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Wheel of Misfortune

How do you eliminate tanking in the NBA? You start with the draft lottery.

The debate over snapping the connection between a team’s record and where it picks in the draft has rarely, if ever, been more serious than it is right now. The convergence of Adam Silver’s takeover, Philadelphia’s 21-game losing streak, and the arrival of the “wheel” proposal has pushed the discussion in new directions and imbued it with heightened urgency.

The wheel isn’t going away, despite some initial fears it would allow consensus no. 1 picks to game their NBA destination by entering the draft only when a “glamour” team was up next. Mike Zarren, the Celtics’ assistant general manager and the architect of the wheel, has already presented Silver with revised alternatives that would address this issue and several others, per Silver and other sources.

The wheel may not end up looking much like a wheel at all; Zarren has reorganized it so that groups of randomly selected teams might hop through buckets of six picks — say, picks 1-6 in one season, and 25-30 the next season — over a five-year span, instead of the original 30-year system in which teams cycle through each specific pick one by one. Within each bucket, a mini lottery would determine which team gets which pick. The goal is to give bad teams hope of snagging a higher pick more quickly.

Regardless of its final physical form, the wheel would eliminate the link between record and draft position. That could mark a major shift in philosophy, one that would reveal how every part of the NBA’s infrastructure interacts to some degree with every other part — contract rules, salary limits, playoff formats, the schedule, and more. Scrapping the lottery is not an isolated change with knowable effects the league can contain in one little silo.

“We need to view the system holistically,” Silver tells Grantland. “There are predictable consequences to change, and even more importantly, unpredictable consequences.”

♦♦♦

The approximate reverse-order draft, a staple of every major U.S. team sport, appears a simple form of charity: You are the worst, and we’ll help you get better by giving you one of the best new guys. It does incentivize teams to lose. We can debate the meaning of tanking, and separate out the many forms it takes — season-long rebuilds, punting on cap space, the strategic resting of players to snag a certain playoff seed, Mark Madsen jacking 3s, and all the gross stuff that happens late as teams jockey for lottery position. Some of it is ethically fine, and some of it is not.

But teams in almost every NBA season are organized to lose. Lots of very smart people, including Silver, will correctly point out that coaches and players on the court do not intentionally lose games — save for the occasional humiliation like the Madsen game linked above.

“I feel very defensive on [the Sixers'] behalf,” Silver says, adding that Philly has “top-notch coaching. None of these guys like losing, or to be talked about in the conversation with the longest losing streaks in history.”

That distinction gets blurry, and it has never mattered as much to me as it has to some analysts. Coaches might not employ dumb strategies to lose games, but they absolutely “rest” key players down the stretch to decrease their chances of winning games. That’s a top-down edict, and lots of teams have been constructed top-down with the clear goal of losing. The Sixers are only the most recent example, though they are an especially egregious one. They didn’t just trade Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes for second-round picks, or to avoid losing Turner without compensation1 to free agency; they traded those players to maximize their odds at getting the no. 1 pick in this draft. It doesn’t really matter that Hollis Thompson and Brandon Davies are trying as hard as they can. The Sixers are trying to lose. They’re not the first team to do so; they’re just doing it really well.

The Sixers would have behaved differently had the wheel slotted them into mediocre picks in the next two drafts. They might have still made the same trades, but it’s possible they would have kept one of Turner, Hawes, and Jrue Holiday. And even had they dumped them all, the lack of a bankable pick in the near future would have pushed them into some other win-now move — a predatory trade, a gamble on an underperforming player, or the signing of an actual NBA-caliber free agent. They could have easily been the no. 4 or 5 seed in the Eastern Conference this season.

The league already brings a lot of incentives to win: season-ticket renewals, sponsorship dough, local TV ratings, and gate revenue. Remove the main incentive to lose, and behaviors would change.

