrated a three team deal. Denver was happy to oblige because otherwise they would have received no compensation for Iguodala. The Warriors gave Utah two future unprotected first round picks in 2014 and 2017, and two second round picks in 2016 and 2017, as well as Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, and Brandon Rush. Denver received Randy Foye from Utah and a $9 million dollar trade exception.
The Warriors took a risk in giving away two future unprotected first round draft picks, but after their championship last season with Iguodala winning the finals MVP, it looks like the deal was well worth it. The pick they gave away in 2014 was a late one, and based on their young and talented roster, the 2017 pick most likely will not be a high one either.
Another team who benefitted from trading future picks is the Cavs. Their trade with Boston mentioned in part 2 where they gave up two future first round picks bolstered their already stacked lineup. While a lot of teams are cavalier in valuing their future first round picks, in this case the Cleveland Cavaliers appear to have guessed right.
It’s fun to see NBA GM’s going deep into their bag of tricks in such a competitive environment, and creatively navigating all their options to give them the best team possible. But while this clever wheeling and dealing is exciting, the flip side can be the ugliness of tanking .
Watching the Lakers and 76ers tank away this season is beyond ugly! It’s to the point that even people rubber necking are now stiffening up their necks and accelerating.
“The Process” in Philadelphia has become so bad for the game that higher-up’s in the NBA appeared to have recently intervened and influenced them to at least make some effort to increase their competitiveness this season. The 76ers hired the seasoned Jerry Colangelo as an advisor and traded for veteran journeyman Ish Smith. They have won a few more games since then, but it’s still very clear that no matter what they do they are headed to the worst record and the best odds of landing Ben Simmons in the draft.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are hiding behind Kobe’s glorious past and letting the retiring hall of famer and his .347 shooting percentage lead them down their road to the bottom. But what if Kobe gets hot down the stretch and starts leading them to victories? Would they sit him put with a faux sore shoulder or hammy? This is an ugly question to think about.
Talk about brutal irony, guess who gets the Lakers’ pick if they fall out of the bottom three? Are you ready to process this? This pick made its way to the 76ers! They acquired it from the Suns, who had gotten it from the Lakers in the Steve Nash trade. The tale of this pick says a lot. The Lakers had it last year and it was top five protected. After they were horrible and got to keep the pick, it then became top three protected this year, so here they go again. If they do end up outside of the bottom three, the pick would become unprotected for the 76ers next year. If the pick were to go unprotected next year, at least the Lakers would finally shed this incentive to lose, but I’ll bet team management really wants that elite talent addition for next season.
As the poor get richer, the 76ers could end up with two of the top five picks next year. They could finally cash in despite all their horrible playing and horrible drafting these past few years. If their process ends up working and the 76ers become an elite team for years to come, it would insult the fans and be a black mark for the NBA .
At least we have the Kings and the Nets this season–those two non-title contending franchises who are fighting this season like it’s the movie 300. Just as the Lakers and the 76ers show how ugly tanking is, the Nets and Kings provide a glimpse to a solution. The Nets and the Kings show us how much fun it can be to watch underdog teams fight with everything they have.
Just this week, the Kings went double overtime with the Thunder. Cousins scored 56 in a classic. At the end of regulation as the Thunder had a free throw to win the game with no time on the clock, Rajon Rondo went through a comical veteran savvy stall tactic. SB Nation wrote, “Evil genius Rajon Rondo used every tactic to stall game winning free throw attempt…and of course it worked!”. You can see it here and it is hilarious!
It is fun to watch teams try to get every ounce of success they can. The Kings bet on their team’s success this season with future draft picks. They gave away their 2018 top 10 protected first round pick and the right to swap picks in 2016 and 2017 with the 76ers in exchange for cap space so they could sign free agents for their current roster. That’s called laying it on the line, and that sense of urgency seems to go all the way down to the players.
An idea that has not received much attention is what the psychological effect can be on the players when their front office is tanking. Imagine working for a company where your boss purposely puts you in a position to fail? Could this have long terms effects on these young players? The 76ers high lottery pick Nerlens Noel has not been developing as they hoped, and there are rumors that Jahlil Okafor didn’t want the 76ers to draft him, and he could just leave the team after his rookie contract ends. He even recently got in a brawl outside a nightclub, which seems a far cry from his Duke persona. Tanking may be hurting young potential future stars of the league, both during the time they are experiencing it and in their futures. I believe that each player on the 76ers and Lakers is giving their 100% effort, but it must be mentally challenging for them to know that their front offices are tanking. On the flip side, it must be exhilarating for the players on the Kings to know that their front offices have gambled on their success this season.
The effort of the Kings is an insight into why I think my proposed solution will be good for basketball.
Next in Part 4: The Solution