NBA teams collectively play 2,460 games each season.
Too few of those games matter.
A few weeks ago, Anthony Davis decided it was no longer worth trying to accomplish his goals with the Pelicans. His trade request derailed New Orleans’ season, and there has been only more difficulty since the team kept him past the trade deadline. Davis has faced immense criticism for making his trade request in-season rather than waiting until the summer.
But teams frequently make a similar determination – that it’s no longer worth trying to accomplish their season goals – well before the season ends.
The most common form of tanking is a team entering the season with playoff aspirations, losing more than hoped then pivoting into more-intended losing down the stretch. Those teams reduce playing time for better veterans and turn toward younger players less-equipped to win presently. Future seasons become the priority well before the current season ends.
The Davis situation is just a version of that.
It might be a long time until a player as good as Davis requests a trade, let alone during a season. But unless the NBA addresses its draft system, there will continue to be weeks of miserable games in the second half of seasons.
The league can try to force teams to play good players. The league can change lottery odds. The league can even pressure teams to oust executives who push tanking to the extreme.
But problems will remain as long as draft positioning is tied to inverse standings. The incentive to lose might be reduced, but it’s still way stronger than the incentive to win extra games late in a losing season.
What do the Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers, Bulls and Hawks have to play for the rest of the season? Winning a few extra games won’t change perception of those teams or draw a significant number of fans. But extra wins would reduce those teams’ odds of drafting a franchise-changer.
The Pelicans face a similar situation. They want to escape the season with Davis healthy and his trade value fully intact. They want a higher draft pick. They care less about winning down the stretch.
The script is flipped because Davis put them into this position. If he hadn’t requested a trade, New Orleans would likely be making a longshot playoff pursuit.
But the result is the same – many remaining games the team doesn’t care about winning or even actively prefers to lose.
There have been numerous suggestions, some even two extreme for me.
The Wheel has been the most popular of those. Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren’s proposal gives each team a pick in each segment of the draft in a rotating basis over a multi-year period. The draft order is completely decoupled from record. Each team is on identical footing for the draft.
But I think losing teams should get a leg up in the draft. The NBA is trying to engage all its fanbases. Winning comes with the joy of winning. Losing comes with hope. If losing teams didn’t have the upside of a higher draft pick, their fans would completely lose interest.
A shorter schedule would compact the standings and delay losing teams’ decisions to punt the season. But that’s a non-starter. Nobody is surrendering revenue by eliminating games. Besides, a longer season benefits fans, especially those who are the fringe of being able to afford tickets. A higher supply of games drives down ticket prices.
The NBA is threatening to fine teams for sitting healthy players. But that policy is far too arbitrary for me. Davis obviously draws league scrutiny. But what about Enes Kanter with the Knicks? What about Eric Bledsoe with the Suns in 2017? I prefer clear lines then allowing teams to operate within them.
My general suggestion: Give teams one lottery combination for each loss until they’re eliminated from the playoff race then, thereafter, one lottery combination for each win. Only non-playoff teams get put in the lottery.
There are plenty of ways to tweak it. Maybe teams should get more lottery combinations for the early losses or late wins. Maybe something needs to be done about conference disparity changing when teams are eliminated. How many teams to draw in the lottery and how many to slot and in what order must be determined.
But the general outcome would be awarding higher draft picks to bad teams – especially those that compete to the end of the season.
The NBA would be healthier if teams cared about winning more games.
Winning their remaining games this season is no longer the Pelicans’ priority. They want to protect their most valuable trade asset and improve draft position. Davis’ trade request obviously makes this a unique situation.
But plenty of teams annually sit their top players late in losing seasons without those players first requesting a trade. The problem runs much wider than Davis and New Orleans.