An NBA Don Quixote takes on tanking — again

Plenty of seats should be available this season at OKC Thunder home games

I’ve been on a 2-year long diatribe on this blog against tanking in the NBA, mostly because of my frustration with the OKC Thunder playing for better draft position instead of winning.

NBA teams never, ever say the word ‘tanking.’ They use the word ‘process,’ instead. If you want to know, tanking is the process of sitting your best players in favor of less experienced back-of-the-bench guys in hopes they will lose instead of win.

Enough losing and you get more ping-pong balls and potentially a better position in the annual NBA draft. It’s all so teams can capture the next unicorn for their roster, who in this year’s case is 7-4 Victor Wembanyama from France.

Wembanyama wowed the NBA world this summer when he dominated a couple of games played in Las Vegas against international and G-League teams.

For what it’s worth, a website called NBA Draftroom already has the Thunder selecting Wembanyama as the No. 1 pick in next summer’s draft.

What does that tell you about where the Thunder are in The ProcessTM? It means the Thunder must lose enough games this year so they finish among the bottom three teams. That will give them the best odds (14%) of receiving the No. 1 pick.

It’s still a long shot.

Source: nbadraftroom.com

So, that leaves me with the point I’ve tried to make for months. Tanking disrespects fans, corporate sponsors AND current players, as well. I could go on all day about ticket prices, sponsorship packages and the lean crowds we saw at Paycom Center last season.

But, my friend Ed Godfrey says I’m an NBA Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I’ve aired my own theory of how the league could discourage tanking.

Ed put a pin into my trial balloon.

“I don’t think the league cares about tanking,” Ed said. “If they wanted to stop it all they have to do is give every non-playoff team an equal chance of getting the No. 1 pick.”

In fact, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has addressed tanking in a couple of articles recently published on ESPN.com

Here’s the money quote from the most recent article:

“It’s one of these things where there’s no perfect solution, but we still think a draft is the right way to rebuild your league over time,” Silver said. “We still think it makes sense among partner teams, where a decision was made where the worst-performing teams are able to restock with the prospects of the best players coming in. So we haven’t come up with a better system.”

That leaves fans, sportswriters and bloggers with the responsibility to come up with ideas to negate tanking.

I proposed in a blog post earlier this year that the league institute a late-season lottery tournament among non playoff qualifiers that would reward the team with the best record with the No. 1 pick.  It’s the ultimate play-in.

My friend Steve Buck has given the tanking issue a lot of thought, as well. He’s come up with his own proposal that I think has a lot of merit.

Steve suggests that the league monitor “load management” among teams and how often healthy players are sitting out.

“Teams can practice load management if they want,” Steve said. “But teams that play their best players most frequently are rewarded with better draft odds than teams that routinely do load management. If your roster is truly bad, you get help. But if you are gaming minutes, you receive a penalty in reduced odds.”

Steve has it all sketched out down to the deadline for teams to announce a player sitting out and a requirement to reduce ticket prices for fans who often buy tickets just to see a specific star player.

“Only one player can be on ‘load management’ per night max, and a player is only allowed four load management nights per season,” Steve said. “Load management must be announced 24 hours before a given game and the club choosing to rest players must find a way to compensate single game ticket holders that bought seats for a specific contest through the NBA sanctioned ticket vendor.”

His scenario also includes evaluating injured players for game-ready status. The Thunder’s Shea Gilgeous-Alexander last season, for instance. We had to take the team’s word (or maybe the team’s physician) that SGA was not game ready for about the last 20 games or so of the season.

“That’s tough to prove,” Godfrey said. “If SGA has a ‘minor’ injury and the Thunder don’t want to risk further injury by not playing him the last 20 games when they are out of the playoffs, how are you going to prove that is tanking and not a decision in the best interest of the player’s and the team’s future?

“And the player’s union would get involved.”

So, what have we solved? Nothing, I guess. But I hope the tanking dialogue continues until the NBA takes substantial action to level odds for all non-playoff qualifiers, as Ed suggested.

A final word about draft odds from Silver as quoted in the ESPN article.

“You’re dealing with a 14% chance of getting the first pick,” Silver said. “I recognize at the end of the day analytics are what they are and it’s not about superstition. A 14% chance is better than a 1% chance or a no percent chance. But even in terms of straightforward odds, it doesn’t benefit a team to be the absolute worst team in the league, and even if you’re one of the poor-performing teams, you’re still dealing with a 14% chance [of winning the lottery].”

So, why can’t you level the odds for non playoff qualifiers?

Stay tuned.

Adam Silver at NBA draft. (source: Associated Press)

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jimstafford

I'm an Oklahoma City-based freelance writer with interests in Oklahoma startup community, Apple Inc, OKC Thunder & Texas Rangers.

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