It’s going to be the first big issue that falls in the lap of new commissioner Adam Silver — tanking. By the time the All-Star Game rolls around and we move close to the trade deadline a lot of teams are going to eye the deep draft of talent coming up, wonder why they should fight for an eight seed, and just make moves to get bad. No, teams aren’t going to tell players to lose, but watch squads like Orlando and Toronto start to jettison every veteran player who might help them win now in favor of winning in the future.
This is going to become a thing your casual sports fans friends start complaining about. Just wait. But it’s also just part of the reality in a league where you need one of the top 10 players — probably two of them — to win a title. Star players in the NBA influence the game far more than any other sport outside maybe a hockey goalie.
The NBA’s answer to this issue may be to do away with the lottery all together and go with a set 30-year cyclical “wheel” where each team gets the top pick once in a predetermined year. Zach Lowe breaks the story at Grantland.
Grantland obtained a copy of the proposal, which would eliminate the draft lottery entirely and replace it with a system in which each of the 30 teams would pick in a specific first-round draft slot once — and exactly once — every 30 years. Each team would simply cycle through the 30 draft slots, year by year, in a predetermined order designed so that teams pick in different areas of the draft each year. Teams would know with 100 percent certainty in which draft slots they would pick every year, up to 30 years out from the start of every 30-year cycle. The practice of protecting picks would disappear; there would never be a Harrison Barnes–Golden State situation again, and it wouldn’t require a law degree to track ownership of every traded pick leaguewide.
Put another way: The team that gets the no. 1 pick in the very first year of this proposed system would draft in the following slots over the system’s first six seasons: 1st, 30th, 19th, 18th, 7th, 6th.
This idea has gained some traction, according to the report (which you should read all of). That said, it’s admittedly in the early stages of discussion a long way from being approved — and you know how hard getting radical change approved by a bunch of stuff old owners is to begin with.
You can see the appeal of this as tanking becomes a growing issue — there is no reason to tank, no reason to try and be bad because we would already know the draft order for this season (and the next 30). You can sell this as a tanking fix.
There are a few big problems with this, however.
One is that some year an elite team getting a top pick and really stacking the deck — in 1982 the Lakers won the NBA title behind Magic Johnson then had the No. 1 pick an plucked James Worthy out of North Carolina (thanks to a legendarily bad trade, but that’s another post). Look at it this way: How big an outcry would there be if going into this draft the Heat were slotted for the top pick (or even top 3)?
Second is marketing — in the NBA teams either sell title contention or hope. But what if you are a struggling small market team in the middle of the cycle where your next picks are 10, 15, 22 and 26? You know a game-changing player is almost certainly not coming to you via the draft now for a while and you can’t recruit elite stars to just come to your market as a free agent. You are stuck and no matter how creative the GM there may be no good way out of it. What do you sell to fans?
In a league where the entire last CBA was about parity and giving the little guys a chance to compete with the big markets, it’s hard for me to see the owners agreeing to a system with those kind of flaws. There is no perfect system, but with tanking comes hope and the chance for turning the Utah Jazz around that might not exist with the draft wheel in place.
(Understand that even if approved tomorrow this could not be put in place until all future draft trades already approved had been completed, so we’re talking more than five years out.)
Still, as the tanking conversation gets louder going into March and early April, you never know quite what the owners will do.