The Philadelphia 76ers are rolling, and the Phoenix Suns and the Orlando Magic look like a couple of very respectable teams. Their collective success might even suggest that the phenomenon of tanking doesn't exist. After all, playing two of your first three games against a pair of Eastern Conference favorites is an easy excuse for any team that wants to lose intentionally.
But the Sixers rejected the easy out. They smoked two of the best defenses in the NBA for a combined 221 points. Michael Carter-Williams, the No. 11 pick in the 2013 draft, came into the league as a guy you could find a reason to like if you wanted to but not exactly franchise point guard material. He was fearless -- historic, even -- in his debut. For the past two seasons, whispers of “bust” have followed Evan Turner. Now he looks like the heady triple threat he projected to be. Using his size and mobility to look like the league’s most lethal pick-and-pop monster? That'd be Spencer Hawes. Thad Young, meanwhile, is the paragon of efficiency out on the wing.
So, now the Sixers are 3-0 and the NBA’s unequivocal feel-good story of the 2013-14 season's opening week. A team whose over/under professional bookies placed at 16.5 wins is nearly 20 percent of the way there. Even pessimists can now imagine this team logging a win total in the 30s, especially if Carter-Williams puts up Lillardian numbers and Turner and Hawes continue their late blossoms.
And that would be great, wouldn't it? The team that some had pegged to challenge the 1972-73 Sixers who went 9-73 ends up more than doubling its projected win total and beating out teams with far greater expectations. In a just world, there would be a reward for this kind of overachievement.
Only, the conversation surrounding the undefeated Sixers is a more sober chorus of “Now just hold on there for sec.” Rather than celebrate the improbable, we have to examine its implications, as if Philadelphia has swallowed an opiate that makes it feel great in the moment but has long-term side effects.
Writing for TrueHoop after Saturday night’s win over Chicago, Hoop76's Eric Goldwein cautions that the ramifications of early success, however relative, could muck up a perfectly good plan:
They’re not even close to contending with contenders. But as currently constructed they’re not finishing at the bottom of the standings, either ... As strange as it seems, this roster might be too good -- and more importantly, too well-coached -- to lose 50-plus games.
This all puts [GM Sam] Hinkie in a tough situation. Winning breeds confidence in a way no other form of training can duplicate. It's good for morale. It's good for development. And it's good for the franchise's reputation.
Every game the Sixers win, though, is a major blow to their most valuable asset: their 2014 first-round pick. Keep the roster together, and they could land in the middle of the pack.
On Monday, Kevin Pelton writes that the best thing about the 0-3 start isn’t the confidence and pride it might breed in Carter-Williams, Turner and Hawes but rather “the potential to raise the trade value of the team's remaining veteran starters -- Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young.”
The problem isn’t that these critiques of the Sixers’ 3-0 start are wrong -- it’s that they're right. The only way for the Sixers to profit from the success is to part with the players who created it because, in real-world terms, a team such as the Sixers will be punished: Congratulations! You've surpassed our wildest expectations. You outplayed teams that were assembled with the express purpose of qualifying for the playoffs. In exchange, we will make it less probable that you will get your selection of the best young talent in June’s draft class and give it to those other teams. Here’s the No. 12 pick instead.
Somewhere along the way, the existence of tanking became the nub of the debate, but whether teams are actively engaged, partially engaged or only benignly engaged is irrelevant. Addressing “tanking” has always, at its heart, been about creating incentives for winning basketball games, for fostering an environment in which, this morning, a Sixers fan (or player, or general manager) can wake up, smile at finding “Philadelphia” atop the Eastern Conference standings and not have to see those three wins as Pyrrhic victories, or a down payment on a lesser draft pick, or just plain stupid because everyone knows you don’t try to win until it’s time.
The issue was never, to our knowledge, that players weren't playing hard. Nor, generally, is the concern that coaches -- whose salaries tend to hinge on wins -- are mailing it in.
The problem is that GMs and owners are rightly fixated on superstars, who are so very hard to get. And in the name of getting them via the draft, which requires the kind of high pick that comes with big numbers of losses, many a team many a year fields a roster that is nothing close to their best. Cap space goes unused. Winners are traded away in their primes. Strange rosters are deployed. Even injured players come with special value, for their ability to keep a team bad in the short term, while making them better in the long term.
In the name of addressing that, HoopIdea has enlisted the best thinking of all kinds of smart people, even dedicating a week of this past summer to tanking. The best of all that is in the inline box to your right.
And what, out of all that, really mattered? For me it boils down to three key ideas:
- Ditch the draft entirely.
- Keep the fairly hard cap.
- Remove caps on max salaries, so superstars can make any amount.
But don't take my word for it. Consider the awesome insight of Stan Van Gundy, as co-host on The Dan Le Batard Show on Wednesday. You can listen right now here. He's for all of the exact same stuff, it turns out.
I’ve argued for a long time here ... that I think that one of the things that is absolutely killing parity is the individual maximum salary ... so you’re limiting LeBron James in what he can make ... that is the only reason that the Heat can have he, Bosh and Wade together ... if you still had the same luxury tax, the same salary cap set-up, but within that every individual can earn whatever they get in the market, there’s no way you could put three stars together.
Yeah, will a guy sacrifice five or six hundred thousand dollars like some of the Heat guys did to come together? Yeah. Will they sacrifice 15 million a year? No they won’t.
This is not as radical as it sounds. It wouldn't cost owners extra -- total combined player compensation is fixed to a percentage of the league's income regardless. It would just mean more money for LeBron James and top producers. Which would, of course, mean James' team would have far less money to offer the likes of Andrew Wiggins. In other words, owners get essentially fixed costs, while Wiggins doesn't go to the team that best performs the strange dance of appearing terrible. Nor does he head straight to capped out teams in L.A., New York or Miami. He'd go to the team he wanted to go to, which would probably be similar to the team with the most money to offer him. The teams with the most cap space is a crude approximation of the league's worst teams.
This could work.
Some of what Dudley had to say on tanking:
- "Last year in Phoenix, I mean, they didn't use the word 'tanking' but we were out of the playoffs, it was over. ... We tried different lineups. Why did we try different lineups? Well, because we wanted to see what guys they were going to keep this year, which they basically have kept no one so far. So you try different lineups knowing that the consequences, if you lose, well, it’s fine because it helps you. They never said, 'Hey, let’s tank.' Charlotte Bobcats, they never said, 'Let’s tank.' But the actions you do, it kind of insinuates it. And we understand it because you want a higher pick. You’re going to try and tell me instead of winning five or seven extra games you lose out on Andrew Wiggins but yet you are still the bottom of the barrel? No, you’re going to want to get the worst. So I don’t blame the GMs. I blame the system, how it is set up."
- "How I would do it? I would make it equal percentages for every non-playoff [team]. ... [Now] if you have the worst record, you get at least a top-four or -five pick. So no matter what, in this draft, imagine when LeBron, Carmelo and Wade were there that year. If you were one of the worst teams you were guaranteed at least LeBron, Wade, Melo or Bosh. You were going to get a superstar. And that’s what they think this draft is going to be like. So I would put the other 11 teams all equally so it makes teams have to go out and play to try to win for their teams. I mean, how it is set up now, if I was a GM, me personally, if my team could not make the playoffs or win a championship, why would you not tank with how the system is now?"
