Bill Simmons on tanking

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
11:56
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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HoopIdea has a lot of roles.

One is to attempt, as best we can, knowing darned well we'll fail constantly, to acknowledge, curate and promote the many great ideas made public before we got started.

And when it comes to re-imagining the NBA, Bill Simmons has been a leading voice for a long time. One of our recent obsessions, tanking, is one of his pet topics.

In "The Book of Basketball," Simmons takes us back to the heyday of tanking:
With Hakeem and Jordan looming as draft prizes, both the Rockets (blew 14 of their last 17, including 9 their last 10) and Bulls (lost 19 of their last 23, including 14 of their last 15) said, "Screw it, we'll bastardize the sport," and pulled some fishy crap: resting key guys, giving lousy guys big minutes and everything else. Things peaked in Game 81 when a washed-up Elvin Hayes played every minute of Houston's overtime loss to the Spurs. Since none of the other crappy teams owned their picks, only Chicago and Houston controlled their destinies (hence the tanking). ... The unseemly saga spurred the creation of a draft lottery the following season. And even that didn't totally solve the tanking problem; Team Stern has changed the lottery system five times in twenty-four years, and we're probably headed for a sixth soon.

In a 2007 "Tanks a lot" column he noted that the NBA is fun when really good players play on really good teams:
I blame the lottery for foisting modified parity on us. Ever since Orlando went back-to-back, top picks have gone to lousy teams every spring, creating a vicious circle in which the lottery replenishes weak teams with blue-chippers who aren't ready to carry weak teams. In the past 14 years, only one No. 1 pick made his team instantly competitive: Tim Duncan, who joined a contender that had slipped only because of injuries. Looking back, was it bad that Duncan and David Robinson played together? Was the NBA's competitive spirit compromised? Of course not.

And that's why the lottery sucks: Not only does it render the occasional Duncan/ Robinson pairing nearly impossible, not only does it reward poorly run clubs like the Hawks (103 games under .500 since the 1998-99 season), it encourages also-rans to bottom out once they suffer some bad luck because they know it's their best chance to eventually contend. So can't we admit that the lottery system has failed? Shouldn't the element of luck play a bigger role than it does?

Simmons proposed a return to "the envelope lottery," where the 14 teams that miss the playoffs each receive an equal chance (an envelope with their logo in it) to win the top pick.

Two years later, in a conversation with Malcolm Gladwell, Simmons renewed the call for decent teams to have a crack at top picks:
I am a fervent "Every lottery team should have the same odds" believer for two reasons: Not only would it eliminate any incentive to tank down the stretch for a "better" draft pick (really, better odds at a better draft pick), but the current setup penalizes potential franchise players by giving them too much responsibility for carrying inferior teams. A borderline lottery team defied the odds three times: In 1993 with Orlando (the Magic reach the NBA Finals two years later); in 1997 with San Antonio (the Spurs bottom out only because of Robinson's injury, land Tim Duncan, then win the title two years later) and in 2008 with Chicago (the Bulls land Rose, turn into a fringe contender, then give us the best first-round series ever). Was it a bad thing that we turned a half-decent young team into a contender? Did anyone not like how this turned out?

The bigger issue (you already hinted at it): Of all the professional sports, parity hurts the NBA the most. Ideally, you want a league with a distinct upper class and a distinct lower class.

More recently, on Grantland, Simmons re-capped the other element of his anti-tanking agenda: A season-ending tournament for the eighth playoff spots in each conference.
My Entertaining as Hell Tournament -- the top seven seeds in each conference make the playoffs, then the other 16 teams play a single-elimination tournament to "win" the no. 8 seeds. This would discourage tanking for lottery picks, reward late-bloomer teams and generate extra interest because, again, this tournament would be entertaining as hell. All 14 games would be televised -- eight in Round 1, four in Round 2, then a doubleheader final at Madison Square Garden to decide the no. 8 seeds -- over a week as the other 14 playoff teams regrouped and rested up.

Henry Abbott | email

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