Victor Wembanyama. Scoot Henderson.
Two franchise-changing players sit at the top of the 2023 NBA Draft, and there has been plenty of talk around the league about teams pivoting and taking this season after an injury or slow start, even if they have a limited shot at landing a top pick. It’s a strong draft at the top beyond those two potential cornerstones, and for many teams a chance at a player like Wembanyama is worth more than a play-in game or two.
Adam Silver says the league has taken note. Silver talked about tanking during a Q&A with Suns employees this week, as reported by Baxter Holmes of ESPN.
“We put teams on notice,” Silver told employees. “We’re going to be paying particular attention to the issue this year…
“It’s something we have to watch for,” Silver said. “A draft is, in principle, a good system. But I get it, especially when there is a sense that a once-in-a-generation player is coming along, like we have this year.”
Words and a memo are nice, but what exactly can Silver and the league office do beyond that? In theory they could fine a team or take away draft picks for blatant tanking, but that would require proof of intending to lose games — teams are smart enough to avoid that. From long rests for relatively minor injuries to leaning into playing their youth for experience, there are legitimate basketball reasons teams can come up with, reasons that just happen lower their odds of winning.
The NBA took steps to reduce tanking a few years back by flattening out the lottery odds — the three worst teams have only a 14% chance of the No. 1 pick — and creating the play-in tournament to spark late-season races and give teams something to play for. That has worked for a couple of years, but Wembanyama changes the equation — that kind of player can turn a franchise into a contender, and for an owner add $500 million or more to the team’s worth. Teams will tank for a chance to land a player like that.
Silver said the NBA did look into the idea of relegation — as seen in European soccer leagues, where the worst teams go down a level and the best teams go up — but said it doesn’t work for the NBA and its economic model.
So the NBA has to come up with other ideas to keep teams from tanking. Good luck with that in a season where Wembanyama is the prize.