- "I’m just surprised that someone would come out and say it so blatantly, the only thing is they just did it anonymously so, in a way, they still were a coward about it. We understand that’s it. And, to be honest with you, it’s very tough with the system how it works. Because, let’s just be honest, if you’re a Charlotte Bobcats, you’re a Milwaukee Bucks, you’re a, I don’t know, another team like that, how do you get a superstar? Is any superstar going to go there? Because it’s not like you can offer him more money. It’s not like it's baseball where they say, 'Hey, you know what, I want this guy, I’ll give you $30 million more than the Knicks.' So how do you get those guys? They’re not going to come there and you trade them, if they are in the last year of their deal, the only thing they are going to say is, 'We’re not going to sign the extension.'
But for the fact that it happened in preseason, this play is about as awesome as NBA basketball gets.
Hats off to you, Mr. Glen Rice Jr. This unplanned, acrobatic, final-second, putback, game-extending psychoslam? This is precisely what people buy tickets to see.
What didn't make the clip, however, was the excitement-sucking hand-wringing that followed. First the officials talked for an age. Video was reviewed. Would the basket even count? For a while, superdunker Rice could do nothing but look glum, wondering if the most awesome play of his nascent career would even count.
The big concern? This play was almost illegal. It wasn't about the clock, which he beat by a cool half-second.
It was about the fact that the NBA has a rule banning awesome plays -- specifically the kinds of awesome plays that begin with the ball above the rim. This has been bugging us at HoopIdea for a while.
If the review found that Rice had snatched the ball while it was "in the cylinder" above the rim, the play would have been disallowed, the Wizards would have lost in regulation, and Rice would have been in the doghouse for poor judgment.
For this reason, NBA players are generally cautious and hesitant about going up to get balls like that.
Which is a crying shame.
There are some theories about why the NBA needs a rule like that. But know this:
- David Stern has said he would like to let players grab, dunk, block or do what they will with the ball above the rim.
- The NBA has tested Stern's proposal in the D-League for years, and the head of the D-League says it has created a steady stream of exciting plays like Rice's, with no downsides, injuries or complaints of any kind. Only more excitement.
- It has been working well in international hoops.
A lot of HoopIdeas really stretch the imagination or seem tough to turn into reality. This one? This one's simple. There's video of a fantastic moment. Let's encourage high-flying players to make more of them. The commissioner is for it. It has been proved as a good move in multiple leagues. Just do it.
What follows is sober analysis of how the "national pastime" came to be as irrelevant as it is. Baseball can't touch football by any metric, and now is looking pretty bad compared to basketball too. This all projects to get worse as audiences age, and become more global. Mahler investigates, and makes some points that are straight from the HoopIdea playbook. Basically, in the name of tradition, baseball failed to adequately foster excitement.
As crazy as it sounds, baseball was once celebrated for its speed. Into the 1910s — before all of the commercial breaks and visits to the mound — it was possible to play a game in under an hour, says the author Kevin Baker, who is writing a history of baseball in New York City.
To the game’s early poets, baseball’s fast pace was what made it distinctly American. Mark Twain called it a symbol of “the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!” The 21st century, not so much.
At the NBA offices, they're congratulating themselves for being on the right side of this point. But that's no reason to rest. If there's any lesson of baseball's decline it's that institutionalized complacency, and an unreasonable attachment to tradition, can quickly catch up to any sport.
The first HoopIdea was to combat needless delays and standing around, sapping the fun of NBA crunch time.
Dramatic tension is to sports as cheese is to a quesadilla. It's not everything, but nobody'll give you a penny for one without it.
Mahler goes on to explore some reasons for the NFL's dramatic ascendance. They include some "structural advantages," like playing only once a week, elimination games all playoffs long, and a scarcity of games that helps each one rise to the level of mattering to a national audience. (With 162 games, plenty of them just don't matter. Mahler points out that a recent Astros game had TV ratings implying fewer than 1,000 people in Houston watched. Meanwhile, the trick is to matter on SportsCenter and in the national consciousness, a tough assignment for a baseball game.)
The funny part about that is ... every league could have those things. It's not like the NFL lucked into a better format. They chose it.
Meanwhile, there are, of course, real, long-term business reasons for minimizing the delays and standing around, and maybe even for reducing the number of games.
Ironically, the reasons those things haven't happened already in the NBA is: business. There's money to be made from the way things are. But that's short-term thinking mired in tradition and a fear of letting the game evolve.
The simple truth is, as much money as there is from the current set-up, there may be even more to be made, long term, from making every minute of every game as energetic, artistic and delightful as possible. That's what HoopIdea is about -- making the best game in the world even better. Getting those things right is fantastic. Getting them wrong ... look how that worked for baseball.
The one bummer: This season also promises to feature a lot of teams that simply can't hang.
Rosters that are ill-prepared to compete will also be featured heavily, mostly because the upcoming draft promises to be a great one. More than a few teams could be better right now, but are going into the season keeping cap space even though they could sign free agents and keeping cheap coaches even though Stan Van Gundy or Phil Jackson could make a difference. These teams are prepared to collect extra losses in the name of increasing their odds for a top pick.
This is worth addressing, if you're the NBA, because what's happening goes beyond long-term planning, which is smart and strategic. Going into any contest hoping to lose ... that's counter to everything we love about sports.
Economists who specialize in sports have been contributing to TrueHoop all week (thanks to the handiwork of Kevin Arnovitz, who made that happen). They don't agree on how the system could be better. But they do agree that the current system is flawed, specifically in that it does too much to reward losing.
The whole idea of a lottery is to keep teams from intentionally pursuing losses by making it uncertain which team will get the top pick. There are various reasons to listen to economists, of all people, on this.
One of the biggest: They have studied it! Two serious studies show that the current version of the lottery simply doesn't do what it's supposed to do. (It was much better, ironically, in 1985, before they "fixed" it.)
Teams are still, evidently, losing games in the name of better picks.
But here's the kicker: Although the handouts to bad teams are too generous, those handouts are insufficient to make teams better anyway. It's like the worst of both worlds. We're polluting the league with intentionally crappy teams, who are dead set on getting Andrew Wiggins. But for the most part, even getting Wiggins won't be nearly enough to make a long-term loser into any kind of winner.
That's not because Wiggins isn't all that. It's because even the best young players often aren't enough to free a poorly run franchise from the millstone of repeated bad decisions.
And that reality, I'd argue, is made worse, and not better, by the league's efforts to help.
What makes a team bad?
- We've been told that small-market teams are the victims. But in a 30-team NBA, the 2013 conference finalists ranked as follows among the nation's biggest markets: 49th (Memphis), 36th (San Antonio), 26th (Indianapolis) and 16th (Miami).
- We've been told team revenue is the key, but are fans of any teams more frustrated right now than those following the revenue-rich but stuck-in-neutral Knicks and Lakers?
