Tanking & the NBA Draft

I touched on the NBA and ‘tanking’, briefly, in a ‘Nobody’ blog a while back, with five one-line comments. This problem has the NBA worried sick. The last thing they need is having people think — believe — their teams are playing to lose. We’re talking about public credibility here and that is any sports league’s stock in trade. So, why do teams (allegedly) play to lose? To help their chances in the NBA Draft, even though the NBA has taken many steps to deter such thinking, such as the ‘lottery,’ where the order of the draft is determined by … ping pong balls.

It used to be that the team with the worst record had the first pick in the Draft, the second-worst had the second pick, etc. But there was some obvious ‘tanking’ being done while that was the case, so the NBA went to the lottery, with the order of the draft being written on ping pong balls in a hopper. Still, some teams supposedly said, “Hey, if we finish in the bottom four, the rules say we get one of the top four picks!” Well, you follow me. True or false, these stories persist and were in the media this past year, with open debates on the subject. What can be done?

First, you need to form a lower league that is different from the NBDL, which is a ‘taxi squad’ for NBA teams. This would be a ‘Series B’ league, with 16 teams, maybe from cities that used to be in the NBA, with good arenas and a fan base, should the team be promoted. How about Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Kansas City, Baltimore, Seattle, San Diego, Tampa, Las Vegas, Nashville, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Louisville, Richmond, Birmingham, Buffalo? Those cities are all in the top 50 metropolitan areas in the USA.

Why would such a league be formed? To ‘promote’ its top four teams to the NBA each year, with the bottom four teams in the NBA being ‘relegated’ (demoted) to this ‘minor’ league each year. I’m ahead of myself here, as I’ll cover promotion and relegation tomorrow. For the moment, this is (my opinion) a great way for the NBA to ‘expand’ without adding more teams to the NBA itself. The NBA now has 30 teams, might go to 32. They don’t need 33, which throws everything out of whack. So, the first step is the NBA’s “B-League.”

My ‘second step’ in avoiding ‘tanking’ of NBA games (that is, losing on purpose, so as to finish lower in the standings in order to … theoretically … have a better position in the next NBA Draft) is quite simple: have ‘relegation’ and ‘promotion,’ like they do in European sports. That means this: The bottom four teams in the NBA drop to the B-League the following season, and four teams from that B-League come up to play in the NBA the next year. This is standard operating procedure in every sport, in every other nation on the planet.
Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the ‘play-out’ format I would suggest to determine which four NBA teams would be ‘relegated’ to the B-League the following season. Sports leagues, all over the world, have 16 teams in Series A, 32 in Series B, 64 in Series C and 128 in Series D. I believe that, if you told those 16 cities they could have a pro basketball franchise that, if successful, could wind up in the NBA, they would knock themselves out to do everything possible to see that happened. The cities mentioned yesterday have NBA-size and NBA-quality arenas.
One obvious problem: existing NBA teams would not vote for such a setup, as they have invested huge sums of money in things and would not want that put at risk. Well, it’s the same everywhere outside the USA. Here, in Italy, in basketball alone, I’ve seen many legendary teams drop to A-2: Olympia Milan, Virtus Bologna, Fortitudo Bologna, Virtus Roma, Auxilium Turin, APU Udine, AP Cantù, Pallacanestro Varese, Pallacanestro Milano, Partenope Naples, VL Pesaro, and others. Fatal blows, to be sure, but they all got back on their feet again.

Well, for better or for worse, this is the avenue that guarantees no team in the NBA would ‘play to lose.’ That is a death sentence, and that’s an understatement. With this, every regular season game would be a life-or-death matter, especially for the lower-placed teams in the standings. There would be no more accusations that players were ‘going through the motions.’ There would be a sense of urgency in every minute of every game played. If anyone doubts this, come to Europe and see just one game in any top league to grasp the intensity involved.

The third thing needed in my anti-tanking project is a ‘Play-Out,’ common here in Italy. You take the 14 teams that do not make the Playoffs for the NBA title and you put them in a ‘play-out.’ Just like the playoffs. Best 3-of-5 series. The top two teams have a bye through the first round. The top ten teams are automatically kept in NBA the following season but, there is more. The better those teams finish, the better they will fare in the draft. Unfair? Better than tanking! And, somewhere along the line, you have to reward performance.

Yes, there are some inherent dangers therein. I’d be careful to say the winner of the play-out gets first choice in the Draft or we might have good teams ‘tanking’ to get into the play-out, hoping they would come away with the top pick. So, here’s the way it would work: Those first-round games would be all-out struggles, because the eight teams that go into the losers’ bracket would be playing in the ‘Round of Death.’ I’m here to tell you those would be the hardest-played games ever seen in the NBA, that the stands would be packed and TV rights sold.

