The NBA Doesn’t Have a Tanking Problem, They have a Parity Problem

The topic of tanking in the NBA has been a widely discussed issue for the past several years and has been at the forefront of people’s minds this season in particular even from the start with the hype of this upcoming draft class. In Cleveland we’ve had our fair share of tanking discussions given how much losing the team endured over the past three years.

It’s undeniable that there is some element of tanking that takes place in the Association in the sense that teams are intentionally bad in an effort to get a better draft pick. The Cavaliers accomplished this task by simply not making an effort to add really any good veteran players for three years and instead invested in young guys who weren’t ready to win on their own in the big leagues yet. Other teams have been more overt in their tanking efforts, with this season’s Sixers being the prime example. They traded away their All-Star point guard for an injured rookie in the offseason to get things started. Then when they weren’t losing enough games they dealt away two of their three best players for nothing of immediate value and really only minimal future value (three second round picks) and replaced them with D-League caliber players. Not only are the Sixers just not trying to make their team better, they’re intentionally making it much worse.

A cry has gone up around the league about how this tanking needs to be put to an end. Bill Simmons wrote at length earlier this week about it and dealing directly with Philadelphia. There is a sense that the tanking that goes on every year is a real problem in the league that needs fixing. This problem is supposedly fixed by changing the draft lottery system that is currently in place. There have been numerous proposed changes to the current lottery system such as having a draft wheel or (one of Simmon’s ideas) basing lottery chances off of three-year instead of single-season totals. The idea is that installing devices like this would keep teams from being intentionally bad. That could happen theoretically. But a downside to any of these is that it hurts the spirit behind every draft in all sports—making bad teams better. Sometimes teams are just bad—like the 2010-11 Cavs for instance. The concept of giving the worst teams in the league the top choices in the draft is something that goes on in all sports. In fact, the NBA is the only league where having the worst record isn’t even a guarantee that you’ll get the top pick. The draft lottery isn’t about “rewarding” teams for being bad so much as it’s an effort to level the playing field in the league.

All of this blustering over “fixing” the lottery, however, gets us away from the real issue in the NBA is: parity…or the lack thereof.

Fun fact about the NBA…over the last thirty years (essentially my lifetime) there have only been eight franchises (out of 30) who have won championships: Celtics, Lakers, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, Heat, and Mavericks. In that same time period the NFL has seen 15 of its 32 franchises win the Super Bowl. In baseball we’ve seen 18 of 30 MLB franchises win World Series championships in the past three years and they even lost one year to a strike in 1994. Breaking those down by percentages paints a very shocking picture for the NBA:

MLB: 60%
NFL: 47%
NBA: 27%

Maybe instead of trying to keep the bad teams from getting better through the draft lottery, the NBA should work on evening out the talent field in the league so that different teams are winning championships instead of the same handful every year.

Just about every year when we go into a new NBA you have a really good idea right from the start which teams have a realistic shot at winning the championship. This year we knew from the start that it was really just the Heat and Pacers in the East.[1] The West was a little tougher to forecast but it really came down to the Thunder, Spurs, Warriors, Clippers, and maybe Rockets. That’s seven teams out of 30 that had a realistic shot of winning the championship this season.

There is a general notion about the NBA that nothing surprising ever happens in the playoffs, with the theory that everything falls basically according to chalk. I don’t subscribe to that notion necessarily. I wish everything did go according to plan because then the Cavs in 2009 and 2010 would have actually made the Finals and in theory won, having had the best record during the regular season those years. The Mavericks winning in 2011 certainly wasn’t what everyone expected to happen. So surprises do happen from time to time. But those surprises don’t happen very often and like I demonstrated earlier, a select group of teams wins the NBA Title every year.[2]

Now feels like a good time to point that winning the draft lottery and getting the top pick doesn’t guarantee a championship either. Of the last thirty number one draft picks only three of those players ended up winning a championship with the team that drafted them: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan. Only a handful of other No. 1 overall picks have even made the Finals with the team that took them No. 1: Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Kenyon Martin, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard. So just because you win the lottery and get the No. 1 pick doesn’t guarantee anything.

What happens instead, with the LeBron-era Cavs being a prime example, is that you get the No. 1 pick and you take a supremely talented player who is too young and inexperienced to win right away. You then are on the clock to try and grow that player in a very short time-frame (about seven seasons) and build a quality team around him that is capable of winning a championship before losing him in free agency to one of the glamor franchises.[3] This of course is no easy task given that in order to pick at the top of the draft you have to be a bad team. One star player can make a huge difference in the NBA but young players on their rookie contracts are seldom the difference-maker on championship squads. The Cavs were mostly able to do that as I mentioned above with LeBron hitting his prime in those ’09 and ’10 teams that won 60+ games. But they couldn’t get all the way there and then it was over and back to square one with being bad again.