- Is it about owners with deep pockets? The Blazers, Nets and Kings have some of the richest owners but are not popular picks to win titles anytime soon.
It's about making good decisions. If your team is well-run, you can succeed anywhere from Oklahoma City to New York City.
The doomed teams are not strictly the ones with the poor owners, nor the ones in the small cities. They're the ones that do dumb things again and again, either because they know no better or are intentionally gaming the system.
Both cases would be reduced or eliminated if the league stopped rewarding losses.
I once published a story that focused on an unnamed general manager who worked but a few hours a week. Not that he was out scouting or meeting with agents. He just did not work much for his multimillion-dollar salary. As soon as it hit ESPN.com, I heard from longtime trusted people in three other front offices saying, essentially, "How did you know about our GM?"
Rest assured, in addition to the new wave of brilliant hard workers, the NBA has a tradition of front-office people who aren't all that interested in how things could be done better, nor in the value of long hours. It's on the way out, but it's not gone yet.
I've heard stories about GMs in the draft war room not recognizing names of top prospects from major programs. I know of brilliant young executives doing the kinds of scouting and analysis that defined the early careers of people like Sam Presti, Rob Hennigan and Ryan McDonough -- and having their work routinely dismissed by bosses too ham-handed to appreciate it. Even as the Spurs built a dynasty on undervalued foreign talent, I've had GMs explain to me at length why internationals are losers.
Even today, many GMs can't bring themselves to trust anything resembling sophisticated advanced analysis, doing things like signing Kwame Brown to protect the rim, because he looks like a guy who ought to be able to do that, even though in terms of the percentage of shots he blocks he has trailed point guards playing alongside him.
All that is to say nothing of formulating a vision, building a winning culture, making hires that fit, and establishing the credibility to mediate disputes between players, coaches and owners. These things simply don't happen on a lot of teams.
Why, in a league in which the players are so incredibly competitive, effective and hardworking, do so many of their bosses get away with being ineffective loafers?
Because the players simply must be among the best in the world or lose their jobs. They are subject to the laws of competition. You have to bust your butt to stick as a player. The front office, though, gets the mother lode of corporate welfare, which does an almighty job of fuzzing up who's really good and who's really bad at running a team. It's tough to hide a bad player, but it's a cinch to hide a bad GM. He's the guy winning the lottery. Or not -- maybe he did that intentionally.
You see the issue?
It can make it seem, to fans and owners alike, almost as if there's nothing to it but luck. But we know, on some level, that's not really true.
As part of Tank Week, economists Arup Sen and Timothy Bond proposed something fascinating and brilliant, where teams would buy draft picks with credits. Play around with that one in your imagination. It's rich.
@TrueHoop I'd love that, except SAS would save its credits to make seven 2nd rd picks, nail all of them, and win 9 straight titles. :)— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) September 5, 2013
Andy Glockner is half being funny here. But it's also right smack-dab at the heart of what matters here. The Spurs know exactly what they're doing and your team doesn't. On some level, that's great news: Front offices can be amazing! On another level, it's horrible news because yours probably isn't.
A. Keep handicapping the Spurs by giving your team better players.
B. Rejigger the market to force every team to get real-deal management, as the Spurs have.
I choose "B" because I can't see any reason every team can't have a great GM. There are tons of people who would be amazing running teams. (Those geniuses who run the Tampa Bay Rays -- was anyone even recruiting them before they took over, did things differently, and started winning?) Basketball's next generation of geniuses are mostly waiting for the phone to ring, effectively locked out by a horribly inefficient market that's kept afloat by a very rich brand of corporate welfare. You're the kind of horrible GM the Spurs dream of facing? Here's a lottery pick and media articles praising your genius. Often that's the only way to keep your job.
Meanwhile, with crappy leadership, you're more or less doomed no matter how many great picks you get. The talented players don't develop properly. The chemistry fails. The coaching is a joke. And on and on.
Thirty teams can't win titles every year, but 30 teams can be great at developing systems that work, calling plays and scouting talent.
The league's truly doomed franchises now are not the small markets or the penny-pinchers. The doomed franchises are those that can't make five straight good decisions. And the lottery system goes a long way toward keeping those teams from the evolution, innovation and turnover necessary to get ahead.
Yes, it is bold. And it would be different. But it's not a lot of the horrid things many think it would be.
Eliminate the rookie salary scale and let there be a bidding war for every rookie. And remember, the NBA effectively has a hard cap. So really bad teams would be able to offer Andrew Wiggins $20 million while free-spending teams would be trying to talk him into things like the quality of the practice facility and training staff.
European soccer basically has this model, and there it does create a super class of perennial contenders. But they don't have salary caps.
Emotion suggests this would create competitive-balance issues. The evidence says: probably not.
@TrueHoop This fails to account for the impact that handing huge money guaranteed deals to very young players would have on the game— CH (@swanklax) September 5, 2013
All I know is the sky was falling when Kevin Garnett made all that money out of high school. That's the deal that freaked everybody out and ushered in rookie salary scales. But in retrospect it was wholly unnecessary, and today smart people are calling for the removal of these kinds of caps. Garnett turned out to be a champion and one of the best players ever, and while he does get on his hands and knees and bark at opponents, which is weird, he is generally seen as a major boon to the league, which is typical. Players who arrive in the NBA very young tend to succeed more than others, according to Michael McCann's research.
In other words, you could be right, but I'd need convincing.
In the meantime, I assume that's all just a cover story. Less money for young players means more money for everyone else at the collective bargaining table, including veterans and owners. If anyone complains, they say, "Oh, we all know what money isn't good for them." And, amazingly, people buy that.
@TrueHoop but good teams would attempt to get rid of their solid players to sign, say, Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle.— Sam Gordon (@SlamGordon) September 5, 2013
Sure, that could happen in a world without a draft.
But, wow, is it tricky.
Let's say you're Pat Riley in the summer of 2014, coming off either three straight titles, or two straight and a very good season. To get under the cap enough to woo Wiggins or a similar player, you're going to need to let major talent go. Basically, at a minimum you're ditching Dwyane Wade for the chance to sign a guy with one year of college experience, who (history shows) is essentially a lock to get roasted on defense for at least a season. Kevin Durant might be the best college freshman in NCAA history, but he didn't help his team, per plus/minus, until his third season.
You know LeBron + Wade + Bosh + cheap role players = perennial contending machine and some likelihood of future titles.
Does LeBron + Bosh + a rookie + cheap role players = equal any titles? Presumably the team is worse while starting that rookie, and much better than they'd otherwise be post-LeBron. But will Wiggins or Randle catch up to where Wade might be while James is still in his prime? LeBron's prime is a horrible thing to waste.
And don't forget you'd have to ditch Wade first, and then see if you can get Wiggins.
Meanwhile, with or without the draft, Riley has the ability to ditch a major player for a current free agent. This isn't that new.
Who knows what the Heat would do, or if this is the best example. But if you're contending, clearing cap space for Wiggins means giving up meaningful stuff. If you're not contending, getting a good player probably helps competitive balance more than hurts it.
