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Adam Silver tells NBA teams to stop tanking, or at least stop making it so obvious

Adam Silver does not want to hear any more about teams throwing in the towel. (Richard Mackson/USA Today Sports)
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The NBA’s race to the bottom continued Tuesday night. The Chicago Bulls, owners of the NBA’s eighth-worst record, dropped a 118-103 decision to the Charlotte Hornets in a game that was tied at halftime. The Sacramento Kings, one of five teams with a league-low 18 wins, dug themselves a 13-point hole less than eight minutes into their game against the Portland Trail Blazers and ended up losing by 17. And the 20-win Nets fell to the Cavaliers, 129-123, doing Cleveland a solid considering LeBron James’s team owns Brooklyn’s first-round pick in this year’s draft.

Seeing as how they are without a first-round pick, signs point to the Nets being bad without needing any extra effort (they went 1-9 in February). But those other two losers Tuesday are among seven NBA teams — eight if you count the Kristaps Porzingis-less New York Knicks, who also went 1-9 in February — that have a clear incentive to be not just bad, but as bad as possible.

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would like all that to stop over the final six weeks of the regular season.

In a letter sent last week to all 30 NBA teams, Silver said that such tanking “has no place in our game” and that any proven instances of laying down will be “met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.”

The NBA already has shown its willingness to punish the tankers, last week fining Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $600,000 over comments in which he admitted telling his team that “losing is our best option.” The fine was levied Feb. 21, the same day Silver sent the memo to the teams, according to USA Today’s Sam Amick.

The Mavericks are 19-42 overall, at least briefly separating themselves from the bottom-dwelling 18-win teams — the Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Kings and Phoenix Suns — with an upset of the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, their first win in 16 days. All of those teams, along with the 20-win Bulls and 24-win Knicks, will be gunning, so to speak, for the best chance at receiving the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft lottery before anti-tank rule changes go into effect for 2019. This year, the team with the worst record has a 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick, with the next two bad teams getting a 19.9 percent chance and 15.6 percent chance, respectively. Next year, the teams with the three worst records will all have the same chance: 14 percent.

Here’s the gist of Silver’s warning, as transcribed by Amick:

“Over the past several seasons, discussions about so-called ‘tanking’ in the NBA have occurred with some frequency, both in the public discourse and within our league, and you as governors have taken steps to address the underlying incentive issues by adopting changes to our draft lottery system that will go into effect next year. Throughout this period, we have been careful to distinguish between efforts teams may make to rebuild their rosters, including through personnel changes over the course of several seasons, and circumstances in which players or coaches on the floor take steps to lose games.
“The former can be a legitimate strategy to construct a successful team within the confines of league rules; the latter — which we have not found and hope never to see in the NBA — has no place in our game. If we ever received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.”

Since the all-star break, Amick points out, the NBA teams with the nine worst records have gone 3-25. In games against teams that are not also tanking, they are 1-23 (Dallas’s win over the Pacers being the lone exception). There are a number of ways to accomplish such futility, “active and passive,” in the words of ESPN reporters Tim McMahon and Brian Windhorst. Passive tanking takes the form of resting key players during important stretches of a game, making such players inactive altogether even though they are healthy or taking extreme caution in letting injured stars return to the court. Active tanking is when teams actually use data to figure out which lineups would be the least effective, “reverse analytics” as one NBA executive told the ESPN scribes.

Silver, citing Cuban’s comments that got him fined, doesn’t want to hear any of it.

“We have no basis at this time to conclude that the Mavericks team is giving anything less than its best effort on the court, and Mark has assured us that this is not the case,” Silver wrote to the teams. “But even a suggestion that such conduct could be occurring is obviously damaging to our game, as it creates a perception of impropriety. It is also extraordinarily unfair to the players and coaches who are, in fact, competing at their highest possible level every night. You are therefore advised to avoid such statements, and to pass along this admonition to all other key personnel in your organizations. We will continue to monitor closely the play of all teams during the remainder of the season.”

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