♦♦♦

The draft in its current form is not just about rewarding losers. It is a way of recognizing how difficult it is to go from bad to great in the NBA. Lots of studies have found that tanking doesn’t work all that well, and that bad and mediocre teams tend to stay bad and mediocre. Those studies do not prove tanking is a dumb strategy; Sam Hinkie, Philly’s GM, is not dumb. Other tankers have done quite well, and their experience highlights the importance of luck and smart team-building in the tanking equation — winning the lottery in the right season, having the superstar fall to you at no. 2 (Kevin Durant), and supplementing your superstar draft pick with the right moves.

Tanking can work because acquiring a top-15 overall player, a superstar, is the most reliable means of ascent. The difficulty of getting such a player explains why so many bad teams stay bad. But as long as the draft offers a tactical avenue for snagging one, teams will bottom out strategically.

In talking to dozens of sources all over the league, including both pro- and anti-wheel people, it’s clear this is the most serious concern about the wheel: that it will make it harder for teams to climb the ladder. A team that blows a high draft pick or clogs its cap sheet with free-agency duds will have a tough time getting better in the near term if the wheel has it picking, say, at no. 15 and no. 22 in the next two seasons — and outside the top six over the next four seasons. The anxiety over these potential results stems from both business and basketball motivations.

“I like the wheel conceptually,” says Mark Cuban. “But I think it makes it harder to sell hope to fans. And hope is a huge connecting point between rebuilding teams and their fans.”

There is also, predictably and perhaps incorrectly, a big-market/small-market concern. If a half dozen glamour franchises have a permanent advantage in attracting superstar free agents, the thinking goes that the league must balance things out by providing small-market teams another avenue through which they might get their own superstars. “The draft gives the small-market team hope,” says Joseph Price, an economist at BYU who has studied tanking. “They are never going to win the free-agency side of things, but they occasionally will get a superstar in the draft.”

Crucial note: The notion that big/glamorous markets will always win free agency, and/or don’t also win the draft, is unproven. Every team in every market has an edge in keeping its own free agents, and the list of desirable free-agent markets keeps morphing in ways convenient to the worrier’s argument. “I’m not ready to acknowledge the premise in terms of large markets having an advantage in free agency,” Silver says. “Before LeBron went to the Heat, did you ever hear of a player saying, ‘I can’t wait to get to Miami’?”

Silver is not alone. The flip side: The glamour market teams can also tank for picks, and with their fat TV deals and pricey seats, they can afford to do so for longer than the league’s sad sacks. They can win the race running in either direction.

Lottery reform also touches on how teams define being “good.” Some franchises are more satisfied than others with annual win totals in the 40-50 range, short playoff appearances, and healthy balance sheets — the kinds of outcomes a mediocre team might shoot for under the wheel instead of bottoming out. But there is a growing sense that several new owners (and new GMs who have won over longtime owners) are in the NBA solely to be great — to chase 55 or 60 wins and perennial title contention.

History says you need a top-15 player, and probably two, to sniff that territory. The wheel might chip away at one path to those players. How else are you supposed to get them if you’re Portland or Charlotte?

Both those franchises were in the tanking crosshairs over the last two years in ways that are instructive. The Bobcats reinvigorated the tanking discussion when they stripped away a borderline playoff team and bottomed out at 7-59 in pursuit of Anthony Davis. Dealing Gerald Wallace to Portland for two draft picks was part of that process, which resulted in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, another terrible season in 2012-13, and a happily mediocre team this season.

The Blazers with Wallace fell apart during that 2012-13 season, and drew intense criticism from the anti-tank crowd upon dealing away Wallace and Marcus Camby for future assets at the trade deadline. Both Wallace and Camby were outgoing free agents, and the Blazers, going nowhere that season, decided those players offered more value as trade chips. They were right; the Wallace deal netted them Damian Lillard.

Again: Both teams were quite loudly accused of tanking. But they acted rationally in ripping apart capped-out rosters with no real upside and absolutely zero chance of ever contending for a title. Neither market has been the kind that attracts LeBron James or Dwight Howard in free agency, or even manages to schedule a meeting. They correctly concluded the best path to finding a game-changing player lay in the draft.

There is no way to legislate out the cyclical nature of the NBA. Every game requires a loser, and a subset of teams will be horrible every season.2 “You and I could take the player cards of all 450 players in this league and put them on a table,” Silver says. “We could try to design a league with the greatest possible parity, and it would be very difficult. There would still be teams that would be hard-pressed to have a high chance at winning.”

