TrueHoop: HoopIdea

Is one trip to the free-throw line enough?

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
10:00
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
WestbrookAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe action stalls out when it's free-throw time. Would the NBA be better off granting just one shot?
I went looking for a photo of a free throw to accompany this story. Finding an appropriate image is tougher than you’d think.

A search for “Free Throws NBA” on Getty Images yields about 25,000 results, the majority of which are close-ups of the individual shooter, usually a name player. In a good number of those pictures you see a guy looking at middle distance wearing more than a blank look but less than a game face. A foul shot is one of the few moments during a game when a photographer can snap an unobstructed shot of a star. Absolutely nothing of substance or style is going on -- no acrobatics, broken ankles or rare feats. It’s a scene that could be re-enacted by any 10 fans in the crowd.

About 26 times per game last season, the action screeched to a halt and players shuffled to their spots to watch a 15-foot set shot. An NBA game featured 47 of these moments on average. It creates a world, as HoopIdea described more than a year ago, in which exhilaration quickly gives way to deflation.

Intelligent people can debate the virtues of the free throw, whether it’s an appropriate deterrent, a necessary evil, etc. But it’s hard to argue that the 15 to 20 minutes it takes to administer several dozen free throws in an NBA game aren’t the most forgettable moments of the night. Any editor charged with trimming the fat from the story would inevitably tag these blocks as the place where the narrative drags. There’s a reason rebroadcasts often skip over free throws, and why at games thousands of fans almost reflexively check their smartphones the instant a foul is whistled.



Around last season’s All-Star break, preliminary chatter began among the league’s basketball operations folks and rule geeks about the prospect of reducing all trips to the free-throw line to a single foul shot. D-League president Dan Reed and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey were the closest thing to co-sponsors of a bill. Nobody was proposing anything to be fast-tracked, but an imperative to figure out ways to shorten pro basketball games gave the idea some life as something to consider implementing in the D-League.

The concept was this: A player fouled in the act of shooting or in a penalty situation would attempt only a single free throw. If that player was shooting a 2-point shot or in a penalty situation at the time of the foul, the free throw attempt would be worth two points. If that player was fouled in the act of launching a 3-point shot, he’d go to the line for a single shot worth three points.

By doing so, those 47 attempts per game would be whittled down to about 26. There’s no hard data on the average length of time it takes to shoot a pair of free throws, but my stopwatch clocks it at approximately 45 seconds from the sound of the whistle to the second shot reaching the rim. A trip to the line for a single technical or an and-1 situation, though, takes about 30 seconds. These numbers vary wildly. (Walking from one end of the floor to the other after a loose-ball foul takes an eternity, whereas a shooting foul in the paint is a short commute. You also have a fair share of Dwight Howards who can be timed with a calendar.) But we can fairly approximate a second or third free throw as a 15-second exercise. Using that estimate, scrapping 21 free throws from a game would shave more than five minutes of stoppage from the average NBA or D-League game.

“We’re an entertainment product, and the more free flow in basketball, the better,” Morey said. “All the surveying supports that. Basketball is better when basketball players are playing basketball. Stoppages mean less basketball, which is boring. It also means an over-instrumenting of the game. It’s a beautiful game and the closer you can get to two well-prepared teams playing back and forth without interruption or over-management, the better.”

Four rules last season ranging from reducing the number of timeouts to demanding that teams facilitate quicker substitutions trimmed a total of two minutes from D-League games. That’s not insignificant, but it’s a fraction of the five minutes that would be saved if the D-League went to a single free throw. And those five minutes come entirely during a stoppage of live play, unlike, for instance, a measure to shorten a quarter from 12 to 10 minutes, which would snip eight minutes of game action.



Reed kept the conversation about free throws alive on calls and informal conversations through the spring, and the D-League’s Basketball Rules Committee took up the issue at their August meeting. By that point Reed had departed for a position at Facebook and, without a vocal advocate, the committee decided not to pursue the idea any further.

“It’s an interesting concept,” said Chris Alpert, the D-League’s vice president of basketball operations. “But as we discussed it further with the basketball guys, we just felt it would be compromising the integrity of the game and players’ statistics. We didn’t want to skew a player’s free-throw shooting percentage and we didn’t want to compromise the purity of the game.”

