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How NBA Draft reform damages competitive balance

If you have some wild idea to end the so-called tanking epidemic, please be sure it also strengthens competitive balance. Chances are it will do the opposite. SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

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Last week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver again reiterated that he does not see a tanking epidemic in action. This was followed by Thunder GM Sam Presti ripping the backlash against tank-style rebuilding. That's pretty rich considering that's exactly how his team was built into a contender: Oklahoma City had three seasons in which wins were a secondary concern, if that, and Presti was blessed with a thankful new market to buoy the bottom line in two of those years. He was also blessed with some good lottery luck (jumped up to No. 2 in 2007, up to No. 3 in 2009) and made brilliant choices. (He made strong picks down the draft, too: Serge Ibaka didn't go in the lottery after all.)


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I've long been sympathetic to the pairs' positions: that rebuilding is not tanking, and that this style of rebuilding is a victimless crime. Silver does not look particularly obsessed with changing anything, though he has expressed intrigue toward a few ideas that pop up now and then (like a tournament for lottery teams). But there's a sentiment that this debate is not going away, and that Sam Hinkie's shameless full-bore rebuild is more a model than an exception. (Hinkie has basically taken the Presti Plan to its logical extreme by stripping the roster of nearly all value.)

But the real problem with changing how the draft works is that doing so would likely weaken the league's push for competitive balance.

Remember: the league's worst team at the moment didn't intend to be bad. The Bucks made some free agent moves and trades in an effort to retool and continue to compete for a playoff spot. The Bucks were actually the poster child for the maligned never-tank team during offseason discourse on the subject!

It's not tanking if it's accidental. Of the seven lottery teams in the East, four (Knicks, Cavs, Pistons and Bucks) wanted to make the playoffs and three hoped to be bad. Of the seven in the West, only two intended to be really bad (Jazz, Suns). One of those is instead knocking on the postseason door. (The Suns are the anti-Bucks.)

Any changes to how draft order is determined would likely serve to punish bad teams. If you put The Wheel into place, let all 30 teams draw for the No. 1 pick or do anything drastic, bad teams will suffer whether they intended to be bad or not. That works against competitive balance. The goal of competitive balance is for more than a handful of teams to think they have a title shot any given year and for all 30 teams to think they can make the playoffs. If you take a 20-62 teams and give them the No. 12 pick instead of a top-three pick, you're working against yourself. Changing the current system will almost assuredly result in good teams strengthening their hold on playoff spots at the expense of the lesser franchises.

The best way for a bad, lower-revenue team to compete with the big boys is to draft a superstar and lock him up for seven years under favorable contract terms. This is perhaps the biggest reason Silver is so interested in raising the age minimum to 20 years old: instead of having a star from ages 19-26 at worst, you get him from 20-27. At that point, he's probably got one massive contract left. The odds the team that picked him will keep him throughout his prime increases.

If you tweak that formula by giving already good teams more chances to land superstars in the draft, you're stacking the deck against bad teams. That's counterproductive.

This is a key paradox any drive to address the so-called tanking epidemic needs to address.