And About All This Tanking

NBA tanking is always a popular topic. I don’t think the league cares about it quite as much as some fans, but it is a big deal. I am generally not opposed to tanking. A team may fairly conclude that it’s better off starting over than throwing good money after bad on a non-competitive roster. More importantly, I think the league is generally best off not dictating strategy to individual franchises.

With that as a caveat, I think the league has a duty to limit (not eliminate) tanking as a long-term strategy. Sam Hinkie’s infamous “The Process” is not good for the business of basketball, even if one might reasonably conclude that it was the best strategy for the Philadelphia 76ers. Hinkie’s strategy was built on economic theory. In essence, if one is allowed to lose a bet, but then bet double-or-nothing in perpetuity, he should continue betting until he wins. Hinkie applied this thinking to the draft. Keep betting (i.e., being bad enough to guarantee good odds of winning the draft lottery) until you win (i.e., land franchise-altering talent).

Although Hinkie is no villain–in fact, the Sixers appear to be improving–the league should be highly motivated to identify and limit perverse incentives to forego improvement. Bad franchises need to acquire young talent at the expense of winning, but they also have a duty to develop talent for long-term competitiveness. They shouldn’t be allowed to bet double-or-nothing in perpetuity without penalty.

As structured, The NBA’s draft lottery distributes the odds of getting the top pick too finely. There’s really no good reason that two teams whose records vary by a game or two should get different mathematical odds of having the chance to draft Tim Duncan (versus Keith Van Horn). Yet that’s what we have, and the consequence is perverse incentives to actively sabotage late-season games so as not to “lose ground” on other bad teams. This is not just “playing the kids.” I’m talking about benching a kid who is playing well in order to lose.

I would offer two basic reforms:

Reform 1: Tier the Ping Pong Balls

Rather than distribute ping pong balls weighted precisely by record, I would place the worst teams in the same tier and assign them all the same probability. There’s no real downside to this.

  • Tier I: Worst 5 records
  • Tier 2: Other lottery teams

The lottery would still feature names drawn at random, but here’s the kicker. I’d give the commissioner the power to expand Tier 1 to include 8 teams or 10 at his discretion. I’m all for go-nowhere teams developing young players at the expense of winning, but the point is to create conditions where a one or two game difference in record doesn’t change the odds of getting a good player. That should cut down on perverse incentives.

The Draft Should be a Hand-Up, Not A Way of Life…

The other change I’d implement is a three (consecutive) year limit on appearing in Tier 1 for each franchise, excluding traded picks. Again, you shouldn’t get to tank in perpetuity. So for example, if the Sixers were a Tier 1 team for three seasons they’d be in Tier 2 in the fourth (unless they made the playoffs). However, if they traded their pick to Portland the Blazers would get a Tier 1 pick if Philly finished with a bottom five record.

To be clear, I would not bar a team from winning the draft lottery for four consecutive seasons if the ping pong balls fell their way. Random chance would still be random. Rather, my intent is to limit tanking as a long-term talent acquisition strategy.

 

Advertisements

The NBA Could Use a Few Tweaks But So Could Fans

This “rest and scheduling” issue is the talk of the NBA right now. Powerful moneyed interests are feeling threatened and have responded in their usual way: like a 5 year old going limp in a grocery store checkout line. Still, if you can get through all the blubbering, hyperventilating, and slobber, they–and I’m talking national TV networks here–have an actual point. We know the economics. The big networks (esp. ESPN/ABC and TNT) pay the NBA for broadcast rights. They make their money by charging advertisers insane prices to peddle their wares to the nation. The prices are based on ratings, and the league’s broadcast model is heavily star-dependent.

Nevertheless, as ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh points out, the rest issue cannot be ‘bah! humbugged” away. A lot of the belly-aching about how lazy these millennial NBA stars are, and how their bodies really don’t need that much rest is rhetoric we can trace from the plantation to the plant floor, and safely ignore. The truth is that professional basketball is labor of the high repetitive stress variety. It may lack football’s explosive brutality, but it is hell on soft tissue, ligaments, and tendons.