In support of the skewed stats argument, the D-League brandished stats that showed that players convert the second of a pair of free throws at a better rate than the first (for D-Leaguers, 71.1 percent vs. 76.3 percent; for NBA players, 73.2 percent vs. 77.7 percent). The trend holds for three-shot trips, as well, as players get progressively more proficient from the first to third attempts. On single attempts -- which would be every trip to the line under the proposed reform -- the D-League shot 71.8 percent, while the NBA shot 72.8 percent.

Would eliminating second and third free-throw attempts drop the league’s overall free-throw percentage? If you believe the data would translate to a single-attempt system, then yes, slightly. But a reform would have absolutely no bearing on the competitive dynamics of the game. The foul line isn’t being moved out or in, and scrapping a second and third free-throw attempt would affect both teams equally. Free-throw percentages have been variable throughout time (they were added after the advent of basketball, and even then, their current point value and the location of the shot weren’t settled until 1895), floating from the low to high 70s for the last 50 years or so. Meanwhile, the D-League instituted international goaltending rules in 2010, which has resulted in additional field-goal and blocked-shot opportunities at the rim, particularly for big men. Individual stats have undoubtedly been affected.

A degree of randomness that didn’t previously exist would be introduced into individual games. For instance, a 75 percent shooting clip at the stripe wouldn’t necessarily yield 75 percent of the available points on a given night. Let’s say a guy makes four trips to the line -- three of those attempts for two points each, but one for only a single point (an and-1 situation). Hitting three of four (75 percent) might only yield 71 percent of the available points (if the miss comes on one of the two-point attempts). Or it might yield 86 percent of the available points (if the miss happens to come on the and-1 attempt).

But over the course of the season, this stuff evens out and the overall mathematical effect is close to nothing.



The more likely reasons the proposal didn’t gain more traction are more cultural than empirical. Apart from being at least marginally profitable for those who invest, the D-League has two central mandates as an enterprise:

  • Provide an environment in which talent can develop the skills to succeed in the NBA
  • Serve as the NBA’s research and development lab

These two missions are in no way mutually exclusive, but they coexist with an occasional degree of tension. Certain voices in the game place a higher degree of import on one objective over the other. A basketball lifer who experiences the game as a former player and is rooted in certain fixed truths might place a higher premium on continuity than a blue-sky thinker whose appreciation for pro basketball are driven by a passion for innovation and imagination for what basketball should look like two decades down the road. We’ve tackled many of these ideas over the last few years at HoopIdea.

[+] EnlargeDan Reed
Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty ImagesDan Reed is officially out of the NBA innovation game. Will another big thinker take his place as D-League commissioner?
Reed was squarely in the innovation camp and his departure has been met with some sadness among the league’s futurists. Morey and others have characterized Reed as a guy who understood how to fashion new ideas and how to temper the anxieties of those who might be nervous about their implementation.

That’s a difficult balance to strike and one reason why identifying Reed’s replacement is a very big hire for the NBA and the D-League. The hope in midtown Manhattan is to have a new president of the D-League in place before its season begins in mid-November. A bias toward innovation is essential, because the gravitational pull among much of the league still veers toward institutional tradition, even if new commissioner Adam Silver is a change agent at heart.

The dead-ball free throw conversation is instructive of these conflicts between tradition and innovation, development and research. It’s far easier to believe that this particular idea got shot down because a radical proposal that feels alien to the game we know and love requires some time to marinate before cautious people upset our perception of what a pro basketball game is supposed to look like. An idea often needs to work its way through the cycle of discussion and consideration a few times before a level of comfort can be achieved. Once decision-makers turn the concept over in their heads a few times, they can form a fact-based argument for or against.

For instance, those 15 or 20 minutes of dead time during free throw attempts could be vital to in-game recovery for players. That may or may not be true, but it makes more sense as a suggestion than the idea that eliminating dead-ball free throw would ruin the statistical integrity of the game.

The league could certainly get away with a safe hire and opt for a “weak executive” model in which decisions are made by the collective opinion of the most powerful voices. There are no shortage of people in the NBA world who feel they have the expertise to run a satellite league that exists almost entirely to accommodate the NBA.

But the NBA and D-League’s current momentum is all the more reason to double down on the success. New York should find a forward-looking influencer who will continue to see the D-League as an incubator for experimentation, not because incubating ideas is more important than incubating basketball talent, but because the NBA and its affiliate already have plenty of smart people who develop players. Developing the consensus for change is far more challenging.

