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Race to the bottom: The NBA’s tanking problem

NBA tanking problem

NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo to all 30 teams on Feb. 21 warning against tanking for a better draft pick. It is a problem that has been heavily discussed in recent years and has been the first real test for the fourth-year commissioner.

In the memo, Silver says that if the NBA receives any evidence of teams tanking, “that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.” He also acknowledges that rebuilding is a “legitimate strategy to construct a successful team,” but wants to separate rebuilds from purposefully not competing.

NBA tanking problem
The Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks are two of the worst teams in the league, putting them in the tanking conversation. (Photo by Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It will be a very subjective process, regardless of how the NBA wants to frame their criteria. The teams at the bottom of the standings simply do not have the talent to compete. Couple that with the fact the best teams in the league continue to get better, it makes sense for them to prepare for the future. It just does not make sense for them to try to compete for something they won’t be able to accomplish.

So, why not just lose now and build up a roster while hoping the juggernauts lose steam? Silver’s memo answers that question with a figurative, “because I told you so.”

Disparity

The gap between the top teams in each conference and the middle-to-bottom has never felt wider.

The one seed and eight seed in each conference are separated by 12 to 15 games. That’s a big, but not huge, margin. However, with so few games left before the playoffs, it’s a gap no five to eight seed could hope to close, especially considering the talent on the teams at the top.

NBA tanking problem
The Phoenix Suns have the worst record in the Western Conference and could secure the first pick in the draft. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)

Ignoring the actual records, though, it’s the reputation and on-court play of the teams that makes the gap seem cavernous. Does anyone think the Heat stand a chance the Raptors? Or that the Clippers could hold off James Harden and the Rockets?

And those are the teams that are actually in the playoffs. The Kings had no shot at anything resembling a playoff spot this year. The Suns probably never even dreamt of playing in late April. So, in the already brutal Western Conference, why not lean into the inevitable? Those teams could be playing their hardest and make moves at the deadline to get better, but still end up no better than 11th place.

The point here is when we already know what the conference finals will probably look like, there isn’t shame in fading into the background. Teams can give their young talent minutes and swipe up cheap contracts while preparing for their push several years down the road.

Dallas Mavericks

The easiest example to point to in the tanking discussion is Mark Cuban’s Mavericks.

The same day Silver’s memo allegedly went out, Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for admitting his organization was adopting the tanking philosophy. Cuban said on Dr. J’s podcast that he told his staff over a dinner that, “losing is our best option.”

This is no doubt what made Silver say, in no uncertain terms, that losing on purpose will not be tolerated. He made an example of Cuban and then apparently wasted no time in telling all 30 teams about it.

Silver did mention, though, that the league office has no reason to believe the Mavericks are, in fact, losing on purpose. But talking about it was reason enough to come down hard on the billionaire owner.

Benefits

It’s obvious that the worst teams in the league are getting the short end of the stick if the NBA does find a way to impose harsh punishments on tanking. But who do these new standards benefit?

NBA tanking problem
Dirk Nowitzki has expressed his frustration with the Mavericks’ losing ways. (Photo by Mike Stone/Reuters)

The most obvious answer is the teams that finish in the middle of the pack, namely the 7-11 seeds. They can still compete for a playoff spot, while not damaging their chances of getting a high pick in the draft lottery.

The bottom four to six teams, however, have nothing to worry about as long as they lose “legitimately.” This is where the new rules and standards start to have a gray tint. How will the NBA front office differentiate between an honest rebuild and purposefully putting a bad product on the floor?

This could come by examining minutes. It could come by paying close attention to coaching and strategies near the end of games. It could even involve inspection of the pieces being traded away in the middle of the season.

Silver’s memo was not specific on the strategies of identifying true tanking. They probably need to be heavily discussed in the offseason first.

Legitimacy

The NBA brass have valid points when it comes to deterring teams from racing to the bottom. It absolutely hurts the league when anywhere from four to eight teams give less effort than they should.

By laying down against teams that would probably beat them anyway, these teams are willingly letting the disparity between the top and the bottom grow further. It gives the top seeds even more of a head start while they look to lock up a home-court advantage. Also, it hurts the NBA’s bottom line. If your team is bad, then you will likely not tune in to as many games as you would if they were only a game or two out from a playoff spot.

That translates into lost ticket sales, lost ad revenue, lost merchandise dividends, etc. Bad teams normally know they are going to be bad going into the season, but improving competition in any way is good for the NBA.

Tanking is a comment on the current state of affairs in the league. It separates the owners that are geared towards the future success of the franchise from the ones who are happy enough giving their fans at least a couple games of playoff basketball to watch.

Some teams are always going to be head and shoulders above the rest of the league competitively. That’s how it works in every sport. But along with the new push to identify and punish tanking, Silver and the NBA might consider finding more ways to close the gap between the very best and the merely competitive.

 

Featured image by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

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