By Brian Tuohy
Midway through Jim O'Brien's third year as head coach of the Boston Celtics, in January 2004, he shocked the basketball world by resigning. O'Brien had led the Celtics to two straight playoff appearances, but team president Danny Ainge had decided it was time for the Celtics to "rebuild," and so he would set about dismantling O'Brien's roster. O'Brien got fed up with the direction the team was headed in, but Ainge greeted his resignation with a shrug. O'Brien was an unnecessary cog in the Celtics' organizational plans because, to quote Ainge, he "came in with a design to win every single basketball game."
In other words, to rebuild, to get better, the Celtics needed to lose, and to lose, the Celtics needed a head coach who was on board with a losing plan. Losing, it was assumed, would lead to better draft choices, which would help rebuild the team to a championship level. Makes sense, right?
The strategy of losing intentionally in order to gain higher draft picks is known as "tanking." If one is to believe certain members of the NBA's top brass, including new commissioner Adam Silver, tanking is nonexistent. Silver won't even say "tanking," instead referring to it as "the T-word." He recently said, "The coaches and players, or some subset of that group, trying to lose, I don't think that's going on anywhere in the NBA. And I would take action immediately if I thought it was." Silver needs to open both his eyes and his ears, because at this year's Sloan Conference on sports analytics at MIT, tanking was a hot topic. Former Toronto Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo outright admitted he wanted his team to lose. "I tried to tank a couple years ago [in 2011-12]," Colangelo said. "And I didn't come out and say, 'Coach, you've got to lose games.' I never said that. I wanted to establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that. But I wanted to do it in the framework of playing the young players, and with that comes losing. There's just no way to avoid that."
Colangelo ended up with the No. 8 overall draft pick, but his quest for the No. 1 spot was set back when head coach Dwane Casey "did too good of a job in motivating his players." If that weren't enough, an anonymous, current NBA general manager told ESPN's Jeff Goodman, "Our team isn't good enough to win, and we know it. So this season, we want to develop and evaluate our young players, let them learn from their mistakes -- and get us in position to grab a great player. The best way for us to do that is to lose a lot of games. This draft is loaded. There are potential All-Stars at the top, maybe even franchise changers. Sometimes my job is to understand the value of losing."
Tanking, oddly, has become accepted by most NBA pundits; some even laud the practice. Yet tanking represents a significant danger to the game, because the rationalizations for "tanking" a game and "fixing" one are not that far apart. The difference really is mostly semantics, or perhaps a wager. If fans come to accept that a team will lose deliberately, how can they have complete confidence in the integrity of any game? If there's no hard line drawn around the most basic competitive principle -- trying to win every game -- then how are we supposed to know for certain where players, coaches and executives do draw the line?
When a team is tanking, its players aren't fixing any one game. But a tanking franchise is, in a sense, fixing an entire season.
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The idea of an NBA team tanking to improve its draft position is nothing new. Starting in 1966, a coin toss determined which of the two divisions' last-place teams would receive the No. 1 overall pick. The other teams' draft positions were based upon their respective records, from worst to first. The system was changed after five seemingly "can't miss" prospects were available in the 1984 draft class: Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie and Sam Perkins. By the end of the 1983-84 season, the focus for some franchises wasn't the championship, but rather securing one of the top five draft picks. Tanking accusations began to fly.
Established for the 1985 NBA draft, the lottery was created expressly to prevent tanking. The idea was simple. Each non-playoff team was entered in a drawing, something like pulling a name out of a hat. Now, all (losing) teams were created equal. The concept did have its detractors: Some felt that the worse the team, the more it deserved a higher draft choice. Thus, within two years, the NBA altered the draft rules again, so that the lottery merely determined the selection of the top three draft positions, with the remaining picks based on each team's order of finish. Under this system, if the worst team in the league got screwed in the lottery, it would still draft no worse than fourth overall. For some, this still wasn't fair, so in 1990, the NBA added the supposed randomness of ping-pong balls. The team with the worst record would have the greatest number of balls (11 out of 66 at the time), the second-worst team would have one fewer ball than that, and so on.
The ping-pong balls made everyone happy for about three years. In 1992, the Orlando Magic scored the first overall pick and selected Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq didn't lead the Magic to the playoffs in his rookie season, but they were close enough to receive just one ball out of the 66 in the 1993 draft hopper. As fate or luck (or something else) would have it, that one ball adorned with the Magic's logo was drawn, giving the franchise a second consecutive No. 1 overall pick (Orlando used it to take Chris Webber). The ensuing uproar forced the NBA to return yet again to the drawing board. The result was the current, weighted system, which uses 14 balls and 1,000 possible combinations to determine each team's draft position.