Rinse and repeat.

Building a championship team isn’t an exact science but there are some trends we can notice by looking back at the previous winners.

Heat (2012-2013)—Team was built mostly on convincing multiple All-Star players to play for less than they could make elsewhere to work together. This was made possible, however, because the Heat already had Dwayne Wade on the roster, who they got with a high lottery pick.[4] Wade was, however, on his third contract with the team, which is worth noting as we’ll see. They were then able to get more complementary pieces to join the team on the cheap to fill out their championship squads.

Mavericks (2011)—Dirk Nowitzki, the central player on that team obviously, was really the only major player who also drafted by the team (9th overall in 1998)[5] but he was on at least his third contract with the team, it being his 12th year in the league. The rest of that team’s core was made up of players acquired through trades and free agency: Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Peja Stojakovic. This was really a very savvily built championship team but really needed some breaks to get there. They get a combusting Lakers team in the second round, a too-young Thunder team in the West Finals, and a too-new with an oddly skittish LeBron James in the NBA Finals.

Lakers (2009-2010)—Those two Lakers championship teams were built on third-contract Kobe Bryant along with other key players who were acquired via trades and free agency like Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom. Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum were also drafted by the Lakers. Fisher was taken in 1996 and had left and then come back. Bynum was 10th overall pick in 2005 and was on his second deal. The Lakers had gone through a few lean years with only Kobe until they were able to land Gasol for what looked like pennies on the dollar at the time.

Celtics (2008)—Paul Pierce, like Kobe, was drafted by the team but was on his third contract. The other members of the “Big Three”, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, were acquired through trades. Three other core players that season were drafted by the team (or at least acquired on draft day by the Celtics): Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, and Kendrick Perkins—all outside of the lottery in fact. The interesting thing to note about this Celtics team is that they had been quite terrible for a while prior to winning the championship in 2008. They used all that losing to acquire a bevy of young players that didn’t fit well together and were too young to win NBA games and then flipped most of them in those Garnett and Allen deals. If they hadn’t spent all those years tanking losing they wouldn’t have had the high draft picks to get players like Delonte West, Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, and the No. 5 pick in the 2007 draft that become Jeff Green. None of those were great players, but they used all of that “stuff” to acquire two future Hall of Famers who were expendable on bad teams. Sometimes it breaks great and those opportunities present themselves.[6]

Spurs (2003, 2005, 2007)—I’ll cover San Antonio’s three championship teams that spanned five seasons all at once. They were of course centered on Duncan, the aforementioned No. 1 overall pick who actually won a championship with the team that drafted him. But he did so in large part because he was willing to take less money than he could have in order that the Spurs could retain their better players. The Spurs did a great job building their team. Most people know how Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were late first and early second round picks, respectively, and how they ended up being great All-Star players and comprised the core of those championship teams. But the Spurs also won with Bruce Bowen who was an undrafted player who bounced around the league and overseas for almost a decade before landing with in San Antonio in 2001 where he spent the final eight years of his career. The Spurs were able to land Michael Finley on the cheap in free agency in 2005 in large part because he had been cut by the Mavericks and bought out of his final three years and $50+M remaining on his contract.

Heat (2006)—This is one of the few exceptions in recent history of a young star player, Wade, winning a championship before his third contract. Wade, of course, couldn’t have won in 2006 if it weren’t for the help of the refs and Shaq. In fact, Wade was really the only Heat-drafted player who had any real impact for that championship team. The rest of the roster with Shaq, Alonzo Mourning (who played the bulk of his career with Miami before leaving and then returning), Antoine Walker, James Posey, Jason Williams, and Gary Payton, were all acquired along the way with trades and free agency. Shaq, the main piece, was acquired in a big trade in which the Heat sent out Caron Butler and Lamar Odom among other pieces. It must be noted that the reason that Shaq was on the Heat was because he and Kobe could no longer play together in LA. The Heat don’t win in 2006 if Kobe and Shaq are still co-existing in 2004.

Pistons (2004)—One of the most unique NBA champions, the Pistons were the beneficiaries a super weak Eastern Conference and the imploding Lakers team. Still, it was a great defensive team that was generally devoid of a typical “star” player. They built their team through trades for Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace and hitting on free agent Chauncey Billups, a former high draft pick who took a while to really come into his own in the NBA. Tayshaun Prince was a later first round pick who was most effective on that team because of his defense, much like Bowen was for those Spurs teams. Ben Wallace, the backbone defensively of those Piston teams, was an undrafted player who had been thrown into several trades before landing in Detroit. I don’t know if the Pistons knew what they were getting in Wallace when they acquired him in that sign-and-trade with the Magic for Grant Hill, but they sure found a diamond in the rough.

