A Suggested Fix to Professional Sports Drafts

A frightening epidemic is sweeping through the lower ranks of the NBA. Its nature is so foul, its idea so impure that it has been assigned a super evil and scientific-sounding name that makes even the bravest of men quiver. Proposals are in place to try and rid the NBA of this heinous monster as quickly as possible. I’m talking, of course, about tanking…wait, really? Tanking?

Tanking, a word which feels like it naturally should be preceded by a hashtag, has been a hot topic of discussion among the NBA-minded recently. Many executives feel like it is eating away at the purity and high standards of the game – you know, more so than the inconsistency of violations called based on the players involved and the amount of time left in the game, player max contracts which encourage the construction of super teams (the public still isn't sure if they like super teams or not), Donald Sterling being an awful human but hanging around for so long before finally being kicked to the curb...

Personally, I have no problem with the current practice of tanking – as long as there is no Eight Men Out-ish game-throwing going down. The Philadelphia 76ers have been the poster children of this strategy most recently. Realizing that their team wasn’t built for long-term success and committing to a complete rebuild for the future, here’s what they’ve done:

  • They’ve traded away “veteran” pieces with larger contracts who they had no realistic chance of resigning (such as Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, etc.) to stockpile draft picks and young players in order to construct a team in a way they see fit.
  • They’ve drafted players who most analysts believe have enormous future potential (Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric) although they could not / cannot play right away due to injury or being European believing that the team will be awful enough while those players heal / develop overseas to stockpile more high draft picks.
  • They’ve marched a team on the floor led by Michael Carter-Williams and a rag-tag group of players knowing that their time is not now but perhaps a couple years down the road.

Here’s what they haven’t done:

  • Intentionally lost / thrown individual games for the sake of losing.

Philadelphia is testing fan support with this plan of multiple seasons of poor play for the hope of good basketball down the road. The plan is based on unknown professional commodities overcoming serious injuries in some cases and living up to their sky-high projections. Moreover, the immediate goal of the plan is to be so bad that they’ll be in a pool with a chance to earn the right to select the first teenager who may or may not be good at basketball compared to other professionals. Needless to say, this is a huge risk for the organization. But all the power to them if they feel like this is the best path to success.

As I referenced before, NBA executives and writers have proposed changes to the current draft system in an attempt to discourage tanking. The latest proposal “flattens out” the odds of being awarded the first pick with the hope that being the worst team in the league won’t give anyone an “advantage” on draft lottery night. The potential issue here is creating more 2008 Chicago Bulls and 2014 Cleveland Cavs who each had 1.7% chances to score the first pick overall but did just that. Under the current lottery system, the worst team in the NBA has selected first in the following draft only twice out of 22 years making that approximately 9% success rate significantly less than the 25% odds awarded to them by the lottery system. One could argue that based on these numbers, the current system would do enough to discourage tanking.

The NFL bases their draft order solely on teams’ records from the previous season. The shortcoming of this method is best illustrated by 2011 Colts who selected first in 2012. Indianapolis enjoyed annual success and trips to the post-season under the quarterbacking of Peyton Manning. But when a neck injury forced him to sit out the entire 2011 season, the Colts were terrible enough to secure the first pick in the draft headlined by Andrew Luck – the quarterback who most called the next Peyton Manning. After those poor Colts fans endured one awful season of football, they’ve been back to the playoffs each of the two seasons since. Clearly I don’t see the NFL draft as the perfect model (especially as a bitter Browns fan who has never seen one Peyton Manning throw for us, let alone two).

For every one team whose goal it is to replicate Major League’s Rachel Phelps’s strategy (albeit without sacrificing attendance), there are probably four or five out there who try to win, but goshdarnit, just can’t do it. The supposed proposal risks making a few “legitimately” bad teams suffer in order to punish the one team trying to perform poorly. League executives must take this into account when proposing any modification to the current system.

So if the NBA draft (and NFL draft for that matter) needs revised, why not try the following? Keep the split of playoff vs. non-playoff teams like the NBA has in its lottery. If a team has been in the playoffs during the preceding season, it is not eligible to draft in front of the non-playoff teams (except in the case of trades). For all the non-playoff teams, take each one’s cumulative record over the previous two or three seasons; then, order those records from worst-to-best allowing the team that has been bad the longest to draft first. This would eliminate teams with an outlier sucktastic year from selecting first as soon as they get to the suck party (wait your turn, Colts!). It would also make it more difficult for the 2008 Bulls and 2014 Cavs to select ahead of some more “deserving” teams. Sure, it may not discourage tanking like the 76ers are committed to, but it would force teams to commit to being terrible for a longer period of time and deal with the ire and pressure from fans looking for success during that planned down swing.

Again, I don’t necessarily have a problem with tanking as long as games aren’t being thrown. Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t see tanking as a commitment to losing; rather, I see it as a commitment to “growing pains” and a process that allows young, inexperienced pieces to develop void of unrealistic expectations. If any league tries to restructure their draft process to discourage such practices, it needs to be careful not to construct a system that allows the rich to get richer and let non-tanking losers slip through the cracks.