But after thinking about all this long and hard through Tank Week, and becoming convinced the existing system is subpar, my conviction is that GMs don't need handouts any more than anyone else in the sport. It's hard to find, acquire and value the right talent? That's really the problem the league is trying to solve for front offices? Isn't that all front offices do?
Change is hard to come by, and I don't expect NBA owners to ditch the lottery and draft overnight.
But if you're asking an honest question about what system would work best for fans, players, front offices, owners and other stakeholders -- who all benefit from the most intense possible competition -- to me the current system is not the place to start. It's not nearly as good as it could be at ensuring the best possible competition.
The conversation ought to begin with going back to the beginning and eliminating the draft entirely. Tweaks beyond that might be necessary, but they ought to be backed up with stronger arguments and evidence than I have been able to find.
The Milwaukee Bucks don't believe in tanking, which makes them misguided -- or wonderful.
There was a time when the Milwaukee Bucks lorded over the NBA’s Central Division as perennial contenders. In the mid-1980s, Don Nelson still had a modicum of structure in his nightly war plan (Nellie’s Bucks consistently ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace), and the Bucks ran off seven straight divisional titles between 1979 and 1986.
Sidney Moncrief was a rock in the backcourt. Out on the wing, Paul Pressey established himself as a prototype for what would become the modern-day defensive stopper. Marques Johnson joined him out there as one of the more reliable, high-percentage wings in the league. When the Bucks swapped Johnson for Terry Cummings, they adapted seamlessly, and Cummings would become a top-10 player during the latter half of the Bucks’ golden period. Alton Lister anchored a defense that was routinely in the top three.
Soon after that stretch, expressions like “small market” entered the league’s lexicon, and the NBA’s better players became empowered to be more selective about where they’d build a career. Gradually, places with cold weather and less cosmopolitan sensibilities had a harder time attracting talent. To play in these markets, stars have to accept a lower Q rating, and that represents lost dollars in today’s sports economy. All of this produces a compounding effect: the belief among players that building a winner in that city is near impossible.
The Bucks organization has always retained its reputation as one of the league’s classier outfits, but it couldn’t fight this tectonic shift. The franchise simply didn’t have enough mitigating factors to overcome it. Like their city, whose spirit has been sapped by new insurmountable economic realities, the Bucks began to fight an uphill battle.
"Guys are going to say, 'I want to be a part of this because they're winning,' or you need to be a team, like Cleveland, that gets two No. 1 picks or three or four top-five picks, and a guy says, 'I see what they have,' ” Bucks general manager John Hammond said.
The treading-water strategy needs a public relations professional. The basketball intelligentsia mocks teams that seem content to chase the No. 8 seed, especially in the East (No. 8 seeds in the West are usually pretty good and generally have legitimate aspirations to finish higher). The maxim, “If you’re not contending, you’re rebuilding,” is regarded as smart thinking. Some league executives publicly adopted another neologism -- “the treadmill of mediocrity" -- to describe what many of them see as a fatal condition. A popular notion exists that nothing short of running the table with a series of mid-first-round picks as the Pacers did, a team is a long shot to contend with this blueprint, even though there's little evidence that losing ultimately leads to winning.
The more clever teams looking to improve seek to capitalize on the glitch in the league’s incentive structure. Blow it up, pick high, nail those picks (and every front-office guy believes he was born to evaluate prospects), and you’ll play in late May. Don’t you know that the market inefficiencies that come with the existence of the NBA draft were meant to be exploited? We don’t make value judgments about the ethics of tanking, because aesthetics are irrelevant. These are the rules as they’ve been designed by the league, and the job of an executive is to succeed within those confines.
Under the leadership of owner Senator Herb Kohl and Hammond (a contributor to the assembly of the Pistons’ teams of the early- to mid-'00s), the Bucks have squarely situated themselves in the survivalist camp. Their goal each offseason is to shoot for as many wins as possible. The catalog of transactions in pursuit of this goal isn’t without blemishes -- and management will own up to the Harris-Redick deal -- but that’s been the consistent tactic in Milwaukee.
The Bucks’ brass articulates its rationale behind this strategy. Part of that argument is based on principle, while the other half is the stated belief that tanking doesn’t necessarily yield better results than doing it their way.
“We're trying to say with Larry Sanders -- one of the top defenders in the league -- with Ersan [Ilyasova], with veterans like Zaza [Pachulia], Luke [Ridnour], Carlos [Delfino], with young players like O.J. [Mayo], Brandon [Knight], John [Henson], Gary [Neal], Ekpe [Udoh], and Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I know we may not win a world championship today, but I do think we can be competitive and continue to build with draft picks and cap space” Hammond said.
Critics (present company included) raised eyebrows at extending Mayo a contract of $8 million per season over three years, but the Bucks answer that they acquired one of the best talents among the free agents they could realistically target. If they overpaid by 10-15 percent, that’s just one of those variables that Milwaukee can’t control. Besides, it’s not as if giving a $6 million player $8 million is going to decimate their fairly roomy cap situation.
“We're not unique,” Hammond said. “Cleveland has to do the same thing. Indiana has to do the same thing. Sacramento has to do the same thing. It's also true in major league baseball. Sometimes you have to overpay for talent.”
Morway was one of the architects of Indiana’s build-on-the-go strategy. Now in Milwaukee, Morway has considered the Pacers’ success and has come to feel deeply that, even with the league’s weird incentive structure, tanking isn’t necessarily a better strategy.
“There isn’t one way to build a franchise,” Morway said. “You can build a team [by pursuing high draft picks], but there’s a lot that goes on between the concept and the execution.”
For every Oklahoma City, there’s a Charlotte and Sacramento. There’s cause for optimism in Minnesota, Cleveland and Washington, but those teams are still trying to make good on multiple high picks, and none of them have seen the postseason during their current era. The Bucks can cite their own history -- the center they chose at No. 15 in the draft (Sanders, in 2010) will likely contribute more when it’s all over than the center they drafted No. 1 (Andrew Bogut, in 2005). There was undoubtedly some bad luck involved but, for the Bucks, that’s the whole point -- there’s no certainty hitting the lottery jackpot will actually pay out in real life.
A sports owner like Kohl (and similarly Simon) who lives in an older city that has struggled to join the growth economies of the sun belt or tech corridors often sees his franchise as a public trust. The team has an accountability to the city. And part of that is delivering a competitive product, to let those making the trip to an aging arena know that there’s a better than 50 percent chance they’ll see a win for the home team. Unlike so many of the newer owners who live out of town and have only a passing relationship with the cities of their teams, Kohl sees Milwaukeeans as neighbors. When you invite your neighbors over to your place, you owe them your hospitality.
“Why should I come to the games if you’re telling me you’re not trying to win?” Morway asks rhetorically.
For Kohl, playing to win every night is a common courtesy to fans, the majority of whom have elected him to the Senate on four occasions, the last time with two-thirds of the overall vote. Public trusts have to perform -- especially if they’re asking for popular support. The Pacers are, again, an appropriate case study. In Forbes’ team valuations published in January, they ranked 24th, while the Bucks were dead last. The Pacers asked from the public and received $33.5 million to address their shortfall in operating income at their home arena. Coupled with a negative public image, the fallout from the Palace brawl, the Pacers felt they couldn’t afford to tank. That’s a privilege reserved for organizations in healthy markets and/or those who have accumulated equity and good will.
