The NBA Tank-Fest Is Dead, Bury It Deep So It Can Never Return

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The NBA draft lottery is a weird phenomenon. In order to figure out the arrangement of picks in the upcoming draft, the NBA gets a bunch of lawyers in to oversee a bunch of ping pong balls popping out of a machine (all undertaken away from prying eyes) and everybody freaks out about it. Of course they do, some teams put so much faith in the draft that their entire franchise depends on effectively winning the lotto. From an outsider view it’s completely ridiculous.

But so are lots of sporting traditions. The draft exists in American sports in order to balance out the integrity of the competition. The worst teams have access to the best incoming players so that they’ve got a quicker path back to usefulness. In recent years though, that process has lost its integrity. The ignoble tank has always been a part of this system, it’s sorta built into it, just think of the year David Robinson was injured for San Antonio and next thing they’ve bargained their one bad season into Tim Duncan and two decades of top tier relevance.

That was a one-off though. What happens instead when front office jokers get to clever for their own good and start manipulating that system? The Philadelphia 76ers and Sam Hinkie is what happens. Four straight years of sustained irrelevance in order to hoard top draft picks. We’re seeing the benefits of that now with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons leading them to the second round of the playoffs in consecutive seasons but not sure that makes up for the karmic damage of The Process.

And that was only on the extreme end, since most people didn’t have the cojones to do what Hinkie did (and even Hinkie eventually lost his job for it). The real damage of the tanking phenomenon is that post all-stars binge of useful players, the buyout market and the trade deadline offloads which effectively signal the end of trying for any team that didn’t rate their shot at making the playoffs. In the 2017-18 season there were at least nine teams that phoned in the last two months of the season. Sitting their top lads with fake injuries. Playing with dudes who were G-League at best. Honestly, it got to the point where it was completely farcical.

Especially when the draft is a lottery even besides the lottery itself. No matter how much research you do into the latest college class you can never quite be sure which dudes will make the transition. Nobody enters the league fully ready, you’ve still got to surround them with veteran leaders and great coaching. D’Angelo Russell is thriving in Brooklyn after being hounded out of the LA Lakers… sometimes you just need the right player in the right situation too. Even then you can’t account for injuries. So when you look at a team like the Brooklyn Nets who have completely rebuilt their team without a top draft pick at any stage of that journey you really have to wonder if prioritising the draft as much as some teams do, completely gutting their playing roster and pissing all over fans with defeat after defeat, is even worth it in the slightest?

Well, if you happen to be the team that slides up into the top few picks and comes away with a franchise altering talent then you’re not arguing. But the scandalous tank-fest that concluded the last couple seasons got drastic enough that Adam Silver and the league office decided they had to do something about it… so in 2019 we were introduced to Lottery Reform… and the results were wonderful.

Beginning with the New York Knicks, who were the season’s top tankers as they traded away a good chunk of their team in the package that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas, then waived Wes Matthews and Enes Kanter while benching free-agent-to-be DeAndre Jordan. With just 17 wins they were the worst team in the NBA and that’s exactly where they wanted to be. But lottery reform has changed the way the odds work so the Knicks only had the same chances of the top pick as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns, all at 14%. Yet for some reason the New York media got way overhyped about the whole thing as if they were destined for that ultimate vindication… despite an 86% probability of picking second or lower (they got third in the end).

Frankly they deserve it for their hubris. Good bloody job. However it was even worse news for the Cavs who dropped to fifth and the Suns who dropped to sixth. The lottery only actually shuffles the top four picks but any team outside the playoffs has a chance of getting drawn in that top four, no matter how slim. Everyone else is arranged in order of team record. The Lakers leapt from eleventh up to fourth. The Grizzlies leapt from sixth to second. And the good ol’ New Orleans Pelicans leapt from seventh to first.

This is what lottery reform was for. Never before had two teams jumped five places in the same draft and here we had three teams leaping at least six places. Absolute chaos and that’s exactly what the NBA wanted. The Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Lakers were all mud this year too. The Lakers had LeBron but he checked out with a few injuries and a rubbish team around him. The Grizzlies traded away Marc Gasol. The Pellies are still dealing with a want-away Anthony Davis. They need help as much as the Knicks, Cavs, and Suns do – the difference between ten wins at the very bottom there isn’t nearly as much as ten wins up the top. Some teams are just better suited to the tank, for whatever reason. Rookie coach. Young players. Trade-able stars. Difficult division/conference. Once they started milking that system deliberately, exact win total stopped reflecting the relative abilities of teams and only really reflected their cynicism instead.

What we’ve seen in recent years is those teams ripping everything to shreds in the hope that a single 20-year-old can fix everything for them. It’s an outrageously American thing to think: we don’t actually suck, we’re just one slice of luck away from the big time. Same as poor Americans ignoring blatant class discrimination and blaming their situation on immigrants instead. The so-called American Dream seems to have a whole lot of presumptuousness about it… like those Knicks fans presuming that the top pick was theirs despite 86% odds against it.

Lottery reform like this won’t stop teams prioritising the draft but it will at least stop the repeated futility of trying to be the worst of the worst. That doesn’t matter anymore, so you might as well try win a few games along the way and give yourself the core of a decent team to add to if you do draw the lucky ping pong ball. Teams will still rest players after they miss the playoffs. They’ll still play the odds to some extent. And that’s okay, because the draft is there for a noble reason. But it won’t reward 76ers-esque extended trash and that’s better than okay. That’s great. Rudy Gobert agrees.

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