This way, the NBA would not have 16 teams playing and 14 sitting. Everyone would be playing at the start. That’s good for player development. Well, I’ve seen it in Europe for 40 years, in soccer, basketball, every sport. It’s a system that works. No one, and I mean no one, plays to drop to a lower level. That means that the regular season games would also have importance, as everyone would be fighting for a playoff spot or a higher seed in the play-out. Yes, the NBA Draft would still be a factor but, tomorrow, we’ll have a suggestion for that.

Yes, it would be better if the NBA had 32 teams, so as to have 16 in the playoffs and 16 in the play-out. And, there is talk the NBA might just go to 32 teams. That, of course, is the absolute upper limit for a pro sports league … as the NFL has shown. Later on, if the system is successful, they could expand the B-League to 32 teams. It should be said that many teams that have dropped to the B-League here in Italy have used that time at the lower level to re-tool, re-build and be ready to move up, winning national titles and European Cups. The system works.

There is one huge problem remaining remaining with regard to teams ‘tanking’ in the NBA in order to, in theory, improve those teams’ positons in the NBA Draft … the NBA Draft itself! Now, over the years, the NBA has made several modifications to the Draft. It used to be 10 rounds, with a number of supplementary rounds after that … if teams wanted to use them. There were teams drafting 16-17 players. It was wild. Then, over the years, they cut the draft back, limiting the number of rounds, leaving all players not drafted as free agents.

Right now, there are two rounds in the NBA Draft. So, cut that to ONE ROUND! Now, one might say, “Hey, mister, the only round that counts is the first round.” But, teams often find jewels in the second round: Paul Millsap, Toni Kukoc, Anderson Varejao, Danny Ainge, Monta Ellis, Marc Gasol, Gus Williams, Jeff Hornacek, K. C. Jones, Carlos Boozer, Gus Johnson, Spencer Haywood, Jack Twyman, Calvin Murphy, Mark Price, Maurice Cheeks, Bill Sharman, Dennis Johnson, Manu Ginobili, Dennis Rodman, Tiny Archibald, Hal Greer, Willis Reed, Alex English.

Ask any coach, any GM, any Director of Player Personnel, any scout in the NBA about the effect eliminating the second round of the draft would have on their job. The answer: it would have a notable impact. There would be 30 more top-level free agents out there every year, those that would have gone in the 2nd round. Scouting and evaluation would become even more important. Recruiting and selling would be even more important. And, brother, they had better not miss on their only pick. It would also affect trades, ” … 2nd round pick included.”

Now, going back to the ‘Play-Out,’ the four teams that drop to Class B do not get a draft choice. With that, the NBA could work out its own draft order. But you have to reward the best teams in the play-out with a better position in the draft. You must reward excellence. Summing up: (a) formation of a Class B league of 16 teams; (b) relegation and promotion; (c) post-season play-out for the teams that do not qualify for the Playoff; (d) elimination of the 2nd round of the NBA Draft. How’s that for taking care of ‘tanking?’ Well, just trying to be helpful!

This is the 5th and last comment on ‘tanking’ in the NBA, and I want to use this space to underline my point of yesterday, that cutting the NBA Draft from two rounds to one round would have an effect on the idea of losing games to improve a team’s slot in the NBA Draft. Yes, the first-round pick would be just as important but, as indicated yesterday, teams would have must less ‘wiggle’ room in making trades, in ‘trading up,’ in packaging together a pair of future 2nd-round choices for a player in a trade. But I think it would also affect the ‘one-and-done’ question.

Some hot-shot college freshman, knowing his chances of going in the Draft have been reduced by 50%, is not going to be so anxious to ‘come out’ after just one year. I also can’t see his advisors (family-friends-lawyers-agent … though they are not supposed to have agents while in college) telling him to come out when his chances of being picked have just been cut in half. Those people might say, “Too risky. Let’s wait a year. Go back for your sophomore year. You’ll get the minutes there and you’ll be more mature physically, …. ” Good advice.

All of a sudden, people might be telling such players that, just maybe, Frank Kaminsky had the right idea in staying the full four years at Wisconsin. So, we might just have players staying two years at the NCAA level. Why not? Magic Johnson was at Michigan State for two years! Chris Paul went to Wake Forest for two years! Isiah Thomas went to Indiana for two years! Who knows? A few of them might stay for three years, as did Michael Jordan at North Carolina, or the whole four years, as did Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor at UCLA.

So, I just think the NBA would help itself across the board by going to a one-round Draft. Teams would have to get deep into the development of players: teaching skills, working on techniques, knowing the fundamentals, playing smart basketball. Well, like I said, they used to have 10 rounds, then 7, then 5 (if I’m not mistaken), then 2. Yes, if some team wants to ‘tank’ games for a one-shot deal, then they would have that option … though I, personally, don’t think it’s a wise choice. Then, how about the team with the last pick? All that remaining talent out there!

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Dan Peterson

Dan Peterson

Long-time Head Coach of Olimpia Milano in the Italian Serie A1