Incentivizing Losers in the NBA, and How to Stop It

This past Thursday and Friday, several dozen NBA prospects came to Chicago to participate in the “NBA Draft Combine,” a phrase which here means “a thing that the NFL is doing, so why not?” The NBA Draft Combine has existed since at least 2012, which I realize is not a very informative thing to tell you, but precious little information is out there regarding the history of the event. Maybe everyone in the media got together and decided that if they didn’t talk about it, it would just go away, sort of like you’re supposed to do with an Internet troll, or pancreatic cancer. But the plan didn’t work, probably because the folks at Bleacher Report broke the embargo, and now the combine is here to stay. It received unprecedented media coverage this year on ESPNU, the tentacle of the ESPN squid that used to deal in college sports, but has increasingly come to stand for “ESPN Uther Stuff.” The combine was a treasure trove for those interested in statistics and measurements of questionable basketball relevance, like shuttle runs, uncontested shooting drills, and heights measured to the nearest five hundredths of an inch (with and without shoes!)

The Class of 2014’s marquee prospects–Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid–apparently thought about as highly of the NBA Draft Combine as I do, and skipped its inane hamster-wheel exercises to do normal 19-year-old things, probably. But the three young men had their moments on Tuesday night, when the NBA’s magic ping pong ball machines determined that the Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia 76ers (in that order) earned the right to select them.

There is no doubt that Wiggins, Parker, and Embiid will be taken with the first three picks, but whether any of them will be franchise-altering talents is a topic of much debate. This is not the 2003 draft class that yielded LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who were considered surefire NBA stars before they had even left high school. Instead, there’s a lanky big man who can’t seem to stay healthy, a Duke product with a much-maligned defensive game, and a long-hyped player whose lone season at Kansas was marred by a slow start and a fizzling finish.

In spite of each prospect’s flaws, the teams with the top three draft picks are placing an awful lot of hope on the shoulders of whichever Savior they end up embracing. The Milwaukee Bucks are hoping for someone who can brighten their last few seasons in the crumbling Bradley Center, and perhaps stick around long enough to offer some winning seasons as housewarming gifts for their new arena. The 76ers’ tanking (lack of) efforts don’t need to be discussed any further. The team received a good dose of karma when its ping pong ball came up one pick earlier than the odds suggested. With the third pick in the draft, Philadelphia will likely miss out on Wiggins and Parker, meaning they’ll go with Embiid, a player who carries much more risk (but also more upside) than his partners in the elite stratus of the prospect hierarchy.

It’s ironic that Cleveland, the only team among the top three drafters that seemed somewhat interested in winning games this year, emerged from the lottery with the top pick. The team’s January deal for Luol Deng showed some interest in immediate improvement over long-term gains. But the franchise still hopes for its prodigal son’s return, and in doing so reveals just how deluded and mismanaged things have gotten behind the scenes.

Before his February firing, former Cleveland GM Chris Grant sent LeBron James this lovely fruit basket.

The ridiculous, tank-inducing processes of the combine and the lottery never undergo meaningful scrutiny, mostly because nobody dares question the egalitarian notion of parity in the league. But does rewarding the highest draft picks to the worst teams really do much to promote parity? The Cavaliers have languished in their post-LeBron years. They had the chance to pick Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Anthony Bennett with top 4 draft choices, but these players have done little to add to their team’s win column. Instead, they’ve seen their progression as basketball players stunted, perhaps irreversibly, in the confines of a dysfunctional system. This is a dubious reward for the nation’s best collegiate players, who receive higher rookie wages at the possible expense of lucrative free-agent signings down the road.

Sure, a nearly identical (save for the merciful lack of a lottery) works fine for the NFL, but draft order doesn’t have much to do with that. In football, a team’s second-, third-, and fourth-round picks can matter just as much as its first, so a smart long-term draft strategy takes precedence over scoring a high pick. The New England Patriots have proven this year after year by stockpiling late-round picks in lieu of pulling the trigger on big names in the first round. NFL teams have 52-man active rosters compared to the NBA’s 12, so the strategy of tanking isn’t practical. If an NFL team tried to have a fire sale on the top 25 percent of its players in advance of a rebuilding effort, it would take much longer to successfully replace 13 starters than it would for an NBA team to find three more puzzle pieces that fit its starting lineup.

