Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Solution for Tanking

Tanking entire seasons has long been an issue in the NBA, and in fact I would argue that it might be the biggest current issue with the league today. It's also a bigger problem in the NBA than in any other league because one basketball superstar has a bigger impact on his franchise than in the NFL, NHL, or MLB, and the top basketball prospects are also the best-known (and longest-known) commodities, barring the odd Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck. LeBron James and Greg Oden each were ticketed for the first pick in the draft when they were sophomores in high school; so was Jabari Parker until Andrew Wiggins reclassified himself as a member of the high school class of 2013. Tim Duncan was the presumptive top overall pick for three years running, and the advent of his senior season precipitated several teams to throw in the towel on that season, most notably the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs (after David Robinson's injury).

The thing is, the NBA has perhaps never had a greater collection of talent than it does right now. You can make a case for the mid-to-late eighties, but there were fewer teams and a hefty number of relatively unathletic players who would get eaten alive today by the likes of Josh Smith, Rudy Gay, or Jeff Green (to name just three). Even with legitimate superstars joining forces, there are still a number of teams that could honestly contend for a championship this year if circumstances favor them: Miami, Chicago, San Antonio, Houston, the Clippers, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Brooklyn, Indiana, and maybe even Golden State. That's ten teams that have at least some reason to think they can win it all. But the other end of the spectrum presents a problem. The last time that multiple franchises were tanking this conspicuously, either Oden or Kevin Durant was going to be the prize. This time around, there are a staggering EIGHT players that teams are willing to lose games in order to have a better shot at drafting, because they're viewed as future All-Stars: Wiggins (Kansas), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Parker (Duke), Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Dante Exum (Australia), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Andrew Harrison (Kentucky), and Aaron Gordon (Arizona).

The way that the NBA Draft is currently set up encourages bad teams, especially when there is a mega-prospect available or expected to be available, to attempt to lose as many games as possible in order to try and get the 25% chance of landing the top pick that comes with being the worst team in the league. The lottery, of course, was instituted precisely to ensure that the worst team would NOT necessarily get the first pick, but it's an imperfect solution at best. Other people have tried to come up with ways to discourage tanking; the most famous is undoubtedly Bill Simmons' idea for a single elimination, Entertaining-As-Hell Tournament to determine the two lowest-seeded teams from among the sixteen worst teams in the league.

My friend Keith and I have developed an idea that plays off of that while recognizing that those bottom sixteen teams are going to have a couple vastly different sets of goals. The teams towards the top of that pile (think New Orleans, Dallas, or Milwaukee this year) are definitely trying to compete and make the playoffs, even if the end result is an unfortunate matchup with Chicago, Miami, Oklahoma City, or San Antonio. The bad teams (and they exist every year) are more concerned with acquiring talent in the upcoming draft, and even the prospect of two or three games of playoff revenue is not going to convince them to take an eighth seed over the possibility of adding a game-changing player at the end of June. So our plan is to split those sixteen teams in two, give each set a postseason tournament, but for different objectives. Hopefully this idea would do a little more to discourage such brazen tanking efforts as Phoenix and Philadelphia are putting on now, while still allowing the worst teams a chance at the best new players. Without further ado...

Step 1: Shorten the regular season
The NBA season is too long already, with teams resting stars and playing listlessly at the end of a four-games-in-five-nights stretch in dead arenas (I just described about half of Washington's home games last year). We want to hack seven games off of the regular season, trimming the schedule to 75 games without compressing the calendar by more than a week. Of course, the owners would be hard-pressed to approve anything that eats into revenue, but remember, we're adding postseason excitement, and we're doing it for every team. With playoff potential for every team, we think the owners may be willing to sacrifice a few games.

Step 2: Re-seed the playoffs
While it makes sense for there to be divisions for travel reasons, there's no need in the NBA playoffs to split the teams by conference. Who cares? In baseball, the two leagues have a significant rule difference, and separate histories that go back over a century. In football, the AFC and NFC were once separate leagues, and their ancient history is one of the only (weak) reasons to keep football playoffs separated by conference (that and a short season that limits the scheduling options). But basketball doesn't have that history. The only viable second league was the ABA, which existed for a few short years and only had four teams incorporated into the NBA: New Jersey (now Brooklyn), San Antonio, Denver, and Indiana. Absolutely nobody cares about the Western or Eastern Conference; the distinction only matters for the All-Star Game, and even that could easily be changed. So let's take the fourteen teams (this will make sense in a minute) with the best record and seed them for the playoffs regardless of which conference they come from.

Step 3: The play-in tournament
We're going to take Simmons' Entertaining-As-Hell Tournament and make some changes to it. First, we're going to limit it to eight teams, instead of the remaining sixteen. Second, we're going to make the tournament double elimination, partly to give four of what would be a bunch of closely grouped teams a second chance, and partly to allow for increased game revenue (to placate the owners). Third, we're going to hold this event in a neutral, non-NBA site like the Final Four, so that fans can enjoy a week of intense, pressure-packed basketball together in a totally different atmosphere. The event can rotate like the Final Four and be played in domed football stadiums assuming ticket demand is high enough, but we'll suggest having the inaugural tournament in Las Vegas (a smaller venue) in order to both make it really fun and gauge the demand for tickets. This tournament would be held during what is now the last week of the regular season, while at the same time...

