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NBA Anti-Tanking Proposal Could Fix What’s Not Broken

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Kudos to NBA commissioner Adam Silver being open to ideas. And here’s to hoping he shoots down an anti-tanking initiative currently on the table.

A number of proposals to overhaul the draft slotting system have been submitted this week in Las Vegas to the league office. The particulars vary, but all center on giving each lottery team practically the same chance of landing a top pick, effectively disincentivizing stinking your way to the bottom.

Zach Lowe of Grantland:

The league’s proposal gives at least the four worst teams the same chance at winning the no. 1 pick: approximately an identical 11 percent shot for each club. The odds decline slowly from there, with the team in the next spot holding a 10 percent chance. The lottery team with the best record will have a 2 percent chance of leaping to the no. 1 pick, up from the the minuscule 0.5 percent chance it has under the current system.

The proposal also calls for the drawing of the first six picks via the Ping-Pong ball lottery, sources say. The current lottery system actually involves the drawing of only the top three selections. The rest of the lottery goes in order of record, from worst to best, after the top-three drawing is over.

All of which, according to Lowe, could be coming as early as next season.

And would be like treating a headache with a lobotomy.

Only, tanking isn’t a headache. It works, and is good for the league. It gets teams in purgatory out, and prevents years of impunity for franchises and fan bases in the NBA’s middle class.

Even if it were a problem — and it isn’t — it would be an isolated one. How many teams tank per season? Two? Three? Off hand, you can count the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic among teams who appeared to mail in last season.

That’s 1/10 of all NBA teams.

Those are only the ones who can pull it off.

It’s not easy. Former Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo in March at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics conference admitted he tried to tank in Toronto:

“…[T]here’s no assurances (of getting a good pick) when you do tank,” Colangelo said. “Admittedly, I will say, I tried to tank a couple years ago.

Tried. Unsuccessfully.

Like, for example, last year’s Atlanta Hawks. GM Danny Ferry admitted he’d rather his team not squeak into the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. This, despite being only a handful of games behind a floundering New York Knicks team that they would later overcome — and despite the top-seeded Indiana Pacers bleeding in the water.

Try as they may, Atlanta failed at failing.

Which means, the rest of the league is currently doing it… exactly how the NBA wants them to. Trying to win. Overpaying marginal free agents. Grinning and bearing 6, 7 and 8 seeds.

And the league’s class ceiling.

A perfect case in point: the Miami Heat. After clearing the deck to offer LeBron James a max contract, the Heat had only three players under contract: backup (at best) point guard Norris Cole, bench D-and-3 guy Josh McRoberts and oft-injured Danny Granger.

When LeBron left for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami had to try not to tank.

And that’s exactly what they did, lavishing Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with senseless money, luring Luol Deng and piecemealing role players. A team that, at best, can expect 45 wins this season in an Eastern Conference that’s light years better than last year’s.

Why? Pride. Arrogance. Impatience. GM Pat Riley doesn’t do the whole “losing” thing. (And in this case, certainly not because of an ex-girlfriend who dumped him for a younger, hotter model.)

That sentiment thrives in this NBA. The Los Angeles Lakers refused to throw in the towel last season, re-upping Kobe Bryant for an extra $48 million over two seasons — because they’re the Lakers. They’re above that.

And, now, doomed to life below .500.

The Houston Rockets and now-embattled GM Daryl Morey serve as another great example. When Morey took over in 2007, he reportedly asked owner Leslie Alexander how he was allowed to build the team. Tanking was apparently off the table.

Where has that left Houston? Arguably, a six-seed in the Western Conference.

The counterarguments against tanking are tired and flimsy, all grounded in misguided principle and fan emotion.

“It’s embarrassing for the league!” What’s worse for the NBA? Teams trying to lose to get good? Or teams trying to win yet staying bad?

“But what about the fans!” Poll supporters of the Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons, if you can find them. Do the same in Philly. Guess the approval ratings.

There are ways to encourage every team to try to win every game. Namely, halving the schedule to 41 games, thus increasing randomness of a season and boosting each team’s odds of success.

Taking away maybe the only option for small market teams that don’t appeal to star free agents and operate in a max contract system isn’t an ideal solution.

There’s no harm in seeking ways to enhance your game, your product.

But there’s little good that can come out of this proposal.

So here’s to it falling short, and helping teams win by losing.

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