Ah, playoff time, what a wonderful time of the year! With a surprisingly competitive first round beginning to percolate, there has been an endless barrage of overwrought analysis and matchup hype. Looking through all of the great basketball minds who have kindly offered their opinion on the playoffs, I actually think it was Charles Barkley (yes, that infamously incorrect goofball) who summed it up best.
“There’s nothing like the excitement of the first couple days of the playoffs, Ernie, because all the bad teams are eliminated,” said Chuck from his usual seat on TNT. “All the teams that stink, they’ve gone home” (Instagram, [a]nbaontnt, 04.15.2018).
Without a doubt, the NBA product is one that is stronger than ever before. However, if there was one stain on the impending golden era for the league, it must be all those lowly teams rounding out the bottom of each conference. According to NBA statistics, nine teams finished this season with fewer than 30 regular season wins, while only three teams won a mediocre 30-41 games, showing a huge drop-off after the playoff contenders. Just like the rest of the country, the NBA shows signs of intense inequality.
The root cause has been the league’s worst-kept secret. Bluntly put, there is an entire class of teams that want to be bad. It is the modern phenomenon known as tanking, a process by which NBA general managers and coaches trot out subpar rosters in order to merit a top pick in the following year’s Draft.
Commissioner Adam Silver is well aware of the problem, but the league general offices have yet to conjure up a viable solution. “My sense is we’re still going to have some work to do,” said Silver after meeting with owners in Manhattan this past Friday. “We recognize that our goal was to put the best competition on the floor, and it’s balanced against legitimate rebuilding of some teams. But I know we’re not there yet, and I certainly wasn’t satisfied [this season]” (ESPN, “Adam Silver: New tanking reforms may not be enough to address issue,” 04.14.2018).
Silver has been a strong guiding force for the growing prosperity of the NBA, but his assessment of tanking remains a little misguided. Although tanking certainly isn’t ideal, it is not pervasive enough of a problem to warrant a change. Rather, tanking is a natural consequence of the reality of the modern basketball landscape.
The NBA continues to position itself in such a way that it is controlled by a small, elite group of dominant players. As a result, any team that wishes to compete must harbor a superstar. For small markets, the only path to gaining that type of talent is by drafting and developing it. Unicorn players are far and few between, a rarity found most often at the pinnacle of draft boards. Gaining a top pick can therefore alter the direction of a franchise. Thus, tanking seems like the new path to winning.
General management has embraced a cutting- edge mantra: utilize the draft as the focal point of a rebuild. The most compelling and prominent storyline from this year’s playoff is the emergence of the Philadelphia 76ers, who have set the precedent for “The Process.” Young teams suffer through years of lousiness, tank well enough to draft their stars, and then attract their final pieces through free agency. Over in Boston, the inverse formula holds true: draft a plethora of strong contributing talent, and then pick up a superstar by way of free agency or trade.
As a deep wave of young talent continues to enter the league, tanking becomes more and more of a legitimate option. As young talent moves into its prime, the era beyond the LeBron years will likely lack a central figure, creating a more even distribution of stars. The days of brute force superteams (LeBron’s “Big Three” effect) will one day be a relic of the past. In a surprising turnaround, recent trends show that it has become fashionable for superstars to adopt their city and prioritize loyalty.
Revolutions are cyclical, and the NBA is no exception. The LeBron-KD era of consistent championship- chasing is beginning to revert back to the Jordan-Magic-Bird era of team loyalty and extensive rebuilding. The consequence is that teams must require superstars young, and tanking has proved the best means by which to do so.
There is no solution to a problem now so embedded in the league’s fabric and so strongly connected to the league’s future. With superstar culture, the NBA simply cannot support 30 good teams. Tanking, ironically, becomes the only way for bottom-feeders to remain competitive.
So, instead of crudely overhauling the draft, why not embrace the new league culture? Tanking should be made a competitive race within itself.
Rebuilding teams should give guys like fan-favorite Andre Ingram more chances, adding some excitement to the final 10-game stretch of the regular season. In fact, bad teams are good for the NBA; they allow superstars to be even more appreciated. Everyone loves to see James Harden or LeBron James take an opportunity to go off for 40 or 50 Points.
Tanking creates a beautiful love-hate relationship. Being a fan of a rebuilding team now comes with a silver lining—the vindictive hope that your team can one day be really good. When “The Process” eventually does pay off, fans will bask in the glory and brag about how they had suffered through it all.