Tuesday, May 19, 2015

End Tanking with Draft Relegation

One the most unique aspects of the NBA are teams actively and intentionally parading sub-standard lineups throughout the 82-game season in order to lose games and potentially gain higher draft status -- tanking. When last place teams are rewarded top draft picks in MLB, NHL or the NFL the rookies chosen become part of a 40, 23, or 53-man roster, respectively, however a rookie on a NBA 15-man roster can have an extraordinary impact, hence the unprecedented tanking tactics of general managers and coaches.

In fact the NBA practically encourages all 14 non-playoff teams to tank since they all have a lottery chance to win the top pick, whereas in other leagues only the few teams closest to the last place team are competing to lose for the top pick. This culture of tanking followed by a hoping-for-the-lottery-to-bailout-the-franchise strategy is competitively destructive to the season, insulting to the fans and should be disgraceful to league.

It is long overdue for the NBA to chuck its current draft process and embrace that it is not like other leagues and last place teams do not deserve top draft picks in basketball. Unfortunately American sports' anti-Darwinian belief in rewarding failing teams takes true relegation off the table.

The bottom-14 teams of the league are draft-lottery eligible, the Draft Relegation proposal is to eliminate the bottom four teams from any top-10 draft pick and simply give the remaining 10 teams an equal chance for the top pick. The last place team will automatically get the 14th pick, second-to-last gets the 13th, third-to-last gets the 12th and the fourth-to-last place team will get the 11th pick. Contingencies to keep teams from repeated top picks will invariably create fewer than 10 teams eligible for the top pick but those teams would all have an equal chance to win, whether it is 1-in-7 or 1-in-10, therefore eliminating the incentive to lose games.

This should spur non-playoff teams to improve without having to hope the league's conspiratorial-laden draft process will provide a top pick to bailout the franchise. If finishing fifth-to-last provides the same chances for winning the top pick as finishing 14th-to-last then the teams that finish higher should have a better chance to exploit their pick in the following season than teams that finish lower. Teams must out-perform rather than under-perform the bottom-4 teams, possibly putting general managers and coaches in the proverbial hot seat if they cannot find and/or motivate players. It also puts the 16th overall place team in a precarious spot since one place down would be out of the playoffs and eligible for the top pick. The end of the season should be as compelling for the bottom-rung teams to stay out of the relegation zone for the draft as it is for the top-rung teams to earn home-court advantage for the playoffs.

Another aspect of the draft lottery is the inequality gap between large and small market teams. The Collective Bargaining Agreement has fixed the salaries for players where wages are relatively the same whether they play in New York City or Oklahoma City. This is an incredibly huge advantage for large markets teams whose payroll can be the same as any small market team yet whose off-court opportunities can rival those of any A-list movie star. This inequality puts small market teams at a significant disadvantage to attract top tier free agents which then relegates them to improve only through the draft. This perpetual dependence on tanking for the draft lottery for small market teams is, again, competitively destructive, insulting and disgraceful.

Details have to be worked out to mitigate redundant top picks by the same team within a certain period of time in order to spread the top picks around within the mechanics of the lottery, but with an equal chance for the top pick teams have equal hope and must compete to win on the court and in both management and scouting for non-top tier signings and trades to capitalize on whichever top pick they receive.

True reform will require fundamental changes to the CBA, to make the league more conducive to trades and revenue sharing so small market teams can compete, but also necessitates reinvigorating honest competition in the regular season. Conspiracy theories and controversies will linger and perpetuate until the league acknowledges the defect in the draft process to the season and an inequality gap that extinguishes any notion of team meritocracy within the league.