Coronavirus exposes NBA’s late-season tanking wasteland

NBA Draft lottery
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The Knicks won one game – one game! – in all of March 2019. So, they certainly proved their losing bona fides entering an April Fool’s Day matchup with the Bulls. But Chicago had a perfect counter: A starting lineup of Walt Lemon, Wayne Selden, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Robin Lopez. The Bulls fell behind by 20 in the first quarter. Though New York gave 41 minutes to Damyean Dotson and used just three reserves (including Lance Thomas playing 31 minutes), it was too late.

The Knicks had been out-tanked.

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These types of all-too-common ugly games are the subtext to the NBA’s coronavirus-crisis plans.

The league could resume by jumping straight into the playoffs or some enhanced postseason – either a play-in tournament or group stage – with 20-24 teams. All 30 teams returning has been discussed only as a cash grab. Continuing the regular season at all has been favored only as a ramp up to the playoffs.

But everyone finishing the regular season because it actually matters?

That’s a non-starter.

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Sam Hinkie – who oversaw “The Process” with the 76ers – has become the face of tanking in the NBA. He took Philadelphia through an ambitious multi-year plan to lose a lot and reap the rewards.

In response, the NBA reformed its lottery. Now, there’s less incentive to finish with the league’s very-worst record.

But a team setting out to tank multiple seasons was incredibly rare.

The far more pervasive problem: Teams that enter a season trying to win, fail then pivot into tanking.

At that point, what is there to lose by, um, losing? Once out of the playoff race, the lure of a high draft pick is just too tempting. Even minor improvements in lottery odds come with the upside of a young franchise-changer. Additional wins carry minimal tangible value.

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The NBA has spent more effort fighting discussion of tanking than tanking itself.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver defines tanking by its most narrow terms – players and coaches actively trying to lose games. But tanking manifests in other ways.

General managers trade away quality players. Teams become beyond cautious with injuries. Raw young players get more playing time. Coaches experiment with odd lineups. A general malaise sets in as everyone sees the true goal.

That’s why I define tanking as anything a team does intended, at least in part, to improve draft position by losing.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when each team begins tanking. But official elimination from the playoff race is a generous starting point. Most tanking teams adopt the approach even earlier.

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When the season was halted, 259 regular-season games remained. Far too few of those will be missed.

From the same point last year through the end of the season, 47% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

It was even worse the prior season. In the same time frame, 50% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

At best, eliminated teams have already traded their draft picks and have no incentive to lose. Even then, those teams have shown minimal desire to win.

At worst, teams are aggressively chasing better draft position. In 2018, an owner reportedly berated his coach for winning. George Karl said he had a similar experience while coaching. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has repeatedly trumpeted tanking. Travis Schlenk acknowledged the Warriors tanked to get Harrison Barnes. Bryan Colangelo admitted the Raptors tanked under his watch.

Fans – wisely – feel let down when their already-lousy team wins to hurt it’s draft position.

That’s an awful setup.

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Every so often, the NBA is forced to confront its annual tanking epidemic.

After the Pelicans denied Anthony Davis‘ trade request and kept him past the trade 2019 deadline, they had a standoff. Davis wanted to play. The Pelicans wanted to sit him. They preferred to tank for a better draft pick and protect their superstar asset in a lost season. Eventually, the NBA threatened to fine New Orleans, and the sides struck an imperfect compromise.

The year before, the NBA warned the Bulls to stop resting healthy players.

But coronavirus has shined a much brighter spotlight on the problem

It’d be practically criminal to force bad teams to quarantine, live in an isolated environment, risk injury after a long layoff, risk contracting and spreading coronavirus… just for games they want to lose, anyway. Damian Lillard put voice to the issue, saying he wouldn’t play if the Trail Blazers can’t make the postseason this year. The already-eliminated Warriors have made clear they prefer just to be done.

It’s obviously far more tolerable to play these games in normal times.

But the NBA ought to reconsider a system that creates so many games of awful product.

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I still believe a draft that rewards losing teams is good for the NBA. It’s important to engage every fan base. If fans of a bad team can’t enjoy wins, at least they’ll have hope.

But the league should strike a better balance.

I’ve advocated for a system that improves draft position with early losses and late wins. Most teams enter a season trying to win, and those that fail would get draft help. But teams – from the top down – would also be incentivized to remain competitive throughout the season. Intentionally losing early then winning late would be a nearly impossible needle to thread.

There’s plenty to sort out – how to value early losses vs. late wins, when to flip the switch, etc. I’m even open to including a Silver favorite – a play-in tournament (that also boosts draft position for teams that win).

But, please: Do something to reduce the large number of late-season tank games.

This situation shows how frivolous they are.