There are two ways to get really good in the NBA, you can recruit the best free agents to join your team or you can get young talent through the draft. You get really good players to join your team by having the cap space to sign them and a good team that they will want to join. You get the best draft picks by being really bad and thus improving your chances to move up in the NBA Draft Lottery at the end of every season. You either are really good and get better or you are really bad and get better and this is the perpetual dilemma of the NBA purgatory many teams find themselves in. They are either not good enough or bad enough to actually get better and so they don’t. Instead they merely continue their mediocrity in a world where everyone around them is constantly improving just like someone still holding onto a Blackberry insisting that everything’s okay.
But surely no one would take advantage of this loophole right? Who in their right mind would forcibly push their team from bad to worse just to get better in the future? Sam Hinkie would. Hinkie took over as the General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013 and decided to tank, or purposefully try to be bad in order to getting better draft picks. In the following three seasons the 76ers won 19, 16 and 10 games and were reward with the 3rd, 3rd and 1st overall picks in the NBA Draft. Much to the dismay of Philadelphia fans and season ticket holders, the loophole worked and 76ers benefited from being so bad that they received top draft picks in consecutive years. Ironically enough Hinkie did not come out unscathed as he resigned in April of 2016 but at that point Philadelphia was already so committed to his plan there was no turning back.
NBA teams had been bad and rewarded with high draft picks before but Hinkie and Philadelphia is the first instance in recent memory where it was strategically planned to exploit the NBA’s process and systems. In an effort to end this tanking movement the NBA announced changes this past month to the NBA draft lottery to specifically address this issue. Here are league approved changes in their entirety:
The problem is that this change doesn’t address the underlying issue the league is trying to solve because there is still an incentive for teams to be bad. Before, the worse your record the better your chance at the coveted number one pick in the draft. Now the three worse teams will all have the same chance at that top pick. All this change really means is that the race to the bottom won’t be as be as dramatic, but it will have just as many, if not more, participants in it. Now a team towards the bottom of the league only has to drop a few games down the stretch to have the same chance at a top pick as the worst team in the league. Essentially changing the percentages changes who is in play for the best picks but not the notion that teams will be bad to get those picks. This is why it’s time for a real draft overhaul.
Here are two possible options for abolishing the draft:
The Free Agency Model
Let the market dictate where young players go and for how much. NBA teams would be allowed to bid or offer contracts to players similar to the way the free agent market works for current NBA players. While small market teams could be disadvantaged by players willing to sign for less to be in bigger markets like Miami, New York or Los Angeles, the league cap rules would still apply for all teams meaning the rich couldn’t get richer or load up on talent if they didn’t have the money for it. This solution just seems to make the most sense in terms of letting players and teams decide who they want and where they want to go rather than have the first four years of a player’s career dictated by the bounce of a ping-pong ball.
The Wheel Model would replace odds and ping-pong balls with a system where every team knows what number their draft picks are for the next 30 years. The reason for this is simple, teams wouldn’t tank if they know it won’t affect their chance at getting a better pick. This system would have teams cycle through every pick from 1st to 30th over the course of a 30 year period spaced out in such a way that every team would receive picks of relative value over the span of a few years. Apart from eliminating tanking this system would allow teams to plan better in the future since they would know exactly where they would be in every upcoming draft moving forward. The negatives of this plan are that teams with high picks in bad draft years are completely out of luck and bad teams get no more help than any other team in climbing out of the hole they are in.
* * *
There is no easy solution to solve tanking and the NBA draft, especially in this new era of compiling top talent into super teams. There are however bad solutions to this issue. The NBA’s newest change is set to go into effect in 2019 but still will not stop the Philadelphia’s of the world to beat the system. As strange as it is to think a professional sports team would not do the absolute most to produce the best results they could, when the rules incentive losing, people will continue to lose.