Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
The National Basketball Association is not a creative problem solver.
The problem at hand is often how to make more money. Add teams, expand the playoffs
, anything to sell more teevee time.
In 2003, midway through the season, the league changed the playoff rules making the first round a best-of-7 instead of a best-of-5. With so many teams in the playoffs first round match-ups are rarely intriguing. Star players on bad teams might be swept out with only three national television appearances. Or, since the best-of-5 format allowed more of a chance of an upset, the best team might not advance. Cindarella stories are nice, but they don't sell jerseys
. The first round change was about money not basketball.
In 2004 the league restructured its Western and Eastern conferences into three divisions. The new playoff seeding favored division winners, even if the second best team in a division had a better record than the best team in a neighboring division. Which is exactly what happened last year
. The Dallas Mavericks
had the second best record in the West but happened to play in the same division as the conference leading San Antonio Spurs. Dallas was seeded fourth, below Denver which had finished 16 games behind the Mavs. It was an obvious flaw and the result was that the Spurs and the Mavs met in the second round instead of the Western Conference Finals, where, if things go according to Hoyle
, the two best teams west of the Mississippi should meet to decide which one goes to the Finals.
In grade school I fell off a tire swing and broke my arm. The school's solution was to take down that tire swing and leave the rest. As if that tire swing was somehow to blame. ( I was.) As kids got hurt on the other tire swings, the school took them down, one-by-one. The NBA's solution to the San Antonio/Dallas seeding problem was to seed the three division winners and
the team with the next best record as the top four seeds, in order of record, and then seed the other four playoff teams by record. It solved the problem of two teams in the same divisoin being the bets in the conference. And that's all it solved.
Of course, this year the Eastern conference's three best teams (The Detroit Pistons, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Chicago Bulls) were all in the same division. At the end of the season only one game separated Cleveland from Chicago and both teams had done better than the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat. Those latter teams however won their division and were guaranteed a top-4 seed. With identical records going into the last game of the season the Bulls and Cavs were playing for either the two seed in the playoffs or the number five. One team would get to play an already subpar Washington without its two best players; the other the defending champion Heat. Chicago fell
all the way to five and the seeding problem was obviously patched, not fixed.
The end of every season produces hand wringing
over the losing teams as well as the winning ones. It is a good year to be the worst team in the league because winning the NBA draft lottery in 2007 will give a team the golden ticket in a bumper crop draft
The NBA draft lottery began in 1985
as a way to combat tanking. Previously the draft had been ordered solely by record, with the worst team picking first. Bad teams had every incentive to lose and increase their pick. The lottery makes the first three picks available to any of the non-playoff teams. The worst team has the best chance to win and pick first at 25%, the second worst has a 19.9% chance, and so on to the last lottery team which has a 0.5% chance of grabbing the first pick. The team with the worst record has won the lottery three times
since 1990. After the first three picks are awarded the draft is ranked by record, so the worst team is guaranteed at least the fourth pick.
In a draft as bountiful as this one it's still worth losing. So in the home stretch of the season, with the league's worst safely eliminated from the playoffs it became a race to the bottom of the standings. There were cries of tanking from around the media. Regardless of how actively teams dogged it they clearly had nothing to play for.
The League has hinted that it will look at the issue
at the end of the season. It has anti-tanking rules but tanking is a hard thing to prove. If a season is all but over, why wouldn't a team shut down it's best players rather than risk injury and get ready for next year? It's hard to prove tanking, but it's not hard to see that bad teams have no reason to win at the end of the season.
The league's solution
will likely be another of the tire swing variety. But the goal should be to make bad teams continue to play hard at the end of the season. Paying fans deserve that and the owners might even figure out that nothing sells tickets like winning and likeable, hard-working teams. The only way to encourage all teams to play hard at the end of the season is to make winning, not losing worth while. The best games at the end of the regular season are the ones when teams are fighting to make the playoffs or increase their seeding. The losers need something to play for, as well.
Keep the lottery as is, but rank the teams based on their record over the last 15 games of the season. Of the non-playoff teams, the one with the best record over that final stretch would have the chance of winning the lottery and picking first in the draft. After the first three picks are awarded, rank the rest of the teams traditionally, by record, worst picking fourth and so on.
With only 15 games left in a season it's usually pretty clear which are the lottery teams. And for those teams making a bid for the playoffs that might fall short, there's a real consolation prize. Bad teams that improve over the season would also be rewarded.
As long as the draft lottery is ranked based on losing, teams will have nothing to play for. Basing it on winning requires a little bit of creativity but would also solve the problem for more than one year.