Tanking and Conferences

I love the game of basketball – but there are three things that bother me about the current NBA setup.

  1. The last 2 minutes of a basketball game are too friggin’ long.
  2. Egregious tanking.
  3. Using conferences to determine the 16 teams is silly when one conference can have so many superior teams.

The first issue can easily be resolved by cutting down the number of timeouts teams get.  Everyone gets one timeout per quarter.  Use it or lose it.  Refs get their existing timeouts for commercial breaks.(league’s gotta make money, folks)  Done.  There is enough stoppage’s in the game via free throws and dead balls to let players sub in and out of games, so no need for more.  I doubt this will occur anytime soon, because all those commercials packed into the end of games are good for revenue, but I’d still love to see it happen.  Until then, I have TiVO and no need to watch a game live unless it’s a playoff game and I need to KNOW. (Hopefully this will be a problem for me this coming season.)

There are a lot of suggestions out there to fix tanking right now.  The league has a proposal on the table to make the lottery less likely to reward the absolutely worst teams by giving teams with better records in the lottery increased odds to win.  Personally I think this will be ineffectual as a tool to stop tanking.  Being one of the worst four teams still gives you a high chance – and it is damn hard to be one of the four worst teams in the NBA.  Philly stripped its roster of almost every real veteran it had last year – and it still took an epic 27-game losing streak to put them . . . 2nd from the bottom in the standings.  Milwaukee took the worst record prize only after force feeding OJ Mayo like a goose being prepared for Foie Gras, greasing the dance floor of Larry Sanders favorite night spot, Limiting Ilyasova to half a game, and playing Giannis Antetatkjaerojiasefjoij 24 minutes a game despite his 10.8 PER.  Do you remember the shit-sandwich the Hornets put out there en route to winning the Davis lottery?  Vasquez-Bellinelli-Aminu-Landry-Kaman anybody?

The lesson?  Teams are going to work to suck so they can get into those bottom few spots because getting a top 5 pick matters.  The result is their fan base is going to be treated to awful, soul-sucking basketball.  I sat through the Hornets 18-win season, watching Dan Dickau try to be an NBA player and Lee Nailon make sweet, delicious love to the dumb zone, but at least for half that season I thought Baron Davis had a chance of coming back.  Jamaal Magloire was injured and could return, right?  Jamal Mashburn couldn’t seriously have Vertigo keeping him from playing, right?

So at least for some part of the season I had hope I’d get to watch decent basketball.  If you are a Philly fan next year, do you have hope?  The Jazz?  Orlando?  Milwaukee?  These teams aren’t even trying, and it’s obvious.

And it’s good strategic planning for those teams.

So – what do you do if you don’t want teams to purposely suck that hard?  You make it bad strategic planning.

So here’s my solution, with parts of it ripped off liberally from various other places.  It also happens to fix the conference issue at the same time.

The Carrot and Stick

It all starts, really, with Bill Simmons Entertaining as Hell tournament.  That idea has its genesis in love for March Madness and giving teams who fall out of the race a reason to not shut down/trade/waive all their good players as the season goes on.  It also gives teams that start the season with a bad injury or two a chance to get back into the playoffs.  I think all of those make it a pretty attractive idea alone.  So, we take this basic idea, add some punitive measures, and here’s the proposal:

Step 1: The top 12 teams are seeded into the playoffs – 6 from each conference.  Hey, we get to keep conferences relevant!

Step 2: The next 16 teams in the league are seeded by record into a single elimination tournament.  This means teams like the 48 win Suns and 40-win Wolves aren’t stuck out in the cold in favor of the 37-win Hawks because their conference is crazy as hell.

Step 3: Those 16 teams battle down to a final four – two rounds, high-stakes games.  All other Playoff teams get to prepare and heal up for a few days.  Advantage!  The final four get seeded into the 7th and 8th spots in the playoff bracket, regardless of conference.  Playoffs kick off.  Champion Crowned.

