Recently, ESPN's True Hoop blog has been addressing the perceived problem of tanking in the league. To summarize, their position is that the current draft lottery system effectively rewards failure, which in turn incentivizes teams to go out of their way to purposely lose games to improve their draft stock. Looking at some of the moves around the trade deadline and the subsequent play we've seen, it's hard to argue that this doesn't occur. Take the Golden State Warriors as an example. They trade their best player in Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut who, while being a good player when healthy, won't be returning this season. They then effectively shut down Stephen Curry for the season due to his nagging injuries and, lo and behold, their draft stock has been steadily improving as their win percentage plummets. While you can't say that these actions were done purposefully to cost the team wins, the end result has been a steady dive down the rankings which has strengthened the team's position in the long-run at the expense of the rest of this season.
Yes, teams do sometimes make moves that seem to be purposefully done to improve their draft standing by losing. I won't argue against that point. I also won't argue that, as a fan of the league, this does make the months of March and April very difficult to watch with any sense of passion. As a fan of the Cavaliers, I can't say that I'm exactly itching to watch the next month and a half of blow-out losses and increased minutes for Luke Walton. Tanking does lead to a decline in the quality of product, and can in turn be viewed as a problem the league should try to address.
The problem is, it's also the only viable option for many markets to build a contending team. It's pretty simple, teams wouldn't tank if they didn't have to. As such, I feel as if the solution to fixing tanking is not done through changing the draft lottery, but rather addressing the problem that has led many teams to view the draft lottery as their only option to build a contender. That's right, you fix tanking by fixing the broken free agency market.
As a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers, I'm painfully aware of the fact that many superstars in the NBA currently view my hometown less than favorably. It doesn't have the glitz and glamour of New York City, the championship history of Chicago, Boston or Los Angeles, or the awesome weather of Miami. While I will argue until I'm blue in the face about how Cleveland is an awesome city, sadly the Carmelo Anthony's, Dwight Howard's and Amar'e Stoudemire's of the league will never view it the same way as I do. As such, Cleveland will always be overlooked as a free agency destination, regardless of the quality of theam.
For example, let's argue that Cleveland winds up with a top five draft pick this year and lands a Bradley Beal or MKG calibur player in the draft. Assume that player winds up living up the hype. The Cavaliers would then have a guy in Kyrie Irving that looks as if he could be the next Chris Paul, another up-and-coming future All-Star and quality role players like Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson and Alonzo Gee. Oh yeah, and a whole lot of cap space. Factoring the city where the team plays out of the equation, there is no reason why a guy like Dwight Howard shouldn't seriously consider the Cavaliers as a solid free agency decision. However, because it snows here and the night-life isn't what it is in New York or Los Angeles, that's a laughable idea in reality. In fact, if I were to seriously propose that idea, I'd lose any sense of credibility as a sports writer.
You see the problem that creates? While it's realistic that a market like Cleveland or Minnesota can get lucky and grab two stud players out of the draft (Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio in Minnesota's case), a championship team requires that third player to push the team over the top and make them a true contender. The Oklahoma City Thunder would be a great team with just Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but it's James Harden that puts them over the top and makes them a legitimate contender. While teams can get lucky, the amount of luck involved in doing that isn't realistic enough to make it a valid strategy.
The sad truth is that teams in certain markets will never be able to acquire that third chip through free agency. As such, they have to turn to the draft in order to get that needed piece. Problem is, they'll have just enough skill and talent that they'll never get to the draft position they need naturally. Add to that, unless you make a deal with the Clippers or the Nets, other teams with good draft positioning will never give up a pick without some degree of lottery protection. As a result, the only way to get the draft standings you need (reliably, in theory the lottery aspect should prevent this, but the odds are so low it's not a strategy that can be realistically relied on), is to purposefully tank.
Instead of discussing how to restructure the draft to eliminate tanking, fix the problem that makes tanking so ingrained in the NBA. Try all you want, but the more you disincentivize tanking, the harder you make it for cities like Cleveland, Minnesota, Milwaukee and Charlotte to build a team that's worth watching. If you were sick, would you simply treat the symptoms while letting the infection continue to wreck havoc on your body? No, you'd address the disease that's causing your problems. This is the same situation. If you want to have a serious conversation about tanking, you have to address the underlying problem that makes it such a valid strategy; the fundamentally broken free agency market.
Now, anyone want to have that talk?