Adam Silver on NBA’s handling of tanking incentives: ‘We’re not there yet’

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
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NBA commissioner Adam Silver has defined tanking so narrowly – a team purposefully losing – he can deny it happens.

A team sitting good healthy players? Not necessarily tanking.

A team using suboptimal lineup combinations? Not necessarily tanking.

Players giving less effort as they feel the morass of a situation in which everyone understands the organization is better off losing? Not necessarily tanking.

Obviously, these things happen, and they happen because teams want to lose and secure a better draft pick. But as long as Silver doesn’t see evidence of that motive – and he’s not copping to looking – he can deny tanking occurs. That’s been the approach for years.

But the NBA explicitly warned teams not to tank this year. The league specifically warned the Bulls not to rest Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday.

Maybe Silver is getting more proactive about a problem he has repeatedly denied even exists?

Silver:

Q. I was just curious why the Grizzlies weren’t punished for tanking when other teams were. You came out strongly against tanking earlier this season, and I’m just wondering, that team specifically seemed to have some issues —
ADAM SILVER: No team was, so-called, punished for tanking —
Q. Or warned.
ADAM SILVER: I will just say we had conversations with several teams about what the product was that they were putting on the floor, and I’ll leave it at that. They were just direct conversations we had with teams.
Well, let me add, I find it an incredibly difficult issue. We are changing the Draft Lottery for next year. That was something that had already been voted on, but we continue to look at the issue. We recognize that our goal was to put the best competition on the floor, and it’s balanced against legitimate rebuilding of some teams. But I know we’re not there yet, and I certainly wasn’t satisfied.
There can only be so much cajoling out of the league office. It’s one of those things that the last place I want to go as the commissioner of the league office is to start dictating minutes and which particular players should be playing at what points in the game.
I recognize that the incentives are not aligned right now, that there’s a huge incentive to increase your chances in the Draft Lottery, especially under the old system. As I said, we’re switching the system for next year. We’ll see how much of an impact that has, but my sense is we’re still going to have some work to do.

This far closer than Silver had ever come to admitting tanking happens. That’s the first step in combatting it.

But for far too long, his priority was fighting the perception of tanking – not actual tanking. It’ll take more action before I’m convinced the NBA will actually get at the meat of the issue.

Lottery reform – which will reduce the reward for finishing in the absolute basement – could reduce tanking. But as long as teams are incentivized with valuable draft picks to lose, tanking will still occur in some form.

That’s the problem with this lottery reform. It allows the league – which has finally admitted to, let’s generously say, tanking-like problems – to delay more meaningful action for years while assessing this minor change.

At least Silver is already saying this tweak probably won’t be enough. But how long until the NBA  actually does something else?