The ability to take rebuilding to extremes–an option that’s taken by many franchises each year–results in a maddeningly predictable boom-and-bust cycle in which certain teams are bound to be competitive in any given year while others are condemned to fallow periods. Teams that choose to rebuild for a few years will be rewarded in the long run through their ability to acquire high-caliber young talent in the draft. Meanwhile, teams that go deep into the playoffs will struggle to maintain their privileged position, having to pick when all the delicious strawberry jellybeans are gone and only the nasty apricot ones remain. So, the theory is that success will even out in the long run, and this is sometimes true, but only when institutional incompetence doesn’t send everything haywire.

But is that really the best type of parity to aspire to? Having princes and paupers switch roles every so often? Isn’t the optimal model one in which every team, or at least as many teams as possible, have a chance to really compete in any given year? I’m proposing a scenario in which the Bucks and 76ers of the world could still acquire their Jabari Parkers and Andrew Wigginses, but without subjecting their fans to several years of 15-67 (or thereabouts) clownery. Seriously, do you think any 76ers season ticket holder, or even a fan who have the misfortune of buying tickets for a single game, is glad he or she got to see some D-League-caliber player help the team draft a famous guy who may or may not be a good pro?  The solution to this is elegantly simple: have lottery teams compete for the highest draft picks.

“But that’s not fair to the really bad teams! They may not even be tanking! What if they’re actually trying?” If a team that is actually trying still manages to pull off the league’s worst record, it doesn’t deserve the top pick, and college basketball’s best player doesn’t deserve to be stuck rotting away on its roster. If lottery teams had to compete amongst each other for top draft picks, they wouldn’t be incentivized to build untalented, cap-space-freeing rosters and pantomime their way through entire seasons. When cellar-dwelling teams are uninterested in crafting the best roster they can, the quality players they neglect to acquire end up on the rosters of already-good teams, thus widening the gap between “rich” and “poor.” Even if some teams are unsuccessful in bringing together quality groups of players, the fact that they would at least be trying to do so would result in a higher levels of basketball throughout the NBA. And the worst of the worst, the “little guy,” still wouldn’t be screwed. He wouldn’t get the first pick. But he would get the fourteenth, which would be high enough to grab a pretty good player. That pretty good player might help his team get the twelfth pick the next year, then the tenth, the seventh, and so on. Everyone would get their fair shot at a top pick; they would just get there a bit differently.

And I haven’t even made it to the best part yet! Is a full slate of full-effort, tankless teams not exciting enough for you? Well, check this out: let’s say a team pulls a Kwame Brown and chooses a terrible player first overall in the draft. Instead of being destined for an additional three years of awfulness, as the Wizards were, the team can recover. After all, they earned that pick thanks to a roster that just barely missed the playoffs. They’d still have a decent chance to make the playoffs that year. This model would not only reward elite players by allowing them to start their careers on decent teams, but it would take so much pressure off their young, green shoulders. Ever wonder why some top picks flame out? It may often be because they’re just plain bad at basketball. But hold on, Kwame, Darius, and Darko. I’m going to give you guys the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to make the wild assumption that joining teams SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED TO LOSE, and then being expected to turn them around yourself within the span of a year or two, didn’t exactly help your development or your confidence. In any case, it certainly wasn’t a fair situation for you.

This place? Really?

And isn’t being fair to players a lot more egalitarian and progressive than being fair to teams and their owners? If it results in a stronger, more competitive league, it’s a no-brainer. Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear over James Dolan and his Knicks wilting away in last place each year, wasting fourteenth overall picks instead of first overall picks. Maybe instead of being worth $1.4 billion, the team would be worth a paltry $700 million. If a revamped draft order could prevent an NBA season in which Raymond Felton starts 65 games at point guard, I think we could chalk that up as a win for everyone.

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Dustin Petzold has no pity for losers. You should follow him on Twitter.

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