The Bucks will soon need to make a hard sell to the residents of Milwaukee that they can’t survive without a new home. They play in arguably the worst facility in the league. Unlike some of the concrete palaces in Sacramento or Salt Lake City, there’s no intimate charm or deafening noise in the Bradley Center. It’s just tired. While a team can’t control the climate, economy or general mood of its city, it can offer a nice work space. The Bucks can’t do that until they build a new facility in Milwaukee, and that’s an easier sell when there’s electricity in town, the Bucks are on the verge of a series upset and Bango the Buck’s antics make him a cult hero.
The Bucks maintain that putting together a run like that without cohesiveness and that there are psychic costs when a team accepts losing as part of the program.
“To build a winning culture ... you can’t turn it on and off,” Morway says. “Players see that.”
Oklahoma City managed it, but by pulling off a rare trick. It built a unique relationship with Kevin Durant, who understood that for a few years, the organization would define success on its own terms. Building that kind of trust requires the rare player in a near-perfect situation. For most young players -- even some who project as future All-Stars -- losing can quickly become a bad habit, and that’s not a risk most teams can assume.
Some of the criticism targeting the Bucks is aimed squarely at questionable deals like trading Tobias Harris for two bumpy months with J.J. Redick and a 3-year, $15.6 million contract for reserve big man Zaza Pachulia. But the overriding sentiment is that the Bucks are foolish to do anything to compromise their future in service of winning more games in the present. Truth be told -- they might be. Unless Antetokounmpo, Henson and Knight explode, and Mayo makes a quantum leap (he’s still only 25), it’s difficult to see the path to the conference finals, and history tell us that’s even more likely if they continue to pick in the mid-first round.
Teams like Bucks who direct their management to assemble this year’s model with the highest-performing engine they can design are regarded as quixotic at best and, more times than not, myopic. Chasing the eighth seed is the ultimate act of madness because respectability is worth far less in the current structure than 60-65 losses. Does this kind of arrangement, one where NBA teams who put the best product on the floor might compromise their future, make the league stronger?
Mike Stobe/NBAE/Getty Images
What if Ben McLemore and other top picks entered the NBA through free agency instead of the draft?
A number of an economists have addressed the issue of tanking and found that the phenomenon comes and goes, depending on the details of the draft lottery format. A study I co-authored with Brian Soebbing and David Berri -- both of whom have weighed in here on tanking at TrueHoop -- suggests that NBA teams did not tank during the period when the NBA draft lottery format was weighted equally among non-playoff teams in the late 1980s.
Under this format every team that finished out of the playoffs had the same chance of getting the first pick in the next draft. But that format was scrapped because of concerns about competitive balance after several teams that barely missed the playoffs were awarded the first pick. Going back to the equal weight draft lottery would eliminate some of the incentives to tank, but this may have unintended consequences for competitive balance.
But if I was czar of the NBA, my solution would be more radical, and would take care of another problem generated by the NBA entry draft with a single stroke. I would eliminate the draft entirely. All tanking incentives in the NBA originate with the draft, so eliminating the draft eliminates incentives to tank. The alternative is that all incoming players are free agents and can be signed by any team, forcing teams to compete for all incoming talent.
Critics would howl that this policy would wreck competitive balance. The large-market teams would buy up all the good players, leading to a lopsided league of haves and have-nots!
My response to this criticism is: This would be unlikely to happen with the current NBA roster limits and salary cap. Incoming players would be subject to the cap, and rosters spots on NBA teams are limited, so large-market teams could not stockpile all the incoming talent.
The entry draft also gives teams market power (monoposony power, in the jargon of economics) because of rookie-scale contracts, which reduce the earnings of players in the first two or three years of their careers. Free agency would benefit these players, in that some of them would clearly earn higher salaries.
Also, a significant body of economic research suggests that entry drafts, salary caps and revenue sharing do not have any appreciable impact on competitive balance. This further strengthens the argument that eliminating the draft would not hurt competitive balance in the NBA.
I also think it's important to think about tanking from the fan's perspective. While seeing your team intentionally lose games at the end of the season might reduce attendance in the short run, getting the first pick in the NBA draft can significantly improve a team in the NBA, and fans might be willing to trade-off short run intentional losses for long-run success generated by the first pick. No research has addressed this issue, or examined how tanking affects attendance or media revenues, but it’s worth thinking about.
Brad Humphreys is a professor in the College of Business and Economics, Department of Economics at West Virginia University. His research focuses on the economics of sports and gambling.
Garrett Ellwood/ NBAE/ Getty Images
LeBron James' value during his rookie deal far exceeded his salary.
Historically, most of the discussion surrounding tanking in the NBA has centered on the NBA amateur draft. Even though drafts are anti-competitive in nature (i.e., amateur players can only negotiate with the team that drafted them and nobody else), one of the rationales leagues give for a reverse-order amateur draft is competitive balance, all member teams have equal playing strength throughout the short and long-term. Many times competitive balance and uncertainty of game outcome work together (i.e., a policy that increases uncertainty of outcome also increases competitive balance). However, tanking and the amateur draft is one instance, historically, where these two concepts diverge. This is one reason that tanking is a complex phenomenon and a difficult one for league executives.
There are two main areas of academic research in regards to tanking and the NBA draft. The first is looking at financial incentives to tank. I coauthored a paper in 2010 (Journal of Sports Economics) with Drs. Joseph Price, David Berri, and Brad Humphreys looking at financial incentives to tank. Examining NBA drafts from 1992 to 2007, we estimated that the average value of the first overall pick in the draft was approximately $4.3 million. In addition to the overall dollar value, we also estimated that first overall picks on average produced 7.2 wins in the first season and 45 wins over the first five seasons of their career. Hence, these players are productive and valuable on average throughout the period.
The second area of research looks at whether and to what extent teams tank under different formats. To summarize the findings from multiple papers (including the one above), there were mixed findings in regards to the reverse-order draft format, no tanking under the equal probability format, and tanking returning under both weighted probability formats. For example, if you are non-playoff team and were going to have the same chance as the worst team overall in regards to receiving the first overall selection, there is no incentive to tank.
In summary, the NBA has been trying to balance uncertainty of outcome and competitive balance in regards to the draft over the last 30 years, and have previously adopted a measure to eliminate tanking -- the equal probability or “unweighted” draft format.
Rookie scale adds appeal to tanking
Aside from lottery format, there’s another important factor to consider: the rookie salary scale, which limits the amount of money a first round draft pick earns in his first five seasons in the league. For instance, the first pick in the NBA draft will earn approximately $4.6 million. This value will increase to over $8 million in the final year of the contact. If the player performs to his potential -- or even comes close -- this usually gives the team “a surplus,” which we can define as the amount of revenue a player produces for the team minus the salary paid to him by the team.