Teams will always — always — have to rebuild. That is a basic reality. Players get older, their contracts tick toward expiration, and the salary cap limits the resources of every team. Those who fear the wheel do so because they see it as the removal of targeted rebuilding from their tool box. There would come a day when the next Anthony Davis would go to a powerful team instead of a bad one.

Would The Wheel Require Other Changes?

That raises a question at the heart of all this: If the league eventually implements the wheel, should it also enact changes that give bad teams a better chance at rebuilding? Are there other levers to pull? “There are always unanticipated consequences,” Silver says. “That is what makes tinkering with the system enormously problematic. The last thing we want to do is overreact to perceived inequities now.”

• Perhaps the league could strengthen the luxury tax, so that if a championship-level team did wheel its way into the no. 1 pick, it might have to sacrifice a key part of its current core right away to avoid a hefty tax bill. Maybe the league could do away with restricted free agency, matching rights, and the extra cash an incumbent team can offer its own free agent — changes that would get those superstars into free agency more often and earlier in their careers.3

• Maybe the league could allow teams to roll over unused cap space into future seasons. This is the kind of thing that would recognize the natural cycle of team-building. If a bad team reasonably opts against spending in one year, it could carry extra cap room into the following summer, giving it a leg up in the free-agency derby. It could make it rain at the optimal time.

• That brings up the elephant in the room: If the league concludes that the wheel might make the bad-to-great transition difficult, especially for non-glamour teams, should it also raise or even eliminate the limit on maximum individual player salaries? If the wheel does hurt small-market teams, or even just teams stuck in a down cycle, letting one of those teams roll over cap space and throw $40 million per year at Kevin Durant would be an interesting antidote. “I don’t know the final solution,” Cuban says, “but I don’t think only changing the draft will be the ultimate answer.”

All of these changes would have ripple effects. Hoarding cap space would become another way to tank, though rebuilding teams are already expert at reaching the salary floor via dead money — ask Utah, Philly, and Orlando.4 Tweaking restricted free agency could end up helping glamour teams if it allows a superstar an earlier exit from a small-market club.

The ongoing adjustments to the wheel are designed specifically to tackle this “hope” issue — to give teams a shot at the no. 1 overall pick, and to high picks in general — more often via the bucketing system.

Simpler Alternatives?

The alternatives to the wheel would carry similar unknown and possibly damaging consequences.

• People around the league like the idea of returning to the unweighted lottery, where every lottery team has the same chance of nabbing the no. 1 pick. Go that route, and I’m tanking the hell out of the no. 8 seed and into the lottery every time — and I might even tank my way through Bill Simmons’s Entertaining As Hell Tournament, if that’s what it takes.

• Thinkers have also kicked around ideas that would make getting into the playoffs a more desirable outcome on its own. One idea would be to place 22 teams into the lottery, excluding only the top four seeds in each conference, and to guarantee some juicy picks — perhaps two picks in the 5-10 range — would go to playoff teams. But that would introduce a tank race into the no. 5 spot, and hold the potential for sending multiple impact rookies to teams that are already strong.

• By the way: the most obvious method of making a playoff spot, even the no. 8 slot, more desirable? Shorten playoff series, so low seeds have a better chance of pulling multiple upsets. But now you’re talking about an entirely different league, and moving away from something that makes the NBA great: that the very best team, or one of the two or three best, wins the title basically every season. So many of these wheel-linked changes — ending max salary limits, tweaking restricted free agency — amount to wholesale changes in the league itself. But they are the sorts of things you must consider in thinking about one sweeping change.

• Other less foundational changes have momentum. Lots of executives prefer a lottery that takes into account each team’s win-loss record over the preceding three seasons. Cuban favors a system in which the lottery team with the best record has the highest chance of winning the top pick, but with a lower chance of doing so than the worst lottery team gets today.

