The NBA wants to do away with the perception of teams tanking and all the talk that goes with it. They see it as a public relations black eye and bad for the sport that the Chicago Bulls might sit Robin Lopez for a late-season game to increase their chances of losing, therefore helping their draft lottery odds, so the league warned the Bulls. Marc Gasol got the same treatment in Memphis. There were others as well.
What the league office really can’t stand is hard-core fans openly rooting for their team to lose. That attitude was all over social media with the Bulls, Suns, and just about every other team in the top nine in the lottery.
It wasn’t just the fans — owners were saying the same thing, too. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN had front office insider Bobby Marks on his podcast and told this story (at around the 30-minute mark, hat tip NBA Reddit).
“I never heard more talk from front office executives frustration with coaches who were winning games they didn’t want them to win.
And owners, I know of an instance of an owner berating, really berating his coach here in the last several weeks of the season for going in and beating a pretty good team on the road, going ‘what are you doing?’ And think about that, that should not be going on.”
Woj is right should not. While the front office can decide to focus on the future, telling the coach to the youngsters and essentially tank, it is all kinds of wrong to have the coach or players take the court and try not to win. There’s a line there. Limit the coach’s resources (go ahead and sit Lopez or Gasol, so what?) but don’t ask the coach or players not to try to win once they get between the lines.
That said, the league is not going to stop tanking.
Starting next season, the lottery odds will change and flatten out, the teams with the worst couple of records in the league will be less likely to get the No. 1 pick. However, that will only change the inflection point of when a team considers it wise to tank vs. make a run at the eighth seed.
The reason is the game. In basketball in general, and in the NBA in particular, talent wins out. If a franchise wants to win a lot of games and consistently make the playoffs, it needs All-Star level talent on the roster. If said franchise wants to contend for a title, it needs a Top-10 level, franchise cornerstone player to build around (and 10 may overestimate how many of those players there actually are). Occasionally a player of that caliber switches teams — most recently Kevin Durant — but by and large the only way to get one of the league’s elite players is to draft them. If a GM of a weak team thinks that Deandre Ayton is a franchise changer in this draft, then he should target getting a good shot at that pick. Through the draft is the only way the vast majority of NBA franchises can land that level of superstar.
Changing the lottery odds next year makes it less likely another team goes full, deep Sam Hinkie/Philadelphia “process.” Starting with the 2019 draft, it’s not an advantage to completely bottom out (the three teams with the worst records have a 14 percent chance of winning the lottery, the fourth worst team has 12.5 percent, etc.). Although, after the pressure the Sixers got from the league (which the NBA denies but everyone knows happened), other owners, and the fact that Hinkie lost his job, no other GM was going to follow that model the same way again anyway. Even if the process worked.
Tanking, however, is going nowhere as long as an elite player can change a franchise’s fortunes and the draft is the best way to get one.