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Must there be tanking?

The Wheel is still out there, looking better by the day.

A wheel might roll better.
Photo by Zulfadhli Zaki/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

This is somewhat miserable. The Rockets, a team that was considered a contender quite recently is now vying for one of the worst records in the NBA. It must be said, they’re doing a good job of it. They now compete at a high level, only to hand the victory to their foes through a collapse that’s almost certainly real, but perhaps engineered to a degree as well.

It’s only sensible that they do so. The Rockets only get their pick from this year of misery if it falls in the top four of the NBA draft as determined by the draft lottery drawing. The odds are roughly 50/50 they get this pick, if they finish in the bottom three in record. Otherwise, a pick at say, #5, goes to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of the ongoing pain of the Russell Westbrook trade.

(Isn’t it nice that people like James Harden now that he’s in a major media market? It’s a shame it took the destruction of the Rockets (in some large part at Harden’s demand) to make that happen. It seems as though a team with Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela might be quite competitive for a title this season, particularly if some of the Rockets low-cost acquisitions were figured in: Nwaba, Brown, Tate, and why not Porter Jr? So it goes.)

Anyhow, the NBA draft process, despite all attempts to make it more fair, is fundamentally broken on a “moral hazard” level. Any system that rewards doing less than one’s best in a league that prioritizes winning as the highest goal, is problematic. It’s not to say the Rockets are doing anything wrong. They’re doing what they have to do to improve, within the NBA rules. There’s not a rule against what they’re doing, per se, though the NBA has tried to mitigate deliberate losing somewhat after the “Process” 76ers experience.

Why? Because a team being deliberately bad is bad for the league, at some level, as it discourages honest competition, which is a fundamental tenet of any sports league.

Deliberate losing is bad because it demoralizes a fanbase, and asks them to accept what is a business, and logical, proposition, rather than a sporting one - that a team should do its very best to win, within the rules of the game (and some considerations like health).

NBA basketball, as much as I love it, has a problem in that certain actions that go against the aims of the league, or an individual contest, and the spirit of the rules, are consistently the most prudent and successful actions to take. This could be “tanking” to get a better pick, and possibly, a franchise star, in a league powered by stars. This could be fouling away from the play on a fast break.

In each case an action that should be discouraged: losing, breaking the rules, is CLEARLY the most rewarding thing to do.

Does it have to be this way? No. It does not. It would require a change in thinking, but “tanking” could be completely eliminated.

Back in 2013 the NBA Draft Wheel was proposed. In this system the top 30 picks simply rotate. A team would only get the 1-1 pick every 30 years (poor Cleveland) but it would also get a top 3 pick every ten years.

This system had certain problems: everyone would know exactly when a team was picking, and a player could perhaps time their entry into the NBA draft to go to a certain market.

This danger seems overstated to me. Consider the cost of delaying NBA entry in terms of present earnings, and free agency rights, for say, two years. Couple that with the attendant injury risk, or very real possibility a player simply stops growing as a player in college (or Australia, or wherever), or even goes backwards one year (this happens a lot). Well, our player might have been Team A’s 1-1 pick, but after three years of limited growth, he’s now the 14th pick.

The plan was modified to instead award picks randomly within groups, so it was less possible to game draft entry (again, a prospect willing to delay his career, and free agency by three years probably deserves to go to the Lakers or whomever, to me). But this system does solve that “problem. It also solves the problem that a bad team in a “bad pick” part of the cycle would “have no hope”. My observation is that such teams just got higher picks, within the past three years, under this system. Why are they terrible after that?

Every team would get a 1-1 every thirty years, but they’d get a top six pick every five years.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that once you start the wheel, you’ve pretty much got to do a 30 year cycle, unless all the teams hate it so much they’re willing to forego their spot.

The Wheel would also stop two, from my viewpoint, fairly major philosophical problems with the NBA: rewarding losing, and conversely, punishing sustained success.

If a high level employee was excellent for two decades, odds are fairly good that person would be earn more money than less successful peers, or would be recognized within the industry. Not in the NBA, in terms of excellence being rewarded with young talent in the draft.

The reward for the San Antonio Spurs two decades of excellence, in terms of the NBA draft? Literally, nothing. They had to get their one top 15 pick absolutely perfect. They did, but now he’s gone, and their other high pick finally aged-out (after 19 seasons). Much the same is true of the Houston Rockets.

Meanwhile, teams that are either chronically mismanaged, or deliberately losing, tend to get the choicest players in the draft.

The Wheel System would also truly help in setting value for picks. Who knew, for example that it would have been highly worthwhile to trade for the Golden State Warriors 2020 draft pick in 2018?

This randomness is interesting, but is it good? Is it good for the league? For the fans?

Would it really be so bad for teams to be able to plan their cycles of competing and rebuilding, to a larger extent?

Would it be worse than this season?

Would it be worse than highly incentivizing teams to do as badly as possible, while maintaining a facade of doing their best?

I’m not sure, but it seems to me that some level of certainty might be better than a race to the bottom for some teams every year. No matter how much the rules change, unless the NBA does away with the idea that worse teams should get better picks (not bad of itself) then teams that want higher picks will be incentivized to do poorly. Even a slim chance at a franchise player is worth it, especially for small market teams.

I’ve been wanting to write this for a while, but it seemed best to do it, against my team’s interests, now. .

The Rockets are doing the absolutely correct thing under the current system, but I wonder if it all would have been necessary if there was a system that allowed all teams, not just the worst, or the sharpest traders, to get “reinforcements” of a high level in the draft fairly frequently? What if the Rocket had gotten two top six picks in Harden’s tenure, for example?

No system is perfect, but I believe the draft wheel solves far more problems than it creates.

Here’s a simulator.


The Wheel?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    Roll it out!
    (43 votes)
  • 29%
    It’s flat!
    (35 votes)
  • 33%
    What if the worst team always got Dallas’ pick, in addition to their own?
    (40 votes)
118 votes total Vote Now