• Cuban (and others) would prefer the league determine every lottery draft slot via a random drawing. Under the current system, the lottery actually determines only the top three picks, with everyone else falling into draft order based on record — worst to best. A team like the Sixers isn’t really tanking for the no. 1 pick; it’s tanking for a 100 percent guarantee of a top-four pick, and a near–100 percent guarantee of a top-three pick. Randomizing down the full order of the lottery, with some weighting system, would make it less lucrative for teams to lottery jockey late in the season.

It would also bring some uncertainty for teams that owe protected first-round picks. The 2012 Warriors infamously tossed away games in an effort to finish with no better than the seventh-worst record, so that they could keep a pick that would transfer to Utah if it fell at no. 8 and beyond.5 Detroit represents this season’s best candidate for this kind of shady losing; it owes a top-pick to Charlotte, and its playoff hopes are slipping away. Regardless: Drawing the picks in worst-to-best order after no. 3 makes it easy for teams to manipulate their place in line with some blatant late-season “resting” of players.

♦♦♦

None of these tweaks would fully eliminate tanking. They would simply change the leverage point at which tanking becomes a smart thing to do. The wheel would eradicate tanking, but perhaps at the cost of making it harder for teams to rebuild without introducing any additional parity.

All of that is unproven, though — especially since the league could introduce other changes at the same time, or soften the wheel proposal in a way that minimizes the bad-to-great concerns. It seems likely that 30-35 win teams would tread water under the wheel and hope to catch lightning in a bottle via trade or free agency. That could make for some fun stories, and result in fewer teams at either extreme of the totem pole. It is already possible to be the Pacers, Grizzlies, and Rockets without the aid of a tank job. Removing the crutch of the lottery would incentivize different kinds of moves and put even more of a premium on smart management.

But rewarding intellect for its own sake might work out as a net negative for the league if it also makes competitive mobility harder. “The wheel turns the NBA into a planning exercise that rewards smart organizations for being smart,” Cuban says. “I just don’t know if that dovetails with the business we are in.”

One thing is clear: Change is coming. The current lottery system probably isn’t going to last much longer, and the wheel provides a fascinating alternative. The league should consider it strongly, and all the related questions that come with it.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Manu Ginobili’s Proprietary Passes

Ginobili has been the league’s best reserve in terms of per-minute impact, but he’s also missed 11 games and logged about 650 fewer minutes than Taj Gibson — the equivalent of nearly 14 full NBA games. Deciding how to weigh all those variables is part of the fun in awards voting.

But with Ginobili, I’ve long since passed the point of caring about his legacy and moved on to simply enjoying the unique style he brings to the NBA. He has specific passes that are his. Other people can try them, but they don’t have the same hit rate or flair. It feels like Ginobili invented the entry pass from the corner to the post — a super-tricky dish that runs parallel the baseline, gets the ball around a fronting defender, and must bounce within a razor-thin space/time window to hit its moving target amid a hail of help defenders:

Ginobili didn’t really invent this pass. But few are brave enough to try it as often as he does, and fewer still can pull it off.

2. The Stagnation of Derrick Williams

The Kings have new owners, a new head coach, an almost entirely new roster — and they still stink. The stench isn’t really unexpected. The foundation was bare, and the Kings traded a lot of depth to acquire Rudy Gay. When you make this much change at every level of an organization, it just takes time for things to settle.

Taking a shot on Derrick Williams, a failed no. 2 pick with an intriguing skill set, is a smart thing for a rebuilding team. But the Kings followed that up almost immediately by acquiring a more polished player with some positional overlap in Gay. Now Williams is scrapping for minutes amid weird and ever-changing lineups. He started in Philly last week as a small-ball power forward, a role he has played now and then off the bench. He plays small forward in bench-heavy units. He’s even spent time in jumbo lineups in which he and Gay (or Travis Outlaw) take the wing positions.

And it just hasn’t worked. Williams has one year left on his hefty rookie deal, and it’s unclear where his NBA career will go from here.