Step 4: The "lottery" draft position tournament
The remaining eight teams, the worst in the league, compete for top pick in the draft Champions League-style, with three home-and-home series over a ten-day period while the play-in tournament and the early games of the first round of the playoffs are going on. The trick; in order to get the top pick in the draft, you have to WIN this tournament, beating three different teams (with point differential being the tiebreaker in event of a split) across six games in ten days. The bracket would look like college basketball's Maui Invitational or Great Alaska Shootout, except that each team would get two games against each opponent. Here's how the results would shape the top of the draft:

Pick #1: win-win-win
Pick #2: win-win-loss
Pick #3: win-loss-win
Pick #4: loss-win-win
Pick #5: win-loss-loss
Pick #6: loss-win-loss
Pick #7: loss-loss-win
Pick #8: loss-loss-loss

This way, a team like Phoenix or Philadelphia would be more likely to wind up with the seventh or eighth pick given their current strategy, costing them a shot at Wiggins or Randle (although still giving them a likely star in this particular draft). Therefore it would discourage them from throwing away an entire season and encourage them to remain at least a little competitive (random outbursts from Michael Carter-Williams against the defending champions aside).

So what would this plan look like if it were implemented this season? Let's use the ESPN preseason power rankings to find out.

Seeded Playoff Teams
1 Miami Heat (vs. play-in finalist)
8 Golden State Warriors vs. 9 Memphis Grizzlies
5 Houston Rockets vs. 12 Minnesota Timberwolves
4 Chicago Bulls vs. 13 Dallas Mavericks
3 San Antonio Spurs vs. 14 Washington Wizards
6 Indiana Pacers vs. 11 New York Knicks
7 Brooklyn Nets vs. 10 Oklahoma City Thunder
2 LA Clippers (vs. play-in winner)

You will notice that eight of the top fourteen teams, and six of the top ten, come from the Western Conference. Again, the best teams should be playing in the playoffs, regardless of conference affiliation.

Play-In Tournament (May Madness?)
15 New Orleans Pelicans vs. 22 Cleveland Cavaliers
18 Detroit Pistons vs. 19 Toronto Raptors
17 Denver Nuggets vs. 20 LA Lakers
16 Portland Trail Blazers vs. 21 Atlanta Hawks

Under the current format, Detroit and Toronto would make the playoffs as the lowest two seeds in the East, even though three teams from the West (New Orleans, Portland, and Denver) are at least theoretically better than they are. Let's say, for the purposes of argument, that burgeoning star Anthony Davis leads the Pelicans through this bracket, giving them a first-round date with the Clippers, while Cleveland storms up through the losers' bracket, earning a matchup with Miami. An eight-team, double-elimination tournament would entail either fifteen or sixteen games and would take either six or seven days to play (depending on whether or not the winners' bracket champion beats the losers' bracket champion the first time). Here's how the schedule would have to work (with a visual for those of you that need it):

Day One
Four first-round games (Games 1-4)

Day Two
Game 5: Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2
Game 6: Loser of Game 3 vs. Loser of Game 4
Game 7: Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 2
Game 8: Winner of Game 3 vs. Winner of Game 4

Day Three
Game 9: Winner of Game 5 vs. Loser of Game 7
Game 10: Winner of Game 6 vs. Loser of Game 8

Day Four
Game 11: Winner of Game 9 vs. Winner of Game 10
Game 12: Winner of Game 7 vs. Winner of Game 8

Day Five
Game 13: Winner of Game 11 vs. Loser of Game 12

Day Six
Game 14: Championship game - Winner of Game 12 vs. Winner of Game 13

Day Seven
Game 15: Championship rematch (if necessary)

Teams that take care of business would get rewarded with off days in this schedule, but that only amounts to two teams getting the third day off and one team getting the fifth day off. Because that many days of back-to-back games would be very taxing, especially given the importance of those games, we would allow participating teams to dress all fifteen players on their roster throughout the tournament (and they would have the option of calling up people from the D-League to replace injured players who are unable to play). Sure, this means that some lesser lights would be called upon, but wouldn't the strategy of balancing winning basketball with keeping your best players fresh over a tournament like this be really interesting? I sure think so.

Draft Position Tournament
23 Sacramento Kings vs. 30 Philadelphia 76ers
26 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 27 Utah Jazz
25 Boston Celtics vs. 28 Orlando Magic
24 Charlotte Bobcats vs. 29 Phoenix Suns

Here, let's say that Milwaukee upsets Sacramento in the second round after Cousins gets tossed in the second game at home. Meanwhile, a healthy Rajon Rondo gets Boston into the finals, where LARRY SANDERS! keeps the Celtics away from the rim, and the Bucks squeeze out wins in both legs. And then the top eight picks in the draft look something like this:

1 - Milwaukee
2 - Boston
3 - Sacramento
4 - Utah
5 - Charlotte
6 - Orlando
7 - Philadelphia
8 - Phoenix

Under this proposal, teams would be punished for really blatant tanking, because they would in all likelihood struggle to win suddenly meaningful games at the close of the season. Meanwhile, it would help teams that find themselves perpetually stuck in late lottery purgatory (picks 8-14), by either giving them a better chance to make the playoffs outright, or to grab themselves the top pick in the draft and acquire the best available new talent. Milwaukee has a projected record of 32-50 this year, not great by any means, but also not nearly as terrible as, say, Philadelphia (16-66). Adding Wiggins or Randle on top of what they have now might be enough to make Milwaukee (a team that can't really attract free agents and thus needs the draft) good enough the following year to grab the tenth or eleventh seed with 12-15 additional wins, giving them a much better chance at cracking the second round or semi-finals.

This idea may not be perfect by any means, but it solves a lot of issues. It takes away no more than five games from any team's schedule (for the two teams that lose twice right away in the play-in tournament), while making the other games more important and giving general managers a very good reason to try to keep their teams competitive, thereby creating a better product and increasing fan interest. With the NBA enjoying the deepest talent pool in its history (and about to add to it with another potentially historic draft class), it makes sense for the league to try and make every game as meaningful as possible.