NBA schedule leaves suspense out of sport

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
1:44
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
video

Tom Haberstroh writes about how lack of rest for players harms the NBA product. I suggest you read that, given that it’s good. Of particular interest (to me, possibly to you) is Tom’s section on research done by the ever-sharp Neil Paine:

"Briliant research by 538’s Neil Paine found that we learn as much about the true abilities of an NBA team after 22 games as we do about an MLB team after they play their full 162-game slate. Let that marinate for a second. Twenty-two games. That’s all it takes.”


Tom goes on to remind us of where teams ended up after Christmas Day, an unofficial marker of when the NBA season really gets going.

“Go ahead and pull up the NBA’s standings on Christmas Day last season. There you’ll find the six division leaders were Toronto, Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio. Yes, the exact same ones at the regular-season’s end.”


The NBA season ends before it really begins, apparently. I hate telling you this because hey, I’d prefer you pay attention to whatever I’m babbling about after December. Unfortunately you have license to tune out my, and any other, basketball commentary when we change the calendar. You don’t even need to necessarily watch the games, either. Sure you’d miss a lot of highlight plays, but you’d be about as informed as regular viewers regarding which teams are the best in their conferences.

The games are fun to watch, but they lack the urgency that comes with a loss actually derailing a season and mattering in a broader context. These fun-to-watch games would be even more fun to watch if they carried such suspense.

Moreover, the NBA season is just plain l-o-n-g. If variety is the spice of life, scarcity is the spice of sports. And basketball isn’t scarce at all. There’s a steady stream of televised games, nearly every night, for six months.

What’s funny is that Nike, the apparel company making the most money off basketball, totally gets how important scarcity is. For years it has been artificially producing fewer specialty shoes than demand calls for.

Maybe you like having 82 games. I understand that, as someone who can feel lost without the comforting metronome of a basketball thudding through my TV speakers. I don’t think we’re normal for that inclination, though, and the NBA’s probably turning off a whole bunch of casual sports fans who would be drawn in if regular-season games were big events. Imagine the ratings if the NBA adopted the Arnovitz plan of a 44-game season, with games landing only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and an added nationally televised showcase game on the weekends. All-time records would be impacted by a shortened season, but Michael Jordan managed to convince people of his pre-eminence without ever catching Kareem in scoring.

Here’s where you say, “What about the lost revenue in cutting all those games?” I hear that, but the NFL makes more TV money off its 16-game season than the NBA makes off 82 games.

The NBA might not want the NFL’s current headlines, but it certainly wants its success. It’s no coincidence that the league is installing NFL-like replay review and bowing before the altar of parity. What the NBA isn’t willing to do, though, is take that which actually fuels its bigger brother’s success. It’s not willing to cut back on an overlong season in the interest of driving interest.

As a once-huge NFL fan, I remember going to a preseason Chargers-Seahawks game and getting struck by how boring it was when deprived of stakes. There’s a lot of dead time in football, dull moments that are pregnant with tension when the result matters. Divorced from suspense, from coaches clinging to their jobs, from star quarterbacks facing down the heat of media scrutiny, from the entire season hanging on a single play, the action on the field isn’t intrinsically all that interesting. You can watch some guys play basketball in the park and be reasonably entertained. That’s partially why the league can trudge along with its overlong season and get by. Football needs stakes. I would argue that much if not most of football’s entertainment factor lies in the sense that one sudden play can mean a lot.

The NBA’s regular season lacks that, and frankly, so do the first couple rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Basketball starts in the fall and has no stakes until it gets to the spring. NBA owners are making money, as nearly all major sports are in the DVR era, so perhaps the status quo satisfies the powers that be. But this wonderful sport is likely a lot less popular than it could be, given that its season is roughly four times longer than it needs to be. If NBA owners were a bit more bold, they’d discover that less is more.

Now teaming up: Catapult and SportVU

May, 9, 2014
May 9
3:13
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
Derrick RoseAP Photo/Alex BrandonFor a second straight season Derrick Rose spent more time in street clothes than a Bulls uniform.
Bummed out that injuries torpedoed your favorite team’s playoff hopes this season? Wish we didn’t have to see Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo in street clothes for most of the season?

You’re not alone. The NBA teams are right there with you. The effects of an injury can bleed into just about every corner of a team. Fans are less likely to tune in if Jodie Meeks is playing the 2 instead of Bryant. GMs are on the hook if a big signing pulls up limp. Coaches turn into a walking scapegoat when injuries pile up and teams fall short of expectations. No player wants the sticky "soft" label if they need to miss time to nagging injuries. Everyone in the sport wants a clean bill of health.