Lakers (2000-2002)—These Lakers championship teams were of course centered on Shaq and Kobe, the latter acquired by the team on a draft-day trade in 1996 and the former in free agency that same summer. Even with those two Hall of Famers as the core of their team it took them until their fifth season together to win a championship.[7] Like we noted with Wade’s first title, Kobe won his first championships prior to his third contract but also with the help of another great veteran player who just so happened to be Shaq, the most dominant player of his generation.[8]

That was just a quick rundown of the past decade and a half of the NBA and it sheds some light on how championship teams are built.[9] While there is no one model for building a team there are some trends. For the most part, the stars of those teams were past their second contracts with the teams that drafted them. What that means, essentially, is that they’d had a chance to hit free agency. Some of them—like Duncan, Kobe, Wade, Nowitzki, and Pierce—stayed with the team that drafted them.[10] With the possible exception of Nowitzki, depending on you feel about guys like Kidd and Marion at the time, all the other guys needed additional superstars to help them get those rings. The Spurs got theirs through great drafting outside of the lottery. The Lakers got Gasol by trading pieces and parts (including Marc Gasol before we knew he was good). The Celtics got Garnett and Allen by trading the young players they’d drafted while being bad. And the Heat got LeBron and Bosh (probably) through an intricate scheme of tampering going all the way back to the Olympics and convincing those players to play for less than they could be making by paying them under the table to make up the difference.

(Ok, I made up that last part. But I’m convinced there’s something underhanded going on there. Let’s at least agree that Pat Riley looks like someone capable of concocting a less than ethical plan like that.)

It is a generally held belief around the league that the best way to build a winner is by doing what Oklahoma City has done—bottom out for about three or four seasons and build around the high draft picks you get from sucking. Outside of Pierce, that’s essentially what the Celtics did to get the rest of their players. They just flipped most of those young draft picks into established stars. But beside Boston, that team-building method hasn’t exactly yielded any championships.

It appears that the best way to build a championship team is by building around stars who are in their prime, which generally happens around year 6-10 or so.

Crazy concept, I know. Here’s the problem…you can get those players only three ways: draft, free agency, or trade.

Free agency hasn’t been shown be a reliable option for most of the league. The fact is that stars in the NBA just don’t leave to go to about half of the cities in the league. They’ll sign big money with glamor teams like the Lakers, Heat, and Knicks but you never see stars in the prime of the careers going to places like Cleveland or Milwaukee.

Trades are really tough, especially when trying to acquire a star. You need a bevy of assets, like young players and draft picks, along with a losing team that is willing to part with their star player because they don’t think they can keep him and don’t want to lose him for nothing. However, the problem with that is that many teams don’t want to trade for a rental unless they know said star will resign with the team. And as we’ve mentioned before, stars don’t usually sign with the less-glamorous teams.

That leaves the draft as being the only viable option for most of the league. This forces teams, like the current and LeBron-era Cavs, to bottom out in hopes of landing a star through the draft. Once they get that star, like we did with LeBron and again with Kyrie, the team is on the clock—about seven or eight years. In that time they have to grow that star player into being able to contribute to winning a championship while building around him with other really good to great players.

The problem, again, is that the most talented players entering the league are still way too young in their basketball maturity to contribute to a winning team. Duncan came out of college after four years and won a championship, along with former No. 1 overall pick Robinson, in his second season. That equates to about year 6 in his basketball education. LeBron’s year 6 was the 66-win 2008-09 Cavaliers. So the Cavs essentially had a two or three year window in which LeBron had developed to the point where he was good enough to be the central figure of a championship team. That’s a really small window!!!

If we’ve learned anything from this history lesson it’s that you unequivocally need stars to win championships. And every one of those championship teams (Pistons being the exception in all of this) that we looked at had at least one star that they drafted. The interesting thing that is worth noting is that not all of those stars were taken at the top of the draft. Sure LeBron, Duncan, and Shaq all went No. 1. But Pierce was the 10th pick in 1998. Nowitzki went one pick ahead of him that same draft. Kobe was the 13th pick in 1996. So you don’t necessarily have to be at the top of the lottery to land a star player necessarily. What you do have to do is be good at drafting and finding talent. That’s what the Spurs did so well in finding Parker and Ginobili.

But that shouldn’t preclude bad teams from getting the top pick in the draft, it should be even more of a reason to give them the first shot at getting those players. Because isn’t that the goal? Don’t we want to see parity in the league? Don’t we want to see new teams win the championship? Shouldn’t that be the goal?

I’m asking because I seriously don’t know. What I’ve seen from the NBA is a league that has allowed young talented players to enter the league before they’re ready to really be a winning player. And by the time that they’ve matured to be a contributor to a championship-level team they’re hitting free agency where the league has cultivated a culture that encourages stars to leave smaller cities in favor of glamorous places like LA, New York, and Miami.

