NBA tanking reform doesn’t need to be radical to make progress

Back in 2014, as Sam Hinkie deftly built a franchise based upon the power of losing, the NBA considered reforming its draft lottery in a major way. Every non-playoff team would have a shot at the No. 1 pick, and a good shot at a top-five pick. There would have been less incentive to be truly bad as the odds evened out among the lottery teams.

( NBA )Still, there may have been an issue with intentional losing further up the food chain, with teams being forced to choose between being sacrificial lambs in the playoffs or gunning for a higher draft pick. There was a good deal of unintended consequences in play.

NBA franchise owners narrowly defeated lottery reform then, backed by a Sixers and Thunder lobbying campaign. Commissioner Adam Silver let the issue lay for a few years, but per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, it’s alive again. The league’s competition committee — a group of team executives and coaches who refer rule changes to franchise owners — is considering a new Silver proposal to reform the draft lottery.

This edition is milder. Based on Wojnarowski’s report, the worst three teams in the league would have even odds at the No. 1 overall pick, and the odds for the fourth- and fifth-worst teams would increase. One presumes that this leveling of odds would increase all the way down, but perhaps not as dramatically as the 2014 plan.

The upshot is that securing the league’s worst record wouldn’t come with a 25 percent shot at No. 1 and a 100 percent probability of winning a top-four pick. The odds to win it all would be lower, and you could fall another slot down. This is incremental progress toward decreasing the power of the NBA draft in team-building by reducing its predictability.

Incremental progress is still progress. Given how 2014 lottery reform could have dramatically changed which teams tank — dropping the incentive for the bad squads but raising it for the mediocre — incremental progress might actually be preferred.

Brilliant former Sixers executive Ben Falk argued that the core problem is the NBA hasn’t fixed its contract rules that make draft picks so valuable. NBA rules allow teams to lock up elite draft picks for four years at affordable rates off the top, with the strong preferential opportunity to extend their contracts to seven-nine years total. Falk argues that if rookie deals were shorter or otherwise less attractive, tanking for a high draft pick would similarly be less attractive. He’s right!

 

But the domino effect from instituting that kind of radical change would be deep, and as such, it’d need to come with other big reforms or checks on how teams acquire and retain talent. (I’m not opposed to radical change; we should just acknowledge that none of it is simple.)

 

What the NBA is now considering should have predictable, even manageable impacts if implemented. Teams at the bottom of the standings won’t gain much by losing one game more than another awful squad. A multi-year tanking plan like the one Hinkie pursued will be even less of a sure thing in terms of acquiring several potential stars.

The treadmill of mediocrity — that zone where teams are too bad to be relevant in the playoff chase for multiple years, but not so bad they can pick up a franchise-changing talent in the draft — will get narrower. Given the NBA’s upward trajectory and the limited overall concern about all-out tanking at this point, incremental progress is enough.

Woj reports the competition committee may consider another rule that may actually be more potent than changes to the lottery odds structure. The potential rule would prevent teams from winning the No. 1 pick in consecutive drafts. If a team won the No. 1 pick, they could choose no higher than No. 4 in the following draft.

This seems like a powerful defense against Hinkieism. However, the Sixers never picked No. 1 during Hinkie’s reign — he had two Nos. 3 with Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. Philadelphia can claim the last two No. 1 picks, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, but a year after securing the pick that became Simmons, the Sixers actually landed at No. 5 in the lottery!

Through a brilliant Hinkie trade with the Kings the Sixers had moved up to No. 3 and then Bryan Colangelo cut a deal with the Celtics to trade for No. 1. It does not appear this rule change would have prevented the Sixers from landing Simmons and Fultz.

The question is whether it would have discouraged Hinkie from pursuing his plan in the first place. Clearly, it would not have. But it would have hurt the chances of a team from tanking out for multiple years and coming away with multiple surefire stars.

Interestingly, the last team this would have truly hurt is the Cavaliers. After drafting Anthony Bennett No. 1 in 2013, Cleveland would have gotten the No. 4 pick in 2014 — not No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, who is flipped for Kevin Love.

It’d also hurt the Cavs right now if it were in place. Since the Nets technically won the No. 1 pick last season, they’d be ineligible to win a top-3 pick in 2018, when Cleveland owns its pick thanks to the Kyrie Irving trade. It’s pretty funny that the biggest theoretical victim of an anti-tanking rule would be the team that’s been to three straight NBA Finals series.

Currently, the perverse incentives of the NBA draft are such that some team executives build bad teams with the purpose of securing better prospects, and that some teams, facing irrelevance after a slow start, boost their odds of losing with roster and rotation decisions that result in less competitive basketball. That’s worth addressing without flipping the league on its head. This package of reforms from the NBA seems to do that.

If franchise owners aren’t willing to take even this mild step toward weakening the magnificent power of the NBA draft, there’s no hope for remaking the league’s talent pipeline as the true reformers wish to see. If nothing else, this vote should let us know what’s possible in reforming the draft system: something real or nothing at all.

 

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