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.
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."
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?
"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.
Special to ESPN.com
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.
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?