If I Ruled the (NBA) World…

So, if David Stern…


let me be the next NBA commissioner here’s what I’d do…

Well actually, before I start changing anything let me say a few words about what is right and what is wrong with the league.

The NBA’s big picture is actually pretty good, all things considered (even if rumors persist about owners gearing up for a lockout).

What’s Right About the NBA?

1. The Product. Right now I’d say that the NBA offers the best on-field product, followed by MLB, with the NFL running a somewhat distant third among the three major sports leagues. That may surprise some given the NFL’s popularity, but that’s another post for another day. Suffice it to say that the top-to-bottom quality in the NBA right now compares favorably to any time since the late 80s and appears to be bringing the viewers back.

2. Competitive Balance. One of David Stern’s wisest decisions was to listen patiently to calls to change the existing playoff structure to a seed-by-record format, and then stick with the one we have. Stern took the long view, that competitive balance is dynamic and rarely more than a couple of drafts and free agent moves away from equilibrium. Playoff schemes from a couple years ago that tacitly assumed Western Conference hegemony would last forever already seem outdated.

Overall the league’s fundamentals are solid but beneath the surface there are issues that could become major impediments to success should they go unresolved.

So, What’s Wrong with the NBA?

As commissioner, I’d focus my efforts on what I see as the league’s two major problems under my purview.

1. Executive Talent. The biggest long- and short-term problem for the NBA is a serious shortage of executive talent. As I said in a 2007 post:

If I could play David Stern…, rather than tinker with playoff formats I’d look to find ways to replenish the pool of talented executives entering the league.

I would stake my legacy on creating a system to find and develop new executive talent both for the league office and the teams. Despite being light years ahead of MLB and the NFL in its hiring practices, NBA hiring is still pretty cliquish and that is a primary reason so many franchises remain stuck in mediocrity or worse. Teams just keep turning over the same set of guys and a few of their proteges. Although the number of truly wretched GMs in the league has dwindled, a lot of older executives need replacing–or will soon.

I would start an “Executive in Residence” style program, taking a number of top aspiring young executives into residence at the league office where they’d spend up to three years learning the NBA–not just one franchise. Their training would include working on leaguewide issues in the NBA, the WNBA, and the NBA Developmental League.

Residents’ salaries could be paid from a pool all teams pay into. Upon completion residents would be eligible to interview with franchises. Owners would not be required to interview or hire from the program, but all would need to participate (read: pay). In the immediate economic climate the costs might be prohibitive, but the key would be getting buy-in on a 3-5 year planning horizon. I suspect many owners would jump at the chance to hire young executives with a verifiable skill set, whom they may have already worked with at the league office. This might not be a cure all, but it would undeniably produce some talent, and there’s no reason it can’t be done.

2. The Lottery. As much as anything, the lottery’s perception problem undermines its legitimate purpose of replenishing franchises with talent. At the heart of the perception problem is a very uneven distribution of incoming talent, both from year to year and even within the same draft. Little can be done about that. However the current system exacerbates the problem by counting losses (rather than measuring performance), which gives one bad team a disproportionate lottery advantage over another similarly bad team.

I would reduce the lottery advantage for bad teams without completely evening the odds across all non-playoff teams, thereby lowering incentives to tank. Specifically, I’d split the 14 lottery teams into two groups clustered by performance and even the lottery odds within each group. The lottery would consist of one group of at least five “bad” teams and one group of “near playoff” teams. That should limit incentives to tank among the worst teams. The playoff hunt should limit the other teams’ incentives to tank.

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Part-time blogger on the Knicks at Knickerblogger.net and Seahawks at FieldGulls.com. In my free time I hang out at the University of South Carolina and occasionally fill thirsty young minds with knowledge about various and sundry things related to consumer behavior and marketing.

7 thoughts to “If I Ruled the (NBA) World…”

  1. It seems to me the two-tier lottery would provide an even stronger incentive for tanking — if the season is lost then you have a huge incentive to get into the bottom five by any means necessary since the drop off is so gigantic from “near playoff” to “bad.”

  2. First of all, I loved your idea of freezing lottery positions at the ASB. Great idea.

    A couple things occurred to me last night –

    1. Does it bother anyone that the top 4 teams in the draft are from the Western Conference? Or that only 1 of the top 7 are from the Eastern Conference? Should the ping pong balls be distributed evenly between the Eastern and Western Conference?

    2. It seems like the deadline for pulling out of the draft should occur prior to the lottery. That way, players, at least the top tier talent, do not have the ability to decide whether to stay in the draft based upon which team they may go to. Maybe that’s not fair for the players. I’m not sure, but it just seems like someone who may be projected to go with a team like the Clips or Kings may decide to stay in school instead of being drafted by a particular frachise. I guess a player could always pull an Eli and refuse to play for a certain team – something I wouldn’t necessarily condemn Griffin for doing this year.

  3. It seems to me the two-tier lottery would provide an even stronger incentive for tanking — if the season is lost then you have a huge incentive to get into the bottom five by any means necessary since the drop off is so gigantic from “near playoff” to “bad.”

    Dan, I agree that a two-tiered system won’t eliminate all incentives to tank but it presents a much more palatable management problem. What I really want is a lottery system that eliminates incentives for truly dreadful teams (Sacto, LAC, OKC, Minny, Memphis, Wash.) to blow large swaths of the season on purpose. That sort of thing really makes the league look bad and potentially throws playoff seeding out of whack. So if I can take care of those teams I’m a fairly happy commish.

    As you suggest, a two-tier system shifts the incentive to tank to the next cluster of teams. But, consider that some of those teams will be closer to a playoff berth than a bottom-five record (Phoenix, Indiana, Charlotte). Tanking makes no sense for them. Even if they wanted they’d have too far to fall. So the real problem is the remaining teams (GS, NY, NJ, Toronto, Milwaukee). About the only thing I could do is hold out the carrot of expanding the “bad” lottery beyond five teams. (And, the stick of punishment if I catch them doing something obvious.) So they would gain nothing by tanking but could potentially lose draft position if they tank.

  4. I dunno, I don’t get the sense that there is a rampant tanking problem with the current format. If any team had a reason to tank, it would have been the Knicks, but as it turned out, their position pretty much matched their talent.

  5. I agree with Z-man — I think most of these proposals are disproportionate to what is not too widespread or pervasive a problem.

  6. I love the idea for #1 (where do I sign up?) but I think there might be a problem with teams having interns learn from their GMs. A team like Houston that uses their unique brand of statistics may not be willing to have an “intern” work there with the risk that he/she would expose state secrets when working for their next team. Or even worse use them against Houston when hired as a competitor.

    But the NBA does have it’s problem with incompetent front offices. I think most sports do, but the NBA is particularly bad. I’m not sure if it’s because of the system (6 year contracts + toughest salary cap) or because of the number of ex-players that are hired. It seems that teams just look for former players to run their franchises, which just strikes me as ridiculous. I don’t think you can find two jobs so close in the same field that require entirely different skill sets. It’s like graduating from acting school to become president of a bank.

  7. To beat a dead horse… Breaking the monopoly power of sports franchises and allowing for competition in a multi-tiered format (as I described in the last thread) would improve the quality of NBA front offices significantly, with the better run teams tending to rise to the top division over time.

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