For an NBA team, injuries aren't just a buzzkill; they’re a giant hole in the owner's wallet. According to analysis by Rotowire’s Jeff Stotts, the average NBA team wastes about $10 million in salary from games missed because of injury. Some of that shortfall is picked up by insurance, but it also doesn't capture the serious hit to ticket sales, merchandise purchases and other revenue streams.

Bottom line: Injuries are incredibly costly in terms of wins and dollars. This is why injury prevention analytics is becoming the hottest trend in NBA circles.

And now two titans in the industry are teaming up to help teams manage their injury risk and keep their stars on the floor.

This week, STATS Inc. and Catapult Sports have agreed to a partnership that will integrate SportVU 3D-tracking data from games and Catapult GPS-tracking data from practices into one package for teams, which will be officially presented to NBA front-office executives, trainers and strength coaches next week at the 2014 NBA draft combine in Chicago. This fills the gap for teams looking to streamline all their player work data into one digestible dashboard. Consider it one-stop shopping.

“You jump into your car, check the gas tank, check the oil, make sure the GPS is working and off you go,” says Gary McCoy, Catapult’s senior applied sports scientist. “We want to put a dashboard on these guys. We want to know when they’re red-lining and when they’re out of gas. And if we can do that in a compelling manner, which is what SportVU brought to the equation for Catapult. We’ll have a formula beyond compare. We had to get that data compartmentalized and presented to coaches so they can make informed decisions.”

For analysis on the partnership between Catapult and SportVU, read Haberstroh at ESPN Insider.

NBA to players and refs: Watch out for heads

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
3:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The NBA distributed a video starring Vice President of Referee Operations Joe Borgia discussing the league's "points of emphasis" for the 2014 playoffs.

Things get pretty serious at about 13 minutes in, when Borgia says "we noticed this season there was a lot more contact to opponents' heads ... this is a very dangerous situation." Then Borgia rolls a clip of a game broadcast in which Hubie Brown expresses dismay at the number of defenders going for the head and neck.

To my eyes, over the last few years defenders do seem to be using blows to the head as a fairly common tactic to prevent layups, even at the exact moment in history medical science and the league itself are putting new emphasis on preventing such dangerous plays.

Basketball doesn't have football's reputation for head injuries, but it does have a certain rate of concussion and head injuries, many of which, by virtue of the fact that they come on intentional fouls to prevent layups, could presumably be prevented.

Abolish the NBA's conference system

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
12:12
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Nowitzki & Millsap AP PhotosIn the NBA, teams like the Hawks (31-40) make the playoffs but ones like the Mavs (43-30) miss out.
Shouldn't the playoffs be as competitive as possible? The NBA is operating as though this isn’t the plan.

The Dallas Mavericks are currently out of the playoffs with a 43-30 record. The Atlanta Hawks are on track to make the playoffs with a 31-40 record. The offensively thrilling Mavs are second in attendance. The mediocre Hawks are 28th. This can’t really be what the league intended, can it?

To be fair, it’s not a given that the best teams make the postseason in every sport. Good teams miss the NFL playoffs because of quirky division rules. The difference is that the NFL isn’t dragging fans through an 82-game season as a prelude. Football also doesn't grind through highly predictable seven-game series featuring tomato-can challengers. The NFL playoffs might include some lesser squads, but "single elimination" is the sling by which David slays Goliath. Their playoffs are brief and exciting. Certain Eastern Conference NBA matchups are protracted, dreary beatings of horse skeletons.

According to Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System, a measure that incorporates schedule strength, 10 of the top 13 teams in the NBA hail from the Western Conference. If we were filling out brackets for Kirk Goldsberry’s NBA Sweet 16, only six of those teams would be from the East.

The absurdity of it all is that more than half of the NBA makes the playoffs. It should be impossible for good teams to miss the cut. And yet, with its conference system, the NBA accomplishes just that.

But this is a particularly bad season in the Eastern Conference, you might say. True, but at least one East team has made the playoffs at or below .500 in seven of the past eight postseasons; no West team can claim that since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. The NBA can say it all eventually balances out, that these things are cyclical, but it’s quite possible that Eastern Conference misery will continue indefinitely if unchecked.

As Curtis Harris astutely pointed out, the NBA lottery system perpetually weakens the East. Good West teams miss the playoff cut, wind up in the lottery and receive high draft picks. Bad East teams make the diluted playoffs and receive low-quality selections. So long as the conference system and lottery system exist as they do, there’s no guarantee that the East rises.

There are a variety of ways to address this imbalance. Getting rid of conferences, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller has suggested, is the most direct fix.

