Every year, the subject of NBA teams tanking for the best possible draft position becomes a hot topic. And every year, the league does everything it can to stop people from talking about it. Everything, that is, except putting in any substantial reforms to actually stop it.
Take the current situation involving the Chicago Bulls. Before the team resumed play after the all-star break, Bulls President of Basketball Operations John Paxson met with local reporters and told them that Chicago’s two veteran starters, Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, were going to be healthy scratches.
Paxson — keeping a straight face — said the Bulls needed to play reserves Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba.
“The whole goal in our position,” Paxson said, “is to evaluate what we have on this roster.”
The truth was clear to see: The actual goal was for the Bulls — in the midst of a nine-way tanking battle — to lose as many games as possible.
It worked. Lopez didn’t play in any of Chicago’s first six games after the break, while Holiday played once when the Bulls opted to rest Zach LaVine. The Bulls lost five of those games, with their lone victory coming at home late last week against another tanker, the Dallas Mavericks.
The problem was that the Bulls were too obvious. In response, the NBA recently ordered them to start playing Lopez and Holiday so the team doesn’t run afoul of a rule about resting healthy players. The league instituted the rule after the Phoenix Suns sat starting point guard Eric Bledsoe for the final month of last season.
Sources from both the league and team have maintained that the conversation was cordial and respectful. Yeah, of course it was. Both the league and the Bulls know this is the way things have always been, and that won’t be changing soon.
There was no secret in what the Bulls were doing, or why they were doing it. They were simply going about it too openly — which rubs against the league’s clear goal of trying to hush any talk about intentional tanking.
When Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently admitted that “losing is our best option,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hammered him with a $600,000 fine, even if what Cuban said is blatantly obvious to anyone watching his team or the league. The NBA’s rationale in announcing the fine? It was a public statement that was “detrimental to the NBA.”
It was actually a statement of fact, one acknowledging the obvious situation in Dallas — and for the other teams at the bottom of the standings.
Since the all-star break, the nine teams at the bottom of the NBA standings entered Wednesday a combined 4-39 in games against non-tanking teams, even after the Mavericks won at home against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.
Here’s the truth in the matter: The NBA needs the system it has in place to remain the way it is. Sure, it would be great for every team to have as much talent and be as fun to watch as the Golden State Warriors. But that simply isn’t the case.
So, for the teams at the other end of the spectrum, the league needs to have something to sell those fans to keep their attention and keep them invested in their team’s future. The league therefore sells them on hope, in the form of valuable draft picks that can give those bad teams the talent to rebuild their rosters and eventually, hopefully, give them a shot to become a contending team like Golden State.
If the NBA removed that incentive structure, the league’s bad teams would be like Golden State’s opponent Tuesday night, the Brooklyn Nets. Because of the ill-fated trade with the Boston Celtics for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce five years ago — in which the Nets gave up control of their next five first-round picks — Brooklyn is playing out the string on a third straight horrendous season with no lottery selections to show for all that losing.
As a result, the franchise — while headed in the right direction with a strong front office and coaching staff — has essentially been stuck in neutral for three seasons, doing everything it can on the margins to acquire useful players while having no way to get the kind of franchise-changing talent necessary to begin turning things around. That will have to wait until next season, when — finally — the Nets will own their draft pick again.
The NBA could just admit that is the case, and end the charade of pretending it isn’t. It’s instead more concerned about the public perception.
The league forced through lottery reform changes this past summer, which will go into effect in 2019, leveling out the odds for teams at the top of the lottery. This will limit some of those incentives, but there’s a reason a similar push two years earlier was voted down by the league’s teams: There was an understanding among the league’s basketball executives that, at some point, everyone struggles, and a rebuild is necessary. By making these changes, it will be harder for the teams at the bottom of the league to do that.
Those changes, though, accomplished what the league wanted by eliminating some of the debate about the topic.
What it hasn’t stopped is the hilarity of this season’s race to the bottom. In the final season with the current rules in place, more teams than ever are doing everything they can to lose.
While the Nets are only among those nine teams because they aren’t any good, as opposed to having draft-pick incentives to play for, the other eight — the Bulls, Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks — all know that every loss these days is a long-term win.
The NBA knows it, too. They just don’t want anyone to acknowledge it.