Step 4:  Lottery time!  The lottery is changed so that teams get a chance to move up to any of the top five picks.  For those of you who paid attention to my Value of a Lottery Pick posts in the past – the top five picks of the draft perform significantly better than picks after that point.  So you set the bar there and let all teams in the lottery get a chance to move up into the top five based on odds set by their record.  Well almost all, because . . .

Step 5:  I left out two teams from the above steps!  12 playoff-bound teams, 16-tournament bound teams!  That leaves two awful teams left out of any chance at the post-season. Well, guess what?  Those teams continue to get punished for sucking that hard.  No post-season, AND they are left out of the drawing for the top five picks.  After the top five are drawn, the rest of the lottery is determined by record, so the worst team in the league will still get the 6th pick and their fans can hope for something – but if there is an obvious franchise player in the draft, they ain’t getting him.  Ouch.

This sets up all kinds of late season intrigue.  Teams at the bottom will be fighting to win extra games with one another just to make sure they don’t end up dropping 5 spots in the lottery.  Teams will be trying to get their players back from injury, rather than shutting them down.  If a veteran hits the waiver wire that might help?  Those bad teams will probably be trying to snap him up!  You think Philly’s front office lets its team lose 27 games in a row if that makes them fall below Orlando and into one of the two Spots of Death?  Not a chance.

So, in the end, you end up making it damn unlikely you don’t have the best 16 teams in the playoffs – or maybe 15 teams and a Cinderella.  You get a fun tournament,  good playoffs, and afterwards 12 of the worst 14 teams get a chance to get significantly better.  Oh and 2 teams realize they better spend a little money in the off-season to not suck so bad, helping out their fans. (which hopefully creates a chain reaction for teams 3 and 4 who also don’t want to suck so bad.)

That essentially defeats strategic tanking.  How do you ensure you are the 3rd or fourth worst team, and not the 2nd?  You can’t.  Teams will try.


What do you think?  Does tanking bother you or is it something else in the NBA game?

3 responses to “Tanking and Conferences”

  1. This is Gr8! I love Simmons idea for the tourney and I think that your tweaks make it even better!
    I’m also really really glad that Dell has taken chances and made the moves he has made so that the Pels aren’t stuck trying to tank towards the end of the season. Which would of coarse frustrate and leave a bad taste in such an amazing young player like AD!

  2. I love the idea of competing for draft position.  While the stakes are slightly lower, my fantasy football league has done this the past couple years and its made things more fun.  We’re a keeper league and for years had a traditional ‘last picks first’ model for the non-playoff teams.  Switched to a losers bracket to play for next year’s draft position and it has added loads of intrigue to the end of the season.  I’m a big fan!

  3. In my opinion, there are three major rules in NBA that impact the draft.  First, with only five players on the court at a time, one player can make a huge difference.  So everyone wants that one guy or, in many years, guys.  In leagues where you start 9 or 22 guys, it’s a different story.  Second, the NBA has a soft salary cap.  So rich teams can afford larger total salaries.  This distorts the free agent market by handicapping poor teams with fairly paid, but less costly players; they are competing for free agents against teams with almost unlimited funds.  Finally, most NBA salaries are guaranteed for the life of a player’s contract.  So bad decisions hamstring a less wealthy team for the length of the contract. 
    The number of players on the court can’t be changed, but the other things can.  I think a hard salary cap would also reduce the length and amount of guaranteed dollars in contracts.  That would be my first step to ending tanking.  It would make free agency a more viable way for lower quality teams to improve and weaken the impact of the draft.  Why tank and alienate fans when you can build through free agency?  You only need one or two free agents to make major improvements in your team.
    My problem with the draft part of your article is there are teams that are legitimately weak and, if they could make good draft decisions (I’m talking about the current Cleveland management, and teams that drafted Bowie, Oden, and Michael Olowokandi), would have been well served by the current lottery system.  
    Also, aside from Philly this year, how often do teams fire sale players?  Philly only got the 3rd pick in possibly a two superstar player 2014 draft.  All they may end up with is another young, unproven in the NBA, injured C. (They cornered that market!)  In a few years, Philly’s tank may look stupid and deter others.  The best Philly could do in a two superstar player draft is not get either one?!

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