So you can see the problem. When a star-driven broadcast model fails to deliver stars you best believe advertisers won’t keep paying premium prices. Revenue stability is of course in everybody’s long-term interests, but grinding up players’ bodies is not.

So, how to solve the issue? Well, I have one big thing and a few minor suggestions.

One big thing: NBA fans are just gonna have to learn to love the non-stars.

Basketball is improvisational art. As an NBA consumer, whether your taste is for Steve Kerr’s Warriors or Chuck Daley’s “Bad Boy” Pistons, aesthetics are a big part of what you are consuming. A game with Lebron James’ artistry is not the same product as one where he rests, even if the final score is identical. Yet artistic brilliance is a finite resource. To regularly produce it the artist needs time to recover. That’s just part of the deal.

But NBA fans in particular are spoiled rotten on this point, which is part of why the broadcast model has crept away from being star-driven to being star-obsessed in recent years. NBA fans are simply not habituated to times when their favorite players are not available. Baseball has its “getaway day” lineups on Sunday afternoons and its September call ups. In the NFL, the 30-carry RB is a thing of the past. Everybody has a “committee” now. Hell, in weeks 14-17 you don’t even know what you’re getting because teams are resting players.

Those fans don’t always like it, but they are generally habituated to players resting to treat or prevent injury. As a consequence they pay a fair bit of attention to non-stars and so-called role players. I’d wager that the typical NFL fan can tell you the backup tight end on his favorite team, because that guy plays regularly. The typical baseball fan knows the fourth outfielder (and probably at least one minor league prospect he’s never even seen). In sharp contrast, many, many NBA fans are so casual that they don’t even follow any particular team. They may know Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubling and James Harden’s beard, but they can’t name any other OKC or HOU starters (much less backups). I’m not saying this is most NBA fans, but way more than some insignificant portion, and far more than other sports.

THIS REST ISSUE CANNOT BE RESOLVED WITHOUT FIRST ACKNOWLEDGING THAT NBA FANS MUST CHANGE. I’m a marketing guy, and the marketing orientation is fundamentally about giving the people what they want. But, this is one of those moments where playing to the casual fan’s star-obsession is enabling a tragedy of the commons. Fans have to learn to want something else, or at least live with something else. Thing is, the league is so deep right now and the product is so good this shouldn’t be hard.

What the NBA can do.

  • Alter the schedule to accommodate regular season series play — This to me is low-hanging fruit. Teams should play 2-3 game series across non-consecutive nights in the same city to cut down on the insane every-road-game-in-a-different-city travel. You could see real benefits to player health before having to entertain cutting games. Teams already don’t play every other team. So if you lose a few inter-conference matchups each season, big whoop. You rotate inter-conference games by division like the NFL. Apart from cutting travel, it also cuts down on the complaint that “Lebron is only gonna be in city X once this season. Therefore, he must play.”
  • Play more 10-man rotations — Too many coaches are grinding star players down with 30+ minutes of high-intensity, high-stress basketball, in part because the league is so deep with athletes. It’s way past time to see more 10-man rotations. For all the talk of how playoff seeding doesn’t matter because one road win wrests home court advantage away, it’s amazing to me that more coaches don’t institute more minutes restrictions to get to the playoffs rested.
  • Expand rosters at the start and close of the regular season — Insert two call-up periods during the season for D-Leaguers and free agents, one pre-Christmas and one in March, where rosters expand to 16 players.
  • Promote teams AND stars — The NBA’s own marketing reinforces the “stars-and-scrubs” bias of its most casual fans. So, it is routine, for example, to see TNT/ESPN promos where the team names are never stated in the voiceover; only the names of stars. The NBA could be more diligent about having at least some product promos that mention teams and standings.