Scrapping a geography-based playoff system would make travel difficult between certain East and West teams over a back-and-forth series. The counter to this argument is that there are already "West" teams that actually reside in the Eastern part of the nation. Somehow, the league makes do when Memphis plays the Los Angeles Clippers or when New Orleans plays the Los Angeles Lakers in a series.

There's another geography-based reason for why the NBA might prefer the current setup, though it's not one most would acknowledge: All Northeast teams are in the East, and a lot of people live in the Northeast.

A tournament comprised of the best 16 NBA teams could lack any squads from the Boston-to-Washington megalopolis. The current setup makes it easier for a cruddy Knicks team to slink into the playoffs and generate big-market buzz for a couple of weeks. National interest in the Knicks train wreck is a given, unlike national interest in, say, the somewhat competent Minnesota Timberwolves.

Not only is your average East market bigger than your average West market, but a West-heavy bracket could complicate TV scheduling. It's difficult to stagger playoff games on the same day if everyone is playing in the same time zone.

It would seem, though, that these rationales for inaction are penny wise and pound foolish, and the league would be smart to fight inertia here. "Long series featuring bad teams with inevitable results" is pretty much the opposite of how a sport should sell itself. Sacrificing entertaining West teams for the sake of bad, doomed East teams likely isn't a good strategy for creating playoff memories and building the league.

There are multiple ways to address this issue, whether it be abolishing conferences, taking the top 16 teams regardless of conference, or changing the draft in a way that doesn't perpetuate Eastern awfulness. If you really want to venture outside the box, one possible solution is for teams to trade conference status as an asset. (Would the Wolves trade Ricky Rubio to be in the East, for example?)

Regardless of tactics, the NBA should at least address this in some capacity. The East/West divide takes a regular season that's already assailed as "meaningless" and adds some absurdity on top of it. Though the reasons for the status quo are understandable, the status quo makes for bad entertainment. It's best to try and fix that.

Go big?

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
1:22
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
NBA executives Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe discuss the idea of enlarging the court.

video

The 4-point play

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
1:16
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Is a 4-pointer in the NBA too crazy to consider? Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA's president and vice president of basketball operations, respectively, see the appeal of the very long ball.

video

Talking honestly about tanking

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
12:51
PM ET
Webb By Royce Webb
ESPN.com
Archive


Adam Silver is the HoopIdea commish, and that’s a very good thing for the NBA and its fans. As your new NBA editor Henry Abbott wrote this weekend, the buzzword in the NBA is innovation.

Another hot buzzword from Silver: transparency.

Silver used the word five times when asked about his approach to innovation, calling transparency “one of my guiding principles.”

What is transparency? It’s being clear about what is really going on.

That might not have been the intention of Rod Thorn, the NBA’s president of basketball operations, last Friday in an interview with TrueHoop TV, but the substance of his remarks was crystal clear. While discussing whether there were NBA teams that were purposely trying to fail, Thorn said, “I don’t look at it as tanking. I look at it as, ‘I don’t want to be at this level here. I may have to get worse to get good.’ It’s definitely a strategy and more and more teams are looking at it.”

Let’s unpack Thorn’s remark:

I may have to get worse to get good.

In other words, We may have to lose to improve.

Since transparency is a hallmark of the new NBA, let’s be transparent about tanking.

The NBA inadvertently set up a system that encourages teams to lose. The league doesn’t want to admit this. The cardinal sin of sports is giving fans reasons to doubt the integrity of the game. The underlying contract with fans is that NBA games are honest competition, not pro wrestling.

Tanking is also against the NBA’s own rules. Joel Litvin, the NBA’s president of league operations, told Howard Beck of The New York Times in 2008: “If we ever found a team was intentionally losing games, we would take the strongest possible action in response.”

The key word in Litvin’s claim is “found.”

See, that’s how lawyers talk. He didn’t mean “found” as in, “Hey, I found my wallet!” He meant “found” as in, “If we conducted an investigation and made a formal finding that a team was tanking, we would do something.”

The NBA’s spin is that coaches and players are trying to win, and that has a ring of truth. Silver took the same legalistic approach as Litvin on Saturday, saying “there’s absolutely no evidence that any team in the NBA has ever lost a single game, or certainly in any time that I’ve been in the league, on purpose.”

But even that is not always true.