THAT is the real problem in the NBA…not tanking. Tanking is the only reason for hope for many franchises. I live in Wisconsin and all the Bucks fans that I know are glad that their team is losing. Sure, they may not enjoy watching the team right now just like Cavs fans didn’t really enjoy the past three seasons of losing basketball. But the Bucks were stuck in a place where they were making the playoffs as the 7th or 8th seed and then losing and never getting a high enough pick to get one of those star players. They really like Giannis Antetokounmpo but it’s tough to envision him as the lone star of championship team. So they’re enjoying the fact that the team is losing instead of trying for the 8th seed because the roster as currently constituted will never be championship quality. And a place like Milwaukee, like Cleveland, has never really attracted a star player via free agency. So for all intents and purposes, their fans are actually rooting for the team to lose and get a high lottery pick. There’s even a super popular fan website about it.

So if tanking is the only real method for most of the league to land foundational star players then why is the league worried about “fixing” it? For many fans losing to get high picks is the only hope they have. And after that then just hope that they reach maturity at just the right time or sign on for a third contract to extend the championship window (an issue that is currently confronting the Thunder). If tanking is the only thing that is keeping fans invested then why would you want to take that away from them and resign them to mediocrity?

If the NBA instituted this crazy wheel idea then fans would know when their turn for a top pick was rolling around. And if you’re a fan of one of the non-glamor franchises you have to wait every five years or whatever for your top five pick to roll around to get excited about the team again. And if your team blows that pick then you’re screwed and you have to wait for your turn to roll around again. With the current lottery method if a team blows a pick they at least have the assurance that they’ll get another shot at it the next year.

Instead of trying to “fix” the tanking issue maybe the league needs to raise the age limit again so that the players who are coming in are a little more seasoned. So by the time these young stars are hitting their basketball prime in year 6-10 it isn’t falling at the end of the team control for the franchise who drafted them and is instead just after their rookie deal. Maybe the league needs to figure out a better way of leveling the talent around the league so that you don’t have a couple super teams while the rest is a bunch of crap.

I’ll readily admit that I don’t have all the solutions. But I’m not paid to make those decisions. What I do know is the real issue for the NBA isn’t that teams are being intentionally bad. The real problems with the league are that only 27% of the franchises have won a championship in the last 30 years, there are only about seven teams every year with a realistic title shot, and word “parity” isn’t a part of the NBA vocabulary.

If the NBA would worry more about setting up teams for sustained success then the “tanking problem” would take care of itself.

[1] Some people (not me) thought that maybe the Nets had a shot coming into the season which obviously hasn’t panned out. Turns out betting on a bunch of over-the-hill veterans isn’t a great recipe for building a winner. Who knew?

[2] The Mavs in general are the sole exception to the rule. Dallas is the only franchise without multiple titles over that 30-year span.

[3] David Stern liked to bury his head in the sand on the issue of all the best players fleeing to the top franchises but it’s an undeniable fact that the cream of the crop in the league tends to couple together in select locations instead of spreading around.

[4] The Heat also had another high lottery pick in between drafting Wade and the big three…Michael Beasley (!) who they had to trade away for basically nothing to clear up cap space.

[5] Because of the NBA’s hokey record keeping with draft picks, history will tell you that Nowitzki got drafted by the Bucks and then traded to the Mavs. The reality is that there was a deal in place prior to the draft where the Mavs would take Robert Traylor 6th and then trade him to the Bucks for Dirk and Pat Garrity who would then get flipped to the Suns for Steve Nash. How’s that for a trade? Tractor Traylor for Dirk and Nash??? I feel like we don’t make a big enough deal about how great of a trade that was. Granted, the Mavs screwed it all up by letting Nash walk, but they did get their championship in the end so all wasn’t totally lost I guess.

[6] Incidentally, this is what I think Chris Grant was trying to do all along with this Cavs rebuild. But players like Garnett and Allen never became available like they did for the Celtics. I’ll get to more of this in a bit though in the body.

[7] I mentioned earlier how most players hit their basketball maturity around years 6-10 after high school. Kobe won his first set of championships in years 5-7, furthering that theory.

[8] This is debatable of course. I do believe that in the totality of their careers that Tim Duncan is the greater player. But when Shaq was in his prime and was really trying his hardest there was no one better. In that three year stretch from 2000-02 there wasn’t a better player in the league. Then in 2006 he certainly regained some his former greatness, no doubt driven to get another championship to spite Kobe.

[9] I could have gone back further and pointed out how the Bulls won six championships because they had Jordan, who they took at the top of the draft, playing in the prime of his career for the team that drafted him in year seven in the league—11 in basketball maturity. How bout that?

[10] Worth noting that Duncan, Kobe, and Wade all stayed with their teams where they won championships prior their free agency because they were helped by former No. 1 overall picks in Robinson and Shaq.


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