With the dust of the 2007 NBA lottery beginning to settle, two lines of complaint are fresh in the media and fans? collective consciousness:
1. Something is wrong with the draft because it encourages tanking.
2. Something is wrong with the draft because the top picks do not always go to the worst teams.
The implicit irony in the whole situation is that these flaws are not independent. At one end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (2) by assigning draft order strictly by record. But this system maximizes worries about (1) because it gives every non-playoff team every incentive to do their very worst.
At the other end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (1) by assigning draft order completely randomly, say by pulling all 30 team names out of a hat one by one. But this system maximizes worries about (2) because it completely disregards the notion that talent should be distributed according to need.
It seems unrealistic, then, to expect a draft system to eliminate all worries about both (1) and (2); rather, some compromise between the opposing injustices must be struck based on the relative ?moral? weight we assign them. In this case, we can?t both have the absolute greatest taste and the absolute least filling, but we can at least try to find the best balance.
So we must ask, then, which is the graver sin: to encourage teams to tank, or to risk giving the riches to the already rich (or, at least, the lower middle class)? In my mind, it?s no contest. It is worse to fail to give the best talents to the teams that most need them.
Think about it. Because playoff seedings give most teams a reason to remain competitive throughout most of the season, tanking only takes hold for the bottom third of the NBA universe, the part that wasn?t good to begin with. Furthermore, tanking is a tricky game because you can?t be too obvious about it, which in turn limits the extent to which you can actually tank in an effective fashion. The most effective tanking strategy would be for a team to play its five worst players for all 48 minutes of every game, but of course public pressure against deliberately losing prevents teams from deploying anything nearing such a fail-safe tanking method. For the same reason, any outright directives to coaches or players to, you know, not try so hard are taboo– in the not unlikely event that such explicit directives are leaked to the media, you?re sitting on a PR disaster for the ages. Likewise, funny business about who plays how many minutes can only be brought into play in the latter stages of the season without raising too many eyebrows.
So, in reality, what tanking comes down to is this: a handful of the NBA?s worst teams may decline to play a handful of their better players for a handful of games (or fourth quarters) in the last third or quarter of the season. Sure, in principle it violates sportsmanlike ethics, but in practice it doesn?t seem too outrageously bad, does it? Fans of said tanking team only have to sit through play over the final stages of the season that, on average, is marginally worse than the poor play they had already been sitting through all season. As compensation, in the short term they get to see their team?s youth play and in the long term their team gets marginally better prospects for a better talent in the draft. In the grand scheme of things, this may not be ethically ideal, but it does not strike me as a huge quandary either. It is maybe on a par with a poor-salaried cubicle worker striking back at the system by stealing office supplies every now and then– a regrettable attitude that is antithetical to the ideals of the profession, but which nonetheless entails relatively benign consequences.
On the other hand, failing to give the neediest teams the best new talent is, in the NBA world, a crime of the highest order. In basketball, one singular talent can be the difference maker for a franchise for over a decade, as Knicks fans know all too well. A team?s legacy and place in basketball history, as well as an entire basketball era in the lives of thousands of current and yet-to-be fans, may depend on the team securing that singular talent. These are the things that make basketball, as a sporting institution, go ?round. And in a just world we?d like for those wellsprings of basketball life to go to the teams and fans that have longest been deprived of them.
So, if we must strike a compromise between a system that encourages tanking and a system that encourages equitable distribution of talent, it should certainly hedge considerably toward equitable distribution of talent.
But, strangely enough, I?m not so sure that the current system really is broken. The implicit social constraints on just how much a team can tank limits just how many wins a team can shave from its record, and the way the lottery system works ultimately limits the impact of those shaved wins on draft standing. In an ESPN Insider article written back in March, John Hollinger figured that a tanking team is liable to drop at most 5 games due to its (socially constrained) tanking efforts, which on average boosts a team?s chances at the top pick by only 6 percentage points. That is the best case tanking scenario; most are not even that dramatic in terms of wins sacrificed or percentage points gained.
Likewise, the current system does a reasonably good job of allowing for equitable distribution of talent. There is a fairly considerable amount of volatility at the top, but only true bottom feeders are really in contention. (Although the 3 worst teams all dropped out of the top 3 slots this year in an already infamous upset, it is hard to argue that the teams that managed to move up are substantially less needing or deserving of those top picks.) And, because only the top 3 picks are up for lottery grabs, it is ensured that a lottery team will select no lower than 3 spots below its ranking according to record, which is an effective way to limit the volatility of the lottery process and ensure equitable distribution of drafting opportunities across the map.
On the whole, the system seems reasonably well balanced, given the inherent compromises that must be made. An argument can be made that the system should be tweaked to either further discourage tanking or to assign draft order more systematically according to record, but I get the feeling that calls for such tweaks are overreactions to extraordinary circumstances. Where have these complaints been the last 10 years? So much attention has been called both to tanking and to the worst teams losing the best picks simply because there is so much talent at the very top of this draft class, and thus so much at stake. This is a historically unusual situation that, because of its potential to alter the NBA landscape for the next 10 years, makes the injustices on both sides of the current lottery compromise seem more pronounced, more unjust, and more in need of change. But to shift the compromise and change one injustice for the better is to change the other for the worse, and it?s not clear that, on the whole, the system isn?t already settled on a reasonable balance.