What the NBA can do about the Draft conundrum
As fans have more information than ever before, they have arguably become more invested in the long-term prospects of their team than the immediate gratification of a win or loss. Even trade conversations have changed in recent years. Before, fans would simply propose a trade based on nothing but a desire to see some of their favorite players play together. Now, fans are far more likely to go to a trade machine to make sure the salaries match or research a franchise owner’s history regarding paying the luxury tax.
To combat the mass tanking of teams, the NBA flattened out the odds of the top three teams following the 2019 NBA draft. The thinking behind the move was that it would prevent truly terrible, unentertaining teams from being laughably bad. The policy change was to stop the worst offenders of tanking, those teams that set out early on to take advantage of the league’s rules.
There are two large problems with the new policy. One, if a draft has some truly franchise-altering talent at the top of it, there will be more teams attempting to get into that final three highest-ranked chances to get a first-round pick, because they no longer need to have the worst record in the league—just one of the three worst.
More teams may opt earlier in the season to do away with the façade of winning because likely there would’ve been a team just on the outskirts of postseason basketball. Second, the most tantalizing draft prospects in the league will likely go to the teams most bereft of talent, and (often because they have jettisoned veterans that could help them win) structure. That’s an awful place for a talented teenager to learn how to be a professional in the NBA.
The best way to get rid of tanking
The best way for the NBA to eradicate tanking isn’t to change the rules for the worst teams in the league. Instead, they should change the rules for the teams that need a slight push to become relevant. Imagine Wembanyama going to the team that barely misses out on the playoffs. He’d go to a solid team that was only missing a piece to make it truly competitive.
The player gets structure and talent surrounding him, and the league gets a brand-new competitive team to add to the mix and keep competition high. Yes, reversing the lottery selection entirely (where the first pick in the draft goes to the team that just missed the play-in, and the last pick in the lottery goes to the team with the worst record in the league) would ruffle feathers. But it would be nearly impossible for teams to tank to exactly that “outside looking in” position.
Besides, if a franchise is that close to making the playoffs, it certainly wouldn’t turn down the extra revenue of hosting a playoff game. What’s more, it would be even more egregious to the fan base and the team’s players to intentionally try to lose a few wins from the postseason. Sure, the worst teams in the league wouldn’t get immediately better as they do in theory with the current lottery procedures.
Still, it would prevent the more-than-decades-long tanking of some teams (like the Philadelphia 76ers infamously did) from employing a tactic that disrespects the fans and the sport. Of course, all of these new policies should be enacted next season — after Wembanyama has signed his lease in Queen City.