Coaches and players are just pawns in a larger game -- a game all too often being played to lose. As Hall of Fame NBA writer Jackie MacMullan detailed recently, the Boston Celtics, from the owner on down to the head coach, intentionally lost as many games as possible in 1996-97 in an attempt to get the top draft pick and grab Tim Duncan.

Of course, most coaches never admit to tanking, even if it’s happening. But in a piece at TrueHoop, I detailed multiple occasions when players and coaches admitted to losing on purpose in the past 20 years. And those are just the on-the-record admissions. Plenty of NBA reporters have heard far more accounts of intentional losing by multiple franchises over the years, including this year.

Does anyone think the Golden State Warriors did not intentionally lose 22 of their last 27 games in 2012 to protect a lottery pick? Does anyone think that there are not multiple teams that are intentionally losing this season to improve their position in the loaded 2014 draft?

If the NBA cares about transparency, it should investigate and tell fans what it truly finds. Or better yet, appoint an independent investigator and then lay out the results of the investigation. That’s true transparency.

If the NBA cares about the integrity of the game, it should care that owners, general managers, writers, broadcasters, coaches, players and fans assume that tanking is happening and is a viable path in the NBA. Even Silver acknowledges that perhaps “incentives aren’t entirely aligned.” In other words, he knows that teams don’t always want to win.

Silver will be a great commissioner -- smart, progressive and visionary. In the long run, he’ll take the NBA to new heights.

Let’s hope he focuses on the fact that basketball teams are supposed to try to win. We don’t want a sport where fans have to assume that hundreds of games each season are questionable.

Honest competition is what makes the NBA playoffs the greatest postseason in sports. Honest competition is what gives us the amazing highs and lows of March Madness. And honest competition is the only way forward if the NBA is going to be the greatest league in the world.

NBA execs: Tanking 'definitely a strategy'

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
12:30
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive


The NBA's president of basketball operations, Rod Thorn, acknowledges that losing games in the name of better draft picks -- commonly known as "tanking" -- is "definitely a strategy" for front offices.

"I don't look at it as tanking," Thorn told ESPN.com during an interview for TrueHoop TV record on the Friday of All-Star weekend in New Orleans. "I look at it as I don't want to be at this level here. I may have to get worse to be good. It's definitely a strategy and more and more teams are looking at it."

Thorn says "more and more teams are looking at" trading away players as a way to improve. "We're not very good right now," he says, explaining teams' thinking, "but in a couple years we're going to be pretty good if we get lucky in the draft."

The 2014 draft is projected to be one of the best in years with a half-dozen or more prospects -- Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid among them -- with All-Star potential. While the draft lottery randomizes the draft among non-playoff teams, all in all each loss improves a team's likelihood of a high pick. Teams like the Bucks, Magic and 76ers, for instance, have cap space they could use in trades or free agency to improve the roster right now, but none are expected to make moves to maximize wins now.

NBA vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe, like Thorn a former NBA general manager says this approach fits with widespread NBA thinking: "Be up. Be down. But don't be in the middle. That's the thing that I think fans need to realize. Guys are trying to win. General managers want to win. I've been through a season where we didn't win many. Rod also. It happens to everybody. That's miserable. Nobody likes that. You want to win games. But really the one thing I want to point out: It is a strategy."

In the first major press conference of his tenure as commissioner, on Saturday, Silver addressed tanking by saying "my understanding of tanking would be losing games on purpose. And there's absolutely no evidence that any team in the NBA has ever lost a single game, or certainly in any time that I've been in the league, on purpose. And, to me, what you're referring to I think is rebuilding."

But Silver appeared to define tanking as something players or coaches might do -- evidently giving a pass to the general managers Thorn and VanDeWeghe discussed. "If there was any indication whatsoever that players or coaches somehow were not doing their absolute most to win a game, we would be all over that," said Silver. "But I don't believe for a second that's what's going on. I think we have the most competitive players in the world, the most competitive coaches, and I think they're doing everything they can to win games."

Silver did, however, suggest the league is considering changes to address tanking: "The very purpose of the lottery is to prevent there from being an incentive to lose games. And so to the extent that incentives aren't entirely aligned, we'll look at the lottery again. We have adjusted it several times over the years, and we'll adjust it again if necessary. But we'll see. We have a competition committee, that's one of their mandates, to continue looking at that. But I'm not overly concerned right now."

Bring on the 4-pointers

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
2:19
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Tom Haberstroh has a HoopIdea for incoming NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

Too many games hurt NBA's regular season

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
11:02
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Kobe BryantBarry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesThe NBA is better than ever! ... Right? The injuries, losses and forced rest are starting to pile up.
The NBA is winning. It's already a "global money machine," according to Forbes, and new TV deals will only make that sweeter.

