A Creative Plan To Stop NBA Draft Tanking

The notion of bad teams tanking games for draft position is hardly new, nor is it unique to the NBA. The 2011 NFL season was marred by the ridiculous “Suck For Luck” campaign, where teams ostensibly started throwing in the towel by October in a race to get the top draft pick and the chance to take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. But NBA draft tanking is more persistent feature and with several top players expected to be available next spring, it’s a topic prominently on everyone’s mind this year.

NBA writer Zach Lowe is now reporting that a radical proposal to fix this is in its embryonic stages. Put simply, the current system would be replaced with one where each franchise would draft at each of the 30 spots in a fixed rotation over three decades. In other words, you get the #1 pick one time in thirty years, the same with the #30 pick and you know in advance when it’s going to happen.

The proposal is not without its flaws–if the Los Angeles Lakers had the #1 pick for 2015, might they whisper in the ear of any of the top college freshman (Jabari Parker at Duke, Alan Wiggins at Kansas, etc) and try and get them to stay? If the Sacramento Kings had the first pick this season, would the top college kids shy away from coming out?

I’m sure the answer to both questions is yes–or at least there would be a big temptation. But I also think that whatever the flaws of this system, it’s better than the current one.

As one who roots for the Boston Celtics, one of the teams expected to tank, this is a pertinent topic for me. Boston is currently 12-17, good enough for the #8 seed in the awful Eastern Conference and they’re expected to get Rajon Rondo back in January. Is the possibility of making the postseason as a mediocre team and at best winning one series worth losing the chance to draft a franchise-altering player that might mean championships?

I’m a purist and I say yes. The essence of a sports organization is to produce a team that wins games and it amounts to prostituting the integrity of your organization if you deliberately to set out to lose. It’s one thing to take a long view on topics like trades, or how to handle an injured player who is 50/50. It’s quite another to make losing your unstated goal.

But the nature of the NBA makes the alternative a legitimate point of view. The historical track record suggests you need an elite player to win a title and that the best chance of getting such a player is through a very high draft choice–like the top three picks overall. I don’t agree with any of my Celtic fan brethren who advocate getting in the lottery, but I understand where they’re coming from.

This is a problem that’s really not the fault of the league office, and they deserve credit for doing more than any other sport to address it. The NBA can’t help it that their sport isn’t like football where you can build a complete team that transcends the lack of a superstar. Or that you can find a Joe Montana in the third round or Tom Brady in the sixth.

The NBA can’t help it that we have a much better grasp on how good college kids are at basketball than we do in the same circumstance with baseball, thereby eliminating incentive for MLB teams to take a September dive.

Furthermore, the NBA has tried to fix the problem, as the mere existence of the lottery demonstrates. The difference between the worst or the second-worst team in the lottery is minimal and not worth tanking over. The league has at least forced teams to give up the chance at the playoffs if they want to see their ping-pong ball come up for the first pick.

Before we let the NBA higher-ups off the hook entirely, it should be pointed out that their propensity to encourage officials to give top players the benefit of the doubt (and that’s being generous) serves to enhance the star system that drives all this tanking. If the refs tried calling a game based on the rule book rather than the who has the ball, it might create a healthy change. Then again, if David Stern ever read these words, he’d probably send hit men to my house, so forget it.

I do applaud the league for looking at some radical ideas to fix the draft, but I think a less radical one could work. What you do is the following…

*Put every team in the lottery except the champion. The reason for the tanking is the belief that you have to get a lottery pick to win it all, so this eliminates that rationale.

*Have the drawing only settle the top 3-5 picks with the rest falling in line based on inverse order of finish. This way, the bulk of the draft will still allow bad teams to get better players and improve and most of the good teams will still pick at the end. But you’ll give every non-championship team an equal chance at the generally recognized franchise-makers.

It’s one thing to say bad teams should be given a fair chance to improve themselves. It’s quite another to give them the supreme studs of every spring while average teams that compete struggle to stay afloat.

NBA draft tanking is an insult to customers who pay good money for tickets, but it will keep happening as long as there is incentive. The league can’t change the nature of its sport, but it can adjust its draft process to better reflect reality.