Asking whether or not tanking is really an issue in the NBA is tantamount to asking whether or not LeBron James is the league’s top player: the answer is so utterly obvious that it makes the mere posing of the question yield eye rolls and sighs from the person being charged with answering the inquiry.
Yes, tanking is absolutely an issue in the NBA and it is something that Adam Silver will need to address.
In the MLB, no matter what, a dominant pitcher cannot pitch for you every single game. In the NFL, a quarterback may be able to throw for 500 yards per contest, but he only plays on one side of the game. Basketball is unlike those two sports in that one dominant player can play all 48 minutes in a contest and can control the ball and manipulate opposing defenses on every single offensive possession, at least in theory. If that same player happens to provide a presence on the defensive end, he can ultimately be the difference between a team winning 25 games and a team winning 55 games.
These are all facts that are easy enough to understand and grasp and when combined with the fact that the NBA’s lottery system effectively rewards teams for being bad, it is no surprise that teams have been racing to the bottom over the past few years.
Seemingly overnight, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose entered the league and helped to transform their franchises. Now, with arguably the deepest draft since 2003 on the horizon, NBA executives look at Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum and Julius Randle with the same potential—even if it will take two or three years for it to come to fruition.
In the NBA, you either want to be contending for a championship like the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers or Houston Rockets, or bad enough to have an opportunity to get the top pick in the draft. There is very little incentive for teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz or even the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers to fight and scratch and claw their way into the playoffs as the eighth seed when the long-term interest of the franchise may be better served by missing out on the postseason.
Again, with a draft lottery system that rewards teams with higher odds of landing the next Duncan or James, we should be more surprised that the league has not had to address tanking concerns sooner than 2014.
The real question is not whether or not tanking is a problem in the NBA, it’s how to fix it and the answer seems relatively simple: the NBA needs to find a way to incentivize winning for non-playoff and non-contending teams. Rather than having the draft lottery skewed in favor of the team with the poorest record, a simple solution may be to take the 14 lottery teams and skew it in favor of the teams that have the best records against the other 13 lottery-bound teams.
In other words, the league could simply give the higher odds of winning the lottery to the non-playoff team that had the best win-loss record against the other non-playoff teams.
Obviously, it would not be a perfect solution—like anything else, there would be major downsides.
However, the combination of the monumental effect that a single player can have on a basketball game and a franchise and the fact that the NBA actually gives teams better odds of acquiring such a player by being bad yields the inevitable result.
Yes, tanking is a problem in the NBA and at this point, the more appropriate question is not whether it is or isn’t, but how to cure the ailment.
– Moke Hamilton