Not to mention, it's fun! The NBA's young players include an embarrassment of promise -- not just "plenty years left" stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but also James Harden, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and so many others. This year and every year for the foreseeable future, the playoffs will feature one amazing showdown after another. Hats off to all involved.

So, it's time to rush out and buy a ticket to a game, right?

Well ...

"Listen, I do feel badly for fans," said Jeff Van Gundy, on the phone to The Herd from San Antonio on Wednesday. "I feel awful that we make them watch back-to-back games that often turn out to be, you know, low-energy affairs. I think the league has to eliminate back-to-back games, or at least reduce the number."

So sometimes you'll see a team that's mailing it in.

But what about if you go and see a primo team, a team thick with stars, like the Heat? You'd be safe then, right?

That's a little tricky, too. "Their performance over the last couple of weeks has been totally substandard, when it comes to championship focus and effort," Van Gundy said of the defending champions. He pointed out that this is hardly the first time the Heat have mailed it in. "Now last year they also were in a point of struggle, until they ripped off that 27-game winning streak."

In other words, there are times the Heat are the best team in the land, but it's in fits and starts, not every game. They save their best efforts for certain moments, and the regular season is iffy.

That's also true of many good teams, including last year's other finalists, the Spurs. They frequently sit their best players for part or all of regular-season games, in the name of rest -- something that's emerging as a trend among cutting-edge teams.

And, evidently, with good reason! Yet again this season, stars who play long minutes, going hard all regular season, seem to be getting hurt at a bummer of a rate. Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are all out for extended periods. Dwyane Wade is in and out of the lineup. Eric Bledsoe, Kemba Walker, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday are needle-moving players who are on the shelf.

It has been a decade since a team won a title with its top players playing heavy minutes, and that's a reality that contending teams wrestle with all regular season. As much as Erik Spoelstra may want to delight fans by playing Wade every night, doing so evidently hurts his team's chances in the postseason. What would you do if you were in his shoes?

And of course, we haven't even yet mentioned the biggest problem with the regular season: A lot of the teams don't even want to be there. Every season many teams have front offices who hope the entire 82 games go by in a flash, having created intentionally putrid rosters designed to lose now, with an eye on draft picks. This season, for a lot of teams, culminates not in title hopes, but in lottery hopes. The tankapalooza is on.

Injuries. Fatigue. Forced rest. Intentional losses. Buy a ticket to a regular-season NBA game, and there's an excellent chance one or more of these factors will keep you from seeing the best basketball in the world.

There's a unifying theme, there, though. A root cause: Too many games.

The promise of buying a ticket to an NBA game is seeing the best athletes in the world at peak performance. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose ... the best players in the world are the league's most precious resource. And they are as well prepared and competitive as humans get. But the facts on the ground are that their best efforts are finite, and 82 games appears to be too many times over a year to ask them to turn it all the way on. Whether limited by injury, fatigue, schedule or strange draft rules that reward losing, the simple fact is that 1,230 regular-season games is, evidently, and increasingly obviously, more than we can reasonably expect the NBA's 400 or so athletes to produce their best. All kinds of players and teams are limited in delivering their best level night in and night out.

One of the worst strategies you can have, in this ultra-marathon, is to go all-out every minute. That, as we'll be exploring more as the season unfolds, is exactly what fans rightly want on any given night, but it's not a good long-term plan in a game where injury avoidance and rest are paramount to title chances.

So, yes, the NBA is in fantastic shape, because of its global fans who delight in the hard work and brilliance of its players, coaches and executives -- and despite the excessive and compromised regular season.

How the draft lottery weakens the East

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
1:00
PM ET
Harris By Curtis Harris
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
The current state of the Eastern Conference has been widely panned and rightfully so. As of Friday morning, only three East teams sit above .500, and the conference currently holds an overall win percentage of .442, which puts it on track for 36 wins per team. That’s a historically horrific track to be going down. Just once before has a conference had a lower win percentage -- and that was way back in 1960 when the West won 40 percent of its games.

This year may be the worst-case scenario for the East, but it’s continuing a steady trend. For 15 years dating back to the 1999-00 season, the Western Conference has won an average of 52.5 percent of its games overwhelming the East’s 47.5 percent. But since 2009, the West has held a higher win percentage than the East in every individual season.

