Contend or bottom out: Those are the two options every NBA team faces when they look at their roster and plan for the future. The worst place to be in the NBA is the middle of the pack. Your chances of winning a championship aren’t much better than the teams that are dozens of games out of the playoffs, and your chances of landing a great player in the draft are just as slim. Compound this with the fact that the current CBA makes it difficult for teams to lure premium players on other teams with huge deals thanks to max contracts, and you have a system where the only likely way to obtain a premium, all-world player without gutting your team in a trade is to be lucky enough to draft him and put a team together that increases those odds.
Now, I don’t expect Sixers fans, or Timberwolves fans, or other struggling fan bases to enjoy their teams doing this, but they have to at least understand it. The Thunder were built on high draft picks and low records, and despite Kevin Durant’s current injury and looming free agency, they’re still one of the most promising teams in the NBA. The core of their team, Durant and Russell Westbrook, were the second and fourth overall picks, respectively, the latter of which they obtained with a record of 20-62. When you look at the other contending teams in the NBA, many of them are led by top 10 picks. Lebron James in Cleveland: first overall pick. James Harden in Houston (and previously Oklahoma City): third overall pick. Stephen Curry in Golden State: seventh. Tim Duncan in San Antonio: first overall. Al Horford in Atlanta: third overall. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard in Portland: second and sixth, respectively. The list goes on and on. You need high caliber players to compete in this league, and the most consistent way to get them is to pick high in the draft.
The NBA has toyed around with ideas to fix the incentives to be bad before you can be good. They’ve talked about changing the odds of the lottery to be less favorable for bad teams, or even for all of the lottery teams to have an equal probability for the top three picks. No matter how much you tinker with the odds, you won’t stop tanking until you fix the biggest incentive to tank: the fourth pick in the draft.
The way the system works now, the lottery chooses the first three picks, but the fourth pick goes to the remaining team with the worst record. The benefit of having the worst record isn’t only the best chance at having a top three pick, it’s the guarantee that your first selection will be in the top four. If you want to stop tanking, you need to either expand the lottery’s selection or eliminate it entirely. In both of those solutions, however, you need to accept the fact that the NBA will never have true parity.
Eliminating the lottery has already been proposed with the draft wheel, where each team, good or bad, gets a selection at every position on the draft board over a 30-year period, which then resets for the next 30-year period. It’s an interesting idea that completely removes the incentive to have a bad record. The problem is that you’ll then have good teams selecting high in the draft as frequently as bad teams and continue to make themselves better in a league where it’s already very difficult to crack into the elite echelon of championship contenders.
Another solution is to give every lottery team the same odds for every pick. This, however, would create another tanking problem: teams avoiding the playoffs. What typical eight seed would ever try to make the playoffs? An eight seed hasn’t made it out of the first round since they expanded all series to seven games, and even when they played best-of-five in the first round, only two eight seeds had ever won a series. If I’m running that team with the goal of winning a championship in mind, I’m making up injuries, “experimenting” with lineups and doing anything else I need to do to get out of the playoffs and try to improve my team down the line. If you expand the odds even further to the playoff teams, you have the same problem with the draft wheel, where the new stars of the NBA go to good teams as frequently as bad teams and the good teams stay good while the bad teams stay bad.
Personally, I like the system the way it is. I wouldn’t want to be a Sixers fan right now, but at least the team has some agency to become better. They have a plan that they can follow and try to become good. It may not work, but at least they have a direction. If you want to end tanking, you’ll take away this agency, and you’ll have to get used to seeing the same teams playing in May and June year after year.