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How to encourage more competitive NBA teams

Tanking is a victimless crime, but it'd be nice if teams had an incentive to be watchable while not contending. The Hook explores the promise and the pitfalls of such scenarios.


One of the subplots to the major "tanking in the NBA" debate sparked by the thorough, serious work by TrueHoop is the alternative to rebuilding. When I wrote why I don't think the rebuilding issue is that big a deal on Friday, I touched on this a little. TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz noted that teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, who float around .500 repeatedly, never getting bad enough to draw a high pick and never contending for a title, get mocked. My theory on that:

Few teams concede over the long-term that being consistently good is good enough; almost every owner promises to bring a title to their city. Milwaukee is an exception to this philosophy. Until that obsession with championships ends -- so, never -- the focus on being way better than the No. 8 seed in the East will remain.

Arnovitz joked that the Milwaukee model -- "tread water as a league average team with the hope that, with a break or two, they can add 10-12 wins to their .500 record, join the adult table and continue to build from there" -- needs a P.R. professional. He's not kidding: it's not accepted as a viable strategy by many folks, though it should be. We've seen plenty of Presti Plan teams get bad and stay bad. But we've also seen mid-rung teams hover around the edge of the playoffs for a couple years, then decide to blow it up. (The Suns, for example. I admit I was in the chorus chiding the team for hanging on to aging players with no shot at a top seed.)

I do not consider tanking a problem in the NBA. For a supposed plague, its penetration is embarrassingly small: the only teams designed not to win much this season are the Magic, Sixers, Celtics and Suns. And of those, the Celtics actually aren't horrid and the Magic could already be on the path toward quasi-respectability. But I do concede that the current structure of the NBA draft benefits squads that blow it up versus those treading water. That much is obvious: the third-worst team in the league has a 46 percent probability of picking in the top three. The last team out of the playoffs has a 1.8 percent probability of making it into the top three.

But here's the question: is that a problem? By definition, the third-worst team in the league is far worse than the last team out of the playoffs. In 2012-13, that was the difference between the 24-58 Cavaliers and the 43-39 Jazz. The league office has long sought competitive balance. To achieve greater balance, shouldn't the Cavaliers have the advantage of a better chance at entering talent? Or should the league be more interested in preventing the Cavaliers from bottoming out like that in the first place? (In the specific example of Cleveland, I'm not sure there was a choice. But other teams do sell off plenty of talent in the effort to go full Presti.) If the NBA removed the weights favoring the worst teams in the lottery, there'd be no advantage in being 24-58 vs. 43-39, so teams might instead start following Milwaukee's path.

The problem with that: the Jazz were 43-39 and in the lottery, while the Bucks were 38-44 and in the playoffs. Sure, the Jazz only had a 1.8 percent chance of moving into the top three, but the Bucks had a 0.0 percent chance. If you unweight the lottery odds -- give all 14 non-playoff teams a 7.1 percent chance at the No. 1 pick, a 7.7 percent chance at the No. 2 pick and a 8.3 percent chance at the No. 3 pick -- you make becoming the No. 8 seed in the playoffs even less attractive. And that's not what you want, is it? If you want to reduce the incidence of strip-it-bare rebuilding, you don't want teams to believe it's in their interest to be just bad enough to miss the playoffs.

So the solution to get teams to compete every season is to expand the lottery to include playoff teams. Give everyone a ticket.

This serves two purposes: it removes the incentive to just miss the playoffs that removing lottery weights would create, and it drops the incentive to be really, really bad. Why? Because to give all 30 teams a non-zero chance of moving up, you'd need to greatly reduce the odds of the worst teams grabbing the top picks. (One of the things about the lottery now is that the No. 11-14 teams in the derby might as well have zero chance of moving up. You really need to be the eighth-worst team or so to have any shot at a top-3 pick.) You could go even further and give away more than just the top three picks via lottery: heck, you could decide the order all down to No. 30.

Of course, if teams continually moved up in the lotto, the odds for the worst teams would improve since you're still weighing the odds in their favor. But no longer would teams in the dreaded late-lottery range strike out if they didn't land in the top three, as is the case now -- they could win No. 5, No. 7 or whatever. There are more chances to benefit, despite not being awful. (This also means more billable hours for Ernst and Young, I'm afraid.)

We don't need to fix tanking, because tanking is not a problem. The Bucks are not victims of the rebuilding style du jour because the Bucks know how the system works and choose their path in spite of it. But we ought to encourage teams like the Bucks, Hawks and Nuggets, who attempt to give their fans an entertaining, competitive product while looking for long-term solutions. (This despite two of those teams hiring Larry Drew.) If the solution for that issue solves the phantom one, too? All the better.

There's likely a whole host of unintended consequences to be considered, of course. Draft picks could become more or less valuable, but certainly the gulf in value depending on who is trading the pick will shrink. The lottery will become less sad by virtue of the inclusion of fans of good teams, classing up the joint. Mid-rung players will probably do even better in free agency as more teams compete for their services. There could be effects on college prospects on the fence about leaping into the draft -- the increased odds that good teams will pick higher could be a potent incentive for them. Good teams might keep extra roster spots open in planning for the future in case they land a high pick. Getting lucky in the lottery could also have the adverse effect of convincing good teams to lose veterans and build around the hot new prospect.

Where I hesitate to endorse a plan like this is in noting that by removing heavy hope for a top pick from fans of bad teams, you're almost punishing them for supporting a crummy team. There are simply some bad GMs in the NBA. There will always be bad teams. Now, fans of those squads can believe that Andrew Wiggins will solve everything. To take that away, you're punishing the punished.

That's what keeps me from believing in pro-parity reform like this. There's reason to believe it could make things worse for those most abused of fans. If this is all about making things better for fans by increasing the competitive level of the worst teams, let's find a way to ensure we're actually doing that. I'm not sure any solution -- mine or any of those suggested by TrueHoop's team of economists -- solves the puzzle.

And in fact, perhaps the Bucks have already figured it out. Remember, they had a No. 1 pick in 2005, and that didn't help much because they picked the wrong player. Milwaukee's gate receipts wouldn't survive a few strip-it-bare seasons; the team got two home playoff games against the hottest ticket in sports last spring. Maybe they know exactly what they're doing and need no help after all.

More from SB Nation NBA:

Ziller: Who does "tanking" really harm?

Less is more: Why Z-Bo should take a step back

Blake Griffin: Improving superstar or one-trick pony?

The Spurs in the new age of NBA analytics

The novelty of the Lakers losing