Consider a superstar like LeBron James. The value of his production for the Cleveland Cavaliers during his rookie deal far exceeded his salary. In the research stated prior with Drs. Price, Berri, and Humphreys, one-third of the first overall picks were identified as superstars. Thus, a team may conclude that the reward for tanking under the rookie salary scale far outweighs the risk. If we eliminated these pre-ordained rookie scale contracts, we’d also eliminate a considerable amount of the incentive for teams to tank in order to acquire these players at below market value.
Play for the pick
One “radical” measure would be to have a tournament that determines the number one overall selection. This tournament would consist of all non-playoff teams and could occur during the playoffs. The draft lottery slots are determined based upon the results in tournament. The winner of the tournament selects first, the loser of the championship game would select second, etc.
The format regarding length and home court would be the key deciding factors and these decisions would be a discussion regarding the purpose of the draft (reduce tanking or competitive balance). For example, playing the game at the worst non-playoff team's home court would side towards competitive balance given the NBA’s strong home court advantage, as would a short tournament format (winner take all or best-of-three). A neutral location for a tournament and a longer format (e.g., best-of-seven) would veer more towards reducing tanking. In theory, this would provide a competitive element of determining the draft format while also providing a sense of excitement for fans of these teams going into the off-season and the beginning of ticket sales for the upcoming seasons.
Dr. Brian Soebbing is an assistant professor in sport management within the Department of Kinesiology at Louisiana State University. His main research focus is on the strategic behavior of sports leagues and teams both at the amateur and professional level.
Elsa/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter losing 22 of their last 27 games in 2011-12, the Warriors made out like bandits in June.
The purpose of the NBA draft is to promote parity by assigning the highest draft picks to the worst teams. The problem is that this creates incentives to tank -- teams may exert less effort to try to disguise themselves as being of low quality. In this piece we focus specifically on everyone’s favorite example of egregious losing, the 2011-12 Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors finished a once-promising season on a 5-22 freefall, giving them the seventh-worst record in the NBA. At 23-43, Golden State was just bad enough to avoid an outstanding trade obligation to send that June’s first-round draft pick to the Utah Jazz.
The terms of the trade created what we call a discontinuity in the Warriors’ payoff function: Additional losses at the end of the season could be the difference between Golden State getting a top-seven pick in a talent-filled NBA draft or coming away from the offseason empty-handed. The value of additional wins, on the other hand, was difficult to quantify and potentially small.
An oft-suggested method to eliminate this kind of discontinuity is to disallow the practice of including "protected" draft picks in trades. However, this could create a large amount of illiquidity and reduce the volume of trades. The fair value for some players happens to be a draft pick in the range of 8-14. Without pick protection these players become untradable to the detriment of everyone in the league.
A new kind of draft
We instead advocate overhauling the way draft picks are assigned. The rights to draft slots (the right to pick at a particular number) will be sold via sequential auction before the date of the draft for “credits.” Teams will bid with their credits and the highest bidder earns the right to make the pick come draft day. Credits will be allocated at the end of each season based on record with the worst teams receiving more. This preserves the original push for parity.
Under this system, teams trade credits rather than future protected draft picks. This eliminates the discontinuity that Golden State faced. One can no longer exert low effort as a way to avoid outstanding obligations. Another benefit is that teams could split up their credits in the manner they deem optimal. In certain drafts, having the first pick may not be a desirable outcome if there is no franchise player to be had. Having more credits may allow teams to spend on acquiring multiple draft slots or potentially save them for future seasons.
Of course, teams still may want to lose to get more credits, but the reduced certainty on the value of these credits shrinks the incentives to lose intentionally. A complex formula for awarding of credits, taking into account relative performance of all teams in a given year would add to this uncertainty without losing the redistributive benefit. For example, we could dock teams credits if their performance in the second half of the season is significantly worse (statistically) than their first-half effort.
A significant real world benefit of our suggestion is that the NBA could keep existing wage structures and the draft intact. The only change would be to replace a draft lottery with a month long market or auction. The day-to-day intrigue on who is bidding what for which pick would give fans of the less fortunate teams something to keep them engaged. Imagine the vibrant conversations of arm-chair GMs and auction-style fantasy league veterans debating the merits of each days bids.
Arup Sen is an economist at a Princeton based consulting group and holds a PhD in Economics from Boston University with a research focus on the NBA.
Timothy N. Bond is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University.
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Late-season losing helped the Blazers get a good draft pick. A tweak could change that.
If I were in charge of the NBA draft lottery I would wait until the end of the season and then randomly select a number between 30 and 60. I would use the current lottery system but base the lottery on each team’s place in the standings after that randomly chosen number of games.
By way of example, we ran a simulation using last season. The number we randomly drew was 43. So that means we'd assign teams lottery balls not based on their record at the end of 82 games, but instead based on their record after Game 43.
It would change things somewhat, as you can see in the table. The current system really hurts teams like the Wizards and Raptors, who continued to play rather well during the last part of the season.
The table is not meant to provide evidence that teams like the Magic and Trail Blazers were tanking, but it does highlight how much teams can improve their lottery chances under the current system by losing more games at the end of the season.
This would reduce the incentive for teams to lose on purpose late in the season once they drop out of contention for the playoffs because regardless of which number is randomly drawn, any losses after game No. 60 -- usually played in late February or early March -- would have no bearing on a team’s chances in the lottery. At the very least, this would drastically curtail “tanking season,” assuming any team would want to pack it in much before the All-Star break.
In order for this approach to be as equitable as the current system requires, a team’s league ranking at a point mid-\season is correlated with their ranking at the end of the season. I took a date from seasons between 1991-2010 and find that there is an 88 percent correlation between a team’s rank after 30 games and their rank at the end of the season (with the average team moving three places in the ranking). If you wait until after the 60th game, the correlation increases to 97 percent (with the average team moving 1.5 places in the ranking).
Joseph Price is an assistant professor of economics and Brigham Young University. His research has often covered basketball topics, including incentives and league policy, interracial workplace cooperation in the NBA, performance under pressure and referee bias.
Noren Trotman/ NBAE/ Getty Images
Back in 1985, the Knicks scored the top pick in an unweighted draft lottery and landed Patrick Ewing.
I was asked how I would end tanking in the NBA. We could get radical and do away with the draft altogether, screw parity and let the free market determine what each player is worth right out of college and which teams are willing and able to pay for him. That’s the libertarian answer that you might expect from an economist.
But I’m a bleeding heart liberal economist, one that’s concerned about equity. And in the NBA, equity means parity -- every team having a fighting chance.
The NBA draft tries to equal out the playing field by trying to direct the best talent to the teams that need it most. However, by doing so, we’re forced to risk tanking to improve parity. (Or at least the chance for parity, assuming management and owners know what to do with their draft picks.) How should the league manage this balancing act between parity and tanking in the draft?
Here’s the thing, they already have a great tool to tip the scales away from tanking, all within the current system of amateur drafts, luxury taxes and limited first contracts. But first, a history lesson.
Go back with me to 1985. New Coke. “Back to the Future.” Stallone at his apex.
And Patrick Ewing.