Despite 30 years of tinkering, the NBA's draft lottery remains a failure. On top of that, it is a complete illusion. Do you think the Milwaukee Bucks, currently sitting at 13-57, are likely to get the top pick, since they (at their current pace) have a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery? Think again. Since the lottery's institution, in only four seasons -- 1988, 1990, 2003 and 2004 -- has the team with the best odds actually won the No. 1 overall pick, and only once (in 1996) were the worst three teams awarded the top three draft choices. Otherwise, it's been a complete crapshoot, with long-shot lottery winners like the 2008 Chicago Bulls (1.7 percent chance) and the 2011 Los Angeles Clippers (2.8 percent) the norm, rather than exceptions.
Yet that doesn't mean the system prevents tanking. On the contrary, having such "random" winners actually encourages the practice. It gives more franchises a greater hope of coming out winners in the lottery, leading many owners and general managers today to ponder which result is better: earning the 8th seed in the playoffs, or having the one-in-2,000 chance of winning the No. 1 draft pick? Which one gives the team a better chance to win a championship? That's what it all boils down to. The brass ring of the top overall draft pick makes many believe that a franchise's fortunes will change instantly, if only it wins the lottery.
Certainly teams like the Spurs and the Cavaliers became title contenders after adding No. 1 picks like Tim Duncan and LeBron James, but can every losing franchise really rebuild overnight with the addition of just one player? It depends on one's definition of "rebuilding." Does it mean reaching the playoffs, hosting a playoff series, or winning a championship? If it's the latter -- and most would agree that the ultimate goal is to win a title -- then the NBA and its franchises cannot be fixed one No. 1 draft choice at a time.
Since 1985, when the NBA's draft lottery began, 19 of the NBA's 30 teams (63 percent) have played in the Finals, but only eight franchises (27 percent) have won a championship. By comparison, over that same time span, the NFL has seen 25 different teams (78 percent) reach the Super Bowl, with 14 teams (44 percent) winning the Lombardi Trophy. The NHL has had 22 teams (73 percent) face off for a title, with 15 different franchises (50 percent) hoisting the Cup. And MLB -- the least payroll-balanced of the four major leagues -- has had 25 teams play in the World Series (83 percent) with 18 different victors (60 percent). (And the NBA wonders why so many fans have conspiracy theories about who wins its championships.)
The No. 1 overall pick is not franchise-defining. It does not equate directly with success, nor should it, if basketball truly is a team sport.
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There is a way to remedy this situation -- not just to eliminate tanking, but to level the playing field and encourage greater competition within the NBA: Abolish the draft.
Instead, allow qualified players to sign with whichever franchise they choose. This is how it should be in all sports, in fact. Imagine being a college graduate with the dream of working for Google, but then you get "drafted" by MySpace. If you want to work in the industry, you have no choice but to trudge off to that Siberia of the computer world. That's the way it is not just the NBA, but in the NFL, the NHL and MLB as well.
Yet if the NBA were bold enough, it could allow teams simply to chase the players they desire. With many teams constrained by salary-cap and roster limits, star collegiate players certainly would entertain offers from the likes of the Bucks, Jazz and Grizzlies. They would even accept some of those offers, because millions of dollars would still be attached. Imagine the buzz a team could create if it signed not one, but two or three of the assumed top 20 players entering the league? Wouldn't that kind of unprecedented coup turn a struggling franchise around faster than anything that can be accomplished under the current system? Such recruiting triumphs occur already at the college level, so why not in the NBA?
Undoubtedly, some would cry, "That's not fair. My favorite team won't spend the money or work hard enough to lure the best players." Well, you know what? Maybe that team doesn't deserve to be an NBA franchise. If an owner can't (or won't) compete, that owner should get out. The NBA might already be diluted with too many teams and not enough talent. Certain franchises are far from competitive and seem content to remain that way. Fifteen teams currently have sub-.500 records. The competition for most of these teams is not in winning games, but in earning more balls in the lottery. And while the NBA's push is to get more fans watching their league, the thrust is not to put fans in the stands. Having a team like the 76ers lose 25 straight games, one shy of the NBA record for consecutive losses -- and pretty much intentionally, some have alleged -- is why the league's admitted focus is on television and online streaming. That's where the league can control which teams and players the fans watch each night, pushing whichever teams are currently tanking further away from public view.
Granted, eliminating the draft would rob the NBA and its broadcast partners of two made-for-TV events (the ping-pong lottery and the draft itself), as well as hours and hours of content filled with mock drafts and analysis, but a free-market system would nonetheless be for the greater good. Competition -- real, honest competition -- would become the rule, not the exception. Even the worst teams would fight for every win, because they would need to prove to prospective players that their franchises are worth joining.
As is stands, however, we have NBA teams essentially fixing dozens of games, under the guise of "tanking" for "rebuilding." Meanwhile, commissioner Silver cannot take a serious approach to the matter or even address it honestly, leaving fans of many teams stuck with games that are intentionally subpar, played to lose. To everyone's detriment, no remedy to "the T-word" is on the horizon.
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.