3. The Chris Paul–Blake Griffin Pin-Down

Ask the Thunder and Heat: Having one star player screen for another is a powerful tool, and the Clippers are confident enough in Blake Griffin’s playmaking and jump shot to make this pin-down a regular part of their offense:

We normally see a big man screen for a guard in this way, and Griffin’s jumper isn’t quite effective enough to make this inverse pin-down as deadly as it might one day become. But Paul’s a pesky screener, the Clips will force the occasional switch out of this, and both stars have varied enough skill sets to seize upon any gap that opens.

4. James Harden’s Weakside Rebounding

Lots of guards and wings have this bad habit, but Harden is one of the league’s very worst offenders. Watch his “boxout” of Nicolas Batum on the right wing:

It’s easy to dismiss this. Lots of people do it, and each game consists of nearly 200 possessions; what’s one slip-up really cost? But on the biggest stage, against the best competition, there will be a moment when a little thing like this tilts the balance of a game. Title contenders clean these things up.6

5. Cleveland’s Nintendo Power-Up

I’m a sucker for the integration of any game-show or video-game sound effect into the NBA experience. And so I say, hurrah, Cavaliers, for playing the “power-up” sound effect we used to hear when Mario found a mushroom after a made Cleveland free throw. Nostalgia is a warm feeling!7

6. John Wall’s Occasionally Wild Defense

Consider this a very mild dislike. Washington’s defense has been sound for two seasons, and Wall’s combination of speed, power, size, and havoc creation at the top can swing possessions.

But sometimes Wall veers too far into roving freelance mode, chasing steals and chaos in a way that compromises his teammates. Watch Wall abandon his man, Kemba Walker, atop the 3-point arc to pester a well-covered Josh McRoberts on the right wing. And watch very carefully for how Trevor Ariza, covering Kidd-Gilchrist down in the lower left corner, reacts to Wall’s improvisation:

Did you catch that? Ariza noticed Wall’s wild rotation, and lurched a bit toward the top of the arc — and away from his own man — in anticipation of having to cover for Wall. McRoberts noticed Ariza’s little slide, and hit MKG for an easy layup.

Again: Wall isn’t a harmful defender on balance, but he needs to be just a hair more selective.

7. “Jazz Man”

This is what Utah’s announcers, and presumably Utah fans, call members of the team — and even ex-members. As in: “Paul Millsap, a former Jazz man, is having a big game against his old team!” I like it! It has a pleasing pop culture referent, and it’s a nice way of making up for the fact that a human player can’t be “a Jazz” in the way he could be “a Celtic” or “a Knick.” I’ve seen the Magic toss around “Magic Man” like this, and that hasn’t tickled me in the same way. What are the Thunder supposed to do?

8. John Loyer’s Closeouts

You know how I feel about coaches closing out — yelling at opposing shooters along their sideline, stamping their feet, and waving their arms like insane people in an attempt at distracting those shooters. Vinny Del Negro is, once and forever, the king of this. It looks silly and unprofessional, and the men in suits should stop doing it.

But Loyer has picked up Lawrence Frank’s closeout legacy in Detroit, regularly harassing opponent shooters when they dare pull up nearby.

Coaches: PLEASE STOP THIS.

9. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s Balance

Kidd-Gilchrist might be the worst-shooting perimeter player in the league, and despite his hard cuts and ability to get to the line, he just kills Charlotte’s spacing. That is bad. You probably shouldn’t pick guys who can’t shoot at all with the no. 2 pick.

But MKG is becoming a killer defender with exceptional balance. Gordon Hayward told me last week that the hardest part of defense is darting into the paint, bumping a rolling big man, and then scrambling back out to find his original assignment behind the arc. Running around like that while maintaining balance is a brutal challenge, but MKG is already an expert at it. Watch him help on Kenneth Faried’s roll, and then scamper back out to contain Wilson Chandler’s drive:

Great stuff.

10. The Channing Frye Merry-Go-Round

I’ve sung Frye’s praises before, but, damn, there are just so many things you can do with a big man who can shoot well enough to spook defenses. Look at how many cutters circle by in this Phoenix set until the Suns get to what they really want: Frye shifting from screener to jump-shooter in an instant:

Yeah, Frye misses, but this is a great look out of a great action. What a delightful team Phoenix has been.

Filed Under: NBA

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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