There are many reasons for this. One of them that has not been discussed much is that the NBA draft system often unintentionally (but systematically) awards decent West teams slightly better draft picks than similar teams in the East. It's a system designed to help the weak get stronger, but it's rewarding the stronger conference almost every season.

It works like this. The lottery format, of course, semi-randomly assigns the top overall picks -- only twice since the 1999-2000 season has the worst team in the NBA won the top pick. But what matters is who gets into the lottery: specifically, teams that miss the playoffs. In the West, those are typically good teams. In the East, that's not so. So the top draft spots are going to a pool of teams that includes some strong West teams and weaker East ones.

Since 2000, 13 Western Conference teams have been in the lottery despite having one of the 16 best records in the NBA. On the flip side, this means that 13 Eastern Conference teams that did not possess one of the 16 best records in the NBA made the playoffs.

This odd situation is a quirk of the playoff structure, which takes the eight best teams per conference not the 16 best teams from the whole league. And it’s also a byproduct of the draft which then promises the top 14 picks to the non-playoff teams, not the 14 worst teams in the NBA, recordwise.

The average victories for the should-have-been playoff teams from the West is 43.3 wins. The average for those should-have-been lottery East teams is 39.6 wins. The situation reached its nadir in 2008 when the Golden State Warriors won 48 games, which was the 12th best record in the NBA. Still, they missed the Western Conference playoffs. Meanwhile the 37-win Atlanta Hawks got themselves a spot in the Eastern Conference postseason with the 19th best record in the league.

Other notable misfortunes include:
  • The 43-win Utah Jazz missed the playoffs, but made the lottery, while the 38-win Milwaukee Bucks saw the postseason in 2013.
  • In 2011, the Pacers won just 37 games and made the playoffs, while the Rockets won 43 and got a lottery pick.
  • In 2009, the 46-win Phoenix Suns didn't make the playoffs, but the 39-win Detroit Pistons did.
  • 2005 saw the Timberwolves win 44 and make the lottery, while the Nets won 42 and didn't.
  • In 2004, the 39-win Knicks and 36-win Celtics made the playoffs in the weak East, while the 42-win Jazz and 41-win Trail Blazers drew pingpong balls.
  • In 2001, the 45-win Rockets and 44-win SuperSonics earned spots in the lottery, but the 43-win Orlando Magic and the 41-win Indiana Pacers did not.

Those 42-, 44-, even 48-win Western Conference teams are getting an (admittedly slim) chance at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. More importantly, though, they are absolutely getting a leg up on a better opportunity to collect talent compared to those Eastern teams which are losing three, five, or even 11 more games.

This discrepancy helps to reinforce the power of the Western Conference, while limiting the ability of the Eastern Conference to correct the imbalance.

The 13 West teams that missed the playoffs but got into the lottery received an average draft selection of 12.5 when in a league-wide draw would have been slotted in at around 16.5. That’s an appreciable four pick difference. Meanwhile, those crummy East teams got an average draft slot of 15 when they should have been picking at No. 13.

Obviously, the uppermost part of the draft is where the franchise-changing players are added. LeBron James, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwyane Wade ... they were all taken in the top five picks. However that mid-range in the draft is important for complementing those stars with good role players.

Luckily for the East, the Western Conference has largely bungled its draft choices in this range. The 2008 Warriors with their 14th pick, instead of the 19th that they deserved, took Anthony Randolph ahead of useful players like Robin Lopez and Roy Hibbert.

You can lead a horse to water, but sometimes it’s going to drown in the pool, I suppose.

This quirky situation isn’t the end of the world, and it’s certainly not the cause of the disparity between the East and the West. I don’t think we’ll ever really know why the West is demonstrably better than the East for 15 years running now.

But the point here is that the current, peculiar format of the draft and the playoffs isn’t doing a lot to correct the imbalance and the solution is fairly simple.

This is yet another argument for a HoopIdea that many others have made before: It's time to reconsider the process of allocating talent to teams. At a minimum, it would make sense that the 14-worst teams receive the top 14 picks. The West is already formidable enough.

How Shane Battier would fix the NBA

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
11:40
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
video

The Sixers deserve better than cold water

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
12:56
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Michael Carter-WilliamsAP Photo/Alex BrandonThe 76ers' 3-0 start is a problem for their long-term goals. That, of course, is the real problem.

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.

Stan Van Gundy's HoopIdea to fix tanking

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
5:06
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Tanking is a real problem in the NBA, even if the 76ers can beat the Heat once in a while.

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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES