No Tanks: a proposal for solving bad basketball in 5 easy steps

You may have noticed a steep decline in teams giving a rat's posterior about winning lately.

Quite a few of us have. It's that time of year again where the flowers bloom, animals come out of hibernation, and NBA arguments begin again about how many games should be in a season (about 62), how long it should be (it's fine if they just trim off twenty games), whether players should be resting (they should until this is fixed), and most importantly, what - if anything - should be done about tanking. Me, I am in the "something should be done" camp, because all the issues I just listed are interconnected, and doing this job right will make a lot of what ails those other issues I mentioned better - thought the "doing it right" part is obviously crucial.

A big part of the reason why the folks who make the NBA a success (that would be all of us as consumers) just aren't going to or watching a lot of effectively meaningless matches in the in-season doldrums that is the stretch between the All-Star Game and the NBA Playoffs is that quite a few teams are shamelessly undermining their players and coaching staff, ordering them to sit their best players to improve their odds in the NBA Draft as much as some teams are doing the same thing because they'd rather have fresh legs for the playoffs. Both of these approaches are cheating fans out of quality basketball, and while I will stake my flag to the hill of "less games" another day, I will make the case for "less tanking" via a relatively simple, transparent method, with the idea being that less tanking will provide a more watchable late-season stretch of games.

There's been all kinds of approaches to draft reform, and honestly, a lot of them will never get implemented simply because of the hype surrounding the current system, which has become a significant event unto itself. It's not going to get thrown out - period - given it is one of if not the biggest marketing opportunities the league has going, selling fans hope and excitement, risk and reward, in one glitzy package divided into two separate events (the lottery and the draft). So, if it has any reasonable chance, it will have to be grafted onto the existing structure, as much for the marketing as for the entanglements created by future picks owed, which will take the better half of a decade to wipe clean.

Other issues that need attention are elements to prevent abuse in other ways, such as collusion in back-room deals between teams to do worse for another team controlling their pick in exchange for a better return on a deal made mid-season, and the fact that no matter what system we put in place, players do not have much if any control of their own destiny for the first six or seven years of their professional career - much if not all of their prime years - which is a fundamentally messed-up fact given the lion's share of the product being consumed by fans comes directly from their labor. So far, we have a lot on the table, so I might as well jump in before it gets any more confusing (trust me, I can make it worse).

My proposal, at it's most basic, is this: add more balls to the lottery, and have owners decide who deserves them.

There's a lot more that I would change to make it work, but let's start with this one bit, and add more. First of all, for those of you who do not know how the lottery process works now, a quick and dirty explanation: many (incorrectly) believe the worse a team's record, the higher their eventual pick. This is not the case, so that teams cannot (in theory) tank, yet - they do, and are. This is because the solution - taking a 1,000 ping-pong balls and distributing to teams with a specific weight depending on their final record (the worst team gets 250 balls, the next worse 199, and so on), and randomly selecting the teams 1 - 14 from that pool - generally tends to reflect the records of teams due to the distribution of ping-pong balls but does NOT guarantee the worst record will produce the best pick - works well enough to deter tanking a small amount, but (as most season's final stretches demonstrate) this approach is not enough to stop teams from trying to game the system anyway.

How do we adjust this system to stop incentivizing losing? As I noted, simplicity is key, so I propose the following:

1. Reduce the lottery to just ten teams. the two teams from each conference who just missed the playoffs don't need a crack - however small - at a better pick, they need better luck, more rest, better coaching, better management - but if they almost made the postseason, this fix is not for them.

2. Change the distribution to a more straightforward one, with the team with the worst record getting 100 ping-pong balls, the next worst 90, the next 80, and so on to the tenth-worst team getting ten balls. This will total 550 total ping-pong balls.

3. Mitigate the "race to the bottom" to allow team owners to vote for their top-five teams they feel most DESERVE the top pick with weighted ranked choice voting, meaning their #1 vote gives five ping-pong balls to a team, the #2 vote four balls, and so on down to the #5 vote providing a single ping-pong ball. This adds another 435 total ping-pong balls, for a total of 985.

4. The remaining 15 ping-pong balls of the original 1,000 are given to the Executive Director, President, and Vice-President of the NBA Player's association. Mostly a token gesture, given the odds their contribution can affect, but still important in my opinion.

5. To prevent collusion: Owner and NBA Player's Association votes are public, allowing media and public scrutiny of the vote to ensure integrity. Moreover, voters CANNOT vote for a team they have been an employee or owner of in the last three seasons, nor any team their current team has traded with during the regular season or previous offseason involving player contracts higher than rookie scale deals, nor any players selected in the lottery, nor any team whose pick they control in the current or following season. This will allow minor team-building moves to continue to happen without making the draft a huge ordeal to sort out voting, but also discourage teams from selling off all their best players to take advantage of the draft system. Total tear-downs would still occur, but probably only after attempts to get better by...getting better, have failed.

There would of course still likely be ways to game this system, too, and I am not exactly comfortable giving owners more power, either, but if the end result means better basketball in March and April, I'm willing to introduce these relatively minor tweaks. It's worth mentioning that the reason we have seen this debate become what it has - the "Process", a codification of gaming the system lasting a half-decade in Philadelphia - is not because of the rumblings in the NBA media, or the fans of opposing teams sick of playing an NBA D-League roster masquerading as an NBA squad (or even their own fans, who have taken up the "Process" like some weird, collective bout of Stockholm Syndrome) but because the owners of opposing teams, sick of a team not only making no effort to support the current value of their product (the Philadelphia 76ers), but actively making it worse intentionally, sought to force the team to get better in order to owe less under the league's revenue-sharing structure (for those of you unaware, this means the major market and profit-earning teams divide part of their earnings with the profitless-teams to help keep small-market organizations afloat, with Philly, a major-market team, not contributing to the pool for years at the level expected).

The short version of this means that owners already have a general incentive to collectively prevent tanking, as it is money out of the pockets of both big and small market, successful and struggling teams alike, which should easily foil naked attempts by single organizations to improve their own position in the league. And perhaps a system of additional safeguards could be thrown in if this was not enough, to the effect that claims of evidence of collusion could trigger a process of independent arbitration, a negative result causing a loss of future draft picks for both teams as penalty.

Finally, returning to the lack of mobility for players coming into the league: this is not likely to happen due to the value teams place on rookie scale deals, but it's fairly parsimonious in keeping with the theme of draft reform presented here: make rookie deals guaranteed in both the first and second round of the draft, with a third round added for team's D-League affiliates with a partial guarantee...but allow players to bypass the draft to gamble and take the highest bid (or best location) for a four year deal with no restrictions whatever up to the maximum rookie scale deal (whatever the top pick might earn that year based on the Collective Bargaining Agreement's calculations), but no guaranteed money, either. This would allow players a chance to forego security to play where they would like, and throw teams a bone in the form of minor cap relief as a sweetener. There's all kind of problems I can see with this, but it's an issue I am only just seeing getting attention in sports media of late, so I thought I'd throw a little fuel on this fire while it seemed relevant.

So, there you have it - my (potentially unworkable?) proposal to reduce if not remove tanking. Feel free to lay into the ideas and any element of them if you think of problems - or to adapt and modify what you think could work. I am as sick as any of you of watching bad basketball in the early spring, and anything that gets us closer is a win in my book.

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