If ever there was a reason for teams to tank to get a chance at the first pick, Ewing was it. But, my colleague Beck Taylor and I have crunched the data, and we found no evidence that teams tanked that year (Taylor and Trogdon, 2002). Why? In 1985, the first year of the draft lottery, every non-playoff team had an equal shot at Ewing (at least in principle). Once a team was eliminated from the playoffs, there was no benefit from additional losing. In fact, the lottery was instituted to avoid tanking, which we showed was happening even in the prior season. So if the lottery was supposed to end tanking, why is it still a problem?
Jump ahead to 1989. New Coke is gone. Milli Vanilli. Shoulder pads. And the NBA switched to the current weighted lottery system, which gives teams with worse records more opportunity for higher picks (i.e., more pingpong balls). Eliminated teams don’t guarantee higher picks by losing, but they increase their chances. Here’s the key point from our analysis of this system -- teams were likely to tank again, but not as much as in the pre-lottery days.
That means the league already has a tool to address tanking -- lottery weights. The lottery weights are a control dial that can be set to tweak the parity/tanking tradeoff. On one end of the dial, the weights are the same for all teams (e.g., 1985). This would eliminate tanking but there’s a chance a “good” non-playoff team gets the top pick (less parity). On the other end of the dial, the weights just sort the non-playoff teams from worst to best to determine the draft order (e.g., pre-1985). The teams most in need of talent get the best options (more parity), but lots of tanking. You could even use the lottery weights to reward the winningest teams post-elimination.
If Adam Silver, the next NBA commissioner, is serious about ending tanking, he doesn’t need to reinvent the entire draft process to do it. He’s already got the right pingpong ball machine for the job.
Justin G. Trogdon is a senior research economist at RTI International.
Mike Stobe/NBAE/Getty Images
The NBA Draft might be the single most influential reason we see teams tank. Should we get rid of it?
There are essentially three ways a team can acquire the productive talent it needs to contend for a title:
The Heat approach: Acquire productive veterans
This approach has also recently been used by the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The problem is that the NBA has a maximum salary. This means that teams cannot use higher wages to attract better talent. Instead, productive veterans are now considering whether or not your team is likely to win. In other words, the Miami Heat approach seems to require that you already have stars to attract more stars.
In addition, teams have to know which veterans to acquire. The New York Knicks have tried to build with veterans for years. But in most recent seasons, the Knicks have failed because they tend to acquire relatively unproductive veterans (primarily because the Knicks focus too much attention on per game scoring).
The Spurs approach: Acquire productive players in the latter part of the NBA draft
When we think of the Spurs, we tend to think Tim Duncan. Although Duncan was the most productive regular season performer for the Spurs in 2012-13, about 48 of the team’s regular season wins came from other players -- the five most productive were Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, and Manu Ginobili. Each of them was either a non-lottery first round pick or a second-round pick. All teams have access to such players, but the team must be able to identify such talent. And since the Spurs are relatively unique in utilizing this approach, it’s reasonable to assume most teams cannot consistently identify productive players outside the lottery.
The Thunder approach: Acquire productive lottery picks
The third approach is to acquire productive talent in the NBA lottery. Most recently, the Thunder accomplished this when they built an NBA Finals team around the talents of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Lottery picks are granted to the NBA’s non-playoff teams, so you have to lose to implement this strategy. You also must have a fair amount of luck. Not only does it help to finish very high in the lottery, you also have to be able to select the productive players with those high picks. In some years, though, this is difficult. For example, none of the top seven talents selected in 2010 have become players who produce wins in large quantities. A similar story can be told about most of the players at the top of the 2006 NBA draft.
There is another problem that the Thunder discovered. Initially draft picks play under a rookie contract, so these players can produce wins at a very low cost. But this contract expires fairly quickly. Specifically, the Thunder were able to employ Harden for only three seasons. Once a player moves on to his second contract, the team essentially moves to option No. 1 (i.e. building through productive veterans). So not only does this approach requires luck, it’s also a short-lived strategy.
Nevertheless, teams seem to try and follow the third option. And for that to happen, teams have to lose -- or pursue the strategy of tanking. Such a strategy essentially contradicts a fundamental promise made by sporting competitors; that the competitors will do their very best to win the game.
To eliminate this strategy, we simply need to remove the incentive behind this approach. Again, teams only get high lottery picks by losing. And the more you lose, the better your chance of getting the top picks in the draft. If we want teams to stop doing this, we need to change the incentives of the people who implement this strategy.
This can be done in three ways:
Return to a non-weighted lottery
In a paper I co-authored with Joe Price, Brian Soebbing, and Brad Humphreys, we presented evidence that the NBA’s non-weighted lottery -- utilized in the 1980s -- seemed to reduce the tendency to tank. Back in 1985, only seven teams didn’t make the playoffs. Today it is 14 teams. If all lottery picks were selected via a non-weighted lottery -- as was the case in 1985 -- the worst team in the NBA could receive just the 14th pick in the draft. This would effectively eliminate a team’s incentive to be as bad as possible to get the best pick possible.
Eliminate the draft
A more radical approach (for North American sports fans) is to eliminate the draft. In European sports, there is no draft. But on this side of the Atlantic, it is taken for granted that the losers in professional sports leagues are rewarded with high draft picks. However, as we have noted, this gives teams an incentive to tank. So a simple solution is to abolish the draft and allow top amateurs to negotiate with more than one team.
One issue with this approach is that the top amateurs could simply choose to sign with the NBA’s best teams. This is especially likely if the NBA’s rookie salary cap is kept in place. After all, if the wages of the top players are going to be the same, then these players will simply choose to play for the best teams. To avoid this problem, the NBA could implement a system where playoff teams cannot sign a player until 14 amateurs have already received offers from non-playoff teams. And once a player received an offer from a non-playoff team, he could not sign with a playoff team (but could still sign with any of the other 13 non-playoff teams).
This system would force the non-playoff teams to be as competitive as possible, since the top amateurs would probably prefer to play for the best non-playoff team possible. And again, would eliminate the problem of the tanking.
Punish the losers
The tanking strategy is easy for decision-makers in the NBA to embrace. Teams that pursue this strategy are essentially trying to lose to enhance the team’s draft position. This is a simple strategy to follow. Trying to win is difficult, but losing is easy and the more incompetent the decision-maker, the better the strategy can be implemented. Imagine how easy it would be to do your job if you were rewarded for doing the job badly!
To stop this behavior, the NBA could simply implement a rule that says if a team misses the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, the team must fire its general manager. If this rule was put in place, constant losing would lead to consequences for executives.
David Berri is a Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University. He is co-author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins (FT Press, March-2010). He has written extensively on the topic of sports economics for academic journals, and his work has appeared at The New York Times, the Huffington Post, Freakonomics.com and Time.com.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
The draft lottery has its charm, but sports economists say it fails to make bad teams good.
It's a wonderful time for the NBA, with young stars all over the league, an impressive collection of contenders and fascinating storylines from coast to coast. The one real downer, however, is that the game-changing talent of the 2014 draft is expected to inspire any number of teams to lose as many games as possible this season, in the name of the best possible draft pick. In this Tank Week series, ESPN.com's HoopIdea explores tanking and its effect on the NBA.
