When you’re far from you final destination, it can be hard to tell if your first step is even in the right direction. This is what the NBA had to contend with in its most recent board meeting. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that NBA Board of Governors decided to implement new draft odds, starting in 2019. The new rule gives equal 14 percent odds to the three teams with the worst record for the No. 1 draft pick, after having previously given the worst team a hefty 25 percent chance.
Over the last few years, “tanking” became the default escape route for the teams in the bottom of the standing to get elite players from the draft. The Philadelphia 76ers (and former GM Sam Hinkie) formally popularized tanking as a way to rebuild, and they have a solid young team right now to show for it.
They showed that losing with a purpose can be a sustainable plan when you hold onto your draft picks. What the Brooklyn Nets did in falling to the bottom of the league without picks to show for it is much harder to classify.
The biggest problem with tanking is that only a handful of players can be found from the draft to establish as franchise cornerstones and they don’t usually drop after the third or fourth pick. I think Magic fans certainly know what I mean, as they had the fourth pick in 2014 that featured Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid, and fifth pick the year after that when Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis were picked before they had a chance to put their hands on any of these guys. Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon are fairly crummy consolation prizes.
The scarcity of marquee talent in each year’s draft and the odds of getting them stacked only for the worst of the worst made the “race to the bottom” inevitable. That’s what the NBA and the commissioner Adam Silver tried to achieve Thursday, but I have serious doubts they achieved anything substantial.
Of course, they made it less rewarding to be the singular worst team in the league. The draft, however, is still the only way for small market teams to acquire talent to compete in the coming years, as free agents more often than not elect to go to large markets, whether it be warm South Beach, the spotlights in NYC, or title contenders such as Cleveland and Golden State.
So, teams necessarily turn back to the draft for help. To me, the new rules will do nothing but making it more appealing for mediocre teams to be worse.The fact remains, the worst possible spot to finish the season is either getting into the playoffs from the eighth seed, from which you basically have no chance what so ever to compete, or missing the postseason as the ninth or tenth seed where your chances of drafting a franchise player are miniscule.
As the odds to get a top-five pick increases dramatically for seventh to tenth-worst teams, mediocre teams that feature maybe one star-caliber player can tank really good as soon as they sense the season is not going anywhere (and that’s very soon for most of the teams). After all, the tenth worst team has the same odds to get a top-five pick as the three worst teams have for the first overall pick. The worst of the worst teams that basically don’t have any exceptional talent on their roster do not have any choice but to hope to land a college kid that can turn things around for them in near future, especially they are located in a small market.
All in all, I project the new rules to widen the gap between bad teams and the good teams as this new system is as much a disincentive for the worst as the mediocre. Mediocre teams will try to be bad as well while the bad stays bad since they simply do not have any other choice. The best description of Thursday’s event is made by the commissioner himself: “far from perfect.”
Yes, the NBA just took a step with all good intentions but I am not sure if it’s forward, backward or just a step to the side (who knows maybe taking a step to the side will let them see forward more clearly). I guess we will need to wait and see.
Can Sariöz covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].