At its heart, tanking in the NBA is an issue of messed up incentives -- the league wants success but rewards failure.
Lose 65 games and you have the inside track to the best young talent at the cheapest prices. Scrap your way to 40 wins when conventional wisdom picked you in the basement and your consolation prize is a middling first-round pick.
Maddening though these contradictions may be to fans, they are especially galling to those who study incentives for a living: economists. It's almost impossible to find one who likes the NBA's current system, which was built in the name of competitive balance but has hardly been shown to deliver anything like it in any sports league in the world.
The idea is that high picks make bad teams better, but as economist Brad Humphreys explains, there’s a body of research that has found, despite popular perception, that “drafts, salary caps and revenue sharing do not have any appreciable impact on competitive balance.”
HoopIdea's motto: "Basketball is the best game ever. Now let’s make it better." In that spirit, we asked a collection of economists to tell us how things could be better. Over the rest of this week we'll be rolling out proposals to fix tanking from the likes of Joe Price, David Berri, Humphreys, Justin Trogdon, Brian Soebbing, Arup Sen and Timothy Bond.
None defends the current system, which research shows absolutely does lead to tanking. Their proposals are fascinating:
- The NBA has tweaked its lottery in the past, which may have been a mistake -- a careful study shows it once had a lottery system that evidently did not lead to tanking.
- You have heard Bill Simmons' idea for a tournament in which teams that miss the playoffs play for draft position. Some economists say that could work.
- There is a clever idea to reward bad teams but without giving them a reason to rack up late-season losses.
- What if instead of winning a better draft position with losses, you won credits you could use to bid on draft picks? There are some cool things about this, including elimination of the ugly shenanigans the Warriors used a few years ago to lose a lot with a decent team apparently to keep the pick that became Harrison Barnes.
- Teams tank because high picks are so valuable. Part of the reason they're so valuable is because the best rookies are underpaid, thanks to the rookie scale. If rookies could be paid more, however, there'd be a little less reason to tank.
- Lots of economists suggest eliminating the draft entirely. (If it's not, in fact, making bad teams good, what's the point?) Berri has a clever idea, though, about how to do that in a way that will keep hope alive in 30 markets.
- And then there's this idea: Miss the playoffs three years in a row and your GM loses his job.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Competitors doing everything they can to win make sports great.
It's a wonderful time for the NBA, with young stars all over the league, an impressive collection of contenders and fascinating storylines from coast to coast. The one real downer, however, is that the game-changing talent of the 2014 draft is expected to inspire any number of teams to lose as many games as possible this season, in the name of the best possible draft pick. In the first post of a series, ESPN.com's HoopIdea explores tanking and its effect on the NBA.
Here’s a nice HD YouTube video, cued up to the moment when the world’s finest sprinters are lining up for a big race.
Eight of the best athletes the world has ever known, shaking muscles loose and then crouching into the starting blocks, poised to explode. They spend years getting to this level -- running fast defines these competitors. Yet they do their best at it only a few seconds a year.
This is that time.
It's fun to watch, even though the commentary is in German and it's a sport hurting for both celebrity power and highlight-worthy artistry. In fact, it's surely the simplest sport: It starts here and ends right over there. No turning. Not even really any pacing. Eight athletes in a row, each bound and determined to run faster.
We appreciate this on a deep level. "Wanna race?" is an ancient question almost every human has asked or answered. This trips a trigger. The rare delight of sports, in these complicated times, is to see eight crystal-clear agendas, so nakedly, completely and devotedly all in.
That’s competition, and that's part of us.
Screwing up a beautiful thing
Now imagine this. You’re the runner in Lane 4, hands placed carefully, heart racing, waiting for the starter. Three sprinting wizards to your left, four to your right. Everyone has had this date circled on the calendar all year. You’ve got glory to earn and a family to feed.
And you know there’s:
- $100,000 for first place
- $50,000 for second place
- And … $100,000 for last place
Takes a lot of the fun out of the race, doesn't it? Knowing the competition’s big prizes are not just for winning, but for winning or losing.
A little weird, eh?
Of course, that's not what happens in track. But, oddly, it is roughly what really happens in the NBA.
Picture 30 teams trying to win
This season, one NBA team will work incredibly hard, make one smart decision after another, please the basketball gods and enjoy an NBA title in June.
Another team will turn the ball over a ton, play the wrong players and endure heart-wrenching injuries as the basketball gods look the other way. That team will trick the rulebook into an incredibly high pick in the draft of a lifetime with a good shot at a player who will change things for that team for a decade or more.
It's tough to say which team wins the bigger prize.
In other words: Every team would do its darnedest to give fans what they want -- real long-term strategy and real all-in nightly competition -- if the league would take its thumb off the scale. Thirty general managers are hard-wired to pull their hair out to win now and forever just like those sprinters -- if only the NBA didn't muck things up by giving a whole lot of those competitive people strong arguments to cut their competitive juices with the tonic water of tanking.
It's not that the league is forcing teams to lose. And rest assured we still get amazing competition. But the NBA is needlessly confusing things. You know what exits stage left when the priorities get cloudy? The beauty of clear priorities.
Give the big prize to the runner in last place, and it's just too much to expect everyone's best race after race, year after year. The race gets a little less fun to watch.
Maybe it’s not the biggest deal in the world. Maybe the sport can thrive despite this -- clearly it has.
And let's be clear: What I'm not alleging is that coaches or players are throwing games. I'm not even chapped at the owners or GMs who pursue losses by deciding to cut costs, keep bad coaches around, trump up injuries, trade away efficient players, play inferior players or save cap space for another day. They all should do what they think is in the long-term best interests of their teams -- I can't really call the Spurs idiots for the pathetic show they put on to get the draft pick that became Tim Duncan. Everyone should pursue wins, and more or less I believe everyone does. This isn't an ethical issue.
What's messed up is that the league has confused matters. When this season is over and teams like the 76ers, Suns, Kings, Magic, Bobcats, Celtics and Jazz have miserable records, did we learn those teams are dumb, or smart?
Losing badly in the NBA is no condemnation of the team. Which is a profound condemnation of the league. Whoever dreamed up that prize scheme simply got it wrong. It’s a strategy where you can more or less count on some competitors dogging it every time out. In casual conversation, I've heard NBA GMs mocking front offices in places like Houston and Milwaukee for "foolishly" trying to win season after season. It's all backward.
You want to see the most intense competition? You want every game to matter? You want maximum excitement? Well, duh. Stop rewarding failure. Stop creating the problem.
It casts a shadow over the NBA schedule. Maybe a third of the games feature at least one team that no doubt has players and coaches who are dying to win, but who have been intentionally handicapped by front offices that value losses. I don’t know who’ll win that Grizzlies versus Sixers contest, but I know the Grizzlies -- all of them, from the point guard to the president -- want to.
Meanwhile, we could, quite simply, with a wave of the hand from the NBA Board of Governors, have a league where all 1,230 games feature two organizations with all the naked competitive ambition of the sprinters in that video.
That’s what we’re exploring.
Why can’t we have that?